Categories
FedWiki

fedwiki as notebook and a style guide for the coterie

When I first started using a traditional wiki (c. 2002, I think), I mistakingly saw it as a form of wide-ranging publication – a hypertextual companion to the blog. I was looking for a universal notebook-cum-database; a one-stop shop for drafting, revising, and publishing; a elegant – because it was the smallest database that would work – hypertexual support system; the realization of Vannevar Bush’s memex and Ted Nelson’s literary machine. I thought of the wiki as a magic workshop: a place where I could collect and store and organize hypertexually my notes, commonplaces, links, and drafts; with a workbench space to assemble these things into more formal hypertexts; and the capability of publising those hypertexts in progress. A universal reading and writing and learning and broadcasting space.

Wikipedia not withstanding, the wiki isn’t a publishing medium so much as a medium for coterie circulation, something closer to manuscript circulation than world wide circulation of a National Literary Review. The wiki is a medium for neighborhood circulation of notebook-like works in progress, notebooks being closer to manuscripts than blog posts or PDFs or Word docs watermarked DRAFT.

I’m borrowing the idea of coterie culture from Laura Mandell’s recent monograph Breaking the Book. She sets coterie culture next to more contemporary print culture in order to highlight the meeting of scribal and print cultures in 17th and early 18th century England. Coterie publishing of small print runs circulated among a small group of readers “with the same expectation as manuscripts: educated, elite readers would write in them, correct them, modify them” (121). Sound a little like fedwiki? Breaking the Book is worth a read. (I could not find any good reviews of the book yet, so here’s a link to the publisher, Wiley Blackwell.)

I made the early mistake of identifying wikis wiith blogs. Blogs are a publication medium. They are written for and seek wide and anonymous distribution. A blog post is published and may be commented on, but it is more or less finished. But wikis are notebooks, continuously revised and adapted, and in fedwiki revised and re-distributed. As notebooks, they become sources for further work and distribution by other means, such as blogs.

Reconsider the memex. As Bush conceived it, the memex was designed for personal scholarly use and coterie distibution. The trails through memex libraries, as they were conceived, were not meant to be distributed as a set of bound texts distributed to anonymous readers. The idea was that the scholar would reproduce the microfich and hand around to other like scholars – mostly who knew each other. The small group would not need a detailed textual context because it would be a small group, a neigborhood. The NLS seems to have been concepualized in a similar scholarly group context rather than as a worldwide, anonymous mass.

So: a fedwiki as notebook.

Thoughts along this line are circulating in the fedwiki neighborhood as Fedwiki as Memex-Journal. The memex was designed to address the problems of wide dispersal of information and the index. As it’s being discussed on Fedwiki, the problem of integrating sources is being addressed with links to collections and notes on Pinboard, and the problem of indexing is address with RSS feeds and tags.

Along with Ward I imagine a Pinboard-ish community around the product. Sites would have a setting to say where they publish to — RSS feeds, Pinboard, etc. But there also might be a fedwiki specific community that provided better integration.

Wikis would also have certain tags associated with them, and by default would publish new material to feeds and community sites under those tags. Tags would help alert you to new wiki content from anywhere, consistently good wiki content would prompt you to subscribe to all updates of that wiki.

The distribution is not wide but takes place within a specific community surrounding a topic, discipline, problem, interest. Distribution of link trails is more rapid than snail mail but still takes place within a small group, a coterie. I think of these coteries not as pre-conceived audiences that are being passively addressed but as active publics that organize themselves around the content and interests of the group.

I like the name “Steno”. It conveys the notebook idea, but technically stenography is “narrow writing” (steno=narrow) which fits the idea of a collection of small thoughts connected. It doesn’t capture the networked wiki element, but I think that’s OK — it’s easy to say “Steno is your networked notebook”.

Once I have the notebook and coterie distribution in mind, the advice behind a style guide, like this one Mike Caulfield designed for Fedwiki, becomes clear. The guide lists the usually unstated practices of the coterie: the Fedwiki neighborhood.

First, abide by the general conventions of federated wiki:

  • Avoid overlinking
  • Minimize in-paragraph formatting
  • Where possible, write short paragraphs, with one idea per paragraph (to facilitate reuse and rearrangement).

Second, write primarily in a descriptive style. Wikity is less an editorial page, and more a sort of Hitchiker’s guide to the galaxy. Short articles based around a single idea, formula, concept, fact, or dataset are best.

As a notebook, fedwiki is not a reading but a writing platform. Material in a notebook is mined for use in other contexts, and smart practice (both for the notebook and the note taker) is to develop note-making habits that reduce the friction for collecting and mining. Links inside the notebook and outside the notebook take on a functional rather than an aethetic or rhetorical value. Prose chunked into short paragraphs make it easier to move around and circulate within the notebook – easier to assemble into constellations, easier mine, easier to add to. Bullet lists are less valuable than they might be in static publication; the idea of a notebook is to expand ideas, not reduce them to a set of bullets.

