I don’t know how to start talking about the Fedwiki Happening publicly, to people who have not been a part of it. I’m worried that to people who haven’t experienced it it will be about as exciting and comprehensible as hearing someone narrate a dream, or an acid trip.
Which, I suppose, makes it very Happening-like. Take it away, Pixies:
The short version is, after talking about this hypothesis for several months that you could build a distributed community with the vibrancy of Twitter, the independence of blogging, and the timelessness of wiki 20 insanely great people volunteered to test that hypothesis out.
Even that undersells it, because the hypothesis wasn’t just that you could tweak a recipe, or get a balance right. We were asking people to blog, essentially, but remove ideas of authorship, rhetoric, ownership. We were looking in many ways to turn the web on its head.
Could it work?
Short answer: Yes. In much less than fourteen days we proved that social media software is profoundly underestimating what people are capable of, and the models on which you could base a community. The chorus of voices that says that people won’t be able to understand this sort of mode of communication is, in fact, dead wrong. People not only understand it, they have profound experiences with it. I have had people write me that the fedwiki paradigm flows much more naturally with their way of thinking than anything currently on offer on the web; that federated wiki feels less like publishing and more like an extension of their mind, a tool for deep thinking on an increasingly shallow web.
Weirdly, I’d thought we wouldn’t have gotten much further than that in fourteen days. And that was the surprise for me. People went from stressing out about attribution to not caring about it, by like Day 4, and to embracing the tool on Day 5. But then they started to really prod at the edges of what the form was, what it could be, and how to steer it.
(This really is like a dream narration, isn’t it?)
Over the next six or seven days we got deeper into the issues of social media, power, feminism, ownership, voice, group dynamics, knowledge, and cooperation than most 15 week classes do. And we did it in this weird style we had developed — trading terms, stories, resources, ideas instead of rhetoric (although one could argue, I suppose, that this is a new kind of rhetoric).
And it makes sense, I suppose. As we discussed under what circumstances we should use comments we had to grapple, in a very real way, with what comments are, and what they do to the online experience. As we forked articles referencing personal stories, we had to deal with issues of attribution and credit, and the question of why and when the “I” matters.
The tension between the Recent Changes feed and the more topical approach to engagement drove further conversation about the way that feed driven architectures create cliques that are impenetrable to outsiders. What the reverse chronology approach does to conversation became apparent — and it’s not all good. (Ward refers to wiki’s Recent Changes — a feed he created a couple years before RSS, and one of the first community feeds of the internet as “pouring gasoline on wiki”, which perfectly captures the ambiguity of feed effects on the web).
Authorship, power, gender differences, connection, consensus, lack of consensus, ownership…
There have been other classes about the web and social media. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a class where we disassembled the web put it back together in an entirely different way, and asked participants to reflect on the difference.
So we ended up proving the hypothesis that this could work, but also ended up with something much bigger — a set of people who, I think, are coming away from the experience not as fedwiki cheerleaders, but as incredibly thoughtful critics of the assumptions of the web and the ways in which fedwiki addresses and does not address them.
And as for me, I’ve come to see that more than anything, THAT is the point. Tim Owens joked a while back that I talked about fedwiki like Morpheus in The Matrix offering the blue pill and the red pill. Do you want to go back to your boring, but safe life? Or do you actually want to understand the machine you are living in?
I denied that back then, but I’m not sure now. I think a lot of people in the happening feel a bit like they just took the red pill. And while I think fedwiki has a bright future as a product, it’s this process of getting people to re-examine 20 years of assumptions about what the web is that excites me the most. And if I can speak for the participants in The Happening, I think that’s what has excited them as well.
Federated wiki is not hard like setting up a Jekyll instance hard, or the ten steps to embed a YouTube video hard. It’s not hard like “I have to learn to edit video” hard.
It’s hard like Red Pill Hard.
I’m incredibly grateful to have worked with a bunch of people who embraced that sort of hard, and pushed the experiment past my wildest imaginings. Thank you!