2012 July 20 — Python Computing

Reading Planet Python

To be honest, I tend to read Planet Python more for the comments than for the posts.

The articles that appear on Planet Python — an “aggregator” that is willing to syndicate anyone who blogs regularly about the Python language — differ vastly in their quality and reliability. Turning immediately to the comments when I first arrive at an article provides a necessary sanity check. It lets me know whether I am about to read helpful advice, an inaccurate screed, or a really innovative article that top Python developers are thanking the author for having written.

Sometimes I am actually most worried by the articles that seem to present a unique idea, but which attract no comments! Are people being quiet because the post espouses long-settled doctrine that needs no comment? Or is the idea so poorly presented, under so boring a title, that no one has even bothered to read the post? Only as I type this does it occur to me that there is a third possibility: maybe some authors never get around to approving comments, so we never get to hear what the community thinks about their ideas. Would that ever happen?

I always look forward to a post by a trusted pillar of the Python community. That does not make reading the comments optional, of course! Even the most famous programmer will sometimes produce a contentious opinion, and the comments section is where we all get treated to an in-conversation between Python experts as they draw sharp and useful distinctions between their different practices. But I give trusted authors the dignity of reading their words first, and only then turning to the responses.

I do sometimes worry about new Python programmers who subscribe to the Planet, though.

Think about what an odd perspective would result from a diet of only Planet Python. Only a fraction of Python developers even blog, and many important projects are not even represented. A new Python developer who subscribed today would see MongoDB mentioned as often as PostgreSQL, even though the community has vastly more experience with the latter. Pyramid might look as popular as Django. Of course, all of these technologies are quite excellent ones, and it is unreasonable to expect one particular snapshot of Planet Python to cover any but a few corners of the sprawling Python ecosystem. My point is even reading the Planet over the long term will result in a skewed picture of Python, but I am not sure where else a new programmer can go to get some news from all around the community.

There are several tricks of perspective that skew Planet Python as a portrait of the community. The biggest, of course, is that large communities tend to spin off their own aggregators to avoid drowning out everything else on Planet Python — but if the newcomer does not discover Planet Plone, Planet Django, and Planet SciPy, then some of the most popular frameworks within the Python world are likely to remain nearly invisible to them.

But when it comes down to it, the real quirk of perspective is simply the fact that not every programmer enjoys blogging, that few find the time to do so, and that these accidents of taste and practice produce an odd mix of visible projects and libraries. I remember when the author of GarlicSim, who blogged frequently and heroically about his library, finally abandoned the project because no one ever used it. Yet for several months it was one of the most prominent projects on Planet Python, eclipsing many other major frameworks. I am always happy to have up-and-coming libraries featured on Planet Python, and we should always be thankful for the small fraction of our community who take the time to blog at all. But I do worry about readers who might not have the skill to determine which tools are actually in use in the community.

Finally, the same skewing can occur when businesses blog on Planet Python about their services. Out of all of the business I can think of which provide various forms of online hosting for Python projects and web sites, I can think of only one — Shining Panda — who actively advertises new features on Planet Python through their blog posts, yet there are dozens of other companies providing Python hosting and integration that a newcomer might want to hear from.

But maybe blogs are old-fashioned, and you are wondering why I am even worried about Planet Python — perhaps I am one of the last few who are still reading it! I have written these thoughts down for three reasons.

First, many new people seem to be picking up Python these days. I hope that this post might alert them to the difficultly of learning the Python community merely from our blog posts alone, since for a long time that was how I myself tried to keep up.

Second, I wanted to mention my trick of reading the comments first, and to learn — from, I suppose, the comments that will appear at the bottom of this very post! — how other readers separate wheat from chaff when they check their RSS reader in the morning.

And third, I really find that blogging is still the most civilized way for programmers to communicate. Twitter is wonderful for giving a heads-up, but poor for trying to teach or make an argument. The Python mailing lists offer far too many emails for me to wade through their arguments, wars, and shenanigans each week. People seem to find the Python IRC channel to be a hostile environment. And Reddit seems to reward the flashy and controversial above the kind of normal, mundane posts that tell us how people are using Python every day in the real world.

But do let me know in the comments whether my regular reading of Planet Python is likely to increasingly make me a dinosaur! Have I been stuck for several years in a backwater without knowing it, and should not be surprised that an old-fashioned aggregator gets so little news from many parts of the community? As an experiment spurred by writing this post, I have decided, right now while finishing this post, to go ahead and start reading r/python on Reddit for a few weeks to get a feel for the mix of articles featured. Which raises, I suppose, a big question: if I start reading Reddit, should I also read the comments? Let me know!

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Let's Discuss the Matter Further Brandon Rhodes