rethinking threadmode – it’s not for fedwiki

SCRABrrRRrraaNNG. Filipo Marinetti. 1919.

I confess: I don’t care much for ThreadMode (aka discussion) in wikis. When I first brought the traditional wiki into the classroom, I embraced the strategy. I embedded it into our StyleGuide. I saw it as rhetorical invention – a way of collecting ideas to be developed further. I saw it as foudational to using a wiki: pages develop from threads to documents. Right? Right? Not right?

The idea behind a wiki is to collectively develop ideas over time, which requires that participants revisit pages, making changes and revisions as they go. They turn from readers one moment into writers the next. That’s the idea, anyway. And ThreadMode seems to serve that idea pretty well because it lets a drive-by user jump in and add something quickly. Other users, who are more engaged in the wiki or invested in a particular page, are supposed to then synthesize the thread into a DocumentMode, which is what we’re really interested in getting to. The movement is from ThreadMode to DocumentMode by way of RefactoringPages.

I saw ThreadMode as a way for students to safely and confidently add to a page without tinkering with the document mode. Users can be timid as they enter a new writing space. Adding a comment or a response to a thread seems like a low-threat way of entering the space. And I still see ThreadMode as a way of gathering alternative perspectives which are then synthesized into DocumentMode. The idea of synthesizing alternative perspectives, it seems, lead to proposing set of rhetorical patterns to guide that synthesis. Things like DialogueMode, DialecticMode, even YesBut and IfSoButOtherwise. The list of patterns isn’t endless but it can be tedious – for general use. Disciplines have preferred discipline-specific patterns for abduction and synthesis and it’s good practice to make them explicit. Like showing your work.

The problem is that too many pages on the course wikis I work with never get beyond ThreadMode. Some pages do. Some students are interested enough in what we’re doing that they step back and synthesize a document from the thread. I’ll do it when I get a chance, or when I want to demonstrate how it’s done. But many pages are a summary of that might be on the page, followed by loose threads of comments that could be useful, if someone want to use them. No one comes running out of the bushes calling, “Let me! Let me synthesize that thread into a readable, useful document.” The work is too hard, it’s easier just to skim the thread for the comments, and move on. Students are more likely to start a new page and draft a document (typically following Wikipedia) than synthesize an evolving document.

Students say they don’t like “tinkering” with another’s prose – in part because they don’t know what to do with it. I take their reticence as a rhetorical deficit: they don’t have the rhetorical strategies to synthesize the ideas of others into their own prose when those others are acquaintances. Doing so requires not just synthesis of content but the rhetorical grace to not piss off your sources. My mistake: When all you have is a hammer …

Bill Seitz brought some clarity to my thinking with this observation:

Giving your “friends” the power to edit one of your pages to have a Thread Mode discussion within a page doesn’t smell right, as ultimately you want to converge that page in your own Sense Making direction, therefore comments another person sticks in there tend to get wiped/merged/edited by you, creating tension/conflict between you and them. Wiki Web Dialogue

The dynamic between acquaintances – students thrown together by little more than taking a course – probably has something to do with the threadbareness of ThreadMode, but Bill’s observation suggests that I was getting hung up on the dynamic rather than looking at the location of the ThreadMode. The confounding stuff is right there in the damn page, getting in the way, materially and emotionally, making hash of rhetorical concentration. (Comp/Rhet people might re-read Elbow’s “Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience”.)

Regardless of the dynamic, the presence of ThreadMode can confound the act of sense making (composing the document) at the wrong moment. Better to get a full, synthetic draft of a document on the wiki and revise it later, by way of discussion or comments or feedback hosted elsewhere – not in the page itself.

Wikipedia handles the problem of collective writing by designating a Talk page, where a culture of negotiation developed over time. During the FedWiki Happening #2, the subject of having a separate space for discussion came up. We used Twitter and an email list rather than thread mode in pages. I recall noting then that FedWiki didn’t make a good space for discussion: given forking, the thread mode discussion got even more in the way than in a traditional wiki. (Fork, then edit out the discussion). We were thinking traditional, centrally located writing space (wiki, blog, news site) rather than a federated, distributed space.

I’d have to Just Say No to ThreadMode in FedWiki. But then the problem is, if we don’t use ThreadMode as strategy for invention, what might we use instead? 

how we might link

Cat considering the building of a henge.

Mike Caufield’s latest post about FedWiki reminded me to get my finger out and start thinkining about how we might link in FedWiki. I started to in an earlier blog post, so here’s a continuation.

