So, what can the Perl community do to avert this decline and potential extinction? Probably a great many things, but here are my three top suggestions:
- Make cool shit. Talk about it. Talk about it A LOT. What little positive image Perl retains in these modern times is primarily limited to making sysadmin/dev ops lives easier. While this is a worthy and admirable accomplishment, it’s not going to turn any heads. People will (and do) not want to learn a language with a stodgy reputation. The best way to shed that reputation is to use the language to develop cutting edge tools and services, then to shout it from the mountain tops. DuckDuckGo is written in Perl and is going toe to toe with Google. Lacuna Expanse has shattered the Perl gaming boundaries. Follow their lead. Show people what you think is possible and they’ll start proving you wrong by creating the seemingly impossible.
- Modernize our dilapidated online communities. As the enlightened humans we are, we like to say that looks don’t matter. Unfortunately that’s not the way our brains are wired Looks do matter, or at least they do in this case. Take, for instance, the venerable PerlMonks. The site contains a limitless source of knowledge, both historical and contemporary. But its user interface and experience are both stuck in the late 1990′s and have become punchlines for a programming language which is trying to claim relevance in the current world of technology. This perception, unfortunately, is transferred to the Perl language at large. If we want to attract new community members, we need to do it with a modern sensibility, language, and tools. Online services where you can try out Perl programming in your browser. The latest in forum and moderation technologies. An interface which uses current best practices for usability and design.
While I was doing research for this article, I came across this quote about linguistic cultural extinction which is quite relevant to Perl’s current situation:
On a larger, less methodical scale, linguists agree that the single most important step towards ensuring a language does not disappear is the fostering of favorable conditions for its speakers to employ the language and to ensure that it is taught to their children. Approaches to Conservation
Perl, as it currently stands, is not fostering those favorable conditions. It needs to modernize its presentation and approach to make itself more approachable and appealing to a new generation of programmers.
- TPF should fund training, outreach and community building to the same level as language development (if not more). According to The Perl Foundation‘s own mission statement, it is “…dedicated to the advancement of the Perl programming language through open discussion, collaboration, design, and code.” At no point does it mention community or training as a part of its raison d’être and I find that to be a grave oversight in desperate need of correction. A language is only advanced so long as it thrives. A language cannot thrive without practitioners and a strong community to support them. TPF is dropping the ball here, allowing the language they’re sworn to advance to founder in a morass of indifference and insignificance. It does not matter how many grants they hand out for language improvements which no one is going to use. As the effective figurehead of the Perl community, I feel only TPF is in a position to make the sort of changes necessary to drag Perl back into relevance and to allow it to grow and thrive, and these changes are not predominantly technical in nature. TPF should take the reins it recently appears so reticent to accept and both guide and grow the community through outreach and grants based upon measurable milestones. TPF: Accept responsibility for increasing the ranks of Perl programmers and the overall perception of our language within the programming community. Advance our language in ways which matter (read: not solely technological) and do it now before there is nothing left to advance.
So, here’s the thing.
You don’t have to agree with much of what I say above. But agreement isn’t necessary in order to think about the issue. And that’s what I urge you to do: start thinking about this as a legitimate issue. Even this cursory look at the current landscape of Perl usage and the Perl community shows that its aging and dwindling numbers are worthy of concern. I repeat: We are becoming the Shakers of the programming world and if we do nothing to change this then we will end up the same way they did.
During the process of writing this article I did a lot of research into cultural extinction. The concepts there are disturbingly applicable to what the Perl community is facing now. To end, I’d like to share a particularly relevant quote from Francis X. Hezel:
The key to cultural survival, then, is not purely conservatism—hanging on tightly to all that we have received in the past—but a genuine sense of dynamism and a readiness to adapt to a changing world. Strategies for economic development that entail change, therefore, may be seen as ways of promoting survival, material and cultural. Some of what we have understood in the past as either-or dichotomies ought to be re-examined in the light of this new model of culture.