Leave A Trail: Stigmergy and Effective Large Group Collaboration

One of the challenges with large group collaboration is keeping track of what others are doing. With a small group, the project manager or group leader can take on the responsibility of keeping others informed. If it’s a single organization, you can theoretically mandate a communication strategy from above, although in reality, this doesn’t work effectively when the organization is large and diverse. For large-scale collaboration between different groups, neither of these are realistic options.    (KCB)

How can large groups communicate most effectively? The answer is stigmergy, a term Chris Dent first introduced to me about four years ago. Stigmergy is a form of indirect communication where organisms react to signs left by others. Ants communicate by stigmergy. They leave a trail of pheremones that other ants pick up and react to. Stigmergy — not centralized command-and-control — is responsible for those amazing anthills.    (KCC)

There is an equivalent pattern in effective large group collaboration: Leave A Trail. I’ve called this pattern Think Out Loud and Visible Pulse in the past, but I like “Leave A Trail” better, because of its association with stigmergy. (Obligatory karma reference: I first heard this name from Peter Kaminski, who in turn credits Chris Messina for explaining it as a principle of Bar Camp.) MGTaylor calls this pattern Ship Product and often describes it in the context of Stuart Kauffman‘s work and patch theory.    (KCD)

The idea is simple. When you work, leave an artifact somewhere where others can find it. An artifact doesn’t have to be comprehensive; in fact, it’s often better when it isn’t. A brief meeting summary is usually more useful than a full transcript. A brief summary with links to specific instances in the transcript is even more useful.    (KCE)

When you Leave A Trail, you’re communicating to whomever wants to listen, which may effect how you express yourself. This can be disconcerting to some. People often point to the lack of response as a sign that tools like online forums, blogs, or Wikis aren’t working. That’s not necessarily the case. There may be a whole slew of lurkers who are reacting to the signs that you are leaving. (That said, Immediate Feedback is also an important pattern in Online Communities.)    (KCF)

This can also be difficult when determining what kind of trail to leave. Because you don’t know who will be reacting to your signs, you can’t target them. The solution is to Scratch Your Own Itch.    (KCG)

Emergence can’t happen without Leave A Trail. However, Leave A Trail is just one of many conditions for emergence. You can’t dictate whether emergence will happen, and when it does, you can’t control what actually emerges. The best you can do is create conditions for emergence and hope that good things happen. This is disconcerting to many, and folks often react by trying to assert more control, which makes things worse.    (KCH)

Leave A Trail and other principles are helpful in designing community spaces. For example, if you are trying to integrate blogs or Wikis into a community’s practice, the best way to do that is to apply the tool in such a way that it scratches an individual’s itch while also leaving a trail. For example, many good project leaders are good at doing meeting summaries. Instead of having them email a small subset of individuals, have them email a public, archived mailing list. Better yet, have them blog their summaries and email links to the blog. You’re not significantly changing individual behavior in these situations, but you are significantly improving your chances for large-scale collaboration.    (KCI)

WikiMania Hackfest Day 3

Today’s tidbits:    (JLI)

