Reader Mail: Contributing to Arch

Long time reader Greg writes:

Why do you think that even though Arch’s userbase numbers have exploded during the last year, the number of contributors (not counting the AUR) remains almost the same?

Well Greg, here are my opinions on the issue. I should point out that these are my opinions and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Arch developers as a whole.

Firstly, I tend to agree with this sentiment. Over the last six months to a year, there has only been one new person that has stood out to me as developer material based on the contributions they have made (and one who just will not accept the position no matter how much we ask – you know who you are!).

I think the primary reason for this is a very large change in userbase. The earliest comment by me that I can find noting this change was in the middle of 2008. A lot has changed since then (I was not an Arch developer or forum moderator then and I am now getting a Mac…), but the change in userbase has continued over the years. I think Arch has changed from what was a “Do It Yourself” distribution to one where people expect a lot of help. This is very evident on the forums, where very basic questions are asked on an hourly basis. People think there is a lot of “RTFM” on the Arch forums these days, but ask those same questions on the forum three years ago and that would be considered a polite response. It seems that despite the large increase in the number of users, the number of people with the skills required to fix a problem that they notice has not increased at the same rate.

The second reason I see is that there are less things to be fixed in Arch. The only reason I started contributing to Arch is so that I could fix things that annoyed me and that continues to be my primary motivation. I can imagine that the distribution as a whole runs rather smoothly from a users point of view, at least compared to historically. Also, a lot of the “easy” bugs in the user visible parts of the distribution have already been fixed, so the barrier to entry is higher. Saying that, I have made a couple of patches to pacman itself in the last few weeks and I still know next to nothing about the actual pacman codebase (I focus on makepkg). So there are still reasonably easy pickings for motivated individuals to get themselves familiarised with the code before tackling harder issues.

Finally, I think there is becoming a gulf between developers and users. Perhaps this is an entirely unintended side-effect of the change in userbase. I know that many long term Arch users (including some developers) found the change in the types of questions being asked and demands being made on the forums quite demotivational and now spend far less time there. This means less interaction between users and developers, resulting in the developers being seen as quite a separate group. From a developer point of view, this could not be further from the truth. Arch is a “community distro” and contributions from the community are strongly encouraged. Remember that the x86_64 port started as a community project. If a user comes up with a good idea, and more importantly provides some code or implementation to back it up, it will be considered by the development team just as it would if a developer suggested it. Equally, developers make suggestions that are not taken up (trust me… I have had ideas rejected, taken out the back and shot before being buried in a shallow grave in a forest). But remember, talk is cheap. There have been many, many threads about the importance of package signing in pacman, but no-one has but in a decent effort to get this completed.

In short, we need more community members to step up and help out wherever they can. The core Arch development team is relatively small and our continued progress (beyond pure packaging) relies on contributions from the community. Even packaging could use more people (and we do take applications to become a developer from known community members). I am sure that there is something that annoys every user about their system. Why not try and fix it?

8 thoughts on “Reader Mail: Contributing to Arch

  1. I’ve been using Arch Linux on and off since 2006. I’m quite adept at using linux, but not enough to actually solve problems on my own (that is to say: without a wiki/forum/..).

    In Ubuntu, I can actually contribute because the problems there are usually low-key and due to user errors.

    In Arch however, the developing and contributing part of the community is professional enough to barely need any help. Thus the need for my help, which could be of any albeit small value, is negated because there are way more advanced and better people suited for the job..

    If there were a lot of newcomers that could help in some easy tasks, they’d grow in it, and eventually become an “Arch guru”.

  2. I think you’re spot-on here with what you are saying. I didn’t think about it as much until you stated it above, but I am rarely, if ever, on the forums anymore, and that is by far the best way to stay in touch with the user base and what people are thinking. It just became too much work to wade through some of the “junk” there so I stopped going completely.

  3. Is the original author referring to “contributors” as developers, or both
    developers and TUs? Because I can tell you why the number of TUs haven’t gone
    up; there is a huge time commitment involved in becoming a TU. Not only do you
    have to show that you can maintain quality packages in the AUR (which I think
    should be the only requirement), but you also have to be active on either IRC
    or the forums in order to be “trustworthy” enough to be vouched by others. This
    is good because it ensures that people who become TUs cares about Arch, which
    gives the devs a peace of mind. This is also bad because the number of TUs
    stays low, which makes it more difficult to maintain the binary repositories
    and the AUR.

