This discussion has been transferred here from various threads in the Eurorack Synthesisers Facebook group.
Various issues with the predominant modular synth forum, MuffWigglers, have been raised several times over the last few years. Three broad issues keep re-emerging:
the MuffWigglers (MW) name, and what that signals to detached observers (as in “hmmm, probably a porn site”), and what it signals to potential participants (“hmmm, this is a misogynistic boys’ club”). It doesn’t matter if either of those perceptions are true or not (both are partially true, imho), it is the impression that matters.
the lack of reliability of the forum platform - it often seems to has brief outages or minor problems with lost sessions etc, and every year or two it seems to experience major outages, sometimes resulting in permanent data loss (as happened a few years ago). Despite many requests and offers of help, the system administration of the MW forum still seems to be in the hands of one person, who essentially owns the forum and all its contributed information (in part because of a lack of an explicit statement about who owns contributed content).
the clunky and old-fashioned nature of the MW forum itself, based as it is on an out-of-date version of the phpBB platform. This is becoming more and more problematic as more users interact with it via mobile devices rather than laptop or desktop computers.
Although many people now use Facebook, it seems that Facebook groups are not a substitute for an internet forum: Facebook posts are ephemeral (they randomly seem to disappear after a while), are not readily searchable, and moderation facilities in Facebook groups are still quite primitive.
Given all this, it seems that the time is right for one or more new modular synth forums. So what issues need to be thought through, debated and be generally agreed upon in order to make such a new forum successful and sustainable? Here is an initial list of issues which I think matter:
Issues to be considered
A defined scope
If the scope of the forum is too broad, then it loses focus; if too narrow, it doesn’t attract a critical mass of participants needed to make it viable or worthwhile. Here is an initial proposal: limit the scope to “modular synthesisers” (things) and “modular synthesists” (people). A formal definition of what that scope entails is probably useful, but basically it means sound, music or video synthesis using modular devices which are able to be interconnected via patch cords or cables. I think it should include “semi-modular” synthesisers, as long as they have patch points beyond just audio output and MIDI, and it should include modular software synthesizers like VCV and Audulus and ZMors, and modular-related software tools like Spektro Audio CV Toolkit and the Expert Sleepers Silent Way software, and things like the Propellorhead Reason Blocks. Interfacing modulars to DAWs and v-v should also be in scope. All modular formats and form factors would be included, including 5U/MOTM, 4U (Buchla and Serge), Frac, Eurorack, of course, as well as obsolete and proprietary formats. Likewise, 3.5mm, 6.35mm, banana, pin-header, and pin matrix patching standards/systems would all be within scope. There are no doubt many grey areas, but you get the idea…
With that proposed scope in mind, allthesynths is not an ideal name nor URL. It’s not bad - it is neutral and somewhat informative - but if the scope is to be just modular synths, then the allthesynths name will create inappropriate expectations amongst the large numbers of owners of stand-alone keyboard synths etc, with requests (or angry demands) for space on the forum which will need to be denied, creating bad blood and unnecessary conflict. Better to avoid such expectations by using a name that better reflects the proposed scope.
A set of guiding foundation principles
The stated principles for the Eurorack group on Facebook, as drawn up by Guy Taylor, the moderator of that group, seem like a good place to start. These are:
This group was created as an option to other groups or forums that may allow / foster demeaning or abusive behavior, particularly toward beginners. If you feel the urge to be unnecessarily rude or disrespectful, especially to someone with a perfectly valid question, be prepared to be expelled from the group.
Contrary to the historical stigma of Music Technology, this particular group is for anyone who is interested, not simply white Males. This means we do not tolerate overt nor covert misogyny, sexism, racism, classism or ableism of any kind. All PoC, Non-Binary, LGBTQ+, disabled, self identified Women / Womyn are not simply welcome here but are encouraged to have a voice and participate - [if you have ] any personal qualms with this whatsoever, then you are the one who is not welcome.
This page is also worth reading - it sets out some very sensible steps and principles for developing a code of conduct which promotes inclusiveness - the context is one-source software development, but it applies equally to any online community-of-interest.
Here’s the text of a code of conduct for an open-source software “unconference”, which could readily be adapted for use by a modular synth forum (and the text is CC-licensed, so it can be re-used, just change “Unconference” to “the forum” and maybe modify the sections that relate to a physical meeting context):
Code of Conduct
The organisers of [this unconference] are committed to providing a welcoming and harassment-free experience for everyone, regardless of gender, gender identity and expression, age, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, ethnicity, religion (or lack thereof), or technology choices. We do not tolerate harassment of unconference participants in any form. Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any unconference venue, including talks, workshops, parties, Twitter and other online media. Unconf participants violating these rules may be sanctioned or expelled from the event at the discretion of the unconference organizers.
This code of conduct applies to all participants, including organisers and applies to all modes of interaction, both in-person and online, including the Unconf discussion forum, Slack channels and Twitter.
Unconf participants agree to:
Be considerate in speech and actions, and actively seek to acknowledge and respect the boundaries of fellow attendees.
Refrain from demeaning, discriminatory, or harassing behavior and speech. Harassment includes, but is not limited to: deliberate intimidation; stalking; unwanted photography or recording; sustained or willful disruption of talks or other events; inappropriate physical contact; use of sexual or discriminatory imagery, comments, or jokes; and unwelcome sexual attention. If you feel that someone has harassed you or otherwise treated you inappropriately, please alert any member of the conference team in person.
