The Five Elements of the Socratic Website

Brad DeLong has a perceptive take on what is missing from websites today. He is inspired I think by Vox.com’s approach to news, but his advice is also an excellent guide to some things we we are trying to do with the federated wiki project.

In a mock Socratic dialogue, DeLong has Socrates identify the three elements present on most websites and the two elements missing.

The three elements in broad use are:

  • The flowing stream: people value the new, and the stream allows one to see what is newest. We’ve talked about this here as StreamMode in the past.
  • The front-end cards: People need to be enticed into clicking on things, and to tell at a glance whether something might interest them.
  • The syndication: It has to be easy for items to appear in other clients, and in 2015 that means a syndication architecture to push to other platforms

But DeLong’s Socrates notes two elements missing from current websites:

  • A pathway to the past: There needs to be a way to resurrect and drive traffic to the articles of the past, which, if well written and considered, will eventually be relevant to other events. (Note: DeLong is famous for his “Hoisted from the archives” posts, which do something similar.)
  • A front-end grammar: There needs to be an implementation of the front-end cards that stresses information, and provides a useful summary (not just clickbait).

This is a good summary of the web in 2015 and also a good description of the trends that make federated wiki compelling.

We’ve talked about this a lot on the site, but blogs and wikis used to co-rule the web, then for various reasons blogging took off and wiki — at least public wiki — became a more niche effort. People claim blogging is dead, but actually the opposite is true — everything is blogging now. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Vox, the NYT, Time magazine. It’s all reverse chronology syndicated material, increasingly tied to a specific person’s point of view. Everything is a stream of endless, personal now.

Wiki, on the other hand, had different values. Wiki valued the timeless over the timebound, iteration over utterance, description over narrative. Wiki proposed that items be written for reuse and be applicable to multiple contexts as opposed to blogging’s let-me-react-to-this-day-alongside-you feel.

People think I am disparaging blogging when I talk wiki, and nothing could be further from the truth. I made my name blogging, first in political blogging and then in edu-blogging (god, that word is horrible).

My point is that there was a balance at one point between the original vision of hypertext (so nicely captured by wiki) and the engaging now of blogging. And we’ve lost that balance. We’ve lost that balance so badly in fact that the link — the fundamental element of hypertext — is dying a slow death. Links have become primarily a method of stream-sharing. The idea of a web that maps out a knowledge domain as a snapshot of our current thought instead of a stream of our current speech is relegated to Wikipedia and occasional references to the Memex.

We don’t have to throw away the stream. We love the stream.

But to run all our knowledge through an endless tube of now is a ridiculous endeavor. If we feel unmoored and occasionally shallow in our thinking; if it seems like a world that contained grand thoughts now is nothing but rhetoric, maybe it’s not that we are engaging with the internet, but that we are engaging with an internet that has relentlessly crammed everything into a blogging metaphor.

There is another way. For people not familiar with federated wiki, this article is a good place to start. Be sure to play the short demo videos — with the exception of one feature (backtracks) all that code is live and implemented already.

For people that do know federated wiki, perhaps now is the time to get an account? You can get a free one from here. If you alert me to your site in the comments I’ll add you to wikity.net’s “flowing stream” and you can have the best of both worlds, just like Socrates would have wanted.