    As for me, I stay away from IRC and the forums. I’m busy and have other things
    to do – I’m not particularly interested in socializing with people from the
    Internet. I am happy to use mailing lists to discuss software development. But
    once in a while, I’ll come across a package in the AUR that has 100+ votes that
    really ought to be in the binary repositories and think to myself – “Drat, if
    only I had TU privileges.” It’s really frustrating to be competent and not be
    able to contribute because you haven’t fraternized enough. I actually gave up and removed myself from the Arch mailing lists completely. I contribute to Python and Django now.

    On that note, Arch definitely got the AUR right. It’s a very easy first-step to
    contribute to the project. The next step? Not so easy.

    tldr; Not socializing with the community does not imply that one would make an
    irresponsible package maintainer. Make it easier for people who can demonstrate
    that they can responsibly maintain packages in the AUR to attain TU privileges.

    • The original author (me) is talking about code contributions not packaging or editing the wiki.
      It is quite weird cause due to the nature of Arch, which makes it so easy to get involved *if* you want to. It is super easy to contribute.
      Just look at the community contributions section of the bbs. The number of projects that have sprung *around* Arch is amazing.
      But the number of serious and frequent pacman contributors is still down to 4 people. Dan, Xavier, Allan and Nagy, as Aaron is more of a supervising guru nowadays.
      At the same time you have dozens of people requesting signed packages, and optdepends are still basically not implemented at all, which leads to very poor packaging eg. vs. Debian doesnt have to include nor bluez, nor gnome…

      The only comment i will make regarding Allan blog post, is that more or less i agree.
      On number 3: This is a big problem. But i don’t think most developers were ever active in the bbs much though. For example it seems that JGC and Pierre are most active than ever.
      Maybe this could be solved with “tricks” in the spirit of Bug Days. Organise a picnic or a Hug Day or something 🙂

  4. I’ve been using Arch Linux for a while now (on and off, mostly on, since 2003… and now that I write it… wow, 7 years with what I perceived to be a hobbyist distro when I first heard of it!?). Apart from several packages in AUR and some bug reports, I was always been on the anonymous user side.

    There is one huge difference I noticed changed in the attitude of developers towards users all these years:

    5 years ago, if I asked someone: “What up with package XYZ, why hasn’t it been updated for a while?”, I’d get a response like: “Well, the packager is having trouble with so and so, see the forum”. they would assume I need that answer so I know what to do, not because I’m impatient.

    Recently, I asked the same question about Inkscape (and I carefully worded it), I got a very rude response on IRC of “it will be done when the packager gets around it, he has a life”. All I was asking for was if somebody knows where the glitch is (so I can perhaps help) or if somebody can tell me if it’s actively worked on (so I know whether I should commit time to doing it myself). They assumed I was just bitching.

    Now, I’m a full time programmer, and I know all about it, so I didn’t get put off by it, or anything. But, there are people who quite simply just want an answer to what’s going on with their package/bug/whatever. It’s better if you don’t tell them anything than if you tell them that they are an annoyance to you.

    Take this for example:

    A guy asks if comments on AUR will be restored. You reply with: “Yes we heard you the first time and the issue did not magically fix itself… Continual bitching will not help”. You might have as well just said: “It’s being worked on”.

    Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to attack you personally or Arch’s developers. Not at all, my experience with arch developers has been positive all the time. This is about relationship with “newbs” and how it could be improved.

    In my opinion, assume all users of Arch linux are where you want them to be: either advanced users who know how to use a Wiki and are capable of writing a basic sh script or total newbs willing to learn. Treat them like that. If they ask a dumb question, ignore it or tell them to google it (politely). If they need handholding to build a package, send them towards wiki and TLDP. Why, create a new BBS category “Forgot to Google” and move all those posts there.

    But never, ever, assume people are there just to annoy you.

    Best regards

  5. Ok. I’m a developer, who hasn’t done much open source development in a few years. If I was looking to help implement the signed packages feature for pacman, where can I find information on what’s been done and what needs to be done?

    I found this bug report:, but I don’t know what the outstanding issues are.

    • The best way to get into pacman development is to subscribe to the pacman-dev mailing list (follow links from the Arch Linux homepage).