Is “The Web As a Tool For Thought” a Gating Item?

In instructional design “gating items” are items on tests which, if not answered or performed correctly, cause failure of the test as a whole.

As a simple example, imagine a driving test that starts in a parking lot with the car parked. The driving test has a lot of elements — stopping at stop signs, adjusting mirrors, smooth braking, highway merging, etc. These are all important, and rated by weighted points.

But none of these can be tested unless the student driver can release the emergency brake, place the car in reverse, and back out of the initial parking spot. That part of the test may be worth 10% of it, but it forms the gateway to the majority of the test, and if you don’t make it through it, you’re toast.

I’ve been thinking about gating items in relation to my work on Wikity. There’s a lot of ideas in Wikity that people don’t get, and they don’t seem to me to be hierarchical for the most part. This isn’t a sort of “you have to learn about averages before you learn about standard deviation” sort of problem. But I’m starting to think that there may be a gating item that is keeping us stuck in the parking lot.

What Wikity Is, in My Mind at Least

Let’s start by talking about what Wikity is, at least in my view.

Wikity encompasses, currently, a lot of ideas counter to our current web narrative. In all cases, it’s not meant to supplant current sorts of activity, but to maybe pull the pendulum back into a better balance. Here’s some of those ideas:

  • Federation, not centralization. Wikity allows, through the magic of forking and portable revision histories, a way for people to work on texts and hypertexts across a network of individually owned sites.
  • Tool for thinking, not expression. Wikity is meant as a way to make you smarter, more empathetic, more aware of complexity and connection. You put stuff on your site not to express something, but because it’s “useful to think with”.  By getting away from expression you also get away from the blinders (and occasional ugliness) being in persuasive mode comes with.
  • Garden, not Stream. The web today is full of disposable speech acts, that are not maintained, enriched, or returned to. Tweets, Facebook posts, contextually dependent blog posts. Consequently entering new conversations feels like sifting through the Nixon tapes. Wikity aims to follow the Wiki Way in promoting the act of gardening — of maintaining a database of our current state of knowledge rather than a record of past conversations.
  • Linked ideas and data, not documents. Things like social bookmarking tools, Evernote, Refme, and act as annotation layers for documents. But the biggest gains in insight come when we deconstruct documents into their component pieces and allow their reassembly into new understandings. Our fetish for documents (and summaries, replies, and annotations of documents) welds important insights and data into a single context. Wikity doesn’t encourage you to annotate documents — it encourages you to mine them and remix them.
  • Connected Copies, not Copies or Links by Reference. We generally have had two ways of thinking about passing value (e.g. text, media, algorithms, calendar data, whatever). We can pass by value (e.g. make a copy) or by reference (point to a copy maintained elsewhere). We’ve often defaulted to Links by reference, because of the strengths of that, but as web URLs deteriorate at ever faster rates, a hybrid mode can solve some of our problems. Connected copies learn from GitHub and federated wiki: They are locally owned copies that know about and point to other copies, allowing for a combination of local control and network effects.
  • A Chorus, not a Collaborative Solo. We tend to think of collaborations being, at their best, many people tending towards one output. Collaborative software generally follows this model, allowing deviations, forks, track changes and the like, but keeping the root assumption that most deviations will either die or be adopted into the whole. For some things this makes sense, but for others an endless proliferation variations and different takes is a net positive. Wikity tries to harness this power of proliferation over consolidation.

These ideas aren’t mine. They are pulled from giants of our field, people like Ward Cunningham, Jon Udell, Ted Nelson, Vannevar Bush, and Doug Engelbart.

But while they are my entry points into this, most don’t seem to be a great entry point for others. They form, for most people, a confusing collection of unrelated and undesired (or only faintly desired) things.

This is sad, because using Wikity and Federated Wiki has been life-changing for me, giving me a vision of a web that could more effectively deliver on its goal of augmenting human intellect and understanding by rethinking what web writing looks and acts like.

