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3.3 Requests analysis: User demand in public forums
The use of network-based discussion forums for asking and giving advice has been well-established in the computing ﬁeld for many decades (Weiser, 2001). Most of them are based on the technology topic rather than on speciﬁc products (Arguello et al., 2006); where product-speciﬁc forums exist, enquiries relating to use for a particular purpose are often redirected to the appropriate technology forum.
In the two ﬁelds under consideration (XML and LaTeX), there are several principal discussion groups with worldwide coverage:
The ﬁrst three are Usenet newsgroups, a form of distributed bulletin-board in use since before the Internet proper was established. Newsgroups are available to anyone from an Internet Service Provider, either via a newsreader application (often available within an email program such as Thunderbird), or from Google Groups, which maintains a web-based interface to Usenet.
XML-L and TEI-L are conventional LISTSERV mailing lists for the discussion of, respectively, XML itself and the TEI XML vocabulary. The Text Encoding Initiative is a set of document structures expressed in XML, principally for marking up transcriptions of literary and historical information in a form suitable for interchange between scholars, and is very widely used in research projects and publications in the Humanities (Burnard & Sperberg-McQueen, 2007). This was included principally to enable access to the views of users who were not from the natural sciences who predominate in the three Usenet newsgroups.
The ﬁnal set of newsgroups is devoted to discussions of Microsoft’s implementations of XML in their software, and was included to provide some insight into the requirements of a population restricted by their choice of platform.
There are of course many hundreds of other forums with more specialist topics or different formats. Three particular types are evident: mailing lists, web-only forums (including wikis), and blogs. Among mailing lists, the XSL-list, for example, shares many readers with the forums selected, but deals only with the transformation of XML to other formats via the XSL language, and is therefore out of scope for this enquiry even though many of its participants would also be users of XML editing software. The purely web-based discussion groups, which cover bulletin-boards (message-boards) and wikis, are less amenable to analysis. Archives are rarely accessible, even when kept, and are either unthreaded or are not searchable with any degree of reliability. As they are individually-run, in many different formats and with no facilities for commonality of access, an overall conspectus of their content is not practicable or usable in this enquiry, despite the fact on ﬁrst sight, the same types of question are being asked there as in the more traditional forums.1 Blog articles suffer even more from inaccessibility, as their formats are generally non-compatible, and their facilities for threading, even via comments, are not accessible programmatically. Individual posts in blogs tend to be commentary rather than requests for software.
1 Although this is a qualitative and non-rigorous judgment, the existence of the same types of question perhaps indicates that their inclusion might only increase the absolute values for any given sample, and not affect the proportions. ⇑
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