On Blogging and Maintenance (and my Website Refresh)

I updated my website look-and-feel for the first time since 2010, which is when I migrated it from Blosxom (!) to WordPress. The overall architecture is the same. I just wanted to update the theme to something more modern — responsive on mobile, more photography-friendly, support for the latest WordPress features including the new Gutenberg editor, etc.

I built the new theme on top of CoBlocks, which saved me a ton of time, gave me a bunch of things for free, and will hopefully future-proof me a little bit better than last time. (My previous homegrown theme lasted over eight years, so it did well all things considered.)

Still, the update took a long time. I had to get clear about what I wanted and research the available themes. I had to experiment with different themes to see which ones worked best. I had to brush up on CSS and the wonders of responsive design so I could create a homepage that looked more or less how I wanted it. I had to go down many ratholes, because that’s just what I do.

My impetus for all of this was that I missed blogging, and I want to do more of it this year. Updating the site was akin to buying a new outfit — not strictly necessary, but feels pretty fresh.

What do I miss about blogging? Becoming less dumb by chewing on half-baked ideas and having others help bake them further.

When I first started in 2003, blogging was like exchanging letters out in the open. The act of writing things down (especially in public) forced me to slow down, reflect, and crystallize my thinking in whatever state it happened to be at the time. The act of curating links helped reinforce the lessons learned from others (and myself), while also giving me a chance to acknowledge them publicly. Doing this out in the open meant anyone could jump in, which helped me get out of my silo and discover wonderful new voices. All of this helped make the web a more useful, humane place.

I’ve done pretty well over the years, but the tenor of it all gradually changed. Social media has cannibalized a lot of people’s attention (including my own). Because it’s not a slow medium, the nature of how I engage with others (not just where I engage with them) has changed. It’s more frequent, but it’s also more shallow. That’s actually a nice complement when I have a face-to-face relationship with people, but it’s not generative otherwise.

Last year, I only wrote five posts on this blog, my fewest ever. It wasn’t for lack of material, and it wasn’t even because I didn’t have enough time. I did lots of journaling and drawing, I just did most of it in private.

Some of it was social media backlash. I was on social media a lot for my 365 photo project in 2015, and while the experience was overall positive, I think it burned me out on sharing so much of myself. I’ve been much less active on social media — and on the Internet generally — since.

Some of it was an unexpected professional side effect, one I’m actively trying to counter. Most of my current colleagues don’t blog, and when they do, it’s rarely half-baked. (I have lots more to say about this, which I’ll probably share on Faster Than 20 in the near future.) This had the effect of lowering the bar for me, which is not what I want. I want to raise the bar for others.

Because of how I blogged when I first got started, I have about eight years of archives of a lot of my early thinking about collaboration. It’s so valuable for me to be able both to mine and to share this with others. Unfortunately, that’s not true of a lot of what I’ve been working on and thinking about for the past eight years.

I want to re-adjust. I’m inspire by my friends, especially Alex Schroeder, who have kept it up consistently over the years. I want to think out loud a lot more, especially about my work, while also still sharing the occasional personal tidbits. I’ve worked hard to balance my life so that I have more reflection time, and I want to make better use of this time by sharing more. I’d also love to experiment more with mining and making what I’ve already written more visible.

I’m sure the experience won’t be the same as it was in the early days, but I’m going to keep at it. I’ll continue to share what I write on Twitter and maybe Facebook, but the better way to track is to subscribe to my feed via your favorite feed reader (I use Feedly) or via email below. As always, I welcome comments below (or on social media), but I’d especially encourage you to try commenting the old-fashioned blogger way — by responding in your own blog with a link to the original source. Either way, would love to hear from folks!

Visualizing Wiki Life Cycles

On the first day of WikiSym in Denmark last August, I spotted Alex Schroeder before the workshop began and went over to say hello. Pleasantries naturally evolved into a discussion about Purple Numbers. (Yes, I’ve got problems.) Alex suggested that unique node identifiers were more trouble than they were worth, because in practice, nodes that you wanted to link to were static. Me being me, my response was, “Let’s look at the numbers.” Alex being Alex, he went off and did the measurements right away for Community Wiki, and he did some followup measurements based on further discussions after the conference.    (LSP)

As it turned out, the numbers didn’t tell us anything useful, but our discussions firmly implanted some ideas in my head about Wiki decay rates — the time it takes for information in a Wiki page to stop being useful.    (LSQ)

I had toyed with this concept before. A few years ago, I came up with the idea of changing the background color of a page to correspond to the age of the page. A stale page would be yellowed; an active page would be bright white. I had originally envisioned the color to be based on number of edits. However, I realized this past week that I was mixing up my metaphors. There have been a few studies indicating a strong correlation between frequent edits and content quality, so it makes sense to indicate edit frequencies ambiently. However, just because content has not been edited recently does not mean the information itself is stale. You need to account for how often the page is accessed as well.    (LSR)

(At the Wikithon last week, Kirsten Jones implemented the page coloring idea. She came up with a metric that combined edits and accesses, which she will hopefully document on the Wiki soon! It’s cool, and it should be easy to deploy and study. Ingy dot Net suggested that the page should become moldy, a suggestion I fully endorse.)    (LSS)

