Blue Oxen’s 4th Anniversary

A few weeks ago, about 50 friends and colleagues — including co-founder Chris Dent, visiting from Seattle — joined us at Chris Messina and Tara Hunt‘s gorgeous new office in San Francisco, Citizen Space, to help celebrate Blue Oxen Associates‘ 4th anniversary. Thanks to all who came and to all who sent well-wishes. Thanks especially to Chris and Tara for being such great, generous hosts, and thanks to Tara Anderson for handling all of the logistics. Pictures are up on Flickr, and there’s a funny video of some late night, after-party silliness as well.    (LLX)

Of course, being a Blue Oxen event, there had to be a “group exercise.” This year, Kaliya Hamlin led us through an incredibly moving one. She asked all of us to take a moment and write down a meaningful thing that happened to us this past year. She then asked us to write down something we hope will happen next year. Everyone then posted them on the whiteboard for all to see and share.    (LLY)

A few people signed their notes, but most of them left theirs anonymous. Some notes were easy to identify, but most still leave me wondering who wrote them. Some notes were business-related. Many were deeply personal. Some notes were knee slappers. Others were heart-wrenching. People wrote about relationships, both good and bad. They wrote about losing family members and about surviving cancer. They expressed both despair and hope.    (LLZ)

What the exercise did was raise the group consciousness. I knew almost everyone in the room, most of them well, and over the past year, I interacted regularly with many of them. Yet this simple exercise surfaced many things about the people in my community I didn’t know. It changed the way I looked at everyone in the room, and it reminded all of us of our humanity.    (LM0)

Great group exercises not only surface interesting content, but also elicit surprising behavior. Jonas Luster started the process by drawing connections between cards of people he thought should connect. I don’t know how many people connected through the wall, but I know some did.    (LM1)

Due to the hustle and bustle of being the host of the party, I didn’t have a chance to contribute my own meaningful moments to the wall, so I thought I’d rectify that here. My list is long. Most of my moments consist of late-night conversations with friends and colleagues over dinner, over drinks, and over the phone, covering everything from concrete topical challenges to philosophical ramblings to general silliness. Just thinking about many of these moments brings a smile to my face.    (LM2)

If I had to sum up all of the meaningful moments from the past year into one sentence, it would be this:    (LM3)

I’m grateful that my relationships with many of my work colleagues have evolved into true friendships.    (LM4)

I’m a firm believer in professionalism, which often translates into a wall between myself and my colleagues. It’s my personal manifestation of the Intimacy Gradient, and my wall is probably a bit higher than others. Nevertheless, I do let down my guard over time. It’s never planned. It’s just something that happens organically over time, a natural deepening of trust past a personal threshold. When it happens, it’s always incredibly enriching. It happened a lot this past year.    (LM5)

I am so grateful to have such high-quality and supportive people in my life. It makes me all the more motivated to chase my dreams, to continue to learn and improve, and to contribute as much as I can to this world. I’ve discovered something that’s special and important, and I’m not even close to fully understanding it. I’m going to work my butt off until I do, and I’m going to share what I learn as widely as possible.    (LM6)

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)

Angry Rant on Wikis

Earlier this month, Jonas Luster invited me to speak at WikiWednesday. I didn’t have anything prepared, and I didn’t feel particularly motivated to prepare anything, so, I told Jonas that I was just going to rant. Jonas, being Jonas, loved the idea. So after IIW wrapped on May 3, I headed up to Palo Alto. I promised folks at IIW that I was going to give an angry rant on Wikis, and so several people decided to come watch, including Phil Windley, who blogged it. Feedback was great, except for a few complaints that I wasn’t all that angry. I promise to get more worked up next time, folks.    (KK2)

I’ve made all the points I made in my rant before in some form or another, often on this blog. Nevertheless, it was the first time I shared these ideas as one semi-cohesive thought, and so it’s worth rehashing the points here.    (KK3)

Overview    (KK4)

There are two things that make Wikis cool:    (KK5)

Lots of folks have latched onto the open access part, and there’s been some interesting exploration in this area. Very few folks know about or understand the Shared Language aspect. I think this is a huge loss, because it’s what makes Wikis truly transformational.    (KK8)

Open Access    (KK9)

