Tuesday, February 3, 2009


I'm hoping to start a discussion here modeled after the one currently taking place on Timothy Gowers' is massively collaborative mathematics possible?, with the basic goal of designing and creating a collaboration tool well suited to this sort of thing.

There's already a second post, outlining the initial ground rules for people who would like to take part. As with just about everything else about this project, they are a valid subject for discussion.

I've become aware of an increasing interest in large-scale distributed collaboration; the tools available do not seem very suitable to the task; and -- perhaps most importantly -- awareness is emerging that the collaboration tools could be better-designed.

There's a feedback loop between the quality of the toolset and the quality of the collaboration, and I have in mind a collaborative project designed to take advantage of that feedback loop, using its own product (the collaborative toolset) in the process of designing, coding, testing, and improving it.

This message is intended as an invitation for collaboration by any interested parties.

Three factors are important for any potential contributor to the project:
  1. A general knowledge of collaborative communities. Of particular value: theoretical knowledge of the factors which cause a community to succeed or to fail; experience with one or more of the successful online communities; and current active participation in such communities. Best of all would be experience managing such a community, especially(!) if it ultimately failed.
  2. Possession of any of the specific skills needed for the development effort. We'll need to do some coding, but there's a whole range of needed skills, including social engineering, cognitive psychology, human interface design, social network analysis, and so on. If there's a way you think you can help, you probably can. Even if you only want to use the fruits of our labour, we'd still like to get your input about what is required.
  3. I like working closely with people who know how to behave themselves socially. Translation: be nice or get lost.

Criteria for Success

  1. Health of the community

    1. reasonableness of the core people

    2. competence of the core people

    3. group social engineering

    4. usability of the initial platform

  2. Benefits to the community

    1. prominent exposure if we succeed

    2. opportunity to prove competence publicly

    3. possibility of eventual sponsorship of the effort

  3. Solving challenges (roughly chronological)

    1. management: cultivate awareness of the project

    2. social engineering: cultivate high-quality feedback

    3. design:

      1. lower barriers to participation in the community

      2. make it attractive, to attract participation in the community

      3. lower barriers to communication

      4. solve the "I speak when I want; you listen when you want" problem

      5. solve the "right amount of communication" problem

      6. incorporate and improve existing visualization and summarization tools

    4. thinking: anticipate and subvert monopolies

      1. democratize the viral network effect

      2. avoid leader worship

      3. facilitate branching & merging

    5. technical: the liquidity of trust kernel (described below)

Liquidity of Trust Kernel
The big technical challenge for the project concerns what I'm calling the liquidity of trust.

When someone participates in a collaborative project, they gradually earn the trust of their colleagues. Currently, this works very well for the people leading the project (e.g, Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, Pamela Jones, etc.,) -- the trust they have earned is well-known to the public, and it's easy for them to convert that trust into something of more immediate use such as academic prominence, paying jobs, etc.

It doesn't work so well for the people who play less prominent roles -- they establish the trust of the others within the community, but basically can't do very much to transfer that trust outside. This is especially problematic for the people who play supporting roles -- the system rewards flashy behaviour, but not the quiet, steady contribution.

I think it's essential in the long run to find an effective way to allow all kinds of trust (and distrust), established within one community, to be transferrable to another. This won't be easy, but I don't think it's beyond the capabilities of a carefully-constructed "super-programmer", and I won't be satisfied until we get it "just right". For this part of the project I also would like to quote djb: "I won’t be satisfied until I've put the entire security industry out of work".

For the time being, however, I think it suffices to commit ourselves to providing candid recommendations for people who contribute substantially to the effort.


  1. Tea Time -- the combination of the social and the mathematical hosted by math departments

  2. Slashdot (comment moderation system)

  3. Groklaw (massively collaborative community)

  4. Stackoverflow (explicit treatment of trust)

  5. GNU/linux (massive collaboration in a programming effort)

  6. EVE online and other MMOGs (casual social cooperation)

  7. Timothy Gowers' 'Is massively collaborative mathematics possible?' (functioning fine-grained collaboration)


  1. Daniel Mietchen has some comments on this project, and some useful links, in his blog entry

    Some points:
    1. The 'Liquidity of Trust Kernel' is supposed to solve the problem neatly described in one of his links.

    2. I favor using real names in most cases, but wouldn't want to insist on them.

    3. I too wouldn't rule out a wiki, either in conjunction with or in addition to this blog format.

  2. Priorities:

    1. Determining what features are most needed for close collaboration.

    2. Planning the "first bootstrap", e.g., the selection of the next technology platform and planning any required modifications.

