A while I ago I lamented on Mastodon about wanting a place to discuss technical topics online.

I’m missing an online place to have deep, constructive discussions about technical topics. Parts of Usenet and parts of Debian used to have that for me in the 1990s, and some blogs in the early 2000s, but now everywhere seems to become filled with trolls or people who seem to enjoy shooting down every new idea.

It’s possible that my recollections of online discussions from those times are coloured by time, and that they were never really as good as I now think they were. It’s possible that if I stepped into my time machine and went back to, say, 1995, and participated in Debian development discussions, I’d be horrified at how bad they were.

That doesn’t matter. I still want to have interesting discussions now. Preferably with a sufficiently diverse set of people. I have some of that, with a few close friends, but I’m hoping to widen the experience to more participants. A more diverse pool of opinions and experience would teach me more.

There were many responses to my toot. You can read most them in detail via the link above, although some were private, and if you can read those, I’m going to have to have a look at my laptop’s security. My thoughts are:

  • I’m not alone in wanting this. This is not a surprise. It’s likely that everyone who wants this isn’t interested in the same topics, and won’t be satisfied with the same solutions. That’s OK. Let’s see what we can do together.

  • Dr. Edward Morbius (a pseudonym) has many good points about online discussions. The most fundamental point is to start producing the kind of content one wants more of.

  • Any discussion medium is going to require some shared values among its participants, and these will need to be enforced in some manner. When it’s two friends chatting privately, this is not problematic. When it’s a whole bunch of random strangers, this gets trickier.

  • An interesting point is whether discussions should be public, and open for anyone to participate. A public/open discussion forum that is successful is likely to grow too big to be manageable and will require much effort to moderate. A private/closed forum is easier, but less likely to gather a diverse group of participants, and thus can thus suffer from a lack new thoughts and ideas. Possibly some other mix than those two is better? I don’t know.

  • It seems clear to me that relying on advertising-supported platforms to host discussions is unlikely to be a good long-term strategy. At the same time, anything that requires significant financial or time investment to host is unlikely to survive long-term.

  • It’s entirely possible that what I want isn’t realistic.

For more concreteness, example of what I’d like to have:

  • practical and theoretical software architecture and implementation topics in general

  • design, architecture, and implementation of specific software solutions to problems I’m interested in, currently CI/CD, authentication, storage of large binary files, and small structured data; obviously, others are likely to be interested in other specific topics, and that’s OK

  • a culture of moving the discussion forward, and being constructive, rather than “winning” on points; confrontational and combative attitudes tend to ruin things for me, although they do work for some

  • not having to re-debate things that are fundamental for me, such as software freedom, human rights, and specific technical solutions; I don’t mind disagreements, but I don’t want to have the same discussion all over again every week or have it be inserted into every discussion on any topic

As far as technical solutions go, there are lots of existing options: IRC, Matrix, private email, mailing lists, Usenet/NNTP, blogs, web forums, the lobste.rs code base, the fediverse, secure scuttlebutt, etc. On the whole, I don’t care about the solution, except I’d like it to not require real-time participation, and support an “inbox” style instead of an infinite stream of messages. But that’s me.