Since I had just come from IIW, I started with digital identity. First, I said that all Wikis should support some form of distributed Single Sign-On, be it OpenID or something else. Implementing Single Sign-On does not imply loss of anonymity. Most Wikis give you the choice of logging in or not; implementing Single Sign-On would give you the additional choice of using a single identity across multiple sites.    (KKA)

Why would this be useful? Consider Wikipedia. As my friend, Scott Foehner, commented in a previous post on this topic (to be visible again when I turn comments back on), Wikipedia actually consists of a number of different Wikis, one for each language plus a number of special Wikis, such as its community site. Each of those Wikis require a separate user account. Not only is this a huge inconvenience, it effectively prevents you from having a single digital identity (along with your associated reputation) across each of these sites.    (KKB)

Simply having Single Sign-On across all of the Wikipedia Wikis would be valuable. More importantly, the identity community has converged to the point where it doesn’t make sense to roll your own protocols. There are several good existing protocols to choose from, and many of those are in the process of converging.    (KKC)

Reputation is closely associated with identity, and it’s also been one of the most popular topics in the Wiki community over the past year. However, most people have a misguided notion of what reputation is and what we should do about it. Reputation is what others think about you. Reputations exist in every system, whether or not they are explicitly represented. Reputation cannot be quantified. However, you can identify the factors that determine reputation and make those factors more explicit.    (KKD)

In Wikis, this could manifest itself in a number of ways. For example, one way to determine the quality of a page is to view the number of people who have edited it. You could make that number explicit by subtly changing the background color of that page — slightly yellowed for a page with few contributors and bright white for a page with many contributors.    (KKE)

The important point here is that you are not making a value judgement on reputation. You are not saying that a page that has many authors is better than a page that does not. All you are doing is making it easy to see that a page has many authors. Readers can determine for themselves how much weight (if any) to place on this factor for the reputation algorithm in their heads.    (KKF)

The most important button on a Wiki page is the Edit button. That button implies Permission To Participate. It should be one of the most visible buttons on any Wiki. If a Wiki looks too good, that discourages participation. Who wants to edit something that looks like a finished product? Ward Cunningham used to suggest sprinkling typos across a Wiki page to encourage others to participate.    (KKG)

At this point in the rant, I plugged both Ward and MeatballWiki. The Wikis success is no accident. A lot of the fundamental design features that make Wikis powerful were completely intentional, a testament to Ward’s brilliance. Additionally, most of what I ranted about is not new to the Wiki community. A lot of it — and more — has been discussed on the venerable MeatballWiki. If you really want to get a deeper understanding of how to improve Wikis, you should be on Meatball.    (KKH)

Shared Language    (KKI)

Last September, I wrote:    (KKJ)

What really makes the Wiki’s LinkAsYouThink feature special is that it facilitates the creation of SharedLanguage among the community that uses it. As I’ve said so often here, SharedLanguage is an absolute prerequisite for collaboration. The lack of SharedLanguage is the most common roadblock to effective collaboration, be it a small work team or a community of thousands.  T    (KKK)

It bears repeating over and over and over again. Wikis are transformational because they facilitate Shared Language. This is a feature that should be propagated far and wide, both in Wikis and other Collaborative Tools.    (KKL)

I noted two possible convergences. The first is Wikis and tagging. They both share a similar principle, namely namespace clash, and we should look at ways of combining these two concepts. For example, where’s the tag cloud view of a Wiki’s page index? Another idea: Clicking on a tag should also return Wiki pages of the same name. Technorati should be indexing Wiki pages and treating their titles as tags.    (KKM)

The second is implementing Link As You Think in all tools. Blogs that are built on top of Wikis (such as TWiki and JotSpot) have these features, but you don’t have to build a tool on top of a Wiki for this to work. This blog runs on blosxom, but it has Link As You Think. Chris Dent‘s blog runs on MovableType, and it has the same feature. It shouldn’t just apply to blogs, either. It should work in web-based forums and other Collaborative Tools.    (KKN)