The Web As a Tool for Thought, Not (Just) Conversation

What I’ve come to realize is while “Web as a tool for thinking, not expression” is not foundational to the other concepts in a normal sense, it acts as a bit of a gate to getting their relevance. If the web is (just) conversation and collaboration, then

  • Why would you want copies of other people’s stuff on your site?
  • Why would you care about the chorus? (If it happens great, but your job is your solo, right?)
  • Why would you post ideas and data that are not embedded (and welded to) the argument you wish to make and presumably win?
  • Why would you manage and update past speech acts to be less context-driven (Garden) when you could just make new speech acts for a new context (Stream)?

I think you can probably talk about federation and copies and linked data separately, but it’s difficult to get to those parts of the conversation if the vision of the web is “how do we talk and share things with one another” instead of  “how can this machine and network make me smarter and more empathetic?”

Conversation is one way that can happen. But there are so many other important ways to use networked knowledge to think and feel that aren’t “I’ll say this and then you say that”. In fact, I’d argue that the web at full scale is not particularly *good* at conversation, and our over-reliance on “My site/feed/comment is my voice” as a metaphor is behind a lot of the nastiness we get into.

And as I think about it, it’s not just Wikity/Federated Wiki that struggles with this. is an annotation platform that could alter the conversational paradigm, but what I see people using it as (mostly) is a form of targeted commenting. In this case, understanding the web as a tool for expression is not gating the adoption of the tool, but may be gating people using it to its full potential.

Jon Udell has recently started to push users towards a new understanding of annotation as something other than comments. And what he says, I think, is interesting:

Annotation looks like a new way to comment on web pages. “It’s like Medium,” I sometimes explain, “you highlight the passage you’re talking about, you write a comment about it, the comment anchors to the passage and displays to its right.” I need to stop saying that, though, because it’s wrong in two ways.

First, annotation isn’t new. In 1968 Doug Engelbart showed a hypertext system that could link to regions within documents. In 1993, NCSA Mosaic implemented the first in a long lineage of modern annotation tools. We pretend that tech innovation races along at breakneck speed. But sometimes it sputters until conditions are right.

Second, annotation isn’t only a form of online discussion. Yes, we can converse more effectively when we refer to selected passages. Yes, such conversation is easier to discover and join when we can link directly to a context that includes the passage and its anchored conversation. But I want to draw attention to a very different use of annotation.

Jon’s absolutely right — it’s really tempting to try to approach annotation as commenting, because that’s a behavior users understand. But the problem is that it’s a gating item — you can’t get to what the tool really is unless you can overcome that initial conception of the web as a self-expression engine. Otherwise you’re just a low-rent Medium.

The first, biggest, and most important step is to get people to think of the web as something bigger than just conversation or expression. Once we do that, the reasons why things like annotation layers, linked data, and federated wiki make sense will be come clear.

Until then, we’ll stay stuck in the DMV parking lot.




22 thoughts on “Is “The Web As a Tool For Thought” a Gating Item?

  1. I truly recognise the stuck in the parking lot feeling. And I am currently teaching a 17 year old to drive, so this is not an entirely metaphoric experience for me.

    For me, the concepts are all clear. I have no trouble at all with the concepts. Federated wiki was life changing for me too, but then to my surprise didn’t persist as a way of thinking.

    So I want to disentangle expression from persuasion, and say that if we think in language, then the form in which we think matters profoundly. Expression of thought is thought.

    I’m curious to know if you’ve seen any patterns in any feedback you’ve had on the user experience?

    For me, Slack suddenly swam into focus when I had both a practice for it and a group sharing that practice that made the technicalities of Slack itself quickly become habitual. Reflection on this I think what Slack did to make this easy was a highly functional app.

    So I’m thinking about a practice for Wikity that would help me test some things with others, to see if I could get over my own obstacles.

