Federated Wiki, Slow Cooperation, and a Kindle Parable

There’s a really excellent post over at Frances Bell’s blog talking about problems with forking in fedwiki — and really about the meanings associated with different types of revisions and decisions of people.  And there’s a lot there to comment on, but the piece I take away is that we haven’t reduced the stress of revising work of others as much as we intended.

As Frances points out, sometimes this is because we don’t see the edits we should — and that’s a system issue.  But sometimes it’s that we do have the edits we want, but we’re just feeling pressure to adopt “the latest version” and we’re very worried someone’s contribution might have gotten lost. Sometimes it’s that we’d love to incorporate edits, but we’re newbies, and we go about things in ways that create more confusion.

I started writing a long comment on Frances’s blog, but got routed to a weird WordPress login loop. And I thought rather than go back and reconstruct that comment, I might put out a way of thinking about fedwiki for your critique. This doesn’t quite answer the questions or issues in that post (or the many, many comments), but it deals with the *stress* that misfires might cause newbies in the system. Because the misfires are a problem, but it’s the stress that worries me most.

A Kindle Parable

Imagine a world where everbody has a Kindle, but they are not that sucky, closed system you usually get stuck with. These Kindles allow you to treat your books like a word-processing document. You can add notes, change things, delete passages. And you can forward your annotated & edited version to all of your friends — the license allows you to do that.

So, for instance, I am reading Memory Machines right now, and the chapter I am on is the one on Englebart’s NLS project.

Now I know a bit about Englebart. And so as I’m going through it I’m writing in notes, and linking it up to other books I’ve read and other documents I’ve written. There’s also a bunch of stuff in there that’s not really relevant to what I am reading it for, and I delete it, knowing that when I come back to this to review it I want it to be short and scannable.

I also know I am going to share it with friends, and they won’t read it if it’s super long, so I edit it down to the pieces that really deal with federated wiki, since that’s what we’re talking about.

You (a friend of mine) get my annotated copy on this Kindle book and start making notes, adding some stuff, linking to the books that you have.

Now, here’s the thing — I see your edits. What does it mean if I don’t pull them back?

You can’t make it mean *nothing* — I’m not so naive as that. But I would love it to mean *less*. I’d like it to mean, primarily, that for my own reasons it wasn’t useful to me to pull those edits back.

Underlying that could be a number of things. Maybe I didn’t have the time. Maybe I missed them. Maybe I read them, and enjoyed them, but thought, hey — I can always read this version on your site, no need to fork back. Maybe someone had even better notes, and so I forked theirs and I didn’t want to take the time to integrate your notes in.

Basically I have me, and the people who read my annotated versions of books, and those are my responsibilities. My job is to write the best article I can given the time, but “best” is heavily influenced by what my personal needs are and who I feel I am writing for.

The one thing that best really shouldn’t consider too much is “What article will make my collaborators happy?” because that way madness lies. And that way self-editing lies too — and keep in mind if you’re afraid to say something that you think is useful, it’s likely we all lose.

The Fast Cooperation Problem

So this sort of system is properly called cooperative, not collaborative.

In collaborative systems, people share goals. In Wikipedia, that goal is to write the best and most representative neutral point of view article on a subject, in an encyclopedic style accessible to a general audience. You may have personal goals in addition to that (raising profile of women in science, for example) — but they must remain aligned with the group goal — they can’t supercede it.

In cooperative systems people are allowed to pursue wildly different goals, but are encouraged to do so in ways that can benefit the work of others. Blogging is in some sense cooperative — you pursue your own goals, but you publish in a way that makes your stuff easily quotable by others. The notation system that Kindle currently has, where I can see what Gardner Campbell highlighted is cooperative.

Federated wiki is cooperation dialed up to eleven. Or it’s meant to be.

But looking at the interactions and the confusions and stress that sometimes results, I’m starting to see a failing point.

Here’s the world as I imagined it. I publish an article on NLS. A bunch of people read it and put in their notes. Or just save it. I’m an attention addict, so maybe I immediately read the notes. But I don’t want to pull them back.

Why? Well, I read them, and some were good, But I don’t want to edit this thing every day. I’ll wait for some more notes to accumulate.

Other people fork my article and write their notes, edit their version. Some fork forks of forks. Each one is different. This happens over the space of weeks or months.

At some point I’m writing another article and I link to the NLS article. When I test out that link I see that there are a half dozen twins. I think, I should look at integrating some of this stuff and I browse the twins. and write stuff up.

This is my dream world, but there’s a couple of problems with this. First, we have cross-page item dragging, but it doesn’t create references in the history. So I am pushed to fork a version to get the reference, but all the versions are different, and forking destroys my own history.

This is a big part of the “catch-up” problem. If things get too out of sync it’s hard to put them back together while maintaining attribution. This can be fixed.

Harder to deal with is the different sort of environment our Happenings present.  In the Happenings we’re on the time-scale of hours, not days. It’s a sort of a “wikiswarm”, and it has the benefits and drawbacks of swarm behavior. So people all pounce on the same article at the same time.

That changes the dynamic dramatically. And I’d argue that it dials up the meaning of whether you get forked or not forked, or have your edits included or excluded. It certainly creates an environment where I feel I must stay on top of new edits, for the good of the tribe.