  • Ward Cunningham arrived this morning and gamely participated in the afternoon session, despite the long flight. At one point, he asked the Mediawiki developers what the consequences of a wrong architectural decision would be. The answers were revealing. These guys are faced with a tough problem thanks to scaling issues. By necessity, they have to optimize their architecture based on user behavior. However, this severely restricts their flexibility, because if their predictions about user behavior are wrong, it is extremely expensive to rearchitect, reimplement, and reconfigure. Moreover, Mediawiki really can’t develop agilely, at least not where new user features are concerned, for the same reasons. If they were part of a large company with plentiful IT resources (e.g. Google), then it would be a different story, but they’re not. This also makes Extreme Usability somewhat of a pipe dream.    (JLJ)
  • Funny observation from a Mediawiki developer (Mark) on downtime: They’re the only site that profits from downtime. When Wikipedia goes down, folks assume it’s short on resources and tries to donate stuff.    (JLK)
  • At the FLOSS Usability Sprint last February, we framed the following conflict between Open Source developers and usability practitioners: With usability, the mantra is, “You are not your user.” With Open Source, the mantra is Scratch Your Own Itch. Those two philosophies seem contradictory. However, it’s not so simple. Many new features in Open Source projects are user-driven, although the degree to which this happens largely varies. My impression with Mediawiki from watching the developers work and from talking to various members of the community — developers and users — is that the developers are open to feature suggestions, but are not particularly enthusiastic about user-driven design. Developers will implement suggestions, provided they are posted to Bugzilla. That’s a poor way of doing things, in my opinion. I’m picking on Mediawiki, but it’s a very common attitude in the Open Source world — it came up several times at the usability sprint — and really, in the entire software development community. With Mediawiki, I’m particularly disappointed, because they’ve got this huge, wonderful user community. As I said yesterday, the purely technical problems Mediawiki faces are fascinating in and of themselves. However, the opportunity to evolve some really cool user features should be just as fascinating.    (JLL)
  • Then again, perhaps Mediawiki just isn’t the place for this to happen. As I said above, doing Extreme Usability would be especially hard, because the high overhead imposed by the architecture makes it difficult to develop agilely. Maybe the place to experiment is with smaller communities, and Mediawiki can steal features accordingly. That, after all, is one of the goals behind the Blue Oxen Collaboratories — explore cool ideas in real communities and teams, and then propagate them so they are stolen far and wide. The only problem with this is that it’s almost impossible to duplicate the social effects of scale seen on Wikipedia.    (JLM)
  • I mentioned a “MySQL guy” yesterday. His name is Jan Kneschke, and while he works for MySQL, he’s really here to help Mediawiki with performance issues. One way he’s doing that is by advising them on migrating to his high-performance web server, lighttpd (pronounced “lighty”). lighttpd is a relatively new implementation of an old idea: rather than prefork or thread a web server, as Apache does, use a single event loop, which saves you tons of memory and CPU, especially at scale. It’s got some other cool performance tweaks as well. Jan is very sharp, and lighttpd seems to be taking off. Another high-profile site that uses it is Ruby On Rails. One thing I find amusing is that FastCGI, which has been around forever, seems to be making a big comeback. Ruby On Rails, PHP, Sympa, and many other high-profile tools use it. It’s amazing how old things can fly under the radar forever, then suddenly find new life.    (JLN)
  • Over and over again, I see that proficiency in one area doesn’t necessarily translate into others, even if they seem like they should. Folks in the Wikipedia community are incredibly knowledgable about online, emergent communities. However, judging from the conference design, they know very little about facilitating similar emergent patterns at face-to-face gatherings. Again, I’m picking on them, only because I’m here, but this is a widespread problem, and it further validates what Blue Oxen Associates is trying to achieve. Two things that the organizers here have done very, very right: Bring together great people and establish a wonderful culture of openness.    (JLO)

perlIBIS: The Virtue of Thinking Out Loud

Read Danny Ayers‘s blog this morning, and saw an entry describing Ken MacLeod‘s recent experiment with IBIS Dialogue Mapping. I took a look, and was surprised and thrilled at what I saw. Ken had used (and improved) perlIBIS, which I had written and last released two years ago.    (JU)

I note this not just because I’m pleased (I am), but because it also shows the importance of knowledge capture and thinking out loud. I had announced this work to members of the small Dialogue Mapping community, and had received some positive feedback but little else. That was fine; my motivation in writing the tool was to Scratch Your Own Itch and experiment with some ideas, and I accomplished that. That said, it was gratifying to see that the ideas and the tool had propagated outside of that community, and that someone else was doing something valuable with it.    (JV)

Perhaps this will be the kick in the pants I need to finally write up some of my notes on Dialogue Mapping, both for synchronous and asynchronous collaboration.    (JW)