[OSM-talk] Barriers of Entry

Frederik Ramm frederik at remote.org
Wed Sep 14 08:24:51 BST 2011


    there are many different types of barriers. There are of course 
those we tag with "barrier", the physical ones. They are used to keep 
unwanted, unauthorized or unsuitable people or vehicles out. There are 
barriers of entry in the form of entrance exams at places like 
universities, with the aim of assessing the likelihood of someone 
succeeding in their studies. And of course there are job interviews, 
where employers sometimes raise the barrier of entry so high that only 
one in 1000 can pass.

Barriers of entry are not always a bad thing; they might keep you and 
from entering a tunnel for which your vehicle is too wide, or they might 
make it less likely for you to spend years at university with little 
chance to earn a degree.

In OpenStreetMap, people sometimes point to our barriers of entry and 
blindly claim that they must be bad for us. The main page not welcoming 
enough, the editor too difficult, the path to signup too cumbersome, and 
on and on.

Now some of this might be true and I don't want to keep people from 
improving the overall OSM user experience.

However one has to keep in mind that what we're doing here is, and will 
always be, more complex than, say, taking your dog for a walk. Making a 
map does require a certain amount of abstract thinking, and of being 
able to picture things in your mind. Taking part in OSM does require a 
certain willingness to engage with a community; OSM is not for loners. 
And so on.

Barriers of entry are good if they accurately reflect the demands that 
lie further down the road. A barrier that prohibits 3m wide vehicles 
from entering a tunnel that will narrow down to less than 3m in the 
middle is not an arbitrary restriction that should be torn down but 
something that helps everyone.

For OpenStreetMap, we don't gain anything from making it look like 
participating in OSM was the easiest thing in the world. You have to 
possess some skills, and you have to be willing to engage with other 
people, or else your contribution is unlikely to be pleasant for you or 
the project. Taking part in OpenStreetMap requires more sophistication 
than, say, tweeting about where you're having dinner.

We must keep that in mind. I think it works reasonably well at the 
moment, more or less by accident. OSMers are very self-selected, you 
don't stumble across OSM (and much less the signup page) unless you 
invest at least a little effort in looking. But this might change if we 
have more exposure in the future.

If we think about design and user friendliness, abolishing barriers of 
entry unquestioningly would do us a huge disservice and only lead to 
frustration on all sides. A barrier of entry that discourages those who 
unlikely to make an edit without breaking 10 things, or those who can 
make an edit but are unlikely to answer a question from another 
community member about it, could be a healthy barrier.

Before someone misunderstands that, I'm not saying we should introduce 
some kind of entry exams or so. Anyone who wants to participate should 
be allowed to. But it should not be our aim to make the whole world want 
to participate because only a fraction of them can.


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