A Mommy Blog Worth Following

My friends, Greg and Elizabeth, had their first child last month, a baby girl. It was a good thing, too, as Greg has been insufferable about Boston sports recently, and I was seriously considering downgrading him on my friends list. In addition to saving our friendship, their new daughter was responsible for another very good thing: Elizabeth started blogging. Now the rest of the world can see what her friends already knew: She’s an amazing writer. I don’t typically count mommy blogs among my regular reading material, but I’m constantly amused and touched by Elizabeth’s stories. Plus, she occasionally pokes fun at Greg, a quality I’ve always heartily approved of and hope to see much more of. Take a look; it’s appropriately named 4 AM Feeding.    (MSA)

barx: A Ruby XRI Resolver

Last month, Victor Grey and Kermit Snelson announced barx, the first full implementation of the XRI 2.0 draft specification (working draft 11, for those of you keeping track). I finally downloaded and started playing with it tonight; it’s very nice. Most OpenID implementations are using a proxy hack to support i-names, but as real XRI implementations start to come out, we’ll start seeing many more interesting applications.    (MS5)

I’ve started to port barx over to Perl and will hopefully have it completed by IIW next week. Yes, I’m coding again. I’ve been sitting on a slew of year-old ideas that need to get implemented, and I’m tired of being a preacher instead of a do-er (at least when it comes to code). It’s against my instincts, and I don’t have enough of an audience to leverage the Lazy Web.    (MS6)

Besides, I was starting to miss it. Over the last few years, I’ve built a reputation as someone who knows a bit about collaboration, not just about tools, and that’s been really gratifying. It’s also helped me feel okay about reminding people that I still know a bit about tools as well. Plus, a lot of things have been stoking the fire recently. I was managing the HyperScope project last year and the Grantsfire project this year, both of which are conceptually and technically interesting. I never stopped reading code, and a lot of my friends are developers. What really kicked things into gear for me, though, was stepping in as an emergency developer for Grantsfire and watching Linus Torvalds‘s git talk.    (MS7)

I started playing with a bunch of ideas at once, but I’m focusing on Grantsfire and the Digital Identity stuff now. Stay tuned, and if you want to hack with me over the next few weeks, either face-to-face or remotely, ping me.    (MS8)

Tools and Culture

Tools reinforce power relationships. If you want a more emergent power model within a group, you have to make sure your tools support that. Git is a beautiful example of how a tool can support the right power relationships.    (MRK)

However, just because a tool has affordances doesn’t mean people will pay any attention to them. Linus Torvalds alluded to an example in a software development context: Giving everyone commit access to a centralized repository. He refers to this happening in companies, but there’s precedent for it happening in Open Source communities as well. For example, TikiWiki gives commit access to anyone who asks. The underlying philosophy behind this policy is very Wiki-like: Empowering everyone to make things better offsets the risk of giving everyone the opportunity to screw things up. By not imposing a power structure, the right model can emerge.    (MRL)

In the case of git, the tool explicitly supports an emergent power model. In the case of the TikiWiki community, the tool’s inherent model is overridden by the community’s culture.    (MRM)

What can we learn from this? Tools have the potential to transform culture, but transformation never comes easily. In the Wiki community, the classic case of this is when users email an administrator about a typo in a Wiki rather than fixing it themselves. We in the Wiki community use this behavior as a leverage point to explain that they have Permission To Participate and can change the content themselves. Once people start modeling this behavior, transformation becomes a possibility.    (MRN)

When I saw Michael Herman last month, we talked about how tools do and don’t encourage emergent models of behavior and how often we need to catalyze this process by other means. Michael brought up the phenomenon of a few people gathering at a circle of movable chairs, then sitting on opposite sides of each other with many chairs between them rather than moving the chairs they needed into a tighter circle. Even though the environment was adaptable, people chose to go with the default rather than optimize it for their needs.    (MRO)