  2. So I went back into Wikity, found my car in the car park, and I felt my teenage self right back in that primary technical confusion that you aptly describe as a gating item. Wait, which is reverse? Which hand down? Figured it out slowly, by practising.

    But mostly, the issue for me is still the same one I’ve had all along, that outside the car is foggy. Where am I? Where are other people? Who left all these notes here? Who is this intermittently first person writer, if not me, and yet no one else? How did I get there? Why can’t I get back there? I get that these are entirely unfair questions for you, because if I just allocated a week I could totally figure it out.

    The thing is that with social tools and with students we don’t always get that week. So I was really interested to notice yesterday that Slack is hiring people to look specifically at onboarding UX. What happens when someone first tries a new thing, or returns? How easy is it for them to wander in with confidence and not just walk away.

    The other thing: since FW you have been scrupulously opposed to authorship and I find myself wondering whether the social weave isn’t itself a vital part of expression. As I’ve been guiding new student users to Twitter I’ve noticed that it’s the social fabric that’s kept them there — connection to more experienced users, persistence, welcome, hospitality. (This is a note for Frances who may wander by. We are both now thinking again about hospitality in design.)

    Somewhere I remember you saying something about paths, and I think I can see how that’s working linearly, but can I somewhere see intersecting paths, or not yet? Again, this is me and the social web, just wanting to see how someone comes across the path and sets off differently is part of the practice of thinking. Could path locations somehow tag posts?

    Also, since I’m in stalled in my car and banging on the horn like a true teenager, is there a web browser button? This was totally what got me over my onboarding to Pocket.

    Thanks for your great work on Wikity, Mike, it means a lot to many of us. I’m a fan, and a believer, and an evangelist-on-standby. But you’re right, I’m also stuck in the car park, and I hope this experience is somehow useful for you to know.


    • I can’t speak about wikity as, though I’ve created an account, I haven’t done anything with it. I would like to have a go though:) As Kate said, she and I were talking about hospitality and technology so I dug this out
      From my experience on fedwiki ( that I loved with a passion), I’m afraid that I was interested in authorship in that I wanted to know who contributed something that interested me. What I loved was writing alongside other people but I did like to know who they were and maybe converse with them.
      Maybe a part of my reluctance to ignore authorship is the number of times I have seen women and others erased from idea formulation All the other times I have seen a technology put forward as democratising or somehow ‘better’ ( and maybe that isn’t what you are saying – apologies if so) it just isn’t without a great deal of human effort and that can require communication. A technology can be designed with great potential for improving the status quo but still appropriated for other purposes, sometimes unintentionally.
      I think that maybe I am missing what you are meaning Mike. Is it about types of knowledge?

      • In most cases — Jupyter, Wiki, Desmos, Wikity, and maybe, it’s about this idea that instead of trading arguments we can trade “models of our understanding”. Technically, I suppose conversation is one way of doing that. But it’s just one vein of capability in a rich array of options.

        As far as erasure, yes, it’s a worry. But you’ve coded before (and may be still) — you know that when you look at code that a dozen people made that there’s not much concern about who added what line — and I think that in Wiki used a certain way that’s how it should be. That’s how we are in conversation as well — even in this reply I am relying on so much I have learned from others without citing them. Citing is a bit like tipping in my mind — when it is done sporadically it is horribly unfair, but when it is banned entirely things are often better.

        That said, the Choral Explanations stuff I’ve been working with preserves attribution at the center, because the sense is that the type of perspectives it embraces benefit from knowing the nature of the speaker. So it’s not religion with me.

    • I guess I really don’t care that there are no people in it. It seems to me it’d be nicer if there were people in it, but it’s not really required.

      For me, it’s increasingly the Memex, an augmentation I use for thought. I get a bit frustrated now when I go and type a word in and realize I never added an article I thought I did. There was a moment of that today — “cocoon of familiarity” — felt sure I’d captured it, linked it, summarized it. Nope. Heart sinks.

