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?