Friday, May 15, 2009

A new home

This project has a new home at There's not much to see there yet, besides the software -- an experimental git-backed variant of the UseModWiki engine.

The innovation is that it allows a branched history, and it also allows each person to customize his or her view of the wiki independently from how others see it. It's missing some important features (merge, delete, rename, and file upload are all missing, and I think there's also a technical issue which could cause versions of pages to get dropped after 30 days of inactivity), but it's functional and available for testing for anyone so inclined.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

First Move

Having done a little poking around, I've settled on a plan for the first change of venue. Three criteria: I like the wiki format, I like using a code base I can examine, and I like the idea of having someone host it privately. If we haven't got a new forum by the time I get around to it, my plan of record is to create a UseModWiki and find a place to host it.

I have an idea for the first technical project: separate the anonymous/non-anonymous people, so that visitors can choose which they want (the default would be non-anonymous). Technically:

  1. Find a wiki that uses file system storage, or modify one to do so.
  2. Use git behind the scenes to synchronize the versions.
  3. Use a cookie to loosely bind to a name. If you lose your cookie, you get shunted over to the anonymous variant until someone brings you back over.
  4. Use robots.txt to deny access by search engines to the anonymous version.

I haven't worked out all the details, but it seems like it might be a nice way to deter much of the vandalism with very little on-going maintenance.


Friday, February 6, 2009


The meatball wiki seems to be down. I'm still hoping that it will be back sometime, but until then I'm starting with wikipedia. I've finished reading the pages on virtual community and the deletionist versus inclusionist controversy, and before I dive into the community on those pages I'd like to record some quick thoughts:

"A 2006 estimate says that pages about Wikipedia governance and policy entries are one of the fastest-growing areas of Wikipedia and contain about one quarter of its content." -- strongly suggestive that Wikipedia is itself a self-aware community.

RE: "wikimorgue", "deletionpedia", and the inclusionist versus deletionist .
It all boils down to wikipedia's credibility. Wikipedia's credibility depends on drawing the line somewhere between what's in and what's out; and it's completely natural that this is a contentious issue. Given the binary nature of the "in or out" decision, I don't think there is a solution.

The section on the Learning trajectory gives me a chance to describe myself:
I've been mostly a lurker, and when I do step in I tend to aim straight for the Boundary (Leader) role.

The section on motivations and barriers to contributing is definitely worth reading. It seems right on target to me.

The reasons listed for lurking seem to apply to me (all of them): "getting what they needed without having to participate actively, thinking that they were being helpful by not posting, wanting to learn more about the community before diving in, not being able to use the software because of poor usability and not liking the dynamics that they observed within the group"

Reading the Wikipedia article on Wikipedia started me thinking about how to fix it. Some off-the-cuff thoughts, intended more as food for thought than as an actual suggestion of an implementation plan:

  1. Decentralize the policy decision about the criteria for inclusion and exclusion.

    1. Make a series of tags, such as "self-authored", "stub", "anonymous non-reviewed contribution", which could be attached to any article

    2. Make the debate about the applicability of any tag accessible to the casual user. For articles which have contentious tags, include a section of contentious tags with "voting buttons"

    3. Allow anyone to tinker with his or her own criteria for "belonging to the wikipedia"

    4. Allow anyone to publish selection criteria for use by others

  2. In the same way, decentralize the policy decisions for standards of correctness - allow individuals and organizations to create their own "verified by X" tag

  3. In an analagous way, de-fang reversion wars

    1. Split contentious articles into non-controversial and controversial sections

    2. Tag the differing versions of the article with the identity of the supporting parties

    3. Tag the reasons for disagreement

On the virtue of facilitating self-critique

One pattern which I see as commonplace in communities (virtual and real) is that, at least in some ways, critique of the community is discouraged.

