Even the FSF Finds Some Community Content "Not-Useful"

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In preparation for a conference call I'm moderating tomorrow about the General Public License v3, I've been doing quite a bit of reading on the topic -- and there's a lot of reading to be done, I assure you. The net benefit of my research has been to validate that I'm not the only one who's still unclear on this stuff.


A side benefit was stumbling across this quote from Richard Stallman, the head of the Free Software Foundation, about the effectiveness of the public comment site his group launched in support of the GPLv3 drafting process:

We're not getting that much useful comment through the website. We thought we would get a lot of it. We're not even getting that much not-useful comment. We've got a lot of useful comment through our discussion committees.

The quote comes from a wide-ranging Groklaw interview with Stallman from April. At the time, the "commenting module" in use was for the third draft of the open source license; I'm pointing to the final draft version here. Same functionality, but a little less density of participation, judging by the red "commenting" meter.


I don't think you could fairly call this a "wiki," but it's certainly wiki-like. (You can also tell it's fervently open source -- it doesn't play nicely with IE7.)


At any rate, it would be disingenuous to suggest that Stallman was unhappy with the community-based (of course) approach to gathering feedback and distilling the next version of the license. Far from it. In fact, he says:

Part of the goal of the process is so that I won't have to look at lots of comments from people but rather to think about the issues that are raised by their comments. So it's working to that extent.

Sounds a lot like vetting of community/Web 2.0 tech that I and many other bloggers have been saying is necessary to make the information it creates useful for business -- even businesses that aren't in the business of making money, like the FSF. The Groklaw interviewer describes the FSF's commenting committees, assigned to boil down community feedback into the usable issues Stallman refers to, as "really a completely new way of getting input from different sources."


Not so much. I've been doing it with internal and external stakeholder groups for years. It's a pretty established formula: Leave the door wide open for brainstorming; let most of the group prioritize the best ideas; then move those ideas onto a series of "experts" who can scrutinize them for feasibility, actionability -- all those annoying "how do we get paid?" terms.


The best ideas often come from the most unexpected sources, when they have a platform to communicate. But so do some of the worst.


Picking experts who can effectively "distill" Web 2.0 information is key, as is making sure participants understand that someone down the line may decide their input is "not-useful comment," as Stallman puts it.