Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What makes the R community so different from some other open-source communities?

This is a prototype/outline for a post I'll be writing later.

The observations that make the R community different from other open-source communities:

  • A lot less "nerdier than thou" attitude on the part of the people. Much better attitude towards others in general, and more civility.
  • Fewer off-topic posts (fewer ≠ none).
  • A lot of professional quality work made accessible to the "masses" (masses in the subsegment of those who use R), including retail-quality books.
  • No philosophobabble [cough Eric S Raymond /cough] or "how I singlehandedly changed the world" [cough Eric S Raymond /cough] posts.

Some of the causes I think explain these differences:

  • Since R has a statistics focus, the entry cost for any serious user includes some understanding of probability and the mathematics of statistics, which screens out most of the undesirable elements who populate other open-source communities.
  • Because R has business and policy uses, it attracts people with a more serious bend than the average online community. This is not to say that people who work in R are serious or morose, but that they are comparatively more pragmatic than most lurkers in other communities; similarly, this is not to say that the serious people in some other open-source communities aren't as pragmatic as those in R, only that the proportions of serious people are different.
  • Reputation-building in the R community may transfer to monetizable outcomes, like consulting or training; this is similar to other open-source communities. But because the applications in business or policy pay best, and at this level are evaluated by serious people (possibly in addition to other hackers/programmers), maintaining a civil tone and a consistent identity is valuable.
  • The R community is relatively new and therefore has benefited from the learning and experience of other communities (for example, participants in R discussions don't have to learn the problems with a non-self-policing forum, as other forums had to) and may also be living a grace period before it's invaded by the vandal hordes. (I hope that the latter doesn't happen, but it might.)
  • Suggested by Hadley Wickham (ggplot2 package creator): The people who program in R are typically more interested in the subject matter for which they need the programs than in the programming itself. [JCS:] This makes the "nerdier than thou" contests along the lines of who can code the problem in the shortest/fastest/most cryptic way rare in the R community.