Take care of each other. Alert a member of the unconference team if you notice a dangerous situation, someone in distress, or violations of this code of conduct, even if they seem inconsequential.
Please speak with names of organisers if you have any concerns.
If any attendee engages in harassing behavior, the unconference organizers may take any lawful action we deem appropriate, including but not limited to warning the offender or asking the offender to leave the unconference. (If you feel you have been unfairly accused of violating this code of conduct, you should contact the unconference team with a concise description of your grievance.)
We welcome your feedback on this and every other aspect of this unconference, and we thank you for working with us to make it a safe, enjoyable, and friendly experience for everyone who participates.
The proposal is for a community-based forum which avoids reliance on any one person or organisation for its existence, financing or operation. It is, however, very difficult to establish and maintain a forum run entirely on complete consensus or “ultra-democratic” principles, and thus a committee is required which needs to be entrusted with the governance and operation of the forum. This committee should be obliged to consult the community of users of the forum with respect to all major or substantive issues. Members of the committee should be representative of the entire spectrum of modular synth users and enthusiasts, across a number of dimensions, including (and especially) gender, but also race, sexual orientation, language and time-zone/continent. The means a committee of about a dozen people is needed, and such a committee should have a significant number of female members (equal representation would be great, but at least one-third), as well as diverse representation along the other axes mentioned above. Forming such a committee is tricky, but a call for expressions of interest is probably the best approach at first. Selecting from amongst those is the difficult bit. It may be necessary to actively invite some committee members to ensure adequate representation. If the forum is to be sponsored by the Mostly Modular Trade Association and/or individual manufacturers, then some ex officio trade representation will probably be required, but it should not dominate the committee (maybe just two or three manufacturer positions out of 12). Finally, the “benign dictator(s) for life” syndrome must be avoided, and thus committee membership should have a set term (maybe 18 months or two years) to allow rotation of others into the committee, ideally in a staggered fashion to ensure some degree of continuity. Membership of the steering committee must also entail responsibilities and tasks, including active participation in moderation tasks, and (virtual) participation in committee meetings (which would be carried out in an asynchronous manner online, and would not be onerous). Thus committee membership must be earned, not just bestowed as a gift.
A suitable, more modern forum software platform
Discourse (which is what allthesynths.info runs on) is probably the premier open-source forum platform, and is used by the Monome and Mutable Instruments organisations for their support and community forums, almost others. Discourse has tens of thousands of fielded sites, is well regarded, secure and is actively maintained and developed. However, there are other open-source forum software platforms which could be considered, and those should not be ruled out entirely until assessed.
Moderation policies and procedures
Modern forum systems such as Discourse permit a great deal of “community self-moderation”, in which community members flag inappropriate content themselves, and users gradually become more and more trusted and are thus given greater and greater moderation powers. Thus, there is no limit to the number of moderators - there could be hundreds or thousands - and this means that inappropriate content or behaviour is suppressed or eliminated quickly, before it spins out of control. Naturally, moderators can also moderate other moderators, which mitigates against abuses of power. However, this whole moderation ecosystem needs to be bootstrapped or kickstarted, and thus the governance committee members and small number of volunteer moderators would need to undertake the task for the first few months.
This page is useful - it gives and overview of the different privilege levels in Discourse:
edit - new users like me can only put two links in a post, it seems, so I will provide the links in a follow-up post.
And here is a helpful moderation how-to for Discourse, which could readily be adapted to a modular synth forum.
see follow-up post for the link
A sustainable financing model
There is a lot to this and needs to be unpacked further, but one model might be a combined sponsorship model, in which module manufacturers provide some sponsorship, perhaps in return for the right to host a technical support sub-forum on the forum, and rotating representation on the steering committee, and end-users also provide optional micro-sponsorship through Patreon or similar, at the suggested level of a few dollars per month.
Hosting and technical considerations
These are also complex and need to be unpacked, but hosting needs to be done in a way that is reliable, affordable, permits routine maintenance, permits multiple sysadmins in different time-zones to undertake maintenance and corrective action, provides enough storage and outbound bandwidth and traffic volumes, ensures and regularly tests back-up and recovery procedures (such testing is easy to automate), uses protection against DDoS attacks (to avoid undue traffic charges, as much as anything else), and uses a global CDN provider which supports not just cacheing of static resources but which also speeds up dynamic pages, and which supports “long-polling” which Discourse uses. Fastly and Cloudflare do all that, but other CDN services might also. Regarding hosting, it is important not to fall for the fallacy of sunk costs: just because this site, allthesynths, has been unilaterally set up doesn’t mean that all other hosting arrangements should be ruled out because it would waste all that effort (but since allthesynths was set up in just a day or two by one person, it’s not that much effort…) That not to say that the hosting and technical arrangements for this allthesynths site might not be perfectly suitable, but that remains to be seen (and which is why it is often better to think these things through, and consult widely first, before charging ahead and setting something up unilaterally, and then getting all grumpy about people being ungrateful and pointing out that there is more to establishing a forum than just the technical web site, and that (web site) carts should not be put before (governance and sustainability) horses). But as it stands, allthesynths provides a welcomed space in which to carry out these consultations and deliberations.
There are lots of other issues to be considered if the establishment of an alternative to the MuffWigglers forum is to be done thoroughly and properly, but this post is already long enough and I have to make some lunch.