The online chatroom has become a pretty standard fixture for many software development teams: distributed, remote, and colocated. They’re really fantastic tools that allow a persistent conversation to take place even as people’s attention switches in and out of the chatroom throughout the day.
However, a source of frustration I have experienced is a reliance on implicit communication. For example, if I ask a question in the chatroom, “Does anyone know why the cache server is down?” and nobody answers, I’m left with little information to act on. Did anybody see my question? Did someone see my question and just not know? Did someone see my question and just not care?
It’s made even worse when you ask a question and people are talking about something else. If the reader doesn’t know the answer, they may choose to remain silent so someone else can respond with more helpful information. The reader may believe this silence is communicating “I don’t know the answer”, but the reader has no way to differentiate between them not seeing the question, know knowing the question, or not caring about your problem.
In the real world, you can ask a question, and get a shrug or see a “whaa?” look on someone’s face, and get a lot of information just by being in that same room. In a chat room, forum, email, or instant message, you don’t have all those cues, so it’s really hard to know how to react.
Take a look at this pull request. The maintainer closed the PR without merge and without comment. What does that mean? Do they feel the PR is not in the spirit of the project? Do they think the quality is insufficient? How can the OP interpret the maintainer’s response or learn from it at all?
Implicit communication has a real potential to make people feel disenfranchised and ignored, and it’s incredibly easy to avoid. Sometimes a simple “I don’t know.” in response to a question is enough to spur a conversation.
If you’re asking a question, it can be effective to address it to a single person (“Tom, do you know why the server is down?”) in order to avoid the Bystander effect. You don’t necessarily need to expect that person to know the answer, but it will often ensure you get at least one response.