  3. @njt

    The most pressing need seems to me the capability to "filter and relate" the bits and pieces of informal contributions according to everyone's personal tastes.
    No single "doctrine" will do because the doctrine IS what we are really looking after.
    Seeing how the Gowers experiment is already bogged down in nasty practical details (comments numbering, thread titles, overlooked remarks, etc...) I think the focus should be on customizable functionalities of the user interface.
    Something like the TiddlyDesktop appear to be a valuable basis, of course it will have to be beefed up to support permanent storage and multiple concurrent users.
    An old project of mine in which I lost interest might also provide a few hints (NOT any code alas, it's terribly "experimental") about using AJAX.
    As for storage of the "bits and pieces", instead of flat files or a vanilla database GIT seem to be an obvious answer, providing a sane basis for sharing and versioning.
    The principal benefit of a smart client side will be the capability to add finely tailored views (various kind of cross referencings and groupings) of the raw data as necessities will show up which cannot be anticipated.
    About what kind of cross references to maintain the ideas developed by Stuart Frazier Allen in "Abstract identifiers, intertextual reference and a computational basis for recordkeeping" also seem worthwhile.

  4. Community building is important.

    I think that I was wrong about the priorities above, and that in fact it's vital to put some energy into building the community now.

    To that end, I'm going to draft a letter to Pamela Jones of Groklaw, in the hope of attracting some attention from that project. I'm definitely hoping that this software effort could be useful to them.

  5. Kevembuangga has some good ideas (in particular, his old project is indeed a good reference, and I agree with GIT as the obvious eventual choice for storage). This is exactly the sort of information we're going to need to make the project a success in the long run.

    I'd also like to draw attention to some shorter-term considerations. In roughly chronological order, I anticipate the need to solve:

    1. The conflict between keeping low barriers to entry and keeping out the spammers. Right now, anyone can comment (even a spambot), and I'm definitely anticipating the need to change the settings to keep out the riff-raff. When I do, it will become a little harder for people to comment.
    2. A first-cut solution to the "filtering and relating" problem. At this stage, we have an easy first move, to another available platform which is superior in this regard. Even something as simple as Geeklog (which has threaded, titled comments) would be a big improvement. [ I chose blogger because it's both easy to set up and very good at interconnectivity with other blogs ]
    3. The selection of a sound platform in which to experiment with improved "filtering and relating" algorithms and methods. At the moment, the default platform for me would be Elgg.
    4. The design and implementation of some of those "filtering and relating" ideas.

    The basic approach I favor is iterative, paying enough attention to the longer-term considerations so we don't paint ourselves into a corner, and enough attention to the pressing problems that we keep moving forward.

  6. Community building is important

    Yes, but I don't see this as a short term priority.
    A community will form "naturally" if the work frame is attractive and it can always be added "on the side" of the discussion board proper with any other appropriate tool.

    A first-cut solution

    Much depends on the expected time scale of development, what is the point of creating a clumsy "sketch of a tool" which will neither allow to test interesting ideas nor be a sound basis for a finished product?

    low barriers to entry

    OpenID + captchas, spambots are indeed a plague and the Chinese spammers even use human "slaves" to pass thru captchas, but this problem will only show up much later when the discussion board(s) will be heavily referenced on the net.

    selection of a sound platform

    ANY existing platform will bring with it a lot of useless bells and whistles which will have to be supported, will interfere with the really sought for functionalities and will distract users from the main goal of organizing discussions.
    I would much more favor plugging GIT commits into a bare bones wiki/tiddlywiki via some AJAX hooks.

    those "filtering and relating" ideas

    What I was thinking about was a capability to add specialized plugins which would by themselves create extra links, references and annotations to the discussion texts without any user intervention by scooping up the whole content of a discussion for keywords, similarities, etc... this is where the experimentation on functionalities would take place.

    so we don't paint ourselves into a corner, and enough attention to the pressing problems

    I am afraid that you cannot have your cake and eat it too, you will have to choose between "grand schemes" and tinkering.
    I would favor "efficient" tinkering, Worse is better

  7. A very common failing of open-source efforts is that they tend to solve problems encountered by programmers, and to ignore problems encountered by other people.

    Another way of saying this is that they tend to skip over the requirements and design goals phase of a project and go straight to implementation. This is understandable -- most programmers much prefer thinking about implementation details.

    I would like to avoid these mistakes. For that reason, this experiment is 'community first', and I definitely want to involve a number of people who don't know much about programming in the discussion of what's most needed before we spend too much time talking about implementation details.

  8. I'm working on two posts. The first is easy -- it's a post to hold comments about implementation. The reason for segregating that part is to keep eyes from glazing over for the people who don't have the appropriate background.

    The second will take a little more time. Gowers' discussion is the first public collaboration I'm aware of that has the property of 'group self-awareness'. Another way of saying this is that it's a self-aware massively collaborative thinker. The planned title is 'Introspection'.

  9. There's an interesting Slashdot discussion, Web of Trust For Scientific Publications. I'm envisioning something substantially finer-grained, taking place on an individual comment level, but this sort of thing is exactly what I mean by the 'Liquidity of Trust Kernel'

  10. On the community-awareness front, I'm thinking of drafting an article for Slashdot, along the lines of 'Slashdot on Slashdot -- how to improve the moderation system and fix the annoyances'.