First, a synopsis. Keeping links separate from the content has been a long-standing idea but rarely practiced on the web. As the web came into being, we started to add links to content in such a way that understanding the content becomes dependent on following the links. This is signaled by how we tend to embed links into the syntactic flow of sentences. So in my opening statement, I signal two directions for understanding by linking the phrase latest post about FedWiki. First, you can read on without reading Mike’s post and (probably) will be able to follow what’s coming next. But the link also signals that you’ll want to refer to the post I linked to if you really want to understand what I’m going on about.

Technically, the link is a deixis. It points to something not present that is necessary to complete the meaning or to extend the meaning. In this case, it points to something I don’t own. It’s Mike’s blog post, and it’s worth reading. The issue at hand is how I have embedded it into my own content.

This is the way we have learned to link, the way we have taught people how to link. “Embed those links, gang. Make them follow the sentence, but also write so that readers do not have to follow the links to understand you.” I’ll leave it to you to search for the web writing advice on linking, both hackneyed and sophisticated.

Wrong. As Pound wrote, “Wrong from the start – No, hardly, but, … ” (Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, if you’re interested.)

Mike reminds us, by re-considering Bush and Englebart and Nelson, that we can re-think this idea of linking in the text.

[L]inks as imagined by the heirs of Bush — Engelbart, Nelson, Van Dam — formed a layer of annotation on documents that were by and large a separate entity.

Links as conceived by Bush are separate from the document: annotations, trails, value added, paratextual … By being links, they specify that they lead to other material outside the immediate text, not material that is integral to the text we’re reading. That’s what the link means: this is an annotation, a supplement to what I am offering here.

This doesn’t necessarily make links merely suppplemental. There’s no merely about it – any more than the paratexts of novels or articles are merely extra. But it does place links on an independent layer. I want to explore this idea of independent in more detail some other time, but for now I’ll say that the document can circulate without the links an still be understood. The links add but the document doesn’t depend on them. By the same token, the links can circulate on their own and, very likely, mean something, if not the same thing as they do when circulated with the document. Paratexts.

For all the wonder behind the embedded link as links to sources, as Mike points out, the link doesn’t point to anything the author doesn’t already know. So, while the writer might point to a source, we’re still confined, even in the linked text, to what the author knows rather than bringing in something the author was unaware of, or something the author just doesn’t want to mention.

So you can link your history of the Polaroid ID-2 camera up to suit the engineering people, or to suit the history of corporate boycotts people, but you can’t set it up the links serve both without overlinking the crap out of it.

Upshot: For all the breadth the web and hypertext promises, it is still limited by single authors getting their stuff out there as their single perspective. To develop multiple perspectives in a single documenbt using links to other content would overload the text and send Carr into even more neuro-cognitive apoplexy. For the rest of us, it would just be really really hard to read. (That reference to Carr is an old-fashioned link: an allusion. It serves a rhetorical function in my post, arguing that what I’m talking about is not what Carr is talking about.)

The thing is, we’re not talking about just links here. It’s about the entire system of which the link is only one element.

To recap, even with links, the document will present “only one valid set of relationships, inscribed by the author.” Ok, so now we get to the core:

Federated wiki deals with this issue by keeping links within the document but letting every person have as many copies of that document as they like, with whatever links they want on each. It’s a simple solution but in practice it works quite well.

Think about that a moment. It means one person can fork and consequently work with three or four or howevermany versions of a document. There may be little point in keeping exact copies (but who knows). There may be a big point in keeping an original (as in the sense of the first version to be distributed). But it’s the other versions that make things happen.

I’m not talking extreme differences so much as potential versions of a document that can still be identified as that document.Mike’s version with his annotations. Ward’s version with some of his annotations. My version with some of Mike’s annotations and some of Ward’s, and some of my own. I don’t actually need to maintain three copies. The fedwiki does that. I fork Ward’s or Mike’s version to my fedwiki and adds what I want, move paragraphs around, add other stuff to create my own version. If I need to, I can see who added what. If the new version is going to depart too far from the one in circulation, I start a new document.

Here’s how it might look, and is starting to look:

In the newer style, content is kept fairly short, and fairly link-less. But at the bottom of the articles we annotate by linking to other content with short explanations of each link. … People seeing your links can choose accept or reject them. Good and useful connections can propagate along with the page…. as federated wiki pages move through a system they are improved, and that’s true. But the more common scenario is that as they move through a system they are connected.

