Building a Pseudo-Wiki on Tumblr

At the heart of wiki is a simple idea that names matter. Page names in wiki are not locations. They aren’t a place where a document lives. Names identify ideas, patterns, theories, and data in wiki that can be recombined with other ideas, patterns, theories, and data to make complex meaning not expressible in a normal text.

If you’ve ever had a good wiki experience, you know what this feels like in practice. Groping towards an idea on one page you realize its relation to another page and quickly make a [[Bracketed Link]] or CamelCaseAssociation to pull that idea into your web. But most non-wiki environments frustrate this fluidity. They don’t want to know the name of the page — they want to know its location, which is like asking someone to give up using variables in their code and start addressing memory directly. It can be done, but it is going to kill your flow.

What’s more, these frustrate one of the crucial features of wiki practice: they don’t let you link to pages that don’t exist yet.

Recently I found a way to abuse Tumblr tagging to get wiki-like linking in Tumblr. It’s not quite wiki, but it’s worth exploring as a productive abuse of Tumblr and as an experiment on thinking about the coming merge of blog and wiki. Details in video below.

Wriggling Cat

Ted Nelson on the invention of hypertext. And perhaps relevant to annotation today?

But it seemed to me that as soon as you have computer storage you could put every point you wanted in – make the ones that are less relevant to your central topic, further away or allow the central topic to move as the reader proceeded. So, that notion of hypertext seemed to me immediately obvious because footnotes were already the ideas wriggling, struggling to get free, like a cat trying to get out of your arms. bbc

Interesting history of course. But it also answers a question people ask me — how does the recent interest in web annotation fit into the federated wiki vision? And the answer is this: annotation is the wriggling cat.

Accruing Associations

Today I find this story on my Twitter Feed. A government nuclear facility accidentally sent out some “excess” nuclear material. Whoops!


The name of the facility rings a bell though. Haven’t I heard of government installation “Y-12” before? I’m pretty sure there’s been problems there before.

I search my personal wiki:


Aha! That’s right. I’d come across a different Y-12 incident about a month ago, and it seemed a perfect example of Alarm Fatigue. Here’s that page:


Notice how we put some general associations at the bottom and use the text to highlight the realationship to the current page in a very direct way.

I don’t really know where this new incident fits in, but I’d like to log it. So I go to the bottom of the Alarm Fatigue at Y-12 page and add another link.


And that’s it, at least for now. It may be that later I come by and build a new wiki page that can replace that external link, or perhaps I create a new page on Y-12 in general and move this link over there.

But what’s neat is watching your network of knowledge become more useful over time. Looking back at these pages I find the Normal Accident Theory page was added in November 2014. Alarm Fatigue (the general page) was added in January 2015, partially because of the way it resonated with and informed elements of Normal Accident Theory. The Alarm Fatigue at Y-12 page was added based on something seen last month, which ended up being a perfect example of alarm fatigue. Now this link updates the page an suggests in time we might compile more information on Y-12, a seeming case study in how things go wrong.

More amazingly. if you click through those links you’ll find we’re slowly developing a densely linked set of pages on the nature of error. Sensitivity vs. Specificity links to Safety and Reliability (which are opposed BTW) which links to Always-Never which links to One Point Safe which links to Command and Control. On a related vector, Alarm Fatigue deals with issues of signal-to-noise, bringing you to pages on Tea Kettle Tech (an Amber Case idea) and Techno-pastoralism. From there you can get to cybernetics and a dozen other things.

I didn’t sit down one day and say let’s make a site on the nature of error and digital noise. This subject emerged organically, as new stuff came in.

And therein lies a story. What I find my mind doing these days is letting go of the question “What do I think of that?” which is the primary question of the Self-Assertive Web. The Twitter response to nuclear error is “Nice! Keeping us safe!” or “Maybe Iran needs to inpect us. haha.” On the self-assertive web we don’t get past paragraph two without thinking “What is my take on this?” and constructing rhetoric in our head about it. And while that’s useful it dramatically limits what we can take away from new knowledge.

With wiki journalling, on the other hand, my first question on seeing something is “What does that connect to?” Judgement comes, but is postponed while we make connections, link up examples, and find patterns. It’s the Integrative Web and I think we need more of it.