This past Sunday, I had brunch with the Socialtext Bloomington Boys. Naturally, pleasantries evolved into Matthew and me continuing along our Wiki Analytics track, this time with help from Shawn Devlin and Matt Liggett. We broke Wiki behavior into a number of different archetypes, then brainstormed ways to visually represent the behavior of each of these types. We came up with this:    (LST)

https://i2.wp.com/farm1.static.flickr.com/149/388587151_3f730b0a5c_m.jpg?w=700    (LSU)

The x-axis represents time. The blue line is accesses; the green line is edits. Edits are normalized (edits per view) so that, under normal circumstances, the green line will always be below the blue (because users will usually access a page before editing it). The exception is when software is interacting with the Wiki more than people. The whole graph should consist of a representative time-slice in that Wiki’s lifespan.    (LSV)

The red line indicates the median “death” rate of Wiki pages. After much haggling, we decided that the way to measure page death was to determine the amount of time it takes for a page to reach some zero-level of accesses. We’ll need to look at actual data to see what the baseline should be and whether this is a useful measurement.    (LSW)

The red line helps distinguish between archetypes that may have the same access/edit ratio and curve. For example, on the upper left, you see idealized Wiki behavior. Number of edits are close to number of accesses, both of which are relatively constant across the entire Wiki over time. Because it’s a healthy Wiki, you’ve got a healthy page death rate.    (LSX)

On the upper right, you see a Wiki that is used for process support. A good example of this is a Wiki used to support a software development process. At the beginning of the process, people might be capturing user stories and requirements. Later in the process, they might be capturing bugs. Once a cycle is complete, those pages rapidly become stale as the team creates new pages to support a new cycle. The death line in this case is much shorter than it is for the idealized Wiki.    (LSY)

Again, one use of the Wiki isn’t better than the other. They’re both good in that they’re both augmenting human processes. The purpose of the visualization is to help identify the archetypes so that you can adjust your facilitation practices and tools to best support these behaviors.    (LSZ)

This is all theory at this point. We need to crunch on some real data. I’d love to see others take these ideas and run with them as well.    (LT0)

More on Spiel

Mark Oehlert dug up the reference on play he cited at last week’s CIA workshop. (Thanks, Mark!) It’s a quote from David Miller taken from a Smithsonian exhibit on “Invention at Play” a few years ago. Miller tells the following anecdote about the Heidelberg philosopher, Hans Georg Gadamer:    (LAK)

Not long after the book’s publication, Gadamer came to be a visiting professor at Syracuse University where I was teaching. Every Thursday afternoon, after his seminar on Aristotle, he and I would go to a local country club bar to drink German beer and to talk. I knew that he had read my book, and it is not difficult to imagine my growing anxiety when week after week went by without him saying a word to me about it.    (LAL)

Finally, after many weeks–what seemed an eternity to a young professor in the thrall of a wise mentor–he turned to the topic of my book. I was full of fear and trepidation, as it turned out that well I should have been. He said: “Professor Miller, you almost got the point!” I was crushed! What was wrong? It did little good for him to aver that it was not entirely my fault. “English,” he explained, “has a doublet for the idea: play, the verb, and game, the noun, are different words in English, whereas German says it with one and the same word, ein Spiel spielen, as does French, jouer un jeu.” So, he explained to me that I had wrongly thought that play has something to do with fun and games. “Very American!” he said in a way that was not at all reassuring.    (LAM)

So what was the point of play? Gadamer asked me if I rode a bicycle. I said that I did. Then he asked me about the front wheel, the axle, and the nuts. He remarked that I probably knew that it was important not to tighten the nuts too tightly, else the wheel could not turn. “It has to have some play!” he announced pedagogically and a little exultantly, I thought. And then he added, ” . . . and not too much play, or the wheel with fall off.” “You know,” he said, “Spielraum.”    (LAN)

So that was it: it is not a matter of games (which are the domain of specialists and not of bricoleurs). It is rather a matter of what we, in English, call “leeway.” “Lee” is the sheltered side of any object, so it is the side of a ship that is turned away from the wind. The point is to have som leeway, some play, as in a bicycle wheel, a little space, some distance, Gelassenheit: education and teaching without why.    (LAO)

Alex Schroeder and Christoph Sauer were right (of course): I must have misinterpreted Mark’s original point. Spiel has two meanings in German, and although both meanings apply to the English word “play” as well, the second usage is not as commonly used. That said, I’m glad I posed the question the way I did, because it turned up Rick Thomas’s very interesting reference on Leik.    (LAP)

Spiel und Leik

Two of my most excellent German-speaking associates (who also happen to be doing some of the best Wiki work in the world), Alex Schroeder and Christoph Sauer, responded to my recent question about German words for “play”:    (L9W)

MarkOehlert had a wonderful response to this. There are apparently two words for “play” in German. (I know one is “Spiel.” Can someone tell me the other?) One meaning of “play” describes the looseness that allows a wheel to turn. If there isn’t enough play, the wheel won’t turn. This latter meaning of play can be easier to rationalize in the workplace.  T    (L9X)