Categories
FedWiki Rhetoric

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? 

Categories
FedWiki Wikis

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].

Categories
FedWiki Pedagogy Rhetoric Wikis

getting a start on rethinking composing in fedwiki

The cat, her chair, and her greenhouse.

I finally made a start on Composing in FedWiki, with Rethinking Composing in FedWiki. The premise: FedWiki presents a rhetorical context unlike that of traditional, commons-based wikis. So it’s an opportunity to rethink some of the compositional moves developed for the traditional wiki.

I have two ends here. One is to make wiki writing more substantive than it has been in the past:

Years of watching thread mode discussions go on at Weblogs and Wikis and the advent of FedWiki as a distributed system has encouraged me to re-think the old ThreadMode into DocumentMode pattern of composing. ThreadMode is an inventional technique – a way of locating and trying out the ways that an idea might be constructed and a document composed. But documents don’t get composed; contributors stay in thread mode. The reasons are complex, I’m sure, but little moves forward in thread mode.

And a second is to explore what federated composing can bring us:

Because each contributor owns her own iteration of the fedwiki, she – each of us – is responsible for her own refactoring – her own development of the argument, her own dissertation, which lives with her. A set of notes won’t do in this case. For a page to become part of the linked federation, the [[Chorus of Voices]] (an idea forwarded by Ward and now picked up by the community), it will need to be discursive. Or, put better, those pages that become part of the community will be discursive rather than threads.

What I’m doing in Rethinking Composing in FedWiki is looking at both street-level techniques and rhetorical strategies.

I’m setting aside some of the patterns from traditional wiki writing (ThreadMode, DocumentMode, the WikiWord, the fallback use of bullet lists) for patterns more aligned with the distributed nature of FedWiki. Even the pattern of moving from ThreadMode to DocumentMode goes away for a move from Dissertation to Discourse.

That is, we move [[From Dissertation to Discourse]] rather than from thread mode to document mode. In Radical Discourse, we place partially- or wholly-formed arguments in meaningful orders. This can be done as a set of paragraphs on a page, or as a set of links and stubs.

A few things are lost: WikiWords as topics, for instance, is a loss because it serves as such a quick way of creating a linked page, a quickness and facility that the wiki was named for. But that quickness is a feature of the new rhetorical context I’m addressing in Rethinking. Yeah, being able to create and link nodes with little effort is good. But what goes in the nodes needs some refinement to be valuable to one’s federation. We were taking the quick-to-create-a-node idea into quick and easy to create content. Rather than outside research and serious drafting, we would go onto ThreadMode-like freewriting. Even formatting is implicated in the drive for speed: bullet lists instead of formed paragraphs. We worked with the idea that someone else would come along and tidy things up.

The aspect of the commons also gets in the way of creating commonality. We were trying to negotiate all aspects and points of view on one shared page – a rhetorically difficult and sophisticated task. That difficulty is really worth working thorough, but the wiki, with its emphatic speed and shared commonality works against the task. Contributors leave pages in pre-draft states – pages of notes rather that of arguments and propositions that can be further built on. We never really get to enacting or presenting the multiple points of view.

I’m thinking about a different way of thinking about software tools. A move from valuing them for their Ease of Use to valuing them for their Augmentation. Using a tool for the augmentation of intellect is not easy to do, and it’s not easy to learn how to do it. In augmentation, at the very least the tool doesn’t get in the way of doing something new. At best, the tool changes understanding. I’m not looking at FedWiki as a typewriter-like tool, where work is selecting from a finite set of signifiers, so much as a painter’s brush and pallet, where work involves conceptualization and reconceptualization. Yeah, it’s an art rather than a transcription (which a lot of ThreadMode tends to be: a transcription of commonplaces).

The significant change in the rhetorical situation of writing with FedWiki is a move from a shared commons to a locally-owned federation. This move changes how we handle multiple arguments and points of view. It doesn’t eliminate them, but it seems they have to be more fully formed than a set of notes in order to work with them in a federation. The federated model is, perhaps, a more accurate – er, useful? – model of how knowledge is distributed in both its commonality and difference than the commons-based model. It could be more fragmented than the commons-based wiki seems to suggest, but it could also be that the commons is pretty fragmented already but tarred over to conceal the differences. The matter that interests me is the dynamic of local construction and public distribution. Each contributor architects her own iteration drawn from publicly shared elements – right down to the paragraphs! – and places that iteration in public circulation. There are rhetorical possibilities in these circumstances that are worth exploring.

Finally, to consider is the wiki not as an end but a space of creation and composition. A few weeks of The Teaching Machines Happening, and the articles, ideas, and posts that are emerging from that Happening (Hello, Audrey) made it clear that FedWiki needs supplementing by way of a blog, email list, twitter, or some other commons. The FedWiki might become a working space, where material is re-mixed and repurposed, until it is brought out of the shop and distributed.

So: Augmentation, Federation, Distribution. We’ll see where this goes.