Toward a Less Self-Assertive Web

Working on my 83rd idea for my dLRN keynote, because that’s “how I do”. (I’ve also been watching The Wire a lot).

Today via David Jones this beautiful piece on systems theory comes to me. It’s from a new book by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi:

In our brief summary of the emerging systems view of life in the Preface, we have emphasized shifts in perceptions and ways of thinking. However, the broader paradigm shift also involves corresponding changes of values. And here it is interesting to note a striking connection between the changes of thinking and of values. Both of them may be seen as shifts from self-assertion to integration. These two tendencies — the self-assertive and the integrative — are both essential aspects of all living systems, as we discuss in Chapter 4 (Section 4.1.2). Neither of them is intrinsically good or bad. What is good, or healthy, is a dynamic balance; what is bad, or unhealthy, is imbalance — overemphasis on one tendency and neglect of the other. When we look at our modem industrial culture, we see that we have overemphasized the self-assertive and neglected the integrative tendencies. This is apparent both in our thinking and in our values. It is very instructive to put these opposite tendencies side by side.

They chart out these tendencies in terms of thinking and values:


And here’s the thing. The initial vision of hypertext was profoundly integrative (Bush, Nelson, etc). Read As We May Think again and you’ll see the idea in those last bits of the article is to make connection as valued as assertion, to capture intuition and synthesis via links (or “trails” in his case). Non-linearity is valued, and the holistic viewpoint — where a single node can simultaneously support radically opposing views — is privileged over the clean and linear trajectory of making a point.


That — through the vision of a number of intermediaries — was one possible future for the early web.

But in the early days of the web people fleeing the self-assertive worlds of Usenet, mailing lists and the like came to the web and built something that was more integrative than those conversational forms but less integrative than the Bush version. From them we got The Stream — the hybrid of hypertext with the self-assertive culture of forums, lists, and Usenet groups. The Stream is blogs, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook feeds, YouTube channels, etc. It made conversation better. The Stream turned out to be the web’s killer app.

But as The Stream became the dominant mode of hypertext, it also pulled the web as a whole toward the self-assertive end of the spectrum. In many ways it kept drifting back even more towards self-assertion. Early linklogs gave way to analytical blogs which gave way to persuasive writing as the norm. The follow-me-as-I-think-through-this political blogging of Josh Marshall gave way to the this-is-the-one-true-truthism of Huffington Post and Breitbart. Comments were added at some point, bringing back the group domination dynamics early bloggers were trying to escape.

In the world of the Memex your space houses things useful to you, and the space of a literate person includes many things one disagrees with but finds useful to think with. The Stream, on the other hand, is seen as an assertion of one’s self, where every post must zoom as quickly as possible to This is What I Believe. The fact people must insist that retweets are not endorsements shows the direction we have drifted. To post is to assert.

And the point is that that’s good in the right amount. Self-assertion is important. I certainly want a space to express who I am, and to a large extent that is what I do on this blog. I provide a nice linear, rational, reductionist view of current issues in order win ongoing arguments and persuade you to join my cause. A Memex would be a lousy tool for that. Don’t take my blog away!

But it is *one* side of the equation. As Capra and Luigi Luisi insist, it needs balance. We seem to have nailed tools for self-assertion over the past 20 years. Perhaps we could work on tools for integration now as well?

This Is My Point About the Stream

From Times Higher Education today:

Moreover, the thesis statement can actually be the enemy of critical enquiry because it straitjackets the writer into a line of argument that has to be defended to the death, blithely bulldozing – or simply ignoring – any tentative “yes, but…” that might get in the way. This is not a trivial issue. The tyranny of being forced to declare one’s position pervades our culture, from the school debating societies to our adversarial parliamentary system, where admitting that the opposing side may have a point is political anathema. This approach is potentially anti-intellectual – for when critical thinking is applied to most issues, it becomes apparent that there are multiple viable perspectives, which can both diverge and converge.

This is my point about the Stream. We want to promote inquiry and multiple perspectives, yet we choose formats (blogging, forums, and the like) that favor personal rhetoric, argument, and expression.

Luckily, there *is* a format that favors composing documents that present multiple perspectives, promotes not rushing to conclusions, and encourages students to embrace complexity instead of sweeping it under the rug to make a point. It’s called HYPERTEXT. We should use it.