    I think it makes sense to finish the 'Introspection' article here first, and out of fear of the Slashdot effect (and the general rowdiness of that community) I'd probably want to tighten the comment policy first.

  11. Kevembuangga said, "I am afraid that you cannot have your cake and eat it too, you will have to choose between "grand schemes" and tinkering."

    I do have a "grand scheme" in mind (the LQTK), but think that we'll need a community before it's possible to really address it, and that we'll need to do a fair bit of tinkering in the process of building that community.

  12. I noticed a cool feature of Wordpress that allows me to illustrate a little bit of what I mean by the LQTK (LiQuidity of Trust Kernel):

    In a moderated blog, once a comment has been accepted, that author is given permission to post comments without further moderation. What I'd really like to be able to do is to say, e.g., "I trust 'blogger X' enough that when they accept a comment I'd like my blog to do the same".

    This is the problem. Solutions?

  13. I love the idea of building a better way for mathematicians and others to collaborate.

    Couple thoughts for now:

    - In terms of the "liquidity of trust" problem, could that not be solved using the Wikipedia strategy of keeping track of versions and rewarding people that contributed the most (perhaps with some way of measuring the influence on individual commits) ?

    - It would be interesting to see how far you can take the common set of open source conventions for developing software and see how that applies to developing theorems (I realize what you are interested doing is broader than just mathematics)

    - To solve the "filter and relate" problem you describe, you could think about a personalizable wiki, where you have discrete units, e.g. document, or sub-proof, etc. and those units can be shuffled, sorted, and filtered according to each person's desires.

    - I like the high level of ambition in this project but focus and clear roadmap for how to connect the first steps to the end vision will be critical


  14. Scott,

    In terms of the 'liquidity of trust' problem, I object to the 'one-dimensional' nature of a simple model like Wikipedia or like Stackoverflow.

    The defect comes because different people are good at different things. Some prominent open-source projects have run into trouble because their leaders, while being exceptionally proficient at many things, make poor diplomats.

    For this reason, I think some sort of multi-dimensional model is called for, with, say, 'good at solving debugging problems' on one axis and 'good at solving diplomatic problems' on another.

    As for the roadmap, the plan I have in mind is to explore and solve the 'liquidity of trust' problem. I imagine that on the way there we'll be sharing information about (and possibly using) some of the more interesting existing collaborative tools, and I imagine that one of the end products will be some sort of extension to the OpenID API, and a bunch of implementations so that we can use to connect the most interesting existing tools so that they work well together.

    What exactly does the problem entail, and what exactly is the solution being proposed? I'm not sure yet, that's for us all to figure out together.

  15. Hi Nathaniel,

    I don't disagree that the Wikipedia method is simplistic and has its shortcomings. I'm sure a more clever method can be developed.

    Building on other tools sounds like the right strategy. Will be interesting to watch this develop!

  16. A birdie told me to look at http://www.cmu.edu/joss/content/articles/volume8/Welser/

    It seems highly relevant at first glance, and I'll be studying it in more detail later today.

  17. To elaborate a little on the road map, I'm envisioning that this project might get into a kind of "non-monetary viral consulting business".

    The plan is to provide technical assistance to some of the other "massively collaborative thinkers", along the lines of finding simple ways of making their technology work better for the needs of their community.

    What we'll get in return is attention. This will be useful in a number of ways, not least that it's an excellent way of attracting people who are interested in participating in this experimental project.

    Gowers' project is one such potential "client", and Groklaw and Slashdot are also live possibilities in my thinking. However, there's no reason that we couldn't help out any healthy community which could benefit from assistance.

    Michael Nielsen corrected my ignorance about the prior existence of self-aware online communities in response to my question. He also mentioned the idea of writing a book about "write a book about online community-building". Here, I'm thinking more along the lines of building an online index and resource on the subject.

  18. RE: 'Liquidity of Trust'

    I found this through one of Nielsen's links :

    "I feel like such a fraud," she wrote on her profile. "Do you think dartmouth parents would be upset about paying $40,000 a year for their children to go here if they knew that certain professors were looking up stuff on Wikipedia and asking for advice from their Facebook friends on the night before the lecture?"

    Her profile featured other comments as well, including a dig at her colleagues: "Some day, when i am chair, we're all going to JOG IN PLACE throughout the meeting. this should knock out at least half of the faculty within 10 minutes (especially the blowhards) & then the meeting can be ended in a timely manner."

    ====== (end quote; I haven't figured out how do format it in blogger -- blockquote isn't allowed)

    This is the "dirty backside" of the liquidity of trust, the "liquidity of distrust". I think that messages of this kind (which had a detrimental effect on the professor's career when it was inadvertently made public) are vital to the health of a community, and that we'll need to provide appropriate mechanisms for the transmission of this sort of message.

  19. Organized crime comes to online gaming.

    From the article: "they could leverage that people trust this person and point them at various URLs, and those URLs will [ have malware ]"

    This sort of misuse of trust is corrosive to any community, and I think there's ample evidence that it's going to be attempted in any sufficiently successful community.

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