Tim Bray on Purple Numbers

I’ve long been a fan of Tim Bray‘s work, and although we had never crossed paths before, I had always assumed it would be instigated by me making some comment about something he had done or written about. (A few months back, I emailed him about ballparks in the Bay Area, because we seem to share a love for the sport, but that doesn’t count.) So I was surprised and pleased to see that Tim had made first contact and had (temporarily, as it turned out) implemented Purple Numbers on his blog. Not surprisingly, this is starting to generate some talk in the blogosphere. In particular, see:    (1G9)

Chris has done an excellent job of quickly addressing many of these issues. I’ll just toss in a few thoughts and references here and will look forward to more feedback.    (1GE)

Stable, Immutable IDs    (1GF)

Several people have pointed out that the IDs need to be stable. In other words, as the paragraphs move around or as new ones are added or deleted, the IDs stick to their original paragraphs. This was a fundamental motivation for Engelbart’s statement identifiers (SIDs), which we have renamed node identifiers (NID).    (1GG)

Both Purple (which needs updating) and PurpleWiki handle this correctly. You’ll notice that the addresses are stable on my blog and on Chris’s, as well as on all of the PurpleWiki installations (e.g. Collab:HomePage, PurpleWiki:HomePage). It’s because we use plugins for our respective blog software that call PurpleWiki‘s parser, which manages NIDs for us.    (1GH)

By using PurpleWiki to handle the purpling, blog content has NIDs unique to both the blog and the Wiki, which allows us to do fun stuff like transclude between the two. We get a similar effect with perplog, the excellent IRC logger written by Paul Visscher and other members of The Canonical Hackers. For example, check out Planetwork:Main Page and the chat logs over there.    (1GI)

Mark Nottingham noted that even if the NIDs are stable in the sense that they are attached to certain paragraphs, the paragraphs themselves are not semantically stable. This is a point on which I’ve ruminated in the past, and we still don’t have a good solution to it.    (1GJ)

History and Other Worthy Projects    (1GK)

I’ve written up my own brief history of Purple Numbers, which fills in some holes in Chris’s account. In it, I mention Murray Altheim‘s plink. Plink is no longer available on the net, because it has been subsumed into his latest project, Ceryle. Everything that I’ve seen about Ceryle so far kicks butt, so if you’d like to see it too, please drop Murray an email and encourage him to hurry up and finish his thesis so that he can make Ceryle available! You can tell him I sent you, and you can forward him the link to this paragraph; he’ll understand.    (1GL)

Matt Schneider is the creator of the PurpleSlurple purple numbering proxy, which will add Purple Numbers to any (well, most) documents on the Web. PurpleSlurple deserves a lot of credit for spreading the meme.    (1GM)

Mike Mell implemented Purple Numbers in ZWiki for last year’s Planetwork Conference (see ZWiki:ZwikiAndPurpleNumbers), which in turn influenced the evolution of Purple Numbers in PurpleWiki. Mike and Matt have both experimented with JavaScript for making the numbers less intrusive.    (1GN)

The latest version of the Compendium Dialogue Mapping tool exports HTML maps with Purple Numbers.    (1GO)

In addition to Murray, Matt, and Mike, several other members of the Blue Oxen Associates Collaboration Collaboratory have contributed to the evolution of Purple Numbers, especially Peter Jones, Jack Park, and Bill Seitz. In addition to his contributions to the technical and philosophical discussions, Peter wrote the hilarious Hymn of the Church Of Purple and excerpts of the Book of the Church Of Purple.    (1GP)

Finally, many good folks in the blogosphere have helped spread the meme in many subtle ways, particularly those noted connectors Seb Paquet and Clay Shirky.    (1GQ)

Evangelism and The Big Picture    (1GR)

Okay, that last section was starting to sound like an award acceptance speech, and although none of us have won any awards, one thing is clear: The contributions of many have vastly improved this simple, but valuable tool. I’m hoping that momentum picks up even more with these recent perturbances. I’m especially heartened to see experiments for improving the look-and-feel.    (1GS)

I want to quibble with one thing that Chris Dent said in his most recent account. (When we have distributed Purple Numbers, I’ll be able to transclude it, but for now, you’ll just have to live with the cut-and-paste):    (1GT)

When he [Eugene] and I got together to do PurpleWiki, we were primarily shooting for granular addressability. Once we got that working, I started getting all jazzed about somehow, maybe, someday, being able to do Transclusion. Eugene was into the idea but I felt somehow that he didn’t quite get it. Since then we’ve implemented Transclusion and new people have come along with ideas of things to do that I’m sure I don’t quite get, but are probably a next step that will be great.    (1GU)

