On Pushing, and the Apple Developer Forums

I posted a question to the Apple Developer Forums today. This is almost always an exercise in frustration, and I think I have an idea why. It’s because web forums are inherently a ‘pull’ service.

It used to be Apple ran developer mailing lists (and they still do - Cocoa Dev, for example, is still thriving), but they’re now pushing people to use the developer forums instead, and not creating mailing lists for new technologies.

A mailing list is easy to ‘hang out’ on - just sign up, and the emails are ‘pushed’ to you. Normal human compulsions then engage, forcing you to browse through the subject lines of the emails you’re now receiving, if only occasionally, to get your unread email count down. If you see something interesting, you’re likely to read the message itself, and perhaps respond.

Apple engineers - the people who write the frameworks - often subscribe to the Apple mailing lists, and will often answer questions. It’s great for us: we get access to the people who know most about the technology. It’s also great for them: they hear about real-world use-cases of the frameworks.

Very knowledge engineers (let’s call them ‘power engineers’) from outside Apple also lurk on the lists, popping up to answer esoteric questions or provide advice, which, again, is a great thing.

Web forums, on the other hand, are ‘pull’ rather than ‘push’. You have to take the active step of going to the forum, probably logging in with a user name and password, then navigating to the sub-forums you’re interested in. I don’t know about you, but when I’m busy (most of the time), I don’t frequent forums unless I have a question to ask. I know that many Apple engineers don’t frequent the forums at all. I don’t know any non-apple ‘power engineers’ who lurk on them.

For a ‘support’ type of forum, this is a recipe for disaster. There are hoards of clueless people asking questions. The more esoteric questions often don’t get answered at all. Worse, common questions often get conflicting, or even wrong, answers. On a mailing list, this would often be corrected. On the forums, confusion reigns.

Now, the situation isn’t as dire as you might expect from my description. Some framework and some DTS engineers do frequent the forums, so many questions get answered well, but it’s still not a great experience. I’d at hesitate before saying that most questions get answered well.

What’s the answer to this? I’d like to see some sort of a bidirectional bridge set up allowing subscription to and interaction with the forums by email. I know I’d subscribe to a few that interested me, and probably answer a few questions now and again. I suspect others would too, hopefully bringing up the quality of answers, and making the forums feel more ‘alive’, intelligent, and useful for everyone.

Update

Matt Stevens points out on Twitter:

Now that forum notification emails include message content you can have sections pushed via email. Still have to log in to post.

That actually addresses one side of my concerns, and I’ve subscribed to a few forums that interest me. You should go and subscribe to forums that interest you too, and maybe we can make these forums work better.

It’s still not great though - it’s, as Matt says, not bidirectional, and the emails that the forums send you all contain a massive piece of boilerplate at the top, like this (taken from an real forum email):

Hello Jamie Montgomerie, A new message was posted in the thread “CMSampleBufferRef to JPEG or PNG data” by steveski: Message: …

Call me lazy or superficial, but I suspect this’ll make me much less likely to read the message, because it’s pushed out of my mail app’s preview pane by the boilerplate. Apple folks, if you’re listening, please remove this, or put it at the end of the email.