Fedwiki Happening: I Don’t Know How to Start, So Let’s Just Type

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!

Helping the Right Ideas Find One Another (FEDWIKI HAPPENING)

I’ve talked a bunch about Federated Wiki, and the idea a system like it could reinvent the way we talk on the we talk on the web, replacing our Twitter streams of reaction porn with something more substantive, connected, and iterative.

So, imposing on people I knew across the intertubes, I decided to put together an experiment called Fedwiki Happening #1. Initially I tried to only invite 15 people (making sure to pull from a worldwide group — I really do take the U.S.-centric critique seriously). The idea was a 14 day uncourse (Dec 17 to Jan 1) that would set very small open assignments (Connect two articles! Fork an article you like!) around a task of “idea-mining”, a cycle of daily discovery and connection I’ve become convinced is a core application of the technology. It ended up ballooning to about 36 people as a number of people asked to be involved.

We started on Wednesday. And already I have the sense of something big here. Here’s a segment of the Recent Changes, about a quarter of a day’s activity:

Screenshot 2014-12-21 at 9.15.01 AM

Each separate icon (whether color or photo) represents a person forking a page and making an edit; joined icons indicate a fork without an edit (which is halfway between a “like” and a bookmarking action.

Participant Alan probably captures the process a number of us are following as well any anyone in Federated Index Cards, and it’s well worth reading his take.  (There are of course other approaches, from writing collaborative fiction to co-authoring more formal academic pieces, all of which I watch with intense interest).

It’s a process I followed for a number of months while experimenting with the form, and then invited Ward to try with me in a six week experiment. You go about your day, read what you normally read, think what you normally think. But rather than posting links to these things on Twitter or Diigo, you drill down to what the connectable *idea* of the thing is.

Why? Because the problem I am trying to solve is I want to help “the right ideas find each other”. Those ideas could be two of my own ideas that I don’t realize are connected. The could also be an idea I have and one someone else in Bangalore has. Or my idea and your examples. Etc.

But what’s really cool, and what I’ve gotten to experience firsthand, is the joy of connecting *other* people’s ideas, of being what is called a “broker” in social network analysis.

Here’s an example of that.  First Kate puts up an article on Small Public Spaces.

Screenshot 2014-12-21 at 9.48.24 AM

As Alan notes, it’s like filling out an index card. And it’s not that it’s an *idea* exactly — it’s that this thing here, this thought about how Whyte approached the design of public spaces — it’s “a good tool to think with”.  You can see throwing that idea (or example, or data, or whatnot) into the mix of a future discussion, and it helping to deepen that discussion.

I’ve read about Whyte before, but this prompts me to search YouTube for a video of some of Whyte’s observations. I find one on movable chairs, and watch it. It’s super cool, showing how people reposition movable chairs in plazas to deal with needs of the moment, and sometimes move them just to feel empowered.

Looking at Kate’s article, I link the term Movable Furniture to to a new page I’ll create with that video on it:

Screenshot 2014-12-21 at 9.55.04 AM

But as I’m writing up the page Movable Furniture, I’m reminded of something else I recently read in the federation — David Jones had written two pieces, one on the idea of needing students to be Digital Renovators — people who feel empowered to alter their digital environments, and a related idea of the Concrete Lounge — the digital environment that is impossible to customize. Watching the video and seeing how much people rearrange chairs when they get the chance, I just can’t help but see this as related.

So I link it up:

Screenshot 2014-12-21 at 10.05.20 AM

And now, if you click that Concrete Lounge link you get what I think is a very relevant connection to Whyte’s work:

Screenshot 2014-12-21 at 10.07.25 AM

Now, did Kate already know about David Jones’s Concrete Lounge analogy? Had David already put together how his Concrete Lounge related to these late 1970s ethnographic films of people moving patio chairs?

Maybe. I’d be curious to know. But even in the case they had both known about these connections, these connections are now there for *anyone* to follow. The next person who ends up on the Small Public Spaces side of the equation can follow it to the Concrete Lounge, and vice versa.

You could connect other things — data to theories, examples to patterns. Data to data. If you imagine a universe of people doing this rather than forwarding article and video links around, you start, I think, to get to a vision of the web more in line with early conceptions of what the web might be.

And of course, it’s very like wiki, but it’s not in this one, super-important way: there is no permanent community. The wiki is implemented as a network, where the people Alan follows will overlap with some of the people I follow, but never so much that the community is self-contained. As federated wiki expands, the network might start to look more like Twitter in terms of how information flows fluidly through through multiple sub-networks, but more like wiki terms of how that information is treated. Ideas could flow through log chains of people unaware of each other’s existence, reaching unpredictable yet fitting destinations.

Of course, there are other models of use as well, some of them emerging on the site as we speak, and we watch this closely. After playing with (and thinking about) the software for eight months, it’s really this piece that most excites me at the moment, the possibility of a new culture of connection, where we solve one of the most pressing problems of today — how to get the right ideas, data, and examples to meet.

For now, the software may be buggy, the users may be new to the environment, the learning curve may be difficult. But we’re starting to see the outline of something strange and new. And I like it.

(Edited to fix misattribution of Whyte article)