You Get to Decide What the Big One Is: A Clarification

So I wasn’t as clear as I might have been yesterday with my post. The main change is not that we’re moving from a constricted notion of the subject being the Cascadia earthquake to a constricted notion of a Zombie disaster. The main change is that we’re broadening out the available options in the class of what The Big One is.

We had always planned to do this broadening cross-class — have different classes plug into different subjects about what “The Big One” is — see, for example, the About the Course page. But my initial thought was a more tightly constrained system where *each course* picked a relatively constrained area.

(Those that have read me for a few years may realize this is just the implementation of Water106, but with a different sort of subject, and with federated wiki as the cross-course interaction enabler. That vision remains a key piece of this).

Instead what we are moving towards is a scheme where each classroom group can pick their own definition of “The Big One”, up to and including zombies. The key reason (at least for me) is that the narrower construct does not play well enough to the strengths of the students in the context of a short class. We need more flexibility to meet the students where they are. For a number of students, where they are is zombies. As  Pumpkin Yang pointed out, these students may already have quite a lot of “real life” on their plate, and they are learning educational technology (the REAL target of the instruction) on top of that. If giving some a fantasy option helps make it more fun, then why not?

Incidentally, if you go to that About the Course page linked above you’ll find that you all are invited to participate as well. Claiming a site and joining is easy, we just ask that if you take up a slot that you commit to the Course Charter, and produce at least 5 pages a week on a disaster related topic.

The Zombie Curriculum (a possible pivot)

I had *such* nice project planned out for my class this year. I was told I had a bunch of hard science people and history people, and I came up with this subject of disasters, with this wonderful local focus. We would work with ed tech while researching the coming Cascadia earthquake.

Well, I got to my first class, and here’s what happened. The breakdown of students doesn’t work with earthquakes. These are teachers that have a certification in a specific area, and instead of a bunch of earth science and history majors we had this breakdown:

  • Biology: 3
  • Chemistry: 1
  • History: 3
  • English: 4
  • Consumer Science: 1
  • Phys Ed: 1

Oh my. Biology and Chemistry aren’t really the core of earthquakes. And English students are a THIRD of the class, and the literature options for earthquakes were just not that compelling.

So after talking about this with the students, we’re thinking of taking this in a different direction, and I wanted to see what people thought.

The idea is this: The Zombie Curriculum. An attempt to teach multiple subjects through the medium of ZOMBIES.

This idea was mentioned in-class off-handedly by a student, but the more I thought about it, the more it dug its way into my skull. The truth is that zombies intersect with almost everything.

Take human biology. Float a couple questions like “Can Zombies Feel Pain” and suddenly you have a class researching the nervous system.

  • Chemistry? Well, Zombies get energy from some form of chemical process. What does that process look like? Is it possible they harness the energy from their own decay? How do we figure that out? And maybe Zombie-ism is chemical, right?
  • Statistics. What’s the growth model for the zombie population? How do different assumptions and models lead to different predictions for when we hit peak zombie.
  • Ecology. What’s the ecological impact of zombieism?
  • Literature. What do zombies mean? Why are we obsessed with them? What are the hallmarks of the zombie genre and how does it intersect with the language of other genres?
  • History. I have a bunch of students in class that want to look at things like the Spanish Flu, and how we react to infectious diseases. Do we end up the paranoid husks we see in zombie fiction?
  • Sociology. Who bears the brunt of the zombie apocalypse? (Spoiler alert: it’s the poor and the historically underprivileged)
  • Foreign Language and Culture: How is the concept of the zombie translated in other cultures?
  • Business: What are the good business plans in a zombie apocalypse? Can we write a business plan for a growth industry?
  • Psychology: How will PTSD affect the survivors of the apocalypse? And what does the world look like to a zombie?

Anyway, we’re looking at this option. Groups would research zombie issues and write up explanations that pulled in science, math, literature, and even physical education. We’d create a wiki on zombies that serves both as research into ZOmbies and a set of teaching materials of students.

Thoughts? Do you miss the earthquake idea? Do you like the zombie idea? Would you like to contribute to our zombie curriculum?




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