I saw a similar phenomenon a few weeks ago at TAG, where I sat in on Eugene Chan, Lucy Bernholz, and Suki O’Kane‘s session on Web 2.0 and philanthropy. They had a very interactive design, which in the context of TAG (a very traditional conference format for a very conservative community), was highly unusual. They kicked things off by doing a spectrogram.    (MRP)

https://i1.wp.com/farm3.static.flickr.com/2197/1914433901_f1acf95cf8_m.jpg?w=700    (MRQ)

Not only did this establish a sense of self-awareness and Shared Understanding among the participants, it also got people moving (and laughing), which was especially important since the session was right after lunch. Without saying anything, it was clear that this was not going to be your traditional talking heads session. Smart, smart, smart. Then they led a discussion. They gave people Permission To Participate by explicitly setting expectations, catalyzed the discussion by asking broad questions, then held space and exercised self-restraint whenever there were awkward silences. Again, very nice.    (MRR)

But they also did something dumb. Look at the space:    (MRS)

https://i2.wp.com/farm3.static.flickr.com/2296/1915270732_369c6fa3e3_m.jpg?w=700    (MRT)

Whereas the leaders of the session were saying, “Please talk! Participate! Learn from each other!”, the space was saying, “Look at the leaders! Keep quiet! Check your email while pretending to listen!” And the space was really, really loud, much louder than the leaders.    (MRU)

In fairness to Eugene, Lucy, and Suki, it would have been a major pain in the rear to rearrange the space, and there were strong disincentives to doing so (specifically, the wrath of Lisa Pool). But space makes a huge difference, and even super smart people don’t account for this as much as they should. Even people who are in the business of collaboration and are constantly preaching about this sort of thing (i.e. me) make these mistakes all the time. Old habits and thinking die hard.    (MRV)

The online tool space is rampant with these examples. How often do you see Wikis where the “Edit this page” button is impossible to find?    (MRW)

Tools can encourage or discourage certain types of behavior, and it is in our best interest to choose and adapt our tools to encourage the behavior that we want. That’s not always enough, but it’s generally a good start. Eliminating obstacles can be as much of a catalyst as a good kick in the pants, but a combination of both is even more effective.    (MRX)

Imposed Stupidity, Emergent Intelligence

In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams wrote:    (MR5)

The major problem — one of the major problems, for there are several — one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.    (MR6)

To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem. (278)    (MR7)

I recently watched Linus Torvalds‘s talk at Google on git, the distributed version control system he wrote a few years ago. There are a bunch of gems in his talk, and it’s well worth watching. My favorite had to do with git’s views on decision-making in Open Source communities:    (MR8)

Maybe you don’t have this issue inside a company, but we certainly have it in every single Open Source community I’ve ever seen that uses CVS or Subversion or something like that. You have this notion of commit access. Because you have a central repository, it means that everybody who’s working on that project needs to write to the central repository. Which means that, since you don’t want everybody to write to the central repository because most people are morons, you create this class of people who are ostensibly not morons. And most of the time, what happens is, you make that class too small, because it’s really hard to know if a person is smart or not, and even when you make it too small, you will have problems. So this whole commit access issue, which some companies are able to ignore by just giving everybody commit access, is a huge psychological barrier, and it causes endless hours of politics in most open source projects.    (MR9)

If you have a distributed model, it goes away. Everybody has commit access. You can do whatever you want to your project. You just get your own branch. You do great work or you do stupid work. Nobody cares. It’s your copy. It’s your branch. And later on, if it turns out you did a good job, you can tell people, “Hey, here’s my branch, and by the way, it performs ten times faster than anybody else’s branch. So nyah nyah nyah. How about pulling from me?” And people do.    (MRA)

And that’s actually how it works, and we never have any politics. That’s not quite true, but we have other politics. We don’t have to worry about the commit access thing. I think this is a huge issue, and that alone should mean that every single Open Source system should never use anything but a distributed model. You get rid of a lot of issues. (18:12-20:13)    (MRB)

