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Just enough over my head

This article appears in the issue May 2014, [Volume 23, Issue 5]


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The annual conference for libraries using Evergreen open source software for their backend management began with brief statements by three users at different levels of experience. They each made three related points: They like the software, the community of users is important to them, and they are on the IRC channel more than they technically need to be.

The IRC channel—an old-fashioned Internet chat—is open to anyone who cares to participate. (It’s #Evergreen on Freenode if you’d like to give it a try.) At any time there might be 50 to 60 people hanging out, although usually that means that the chat window is open on their computer, not that they’re actively typing into it. (I know this because I asked on the IRC. Thanks, JeffDavis.)

The IRC is primarily designed for technical help. Users ask questions such as:

  • hbrennan: I want to edit the right facet bar area in the OPAC, to rearrange the subjects. What’s the name of that file in openils?

Often the questions require discussion to be clarified.

  • dbwells: I was poking at bshum’s funny record grouping problem a bit. I didn’t get too far in solving it, but here is what I think: we may at least have a few broken assumptions in this case.

Such discussions build community. If they veer off into comparative complaints about the weather, nothing is learned about Evergreen software, but a little is learned about the community of Evergreen software users. In fact, Evergreen holds its community meetings on the IRC channel.

Relationships

Information channels are almost always about more than channeling information. In the course of this technical exchange, human relationships are built and extended. As hbrennan said in our conversation using the IRC: “It would have been very awkward to meet people in 2013 and try to pick up a year later. IRC has allowed me to continue building relationships while being far away.”

So far, this is all quite typical of a techie IRC channel. But I was particularly struck by what two of the users had to say about it at the Evergreen conference. Both recounted feeling over their heads in technical discussions at their first conferences and in the IRC. But neither made the palm-flying-over-the-scalp gesture that indicates being totally lost. In fact, both seemed to relish being over their heads. As do I. Communities like Evergreen’s make it easy.

For being over your head to work, you have to be just enough over your head. Too far and you can’t understand enough of what people are saying to make sense of it. But if you can start to piece together the context, you learn more by being over your head than by having your head in any other position.

Becoming smarter

This means that a community that chastises participants for not knowing enough loses a great opportunity to become smarter as a community. You can tell if you’re in one of those discussions because less proficient questions are met with a sneer of “n00b!” But when a community embraces less knowledgeable participants, it enables them to ask more questions, and more basic questions, so that they are able to learn more. Thus, they are able to be more deeply over their head.

There is a real efficiency to learning in such environments. But there is also something else going on. I think it’s literally true to say that the Evergreen IRC is the greatest expert on Evergreen software. The IRC knows more than any of its individual participants, and the discussion there raises questions and explores ideas better than any individual can. The IRC is the expert. That expert becomes smarter and smarter by bringing in individuals who enhance the conversation, pushing it in new directions. Beginners who are eager to learn are the most valuable potential contributors. An ethos that embraces beginners is essential to an expert network that wants to stay vital and wants to keep learning.

Of course IRC is a primitive technology. It’s designed to run on a character-based computer. It works great in black and white. But who cares? The rate of learning is tremendous, and the human connections grow without any graphical complexity. True, without topical headings or hashtags, it does not produce a well-organized stream well-designed for rereading later on. But its power does not come from its technology. Rather, it comes from the community it enables—and the individual users it lets be over their heads in the most productive ways.


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