Inflection Point

Hello there. Yes, there is still life at this blog, although whether it is intelligent is still indeterminate. I feel awfully guilty about the lack of content for the blog in the last year, but I've been in a horrible time crunch since getting Etherkit off the ground. When it comes to making the choice between moving your small business forward so you can feed your family or writing a vanity blog post, I'm sure you know which will win pretty much every time. I have no intention for the blog to fade away, so I hope that you all will keep me in the feed reader so that when the time crunch eases up a bit, I can get back to blogging more often and can share some interesting stuff with you.

Anyway, on to the main point. For a fair bit of time now, I've had a vague impression that something was going a bit sour in the online QRP/homebrewer community. It never really surfaced consciously all that often, but I distinctly recall there being a general aura of discontent around my feelings about the state of the community. It has dawned on me that even though we have more communication channels available to us than ever before, we are becoming increasingly insular and fragmented, even within our own little sub-hobby. I don't think it's a coincidence that this has happened while our choices of online communication channels has exploded.

I'm going to attempt to put some substance to this impression, with the hope that if I'm right about it, that maybe I've planted a seed for a way forward in one of my readers. This is probably going to come across as a bit of an Airing of Grievances, but that is not the point of this post at all. I will give you supporting data for my point of view, but I also intend to take a critical look at myself as well, as I'm sure that I've also made plenty of my own mistakes.

I believe that I got my first wake-up call a few months ago, when I learned that one of the most esteemed members of our group, Wes W7ZOI was hanging it up on his online amateur radio technical activities. Not only that, but whatever his motivation for withdrawing, it was also strong enough to make him pull all of his previous content off the web. This hit me like a punch in the gut. Wes has always been a most gracious virtual Elmer to many of us out here. He always seemed eager to pass on his enormous breadth of knowedge to those who asked for help. I have no knowledge of what transpired to change his mind about our community. The only public clue seems to be this quotation left behind on what's left of his technical web page:

I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.

Whatever the catalyst was, Wes seems to be leaving us based on some negative experience. I can't begin to tell you how much this troubles me. People like Wes are an extremely rare treasure in any community, not to mention one as small as ours. I can't draw any firm conclusions based on the very limited information that we have, but it is not a good statement on the health of our community when such a luminary finds it worthwhile to withdraw, instead of continuing to engage.

The next data point I present is a blog post from John AE5X, published earlier this month. It's a succinct entry, so I suggest that you click over and read it for yourself. In the case that you don't, the Cliff's Notes version of the post is a reflection on the changes in the QRP community in the last decade. Some of the relevant ideas that I'd like to point out are:

QRP-L was alive with real content. People were talking about the latest kit they built and what they were doing with it. The QRP contests and events were well attended, providing further topics for discussion on QRP-L. Norcal 40A’s, SST’s, great rigs from Small Wonder Labs and Oak Hills Research could be heard, worked and talked about.

There was diversity among QRPers too – the hang-a-wire-in-a-tree gang and the QRP DXers all rubbed shoulders on QRP-L. As a result, all QRPers were exposed to various aspects of the 5-watt realm.

and

On the negative side, QRP-L is little more than a small circle of the same dozen people making 90% of the posts that occur there with the real meat of QRP technical discussion taking place on a specific rig’s dedicated YahooGroup. Ditto for the operational aspects of QRP: SOTA and IOTA have their own forums, leaving QRP-L relegated to sharing space in the dusty bins with newsgroups.

and

I am more thankful than I can describe at the exposure I received to ideas, techniques and equipment on the old QRP-L. That doesn’t happen anymore with the real brain power having been sucked away to specific forums.

John hits the nail on the head. I started being active in QRP a bit more a decade ago, right at the same time about which John is writing. And my memory is exactly the same as his. There was an excitement, vitality, and cross-pollination that made QRP-L nearly indispensable to both the QRP operator and the QRP homebrewer. QRP-L was pretty much the only game in town, at least on the online frontier. Today, it's a pale shadow of its former self. Nothing new is happening. Hardly any new blood is joining (or if they are, they are not speaking up). At least that was my last impression of it, because I rarely even look at it any more. I'm still subscribed to QRP-L (and a handful of other listservs), but I admit that I hardly even open up the Mailing List folder in my mail application any more. The amount of worthwhile content just doesn't seem worth it any more in exchange for the time spent sifting through the flame wars, pissing contests, and endlessly regurgitated arguments.

I don't mean to pick on QRP-L, but I think it's very illustrative of the issues we face. Almost all of the best and brightest has left, for one reason or another. And yes, people have been bemoaning the death of QRP-L for years. I bring it up because I think it's a leading indicator of the state of our online community. One of the most important statements in John's post is where he identifies the brain drain to all of the tiny little niche forums in our already-small sub-hobby. The QRP-L exodus happened in earnest years ago, but I think we are now starting to see the second order effects of this phenomena. We have scores of Yahoo Groups, forums, and social networks for our specific little area of interest within QRP or homebrewing or for our favorite rigs or vendors, but we don't come together under the larger banner of QRP any longer, in any way. I suspect that this gets us a bit locked in to our little corners of the 'net. I don't know about you, but I'm finding myself having an increasingly harder time managing all of my different communities of interest. Which tends to make me just throw my hands up and ignore large swathes of those communities at times.