Someone in the audience asked Torvalds whether the distributed model simply shifted the political questions of access rather than eliminated them, to which Torvalds replied:    (MRC)

What happens is, the way merging is done is the way real security is done: by a network of trust. If you have done any security work, and it did not involve the concept of network of trust, it wasn’t security work, it was masturbation. I don’t know what you were doing, but trust me, it’s the only way you can do security, it’s the only way you can do development.    (MRD)

The way I work, I don’t trust everybody. In fact, I’m a very cynical and untrusting person. I think most of you are completely incompetent. The whole point of being distributed is, I don’t have to trust you, I don’t have to give you commit access, but I know that among the multitude of average people, there are some people that just stand out, that I trust, because I’ve been working with them. I only need to trust five, ten, 15 people. If I have a network of trust that covers those five, ten, 15 people that are outstanding, and I know they’re outstanding, I can pull from them. I don’t have to spend a lot of brainpower on that question. (27:37-29:00)    (MRE)

Power relationships exist everywhere there are groups of people. And if you don’t believe they should, you’re kidding yourself. Collective Intelligence, Collective Leadership, and more specifically, emergent self-organization are not about eliminating power relationships. They’re about empowering the right people at the right time.    (MRF)

Authentic Relationships and Networking

A few months ago, I received a card from Deborah Meehan and my friends at the Leadership Learning Community (LLC). It was the second card I’ve received from them since joining their board earlier this year, and there was a long, personal note inside.    (MQV)

When Deborah and the others at LLC do things like send a card, it is a manifestation of an authentic feeling, which is a fancy way of saying that they actually mean it. Deborah is a fantastic networker, but she doesn’t network. She builds real relationships.    (MQW)

Contrast this to an experience I had on Facebook recently. My MO with most Social Network sites is to be pretty liberal about adding people to my network. (There are exceptions to this, which are probably worthy of a separate blog post one of these days.) If you invite me, and I know you, I’ll accept. If I don’t know you, then you’d better have a good reason for bothering me.    (MQX)

A few weeks ago, I got a Facebook “friend” request from a woman I didn’t recognize. We did have one friend in common, someone I knew and trusted. However, she also had over a thousand friends, which was a tip off that I probably didn’t want to deal with her. Nevertheless, I sent her a polite message asking her how we had met. She said that we hadn’t. I then asked why she had “friended” me. She responded that she couldn’t resist the smile in my picture.    (MQY)

That lame response pretty much killed any chance of me ever giving her the time of day. Nevertheless, my curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to Google her. Turns out this woman is a “professional networker” (tip off number two for me to stay away). Even worse, one of her tips for networking is to always give people a valid reason for connecting to them. Apparently, she didn’t believe in practicing what she preached.    (MQZ)

This, my friends, is why I hate “networkers.” You want to build a better network? Here’s my two-step process. Go someplace where there are people. Have Authentic Conversations. That means, follow your curiosities and passions, and listen.    (MR0)

Lest you feel this experience is indicative of the challenges of building real relationships online, let me end this post with a good Facebook experience. About a month ago, I got a “friend” request from Ken Carroll. I had no idea who he was at the time, but in his initial request, he wrote a nice note explaining that he was the founder of ChinesePod.com, he was aware of my work, and that he wanted to connect. So I looked at his stuff and thought to myself, “Wow, this guy is doing incredible work. I’d love to learn more.”    (MR1)

I accepted his request, and we exchanged a few messages. That’s all so far. But I guarantee that there will be more to this story, whether it’s next month, next year, or longer. Maybe it will be a random bit of knowledge I cull from his Facebook page. Maybe it will be an introduction to another interesting person. Maybe it will be sharing stories over drinks. Maybe we’ll work together on something. Maybe it will be all of the above. The bottom line is that whatever happens, all it took to start was an authentic gesture.    (MR2)