As Mike suggests, it’s the federation that makes this style of linking valuable, with links accruing as the article circulates through the neighborhood. The design of the fedwiki page facilitates accrual. Each paragraph is a dragable object, which lets writers create an annotated link that can be placed into the stream of an article at any point. A few fedwiki style guide suggestions also help. Links to external content are created using single brackets, and the fedwiki style guide suggests these links designate the kind of content being linked to (blog, video, academic article). Links to existing fedwiki pages are created with double brackets and the exiting page can be forked to the user’s fedwiki. If the writer changes a page, the page is forked by the system so that a writer starts with a copy – her own copy – that is still connected to the other copies in circulation by way of the flags in the upper left hand corner of the page.

What we develop is a neighborhood.

Fedwiki starts look like a new genre, differentiated from other online text genres such as blogs, listservs, sms exchanges – and the more traditional wiki. The orignal wikis asks visitors to contribute to the common document. Fedwiki asks users to fork what they will and create a variation for their own purposes, as well as contribute to the neighborhood. This also means that using fedwiki involves a different set of social negotiations than traditional wikis. That is the subject for another time.

Fedwiki becomes a genre that operates not using multiple authors to create a common document but a chorus of voices each creating a version. Fedwiki starts to look like the place where those authors do their work.

Chorus stems from chora, and chora [khôra] is a potent term in my field of rhetoric, meaning, variously, the discovery of ideas, the space outside the walls of the city where ideas are born, or as a place of “emerging possibility”. Wikipedia will probably tell you all you want to hear. But if you want the most recent hubbub, try a paper by Michael Souders, “Khôra, invention, deconstruction and the space of complete surprise” [PDF].

What I’m reading 16 Jul 2015 through 22 Jul 2015

  • Beyond Conversation – FedWiki – “In the newer style, content is kept fairly short, and fairly link-less. But at the bottom of the articles we annotate by linking to other content with short explanations of each link. … People seeing your links can choose accept or reject them. Good and useful connections can propagate along with the page. I mentioned ages ago (was it really only November?) that as federated wiki pages move through a system they are improved, and that’s true. But the more common scenario is that as they move through a system they are connected.”It’s the federation that makes this style of article linking valuable. – (fedwiki annotation notetaking )
  • The Web We Need to Give Students — Bright — Medium – Audrey weighs in on The domain of ones own initiative. “And then — contrary to what happens at most schools, where a student’s work exists only inside a learning management system and cannot be accessed once the semester is over — the domain and all its content are the student’s to take with them. It is, after all, their education, their intellectual development, their work. – (dh d2l privacy )

What I’m reading 12 Jul 2015 through 15 Jul 2015

  • Technology Fails Plagiarism, Citation Tests – "plagiarism detection software is being unmasked as not as effective as using browser search engines." But with Turnitin, you don't actually have to read the paper. Maybe I'm cynical, but I'm thinking we don't trust our own judgements. But the better argument is this,

    "Both plagiarism detection and citation software are harbingers of the dangers of seeking shortcuts for teaching students any aspect of writing; spending school or university funds on these inadequate technologies, I think, is hard to defend, but the greater pedagogical problem is how technology often serves to impede, not strengthen our roles as educators—especially as teachers of writing. – (plagiarism fyw )

  • Fear and Loathing of the English Passive – Geoffrey Pullum – Pullum clarifies use of the passive in English. Makes one glad to be alive. – (grammar usage syntax strunknwhite )
  • Human Resources and Thought Control – Lingua Franca – Geoffrey Pullum – Another strike at the gramma and umbrage gang. This time it's a matter of getting a focus: Don't try to change the language – change the damn HR policies.

    "My point is that either it’s right to try to reshape people’s thinking by sculpting their phraseology or it isn’t. If it isn’t, then Orwell shouldn’t have been trying to manipulate our political perception through linguistic revision. But if it is, then HR people are not doing anything wrong by following Orwell’s example.

    You can’t have it both ways: Thought control through word or phrase eradication… can’t be uncritically regarded as right when Orwell does it but automatically condemned as wrong when your employer does it. That’s begging the question." – (grammar standards strunknwhite )

What I’m reading 26 Jun 2015 through 11 Jul 2015

the high summer turn, books, and a consideration of method

I don’t look forward to it, but the week of the 4th of July strikes high summer – the turning point of summer towards autumn. The green starts to fade, the wildflowers start to seed, and I have to get my fall book orders in and start some serious work on syllabi.

