I had a major realization this morning. But first, some background.
As you know, I’m making the case that we need to start using websites not just to *talk* but to *think*.
This somewhat overstates my case, of course — to talk is to think, and I wouldn’t claim differently. But talking via websites is just one way of thinking, and ignores many complementary options.
Wikity explores another way of thinking with the web. In Wikity you maintain maintain a series of “cards” in your own personal “library”.
These cards, when opened up, present a full page of content. They are structured for maximum reusability: an abstract of the content up top, a treatment of the idea, example, or data in the middle, and a set of references and cross-references at the end. This structure allows one card to serve many purposes.
Of particular interest, you might note how the references section is not just a set of citations, or links to other threads in a conversation, but is an attempt to link ideas together:
These cards can be written by you, but, more importantly, they can be copied from other people’s libraries. If you find a card that is interesting or useful you “fork” it in, and are able to edit it to your heart’s content, adding more data to it, cleaning up the synopsis, or, in most cases, coming up with new connections.
The Realization: A Broken Flow for Beginners
What I’ve been struggling with a long time is why the process of adding and maintaining this library of cards is so obviously useful to me, and so opaque to others.
The video below is long, and you don’t have to watch it all to understand the point I’m about to make. But if you skip through it you’ll see a straight up recording of my morning process with Wikity that I went back and narrated it (and sped up a bit too). And you’ll see the process of reading becomes totally different with it.
I find one article, but as I summarize it I’m connecting it to other ideas in the library, I’m finding gaps in the library and making up new cards, I’m reorganizing, tagging, and and expanding other ideas. This starts out as one summary of one article, but it ripples through the entire library. It gets you thinking about the article in a deep way that goes far beyond our usual knee-jerk reactions. By the end of the session we’ve drawn a relationship between this Facebook implosion in the article and the work of Clay Shirky, the death of the 1970s Communitree BBS, and the phenomenon known as the Fair Process Effect. We’ve dug into issues of League of Legends trolling and the psychology of shame.
Not bad for twenty minutes of writing and reading.
I wish I could make it as fun to watch on screen as it is to do. It takes a bit of practice, but when you engage in this activity it feels hard but good, like you’re pushing your mind to its natural limits. You feel like you are shaking a bunch of crud from your neural connections, engaging in a sort of thought that is fundamentally different than the see-thing-react-to-thing that Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr have trained us to do.
I’ve long felt if I could get people to feel that feeling, this idea of the personal, read-write federated hypertext library would sell itself, whether that was in the form of Wikity or Ward Cunningham’s Federated Wiki.
Today I realized one thing we’re doing wrong in Wikity. We’re starting people up in a new library with no books in it. You have to start writing cards yourself, or find others who have written cards and copy them. There’s an almost impossible level of bootstrapping there. You write your first summary of an article and there’s nothing to connect it with. That doesn’t feel so great. That feels like glorified social bookmarking, in fact.
What Would Vannevar Bush Do? (WWVBD)
This morning I remembered something about Vannevar Bush’s Memex, which remains (along with federated wiki) my major inspiration for this project:
The Memex did not ship empty.
Or maybe it arrived empty, but your first step as a user was to fill it in bulk. From the Atlantic version of the article:
Most of the memex contents are purchased on microfilm ready for insertion. Books of all sorts, pictures, current periodicals, newspapers, are thus obtained and dropped into place. Business correspondence takes the same path. And there is provision for direct entry. On the top of the memex is a transparent platen. On this are placed longhand notes, photographs, memoranda, all sorts of things. When one is in place, the depression of a lever causes it to be photographed onto the next blank space in a section of the memex film, dry photography being employed.
The memex is a place to record our own documents, and, as later detailed in the article, a place to get documents and connections produced by colleagues and neighbors as well, via the use of what Bush calls “trails”. But you don’t select the majority of your documents one by one. Your first step is to purchase works and put them in there. And, importantly, these documents are already formatted to make best use of the medium:
Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client’s interest. The physician, puzzled by a patient’s reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior.
And it’s from these works that the reader starts — not their own writing or the writing of friends:
The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together.
Now, I know all of this. But my assumption had been that the common record that people in Wikity would use would be the work available to them in the community (via the federation mechanism). They could fork what they needed into their site as they needed it.
But why begin that way? If the point is for the user to build a library of useful items, why not give them a head start?
Building the Textbooks of Tomorrow
On Wikity we have a process that sets users up by cloning an existing site that has documentation in it. But if we had content it’d be easy enough to clone a content site instead. Imagine when you go to start a site you’re presented with a dropdown of various subjects that you could import in to get started, curated and assembled by a company like Lumen Learning:
You select the starter library “Physics”, but what you get is not a traditional textbooks, but a web of content that you can use as starter material to build out your own knowledge web. We can even imagine there are two licensing options — you get the starter content free if you agree to share your own revisions and additions back to the community, or you pay five bucks to use it behind a firewall.
Then, when you read an article or piece of research on physics for your class, you build out your web and link your summary of the article on gravitational waves to a piece on whether astronomy is really a science if it cannot do experiments. If it’s a good and helpful link, people fork it, and if a lot of people fork it, a publisher takes note and includes it in the next version of the starter library.
How do we bootstrap something like this when there are no starter libraries? I’m not quite sure. I tried taking apart an open textbook a whole back and breaking it up into pages, and it felt like it didn’t quite make sense in wiki — it wasn’t built for the sort of dense linking and reuse that a wiki page is. But maybe with some work we could get there.
Ultimately the idea of the starter library is not that unique — copying entire repositories as a first step is standard in things like git, for example. But I think that combined with our more granular forking and editing architecture in Wikity that it presents a unique opportunity to redefine what a textbook or other reference work might be.