Abelard: A Tool for Slow Discourse

I recently came across Jack Cheng’s essay, “The Slow Web” (via Alex Pang). Jack describes the Slow Web Movement as analogous to the Slow Food Movement. On the one hand, it’s a reaction to the “Fast Web,” this on-demand world of information overwhelm. The Slow Web, on the other hand, is about rhythm. It’s about doing things when they feel right to do, as opposed to whenever they come up.

I studied history of science in college, and I used to enjoy reading the correspondence between different scientists. It was this incredibly intimate experience to be listening in on these conversations, but what really struck me was the quality of discourse. They were respectful, thoughtful, and insightful. They were also slow. If you paid attention to the dates as you read, you’d start to feel a rhythm to the correspondence.

Respectful, thoughtful, insightful, slow. These are not words that describe most of the correspondence on the Internet today.

Ten years ago, I came up with an idea for a tool called Abelard. It was a tool for slow discourse, an attempt to integrate the best of the Web with the slow, wonderful art of letter-writing. The name of the tool was an homage to the medieval philosopher, Peter Abélard, who became famous for his romantic correspondence with his student, Héloïse d’Argenteuil.

I never had a chance to actually write the tool, but it seems fitting that — after 10 years, having had a chance to let the idea stew in the back of my mind for a very long time — I would share the idea for the tool in the hopes that somebody else might be inspired to build it.

The original concept had two key features. The first was a time limit. You would only be allowed to post once a day. The goal was to encourage rhythm and thoughtfulness.

  • Read people’s thoughts
  • Sleep
  • Write a response
  • Sleep
  • Read people’s responses
  • Sleep
  • Repeat

Simply slowing the conversation down would encourage higher levels of discourses (how many flame wars would be prevented if people were only allowed to post once a day?) and higher levels of participation.

Second, it would have tools to make it easy to respond to multiple ideas in a single post. Most of our current tools (especially email) encourage us to respond to individual ideas in separate posts, which leads to divergent conversations. The ability to combine multiple points (perhaps shared by different people) in a single post would encourage convergence.

My focus, at the time, was how to architecturally enable features like this. (This was building on the work that Chris Dent and I did around Purple Numbers and granular addressability and that Chris has continued developing with TiddlyWeb.) But the world of the web has evolved a lot since then. If I were to build something like this today, I would focus much more on the user experience. I’d also spend a lot of time on making it a delightful experience, in the same way writing on beautiful stationary with a great pen is delightful. Paperless Post is a great model for this.

I recently came across a group called the Letter Writers Alliance, which is trying to revive the art of letter writing. I would love to see a tool like Abelard that combined the same joy and benefits of letter writing with the magical world of the Web.

The Brilliant Essence of Wikis

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had an unusually large number of discussions about the essence of Wikis — why they are so beautiful and important as Collaborative Tools. I realized I’ve never posted my thoughts on the topic, so I’m correcting that here.    (JTE)

Wikis have this brilliant feature, a feature that’s so simple and obvious, it’s often overlooked, yet it’s largely responsible for the success of Wikis. Incidentally, it’s also an intentional feature, which is yet another reflection of Ward Cunningham‘s design genius.    (JTF)

In a nutshell, that feature is the ability to Link As You Think by writing the name of the page, even if the page you want to link to doesn’t currently exist.    (JTG)

While you’re letting that sink in, let’s look at a measurable way this feature is valuable. A lot of folks view Wikis as a crude CMS. I don’t dispute this perspective — you can certainly use Wikis that way — but it’s not what makes Wikis interesting. Nevertheless, I see queries all the time on various nonprofit technology lists asking to compare Wikis to other CMSes, so here goes. It takes at least three steps to link to a new page with most CMSes (create new page, go to old page, create link), whereas it only takes only one with Wikis (write page name). That’s significant.    (JTH)

What really makes the Wiki’s Link As You Think feature special is that it facilitates the creation of Shared Language among the community that uses it. As I’ve said so often here, Shared Language is an absolute prerequisite for collaboration. The lack of Shared Language is the most common roadblock to effective collaboration, be it a small work team or a community of thousands.    (JTI)

Look at the page index of any Wiki, and you’ll see the vocabulary of that community. Thanks to the other affordances of the tool, that vocabulary accomodates multiple definitions while encouraging convergence where appropriate. Most importantly, that vocabulary is Shared Language that has emerged from the community itself and that continues to evolve.    (JTJ)

Here’s a real example. At the AdvocacyDev Wiki, which Blue Oxen Associates hosts, the top six most linked-to pages (out of 363 total) are:    (JTK)

From this very small sample, we can see that VoIP (and Asterisk in particular), IndyVoter, and CivicSpace are all much discussed tools among folks working on online advocacy tools. We can also see that Carl Coryell-Martin is an active member of this community (or at least one of the more diligent members when it comes to documenting).    (JTR)

The Wiki’s ability to facilitate Shared Language — a direct consequence of Link As You Think — is what makes it so important as a Collaborative Tool. In the future, when enough developers recognize this, we’ll see widespread integration of Wiki functionality in other Collaborative Tools, such as blogs, online forums, and more. It’s already started. Blog-Wiki integration (such as what I use) is not uncommon, and software like TWiki and JotSpot are showing the benefits of custom applications that use Wikis as the fundamental data structure.    (JTS)