The GNOME project took an important step when Matthias Clasen announced that it would support a set of extensions that would re-create the GNOME 2 desktop. Many observers, including me, Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols and Katherine Noyes immediately interpreted the news as proof that GNOME was turning itself around and finally starting to listen to users.
What was important was not just the news, but its tone. After two years of GNOME promoting GNOME 3 at the expense of GNOME 2, Clasen offered a more conciliatory tone:
And while we certainly hope that many users will find the new ways comfortable and refreshing after a short learning phase, we should not fault people who prefer the old way. After all, these features were a selling point of GNOME 2 for ten years!
Suddenly, someone from the project seemed to understand what users had been complaining about.
However, commenters on these stories seemed less convinced. Having switched to Linux Mint's re-creations of GNOME 2, Cinnamon or Mate, most are in no hurry to return to GNOME. Many are waiting to see just how much GNOME will change.
Whether these commenters represent a majority of potential GNOME users is impossible to know. You can certainly find others who praise GNOME 3, especially on GNOME-centered sites, and their numbers seem to be slowly growing.
But the numbers don't matter much. Skepticism about GNOME is voiced whenever the project is mentioned, and, at times, seems to have lowered morale within the project itself.
In other words, as I have said before, GNOME has a marketing problem as much as a developmental one. It is not enough, as Xan Lopez and Juan Jose Sanchez suggested in their presentation "A Bright Future for GNOME" for the project to expand into mobile devices and perhaps look for pre-installation deals.
Instead, if GNOME hopes to re-gain its former position, the project would probably do better to consider full-fledged crisis management.
Specifically, GNOME needs to renew its efforts at communication, rather than leaving sub-projects to promote themselves. It needs to communicate both its cultural and technical strengths, and as it moves forward, to demonstrate that it can manage changes in a way that users can accept.
By doing these things, it could rebrand itself, moving away from its current image as an out-of-touch group of elitists and focusing on aspects that make it an attractive choice among desktop environments.
In theory, GNOME has a marketing team. In practice, traffic to the marketing mailing list remains light, although the marketing list recently had what is supposed to be the first of bi-weekly conference calls. With such minimal activity, many chances to promote GNOME are simply missed.
For example, a few weeks ago, GNOME completely failed to communicate its perspective on the dropping of fallback mode. In the absence of any other view, the news was framed as proof of the project's disregard for users.
Similarly, Clasen's announcement was left to the media to pick up, leaving the emphasis on users' skepticism about the decision to dominate Internet discussions.
Even worse, without any official communications, GNOME leaves external relations to individual responses. These efforts are usually responses to media coverage that one person perceives as negative. Often, they are full of naive cynicism about journalism, such as the belief that writers try to be controversial in order to increase page hits. At times, they are personal attacks, questioning the journalism's professional ethics.
I realize that for me to mention such things sounds self-serving. But my point is not self-defense -- only the very obvious one that a project that needs to communicate externally can only cripple itself by alienating the gatekeepers who pass their messages along to the public.
Just as importantly, in the absence of more official responses, these private responses are easily mistaken for the project's own. The result? An even worse impression of GNOME in the public.
For both these reasons, GNOME needs an official, active communications team -- and needs it now. Without one, crisis management is at best more difficult, and probably impossible.