      Having others in it would make it much more powerful, but it’s not really necessary. I think starting from that idea gets the car backed out right.

      • I think for me the life-changing part of FW was that I learned by linking to what other people were working on, so it was an inherently collaborative practice.

        To me it’s like the rummaging that goes on at a market, but every time you pick up a curio, you make a magical copy of it that you get to walk away with. I think I learned so much because I was watching the people at the market, and seeing the collections of things they picked up and associated with other things. Or watching the things, I could see all the people who picked them up, either way.

        It feels like this is where it caught me. People and ideas.

        But I want to have another turn at trying it by myself to see what chains of ideas I can come up with by myself.

      • I think the BookmarkingOutLoud/NoteBooking/CommonplaceBook is a good entry point to the process, esp if you (a) keep highlights/excerpts, and (b) link to your own existing nodes, and (c) link to your future nodes. (This comes back to having plenty of vanilla nodes, like for names of people you quote a lot, that are mainly connective to other nodes.)

        Those vanilla-name nodes also are more likely to then match TwinPages in other peoples’ spaces than a name like “Silicon Valley’s Blank Slate”. On the other hand, my bookmarky-datestamp-names are totally useless for matching across spaces, too. So I think a rich space needs a few different types of names/nodes, for maximizing the fractal dimension of both the local space and the interwiki.

      • Kate — I think the collaborative piece is lovely, and important. But what I learned from those experiments is if you build the collaborative piece without laying a platform of personal solitary practice, the fire will burn itself out. We got the collaborative practice because it was actively organized — it’s a good fit for things where you’re going to actively organize practice, but it takes a lot of effort to maintain, and I don’t have a marketing department or time to run a class.

        I have done federated wiki and Wikity in classes and made it work, and others could too. It’s not really hard, it’s just *time*, which is frankly worse of a problem than “hard”.

        Bill — I do listen to the issues you raise about titles. But the thing is I really don’t want to prematurely categorize the Silicon Valley story. For me, I could see that as belonging to five or six different pages:

        * Institutional Gridlock
        * Politics of Silicon Valley
        * Technocracy
        * New Money vs. Old Money
        * Solutionism

        I want to title that page and keep it small enough that I can access the story at this multi-nodal level. I find that helps it bump up against more things for me and helps it stay linkable.

        I agree this introduces a problem with findability, but I wonder if that’s maybe a solvable problem with categories or search algorithms.

      • You speak of “categorizing” as though there’s a small limit, which is the artificial scarcity that wiki as simple-hypertext-gardening explodes.

        So, if I were you, I’d keep the current page as-is, make a SiliconValley page to link to it (and other pages you already have about it), then inside link back to SiliconValley plus those other “category” names you mention, even if they don’t exist yet.

      • I’m replying to your comment about “But what I learned from those experiments is if you build the collaborative piece without laying a platform of personal solitary practice, the fire will burn itself out.” That element of personal solitary practice was something I loved about my FW experience and I still intend to set up my own fedwiki when I can do that at Reclaim. But I also feel a bit the same about blogging. I love my posts that attract no comments because they’re still there for me to go back to later. And I love it when I get comments that help me shape my ideas and maybe those of others.

  3. Mike,

    Reading your post and the comments has me thinking about two things. First of all, your keynote a few years at NW eLearn helped me figure out why I was growing dissatisfied with the rigidity of instructional design. Ah the gating item! Thanks for the reminder. What a crappy way to trick and discourage students with assessments from the onset. It sets up a certain percentage of students to fail from the start. I find the driving school description helpful for those wrapping their minds around federation, and it’s a good framing device. However, this type of writing and thinking is more like learning to ride a bike. Maybe it’s the anti-automobile bike advocate in me, but I wanted to share that if I had time to fork this blog into wikity, I’d use a bike a metaphor for wikity.