The bookstore asks faculty to get book orders for fall in to them by April – five months early. Lately, the request has become a demand as they try to set deadlines for book orders. If I know the course is ready, I try to get an order in during spring. But for upper-division clases, and classes that need revision, I use the first month of summer to re-think the books. If a book didn’t work in the last offering, I want to change it – and that means reviewing student feedback on the course that comes in after the course is over.

I changed books in three of four classes this semester. Tech Writing remains the same: Graves and Graves, A Strategic Guide to Technical Communication. For A&E, I’m staying with OUP’s So What? but have changed the target text – the text we’re all reading to see how scholarly argument proceeds. This year it’s Jenkin’s, Ford, and Green, Spreadable Media. It’s written in the scholary register that students in Argumentation are expected to use.

For the Comp Theory grad seminar, I updated to Villanueva and Arola, Cross-Talk, 3rd edition – not because it’s a better edition but because the 2nd is no longer in print. And I dropped Wysocki, et al, Writing New Media for a broader source book, Lutkewitte, Multimodal Composition. That was a sacrifice, but new media has moved on and a sourcebook provides a better starting point for grad students in theory.

I made the biggest change in E-Rhetoric. For the second time, I’ve dropped Stoner and Perkins, Making Sense of Messages for Longaker and Walker, Rhetororical Analysis. Stoner and Perkins is far stronger on method, but Longaker brings in more focus on rhetorical concepts. Cheaper, too.

I keep finding that undergrad students are not enamored by a focus on method. They want to get to the rhetorical concepts and use the ad hoc methods they have developed informally in high school and their first couple of years at college. It’s frustrating. I say, “Look, there’s a method to this madness, a set of practices your professors use to figure out what a text means and how it works. We don’t work by intuition. You can learn the method. It takes some practice, but it will hold you in good stead.”

“Nah. Let’s just start and you can tell us when we’re right. We learn video games by trial and error. Let’s try that here, ok?”

A focus on method lets us develop far more insightful and significant analyses, but the process is intially tedious, requring repeated close observations and close description before bringing in rhetorical concepts. So I’ve toned down the emphasis on method for the looser hit-or-miss approaches students are in the habit of using. I’ll sneak in method by way of exercises and illustrations of how to proceed. It’s back to correcting student making instant conclusions and moving away from the analytical terms of rhetoric to informal terms, but those corrections are how we tend to learn: by closer and close approximation. Anyway, I’ll remix a lite version of method from Stoner and Perkins and bring that in as How to Proceed. Scaffolding.

What I’m reading 21 Jun 2015 through 24 Jun 2015

  • 68% of Statistics Are Meaningless, D2L Edition – Told u so. the LMS has nothing to offer in analytics. Wake up, partner. "I can’t remember the last time I read one of D2L’s announcements without rolling my eyes." – (d2l edcrap )
  • Challenging MOOCs – "Rather, I worry that MOOCs will increasingly deliver all studies in a similarly “lite” version, that MOOCs will be unlikely to provide much critical analysis or equip students to develop any, particularly on topics where there are passionate feelings or entrenched opinions." – (moocs )
  • Richard Bartle on MUDs and British Snobbery – YouTube – Matt Chat 296 – How ideology – and not necessarily the dominant one – gets laced into design. Dr. Matt Barton, SCSU, interviews Dr. Richard Bartle, co-creator of MUD. The MUD as a place that cancels out accent: On the internet, no one knows you're a northerner, so you're free to become a wizard. – (DH design opensource semiotics )

What I’m reading 19 Jun 2015 through 20 Jun 2015

What I’m reading 11 Jun 2015 through 18 Jun 2015

What I’m reading 28 May 2015 through 9 Jun 2015

  • Re-imagining Twitter – Example of how making it complex changes its potential. There's nothing intuitive about categories and stories: they are social concepts imported to bootstrap connection. What they do is make contextual information explicit rather than implicit. That adds to what can be carried by 140 characters. Ease of use gives way to augmentation. The link to lowercase capital in the subhead of the article is both a prominent move and a declaration of alignment (calling attention to itself *because* it's in the subhead). If we make it more complex, more people will use it! – (augmentation twitter socialmedia socialpractices erhetoric )
  • What’s Your Algorithmic Citizenship? | Citizen Ex – A Chrome extension that records (locally) the physical location of the servers that hold the sites you visit. We have defined identity by place and origin. What happens when we become visitors? A DH project by James Bridle, co-commissioned by The space and the Southbank Centre. I'm in. – (DH identity geolocation geopsycology )
  • Writing, Unteachable or Mistaught? – – (comp_theory )