I pointed out one non-virtual example in a comment to the Introduction, about a professor who made an honest and humorous comment about the way faculty meetings are run. I've heard this sentiment from many different academic friends, and have a strong sense that it is nearly universal, but somehow it's impermissible to voice a complaint about it. Everybody hates the way those meetings are run, but nothing ever changes because effective critique of the "blowhards" is taboo.

This is a self-critical community. That is to say, critique of this nascent community (or of me) is most definitely welcome. I'd eventually like to have some others within the community who are similarly self-critical, but for the moment I will speak only for myself.

I'd like to conclude with some advice:

  1. Critique is a double-edged sword: A clumsy critique can be wind up being more embarrassing to the speaker than to the intended target.
  2. I don't think there's anything wrong per se with, e.g., flaming -- provided that flaming is the most polite way you can express yourself on the subject at hand.

Community Building

I've decided to take 單中杰's hint and do some studying of the research that's been done on doing science online.

Nielsen pointed me in the direction of the meatball wiki, and I like what I've read about it so far, and so my plan is to do some online research there, commenting on this page when I come across something of particular interest.

Perhaps this page will be useful to others; if so, I'm hoping that one of us (me?) will find the time to distill the useful bits and either contribute them back to the meatball wiki or make a wiki of our own on the subject.

Other comments on the subject of community building (whether theoretical or practical) are welcome here.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Slashdot Rules

In preparation for a hypothetical future Slashdot effect, I'm preparing this post as a landing place for the hypothetical Slashdot readers who might come here in response to a story I'm contemplating writing and submitting to the Firehose.

The first instruction is that, for once, there's no need to RTFA. This site has some background information which might be of interest, but really the story says it all.

The second instruction is, "the discussion belongs on Slashdot". Feel free to read the articles and comments here (it's not necessary, but it does provide some background) but please don't post anything here unless you have a reason to prefer this venue to Slashdot. I'll be following the discussion there, and feel that the Slashdot moderation system is better-equipped to handle the volume.

The third instruction (assuming the first instruction didn't send you away) is RTFR. I would like to preserve a high standard of conduct here, and the flaming, baiting, and so forth that commonplace on Slashdot is not welcome here.

The fourth instruction is "make sure you have something to add". Take the time to read the previous comments, and only add yours if you feel your comment will advance the discussion. This could be as little as a better explanation of something someone else has said or corroborating evidence -- but it should advance the discussion in some way.

I still haven't decided whether or not to go ahead with the Slashdot post idea. Comments about the advisability of such a post or the suitability of this note as a landing point are welcome. My basic plan is to hold off on the idea, and if I go ahead with it to edit this article first in response to such comments or afterthoughts of my own.


What interests me most about Timothy Gowers' experiment, is massively collaborative mathematics possible? is that to my knowledge it's the first example of a collaborative effort that is collectively self-aware. To be a little more concrete, he began by proposing a set of 'rules of engagement', and the discussion began by discussing those rules. Every collaborative community has such rules, but typically they aren't actively discussed.

We have learned quite a lot about the human brain, and I like the analogy between an individual brain and the "collective brain" of a successful community. In this context, the idea of introspection is useful. People have learned to introspect, and on occasion they learn about -- and eventually change -- some aspect of their behaviour through introspection. In an analogous way, I think it's useful for a collaborative community to occasionally direct its collective attention to itself.

One obstacle to introspection is that it can be a sensitive subject. In every collaborative community of which I'm aware, for one reason or another, the topics about which introspection is most needed correspond closely with the topics which are 'taboo', e.g., prohibited by the explicit or implicit rules of the community.

I don't want to mention too many examples, for the reasons discussed above. Instead, I'll choose one: I think the massively collaborative mathematician is going to have to address the 'problem of the cv line' -- how are the people involved in the mathematically collaborative mathematician going to get credit for their work. I'm not convinced by gowers' proposed solution (make it all public, and leave it up to the outsider to sort it out).

I would be very interested to hear of other examples of 'self-aware collaborative communities', or to hear what you have to say on the subject.