There are many things I don’t quite get, but Transclusions are not one of them, at least at the level we first implemented them. That’s okay, though. Ted Nelson felt the same way about my understanding of Transclusions as Chris did, although for different reasons. (And, I suspect that Ted would have had the same opinions of Chris.) I mention this here not so much because I want to correct the record, but because it gives me an excuse to tell some anecdotes and to reveal a bit about myself.    (1GV)

Anyone who knows Doug Engelbart knows that he complains a lot. The beauty of being an acknowledged pioneer and visionary is that people pay attention, even if they they don’t think much of those complaints. When I first began working with Doug in early 2000, I would occasionally write up small papers and put them on the Web. Doug would complain that they didn’t have Purple Numbers. At the time, I recognized the value of granular addresses, but didn’t think they were worth the trouble to add them to my documents. I also didn’t think they were the “right” solution. Nevertheless, because Doug was Doug, I decided to throw him a bone. So I spent a few hours writing Purple (most of which was spent learning XSLT), and started posting documents with Purple Numbers.    (1GW)

Then, a funny thing happened. I got used to them. I got so used to them, I wanted them everywhere.    (1GX)

A few people just get Purple Numbers right away. Murray was probably the first of those not originally in the Engelbart crowd to do so; Chris followed soon thereafter, as did Matt. The vast majority of folks get the concept, but don’t really find them important until they start using them. Then, like me, they want them everywhere. Getting people past that first step is crucial.    (1GY)

A few nights ago, I had a late night conversation with Gabe Wachob (chair of the OASIS XRI committee) on IRC. (This eventually led to a conversation between Chris and me, which led to Chris’s blog entry, which led to Tim discovering Purple Numbers, which led to this entry. Think Out Loud is an amazing thing.) Gabe knew what Purple Numbers were, but hadn’t thought twice about them. I had wanted to ask him some questions about using XRI addresses as identifiers, and in order to do so, I gave him a quick demonstration of Transclusions. The light bulb went off; all of a sudden, he really, truly got it.    (1GZ)

Richard Gabriel, one of our advisors, is well known for his Worse Is Better essays (among other things). I think Purple Numbers are an outstanding example of Worse Is Better. They fulfill an immediate need, and they cause us to think more deeply about some of the underlying issues. I’d like to see Purple Numbers all over the place, but I’d also like to see a group of deep thinkers and tinkerers consider and evolve the concept. It’s part of a larger philosophy that I like to call The Blue Oxen Way.    (1H0)

This last point is extremely important. Chris has thankfully been a much more enthusiastic evangelist of Purple Numbers than I have, and in the past he’s called me “ambivalent” about Purple Numbers. That’s not so far from the truth. It’s not that I’m any less enthusiastic about Purple Numbers themselves — I am a card-carrying member of the Church Of Purple, and the current attention and potential for wider usage thrill me. However, I’m cautious about evangelizing Purple Numbers, because I don’t want people to get too caught up in the tool itself and forget about the bigger picture. It’s the reason I didn’t mention Purple Numbers at all in my manifesto.    (1H1)

At the Planetwork forum two weeks ago, Fen Labalme, Victor Grey, and I gave the first public demo of a working Identity Commons Single Sign-On system. We were tickled pink by the demo, which to everyone else looked just like any other login system. The reason we were so excited was that we knew the system used an underlying infrastructure that would eventually enable much greater things. The demo itself, unfortunately, didn’t convey that to anyone who didn’t already understand this.    (1H2)

I’m probably a bit oversensitive about this sort of thing, and I’m constantly seeking better balance. But it’s always in the back of my mind. When I talk to people about Blue Oxen Associates, I usually spend more time talking about the sociological aspect of collaboration rather than the tools, even though I have plenty to say about the latter. Can Purple Numbers make the world a better place? I truly, honestly, believe that they can. (This is a topic for another day.) But when I see groups that excel in collaboration (or conversely, those that stink at it), Purple Numbers are usually the furthest thing from my mind. Much more important is the need to identify and understand these patterns of collaboration (of which tool usage is an important part).    (1H3)