Possible Solutions

Some upcoming software upgrades (particularly a “history for paragraphs” upgrade) will make this much better. But the social issues remain.

It may be we need to encourage certain behaviors in Happenings that we don’t need to encourage in slow-cooperation environments. I’ve noticed that linking small articles out tends to work better than doing larger pages. When you create a small article with your additional idea, example, or data that idea stays visible even if the main article gets slammed with edits.

It maybe that we need to encourage “random article” behavior, to push people into editing the things that are not where the buzz is. We definitely need to get people to attribute less meaning to inclusion and exclusion of edits. The key is the long view.

At the same time, the “buzz” is part of what is addictive about the Happening. I have talked to so many people who describe just *dying* to get back to their computer to see what the Happening had pushed to the top of Recent Changes. That excitement is a powerful tool, and we want to preserve it in some fashion.


Anyway, lot’s to think about. Thanks to Frances for starting the conversation.

8 thoughts on “Federated Wiki, Slow Cooperation, and a Kindle Parable

  1. Thanks Mike. You won’t be surprised to hear I have a lot more to say (eg about that group goal issue) 🙂 but that can wait. I just want to reiterate a point that I tried to make in my post. I think that a lot of the forking away from the direction an article is taking (in the happening at least) is accidental. The stress of someone taking your ideas in a different direction is just life for grown ups but the stress of people losing track of the directions the article is taking is something else entirely, particularly for newbies. They aren’t making decisions then, they (we) are just lost.
    In the happening, I don’t think we signed up to a clear set of goals about knowledge building – we tried to learn and experiment – and in doing so we built a temporary culture and that’s a political and messy process, particularly when so many are uncertain of the technology.

    • Absolutely, and it’s my failure to deal with the accidental part here that makes it only a partial response to one part of your question. I think there may be some solutions to that, they are just fuzzy ideas at the moment though.

  2. Love the idea Kindle analogy, and it reminds me of when you check out an eBook from the library, and you see everyone’s notes who has checked out the book before you. I get really angry at library patrons who write on paper library books (it’s public property, people!), but I LOVE those eBook notes. They are often so weird and so unlike how I think. I find myself getting distracted by those comments in the best of circumstances. In a way, that focused distraction is what I love about the fedwiki.

    I haven’t had a chance to jump into the Frances Bell Fest you’ve linked, but I’ve read her post. Excellent, indeed–All I kept thinking about is how I forked and edited willy-nilly just to see what it looked like, and yes, Frances, you are so right that it could stress for newbies. But I think it can good thing. And the thrill of seeing people “swarm” or “change directions” was so exciting to me. People who witnessed me reading those changes really thought I had lost my mind! I would sort of bounce in my chair and giggle like a toddler. Then again, I wasn’t working on anything too serious with deadlines and consequences, so losing something wasn’t such a worry.

    I did take a screenshot of something that I really wanted to make sure it was intact the next time I went into the fedwiki, but that’s something I do all the time because I work on so many different computers between my personal and professional work. That was one time out of many hours. Otherwise, I didn’t really think about the lost history, and I’m not really sure why.

  3. Mike, do you copy/paste your notes/highlights from Kindle to someplace else? I rarely make notes in books as I’m reading them, but I highlight obsessively then copy them to one of my wikis. (As with my MemoryMachines page.)

  4. The more I play with SFW, the more I don’t like the forking model, which I think only makes sense when you’re trying to created some SharedMeaning. I think is usually makes sense to let people manage (and share) their own self-controlled SenseMaking.

    “Classic” wiki had SisterSites to support this. But it didn’t spread very far, and the MetaWiki service that used to support it stopped getting updated. http://webseitz.fluxent.com/wiki/SisterSites

    I built my own service which I then call from my WikiLog with JavaScript widgets (at the bottom of each page’s content, above the Disqus widget). But it’s based on SmashedTogetherWords, so it can’t handle SFW sites well at the moment. http://webseitz.fluxent.com/wiki/WikiGraph

  5. Mike, i soooo don’t want you to use the term “failure” to describe something that was so amazing. The most critical of us are also people who enjoyed it a lot, used it a lot, but kept thinking of how to make it better for how we imagined it could/should be used.

    My understanding from the start is that there isn’t currently a “neat” mechanism for keeping track, so i am unsure why this failure should be attributed to you in any way. With the affordances we do have, you helped us understand what the twins and journal were, and you made the conversation clubs.

    You’ve engaged us in discovering what the philosophy of fedwiki is and also constructing our own (v important to me not to have to follow someone else’d ideas of how to do it t to have space for my own way.)

    Buuuuut back to sthg Kate said earlier on twitter, the main thing is the process of discovering forks if we are interested in finding them, which is currently v messy and needs work. Also as Alan commented on Frances’ post, the issue of merging revision if you wanted is messy. Then we can talk about the politics… Coz that’s there, too 🙂

    Questions of scale r driving me nuts. It would look totally different at scale and i imagine it will take several medium sized happenings (like 50-100 ppl?) to get the feel of scale eventually. Different issues would arise, right?

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