This brings us to the new kid on the block: social media. The big dogs on the block are of course Facebook and Twitter, with smaller networks like Google+ also getting some play in the ham communities. I've never used Facebook for a variety of reasons, but I've been on Twitter for a few years now and did dabble in Google+ for a bit, so I can speak from experience on those two. The nice thing about the social media networks is that you do break free from that self-imposed ghetto mentioned above. Once you get a well established network, you tend to have connections to all kinds of different hams.

But that blessing can also be a curse. The reason for this is the different expectations that different hams tend to have with each other on these networks. A fair number of people expect that if you have a Twitter account with ham radio as your primary focus, you should only talk about ham radio. Likewise, I found that a number of hams on Google+ did not like it if you posted anything non-ham related to all of your "circles" ("circles" are your self-defined groupings for the people in your network). It's a fair point of view, but it isn't the one that I have subscribed to. I am person with different interests and I just don't have it in me to manage different social media accounts for each of my interests. Nor do I expect others to curate their output to cater to my desires.

The problem is that as much as I try to be tolerant of the diversity of other people's interests and ideas on the social networks, I'm not always successful. Admittedly, I unfollowed a few dozen Twitter accounts (not all hams, but definitely some) right after the last election due to either incessant gloating or whining. Probably not my finest moment, but I guess election fatigue got to me. On the flip side, while I don't think I have been a flaming partisan most of the time, I didn't leave my feed politics-free either. I have no doubt that I have annoyed my share of followers and drove them away due to my politics (especially since I'm a devotee of a political ideal that is not very popular).

My point in bringing this up is not to whine, but to contrast the social networks with the "old-school" communities such as QRP-L and web forums. It seems that you have two different extremes, neither of which lend themselves very well to the type of online QRP community which would be nice to have (at least in my view): knowledgeable, open, free-flowing, fun, and mostly on-topic but not on lockdown.

One other point I'd like to bring up that applies to all of us, regardless of what communication medium we use, is our etiquette. I'm sorry, I'm not trying to be a nanny, I know we're all grown adults. But I would also bet that the majority of us are on the left side of the bell curve when it comes to emotional intelligence (me included), which means that we are more apt to give and receive offense at times when we should not. For example, in my "career" in the QRP world, I can think of at least three different times when I've deeply offended very prominent people in the QRP world. And I can say that each time that I was notified of this offense, I was completely taken by surprise. Without getting into details, I've done and said some incredibly boneheaded things. Not because I was trying to troll the QRP stars, but just because I didn't think through the consequences of my words or actions, or didn't clearly enough communicate my intentions. Likewise, I've been wounded by the words of others, who meant no harm, but I didn't realize that until later. (We'll leave aside the issue of the intentional jerk, for whom this essay would mean nothing anyway)

All of this butthurt really damages our relations and breaks down the community, perhaps more than anything else. Again, I'm not trying to be your mommy, but I do ask that you sleep on the stridently-worded rebuttal to the post which offends you, or that you forgive the newbie question that might seem stupid or obvious. I don't know for certain, but there's a decent chance that something like this is what caused a number of our best QRPers to leave the online QRP world. Let's not shoot ourselves in the foot any longer, eh?

If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.

—H.L. Mencken

Why have I rambled on for so long about all of this? I'd like to see some of that old magic recaptured. When I designed the Willamette DC transceiver and organized the group build on the now-defunct qrp-l.org listserv, I had one of the best experiences of my ham career. I'd love to do something like that again. But I don't know where or how. I'm pretty sure that the current QRP-L would not be the place, and definitely not on a web forum like QRZ.com or eHam.com. I have the capacity to host my own forum (I could even stick it under my Etherkit forums), but it would be too insulated, as mentioned above. I have some ideas for some simpler group project builds that I'm itching to get out there, but I'm honestly at a loss of where to present them. I'd love to reach a wide audience of QRPers. Where would that be?

So if you're still around, you're probably thinking "wrap it up already!" OK, I appreciate that you had the fortitude to stick around to the end of this diatribe, so I'll get to the point. I think I've outlined an issue that needs to be addressed, but I don't have a solution. But I think I may know some elements that will be part of the solution. We need some common meeting ground like that has the same "melting pot" formula of the old QRP-L. With the withdrawal of some of our sharpest minds (and the loss of others as silent keys), we seem to be a bit adrift of leadership. The old guard is departing. Not that we need people trying to take charge and give orders. But we do need new thought leaders and innovators; people to inspire by example and by word.

I am quite fond of QRPARCI and all that they do for our community (especially QQ and FDIM), but I think it could also use a bit of a kick in the pants. A rejuvenation effort brought about via ARCI could be very effective, if done correctly. I'd hate to see it get stagnant and not take advantage of the great resource that it has: it's large number of QRPer members.

Hopefully I've given you some serious ideas to chew on, and with any luck, just might inspire one or two of you to make a positive change to help our community. I'm not one who will be any good in trying to rally others to a QRP renewal, but I hope that I can at least reach out to one who is.

Now on a much lighter note, my next blog post will be back to my normal fare! I'll give you a peek at the little group project idea that I've been working on. Who knows, maybe we can get this going somehow.