Planetary alignment

Picking back up this week’s theme of
where you can publicize your PostgreSQL related project at, you’re
probably reading this blog entry because it appeared on the Planet PostgreSQL blog aggregator. There
are “Planet” feeds around many open-source projects. The Debian and GNOME
ones spawned off the Planet software, which now powers a ton of other
blogs such as the the well regarded Planet
Python
. Occasionally you’ll find general open-source database news
posted both here and on Planet MySQL. And I
used to read Planet CentOS back when I used
to care if they’d ever release CentOS 6.

Planet PostgreSQL has been around since
about seven years ago, when Devrim Gündüz first made the service
available on one of his servers. Like many good open-source
projects, it has some history by now: it learned valuable
infrastructure lessons from a tech disaster, has gone through being
forked, and now it’s settled into its current role as a community
PostgreSQL project, run by many of the same people handling the rest
of the postgresql.org web infrastructure.

Now, as I was talking about at length
on my last
blog entry
, each of the community PostgreSQL announcement venues
has its own rules for what’s appropriate. But the Planet PostgreSQL policy is
a lot less clear about what is and isn’t appropriate content than,
say, the extremely detailed News & Events
Policy
. You can publish a lot of things in the blog format, and
whether they violate the rules laid down there is not always an easy
things to decide.

While I can’t personally make that
call–does a Planet PostgreSQL post violate its policy or not?–I’ve
recently become someone who gets a vote on that. And there’s been a
fair amount of feedback from people who are unhappy enough with
recent entries to share what they don’t like, and that opinion has
been pretty consistent too. I apply a few basic tests to help decide
whether I feel a blog entry fits the rules and the spirit this Planet
embodies:

  • Is it interesting information about
    PostgreSQL? Both technical and non-technical content is encouraged
    here, but it should share something that leaves the reader with
    either some education or something to think about.
  • Does the blog mainly reproduce
    information also published to pgsql-announce or the
    News/Events/Training sections of the postgresql.org site? If so,
    that’s a major point against it being appropriate content for Planet
    PostgreSQL in my mind, even if though that alone doesn’t qualify as
    being against policy. People don’t read the Planet PostgreSQL blog
    feed because they want a duplicate of the material published in those
    places. If they want those messages, they read those lists and
    feeds. I will sometimes use a blog entry here on the Planet to
    expand upon something that’s mentioned in a terse announcement I made
    as news or an announcement. But you’ll never find me just reposting
    the same sort of simple message format encouraged for pgsql-announce
    to a blog entry here on the Planet. That is information of sorts,
    but you’re reaching the same audience with both routes; you shouldn’t
    be duplicating the message too. The intended readers of Planet
    PostgreSQL are looking for more “meat on the bones”,
    something readers can get involved in.
  • If you mention a commercial product,
    particularly one that people pay for, is it really clear to readers
    why that product is worthwhile? And did they learn something useful
    even if they decided that product isn’t interesting to them? The
    policy here says “Publishing of advertising” is prohibited. Advertising
    in this context implies that the main purpose of your
    writing is to convince someone to purchase your product. So if you
    want to avoid that, don’t make that convincing your sole message. Make
    the technical or business information you have a story about the
    focus, and wrap mentions of a product around that independently
    useful frame. There’s a long history of writing in this format
    described by the term advertorial, and I think that sort of content is more likely to be
    useful and therefore acceptable here even though there is that touch
    of an ad in there.

Let’s consider Blog A, which talks
about a problem is hard to solve in PostgreSQL. It mentions some of
the common ways that people do solve it: the sort of interesting
information I’ve said I look for. If you then follow with a mention
of a commercial product you make that happens to make that problem
easier to solve, my response to this blog post is likely to be
favorable. Some might call that an ad, and by a very strict
definition it is. But if I’ve walked away from your blog entry
having learned something useful, regardless of whether I buy your
product or not, I’m inclined to feel that was a worthwhile
contribution. And, if I run into that problem, I’m quite likely to
consider your product if it really did sound like a better solution.
This style of writing is not only more useful and less controversial,
it’s actually a more powerful ad for the people who really need your
product.

Now consider Blog B. It opens by
talking about a new product released by the company the blogger works
for. We learn what it can be used for, and why those things are
good. This is clearly an ad, even though the general content might
be very similar to what A covered. The subtle distinction to me is
that I haven’t learned any useful information if I’m not interested
in that commercial product. The sole purpose of the blog entry is to
convince people to use the product, and if they aren’t interested in
it you’ve wasted their time. That’s the very definition of
advertising. And that’s the sort of thing that will get readers of
Planet PostgreSQL to complain to the site administrators, and
ultimately for your blog to be suspended. For me, the distinction
isn’t even that much around whether the product is free or costs
money. You might put free things on your site just to attract people toward the paid ones, making them just an indirect form of ad anyway.  It’s more about whether the blog entry stands on its own, as
something useful if you just skip the parts mentioning the product
altogether.

As a member of a community that will
spend hours arguing about the finer shades of meaning in the word
“free” when it comes to software, you’re not going to find any
universal answer to what an ad is either. But if you focus on making
your blog useful first, then layer some commercial aspect on top,
that’s less likely to get you into trouble. And you may be surprised
how working on that sort of writing style ultimately leads you to
writing better real ads, too.

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