    I’m getting a bit bloggy here, but here are some other connections for me–the car represents the stream, if you will, and the bike is the garden. Riding a bike is hard to learn but then it’s so easy and simple to use. The current web is all of us stuck in traffic in individual cars whereas I see the federated wiki–in all of its iterations–as a bike share.

    Secondly, I have to echo Kate’s statement about the federated wiki changing my life. Yes! It’s always difficult to explain but it was a combination of factors. The topics we discussed, the combination of people in different time zones, and the pure open heart of the folks who were willing to create a hospitable design for thinking together–frankly I miss it. I wrote a lot of really awful stuff in all of the iterations I participated in, but it’s also some of my best work on the web. So like Kate summed up brilliantly, I’m “an evangelist-on-stand-by.” Always.

    Thanks for keeping on it,

    • Alyson, if you get bloggy about the rigidity of Instructional Design, would be interested in hearing you out.
      (Wrote my comment before reading yours. The fact that we both ticked at the rigidity of ID is very reassuring, to me. Until today, Saul Carliner (who teaches ID at Concordia) was the only other person in my network who had explicitly addressed this issue.)

  4. A bit ambivalent about this post.
    On one hand, appropriating the Web as a thought instrument probably is a core value identifying some of us as “likeminded”. Perhaps unwittingly, it has a lot to do with what united non-Chomskyan language scholars for fifty years. (It took that long for our dear Noam to grok that language is a tool for thinking; we’ve been telling him for decades but did he listen? noooo! As with most people at the top of a hierarchy, Chomsky had a hard time hearing what was so obvious to many.)

    On the other hand, the “gating” analogy may fit a bit too tightly in the binary model behind most ideologies. For those of us who are quite critical of Instructional Design, the tendency to guide learning in such a rigid flowchart often goes with so linear a view of knowledge as to be reductive. The analogy works, but it triggers very specific reactions, at least in me.

    Now, there’s something about core beliefs. Jon’s tweet addresses some of this.

    Those of us who think through the Web can construct thoughtful things (in parallel or together) via the Web. It’s less of a necessary condition (that we all agree with a specific premise of the Web’s value) than an invitation to build knowledge in relatively new ways.

    Your stated disenchantment with Web conversations needs not be an obstacle for our work together. Those of us who cherish the insight derived from online conversations (including on the Web) are also able to appropriate the Web into something which is “good to think”, as Lévi-Strauss said about food items.

    As you draw the lines of exclusion, a necessary process, conversational uses of the Web can limit your sphere of agency unnecessarily. That’d be a tad bit counterproductive.

    • I don’t really defend the use of gating items I think — in my mind, at least, the idea of gating items is just a way to think through the question of “Should failing this really cause failing the test?” It’s interesting to me that gating items are much more likely to occur in authentic contexts than inauthentic contexts, I think the thing the relatively recent terminology has given us in ID is a way to spot unintentional bias is supposedly “authentic” tests. The main use I’ve seen of the term is “Um, you realize that’s a gating item, right? Is that really what you wanted?”

      What brought it to mind for this post is simply that you sometimes find these unintentional bottlenecks — in your mind things are organic and inter-networked and equally weighted. But in reality the nature of how people proceed through your environment is that getting to most of the ideas requires getting one. Just as in authentic assessment, that’s a problem, and you have to deal with it.

      People also tend to think I’m dissing conversation. I’m really not. Until I became more known in open education my main claim to fame was running a large online political community. The chances that the conversational web — with its 24/7 parade of expression and dialogue — is in any danger of disappearing is nil. On the other hand, I’d say that the use of “web as a tool to think with” was actually more prominent 15 years ago than now — and now seems a foreign way of thinking to many people. Facebook, for example, doesn’t even allow links in text….

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  7. I keep seeing individual annotations inside of federated wiki and then helicoptering out to 10000 feet and being dumbstruck at how much the vision below me is like a mind with neurons firing.

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