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 Hypothes.is 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. Hypothes.is 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.