According to both Alex and Christoph, Spiel is used for both contexts of “play.” Christoph offered these examples:    (L9Y)

Das Rad hat zuwenig spiel. (“The wheel is not loose enough to turn” — spiel is used as a verb.)    (L9Z)

Das ist nur ein Spiel. (“It’s just a game.”)    (LA0)

However, my post also triggered this response from Rick Thomas:    (LA1)

I recognized the idea from the book Homo Ludens: a study of the play element in culture, by Johan Huizinga (1938). Amazing, recommended.    (LA2)

The other German root is leik or leikan, which connotes looseness, leaping, dancing. It has found its way into words related to erotic play: English lechery, German laich (spawn), Swedish leka (copulation).    (LA3)

By the way, this whole blogging thing is kinda cool. I think it might take off. I Think Out Loud, and I’m rewarded with instant responses from a few friends on the other side of the globe, plus I learn something new from someone totally new!    (LA4)

Socialtext 2.0 Released

Congratulations to Ross Mayfield, Peter Kaminski, Adina Levin, and all the excellent folks at Socialtext for the release of Socialtext 2.0. Even bigger props for slipping in “Purple Consulting” in the screencast. I’ve been cranking so hard over the past six months, I didn’t have a chance to congratulate them on their Open Source release last July, so now I get to combine my commentary here. (In fact, I’m sitting on a bunch of Wiki-related posts right now that I need to push out; a lot of really cool stuff has been happening.) That’s good, because I have plenty to say.    (L72)

Socialtext 2.0 is an important release for three reasons. First, it doesn’t just look good, it’s highly usable. Adina and Pete deserve big-time credit for this. They’ve spent months painstakingly experimenting and testing the design. More importantly, they haven’t just focused on making it easy to use, but they’ve also agonized over how to accomodate expert usage as well.    (L73)

Have they succeeded? I think the personal home base concept is great. I love the fact that Backlinks are visible on the page and get lots of love. I love their new Recent Changes interface (and I hope to see a Tag Cloud view of the all pages index in the next release). I hate the fact that a Recent Changes link is not on every Wiki page. Both Pete and Adina are well aware of this beef, and I’m also well aware of their reason for not including it. Testing and user observation will tell what’s better.    (L74)

Second, Socialtext 2.0 has a really cool REST interface. Chris Dent has been boasting about it for months, but I didn’t look at it myself until Kirsten Jones walked me through it last week. (Her WikiWednesday presentation from earlier this month is online.) It really is cool, and it’s also useful. Congrats to Chris, Kirsten, Matthew O’Connor, and Matt Liggett for their excellent work!    (L75)

What’s great about this API is that it could very well serve as a standard URI scheme for all Wikis. This would obviate the need for a separate SOAP or Atom API. You just have a regular Web app, and you get the API behavior for free.    (L76)

For example, Alex Schroeder‘s currently going through the same process that Chris went through a year ago with Atom and OddMuse. An easier way around this problem would be to implement these REST APIs.    (L77)

(This is also a great opportunity for me to mention WikiOhana again, which gained great traction at WikiSym last month and which now has a lively Wiki of its own. PBWiki recently announced its own Wiki API, which is a good thing. We are all part of the same Wiki family. Socialtext and PBWiki need to talk about how their two efforts can work together. That’s the WikiOhana Way.)    (L78)

The third important thing about Socialtext 2.0 is that it’s Open Source. (Big props to Jonas Luster and Andy Lester for finally making this happen.) Here’s the thing. I think the announcement a few months back was overblown by a lot of blogosphere hype. The reality of all corporate Open Source releases is that — in and of themselves — they’re mostly meaningless. Mostly, but not completely. The fact that Socialtext 2.0 is Open Source means that other Wiki implementations can benefit from the great work that the Socialtext developers have done, from the APIs to the user interface. That makes for a healthier ecosystem, which is good for everybody.    (L79)

That said, the reason the actual open sourcing of Socialtext 2.0 (and any proprietary software project) is mostly meaningless is that the license is a critical, but tiny part of what makes Open Source software interesting and important. The big part is the community and collaborative process, and a lot of other things besides an open license are required to make that successful.    (L7A)

Before Socialtext went Open Source, I spent many hours talking to a bunch of people there about the impending release. I wanted to know how committed they were to making this a truly open and collaborative software project, because I felt the potential impact on the Wiki community was enormous. The answer I got was complex. The fact that everyone was willing to talk to me with no strings attached, in and of itself, demonstrated a commitment to openness, and I’m still grateful for that. The code itself will be a short-term bottleneck, as it needs a lot of work before outside developers will find it compelling. I also think the licensing terms are weaker than they need to be, although I also understand the outside pressures that make it so.    (L7B)

In short, I think the spirit is strong within Socialtext to fully realize the potential of this Open Source project, but there are also roadblocks. Hopefully, external pressures won’t squash that spirit. If Socialtext ever fulfills its potential as an Open Source company, it will not only help the ecosystem, but it will also tremendously benefit Socialtext as a business.    (L7C)