Picking communication tools for your community

Communication is key to the success of any project. The tools we use to communicate play a part in how effective our communication is. Recent discussions in Fedora and other projects have made me consider what tool selection looks like. Should Discourse replace mailing lists? Should Telegram replace IRC? I’m not going to answer those questions.

There’s no one right tool, just a set of considerations to think about in selecting communications tooling. Each community needs to arrive at a consensus about what works best for their workflow and culture, and keep in mind that the decision may attract some contributors while driving others away.

In this post, I’m going to broadly lump tools into two categories: synchronous and asynchronous. Many tools can be used for both to a decent approximation, but most will pretty obviously fall into one category or the other. Picking one tool to rule them all is a valid option, but be aware that it immediately favors one category of communication over the other. And keep in mind that for large projects, some sub-teams may choose different platforms. That’s fine so long as people who want to participate know where to look.

Considerations for all tools

Self-hosted or externally-hosted. Do you have the resources to maintain the tool? If you do, that’s a way to save money and maintain control, but it’s also time that your community members can’t spend working on whatever your community is doing. Externally-hosted tooling (either free or paid) might give you less flexibility, but it can also be more isolated from internal infrastructure outages.

Open source or proprietary. This is entirely a value judgement for your community. For some communities, anything that’s not open source is a non-starter. Others might not care at all one way or another. Most will fall somewhere on the spectrum between.

Federated or centralized. Can the community connect their own tools together (e.g. like with email) or is it a centralized system (like most social media platforms)? The trend is definitely toward centralized systems these days, so you may have to work harder to find a federated system that meets your needs.

Public or private. Can outsiders see what you’re saying? For many open source projects, public visibility is important. But even in those communities, some conversations may need to take place in private or semi-private.

Archived or ephemeral. Do you want to be able to go back and see what was said last month, last year, or last decade? Some conversations aren’t worth keeping, but records of important decisions probably are. Does your tool allow you to meet your archival needs?

Considerations for synchronous tools

Sometimes you really need to talk to people in real time.

Mobile experience. It’s 2019. People do a lot on their phones, especially if their contribution to your community happens during their workday or if they travel frequently. What is the mobile experience like for the tools you’re evaluating? It’s not just a matter of if clients exist, but what’s the whole experience. If they disconnect while on an airplane, do they lose all the messages that were sent in their absence?

Status and alerting. What happens if someone stays logged in and goes away for a little bit? Do they have the ability to suppress notifications? Is there any way to let others know “I’m away or busy, don’t expect an immediate reply”?

Audio, video, and screen sharing. Sometimes you need the high-bandwidth modes of communication in order to get your full message across (or just shortcut a lot of back-and-forth). Does the tool you’re looking at provide this? Is it usable for those who can’t participate due to bandwidth or other constraints?

Integrations. Can you display GIFs? The ability to speak entirely in animated images can be either a feature or a bug, depending on the community’s culture. But if it’s important one way or another, you’ll want to make sure your tool matches your needs. Of course, there are other integrations that might matter to. Can your build system post alerts? Does the tool automatically recognize certain links and display them in an particular manner?

Considerations for asynchronous tools

Of course, you’re not all going to be sitting at your computer at the same time. People go on vacation. They live in different time zones. They step away for 10 minutes to get a cup of coffee. Whatever the reason, you’ll need to communicate asynchronously sometimes.

Push or pull. Email is a push mechanism. Your message arrives in my inbox whether I’ve asked it to or not. Web fora are a pull mechanism. I have to go check them (yes, some forum tools provide an email interface). Which works better for your workflow and community? Pull mechanisms are easier to ignore when you want to step away for a little while, but they also mean you might forget to check when you do want to pay attention.

Is it a ticket system? I haven’t really talked about ticket systems/issue trackers because I don’t consider them a general communication tool. But for some projects, all the discussion that needs to happen happens in GitHub issues or another ticket tracker. If that works for you, there’s no point in adding a new tool to the mix.

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