WikiMania 2006: Quick Hits and Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed Wikimania, but it felt distinctly different than last year. A big part of it was personal. The conference was held in Cambridge, my home for four years, so the location itself was familiar and uninteresting. I was only there for three days, whereas last year I came early for Hacking Days, where I had a chance to get to know people better at my leisure. I also had much more on my mind, whereas last year, I was fully present the whole time — morning, noon, and night.    (L0E)

Part of it was the conference itself. It wasn’t as international as last year, but it was still quite good — one out of four attendees were from outside of the States. There were also more visitors, folks new to Wikis who came to see what this stuff was all about. Several of these people were fairly high-level, described by Jason Calacanis as “folks who ride on the back of builders.”    (L0F)

The same held true for RecentChangesCamp earlier this year, except the spirit was quite different. There, the visitors were eager to learn and to participate, and the community embraced them. Here, many visitors stayed at arm’s length, choosing to observe from afar rather than immerse themselves in this wonderful community. At Wikimania last year, a different group of us would go out every night, laughing, sharing stories, mixing with other groups. This year, there were more clusters, more silos. I saw people — especially the visitors — sticking with the folks they knew, rather than mixing with others.    (L0G)

That is not our community’s way, and I found it mildly distressful. To some extent, it’s the price of success — especially true in the case of Wikipedia — and the result of the culture that those not acclimated to Wikis bring to the table. To a large extent, process is at fault. I find it fascinating that a community schooled in self-organization and the value of emergence continues to organize top-down gatherings. If it’s not careful, Wikimania may eventually go the way of Linux World, Comdex, and many other conferences that began as a wonderful, generative community gathering and eventually became a meeting place for fast-talking salespeople.    (L0H)

Despite my standing in the Wiki community, I’m an outsider to Wikipedia, and I only have three ways of encouraging a shift in how Wikimania operates. The first and best way is to become active in the community and in the planning of the next conference. In an alternative world, this would have already happened, but the reality is that it’s not likely. The second and worst way is to preach to the folks in the community, which I’ve been doing. I find this distasteful. It’s my personality to effect change, not to talk about it.    (L0I)

The third way is to create a space where people can learn for themselves and to catalyze that learning as much as possible. This, in a nutshell, is the purpose of Blue Oxen Associates. I’ve had some success in this area. The FLOSS Usability Sprints exposed some folks to effective collaborative processes, including one of the original Bar Camp organizers. I was then able to point to Bar Camp as a model for the RecentChangesCamp organizers, who wanted to bring Open Space to the Wiki community. Both the usability sprints and Bar Camp helped spawn DCamp, the Bar Camp for the usability community. Our “Tools for Catalyzing Collaboration” workshops have inspired a number of people to pursue similar event models.    (L0J)

In addition to helping the tech community learn about face-to-face collaborative processes, I’ve also helped other communities — from Planetwork to the World Economic Forum — learn how online collaborative spaces can complement physical ones.    (L0K)

All of this is just the start. I have bigger and better things in the works. More importantly, the meme is starting to spread. I’ve helped initiate some of this, but there are many other sparks, and others are starting to fan the flames. We will learn how to collaborate more effectively. But it will take time.    (L0L)

I’m sounding a bit ominous, and it’s an exaggeration of how I actually feel. As I said before, all in all, Wikimania was wonderful. When you bring great people together and get out of the way, great things happen. Even if there are minor obstacles, great people will find a way around them. This has held true not just for the participants at Wikimania, but for the organizers. I am amazed at the efforts, commitment, and passion of Samuel Klein, Phoebe Ayers, Delphine Menard, and the many, many others who worked ridiculously hard to make this conference happen. The whole community deserves tremendous praise. I hope it continues to do what it does well, while unabashedly exploring ways to improve.    (L0M)

One goal that the Wikimania organizers should have for next year is improving conference Wiki usage among the participants. Effective self-documentation via Wiki is a staple of Blue Oxen‘s processes, and we’ve managed to influence many others about it, including Bar Camp and the Aspiration events. But the best Wiki usage at an event I’ve ever seen was at RecentChangesCamp. The community was already steeped in Wiki culture, and the process encouraged self-documentation. The fact that neither Wikimania nor WikiSym has seen effective conference-wide usage of Wikis is an indicator that something is blocking the community’s natural instincts. It’s also a lost opportunity, as those who attend the conference seeking to learn about Wikis miss out on the chance to experience them first-hand.    (L0N)

Quick Hits    (L0O)

  • I was amazed at the number of speakers who exclaimed how honored they were to be there. Some of them were merely experiencing the euphoria of speaking at a gathering of their peers for the first time. Others were hardened veterans of the speaking circuit, including Yochai Benkler and David Weinberger. Yochai even interrupted his traditional two months beach getaway to speak at the conference.    (L0P)
  • Speaking of David Weinberger, I saw him talk for the first time, and now I know what the fuss is about. He’s a wonderful speaker — self-deprecating, sharp wit, great sense of humor, and very thoughtful. He did a Monty Python-like parody of Lawrence Lessig‘s presentation-style that had the entire audience rolling with laughter, and he managed to slip in references to Hegel and Heidegger without sounding pretentious. But I had two beefs with his talk. (Boy, I’m just Mr. Negativity today.) First, he disputed the notion that knowledge is just in people’s head, citing all the knowledge associated with the artifacts that surround us. I understand the point he was trying to make, but I didn’t like how he made it. Artifacts are not knowledge. I generally find myself taking the exact opposite stance as Weinberger — emphasizing that knowledge is in our heads, because it stresses the human element we so often forget when we think about our relationship to knowledge. Second, he made a hypothesis about Wikipedia editing behavior that practically everybody in the room knew was wrong. He admitted that he was speculating, and gracefully acknowledged his error when informed of it, but he never should have made that mistake in the first place. There were many people he could have simply asked before making such a claim.    (L0Q)
  • The best talk from someone I had never heard of was by Seth Anthony, who spoke about Wikipedia editing patterns. See Ross Mayfield‘s notes for a summary.    (L0R)
  • Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg, the IBM researchers who created History Flow, gave an outstanding talk where they demonstrated some new visualizations of Wiki usage. Some of those visualizations are available in my Flickr collection. I particularly found their visualizations of user behavior interesting, because of past suggestions that such visualizations could be a powerful way to help casual readers determine reputations. The biggest obstacle (besides the computing power required to generate these visualizations)? Privacy. Even though these visualizations were based on public data, that does not automatically make it okay to make those visualizations available. Witness AOL’s recent fiasco (and read Tom Maddox‘s commentary).    (L0S)
  • I caught up with Denny Vrandecic towards the end of the conference, and I’m glad I did. He gave me an in-depth demo of Semantic MediaWiki, which he had first proposed (but had not coded) at last year’s Wikimania. The notion of encoding link types in Wikis is not new, but up until I saw the Semantic Mediawiki, the best implementation I had seen was Evan Prodromou‘s WikiTravel. I think the Semantic Mediawiki is a better approach. It’s less expressive than WikiTravel, but more likely to be widely adopted. I plan on experimenting with it and incorporating some of its capabilities into my own Wikis.    (L0T)

Web 1.0 VC Pitch Champions

The highlight of my Wikimania experience came at the party on Saturday night, when Ross Mayfield and I won the Web 1.0 VC Pitch competition, judged by Mitch Kapor, Brewster Kahle, and Jack Herrick. The pitch? Ross’s first startup, which at one point had a market cap of $1 billion and a fat $60,000 in total revenue. Gotta love the bubble, baby! As Jack said when announcing the results, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.    (L02)

I did my part by doing my best Steve Ballmer impression, only ignorant and more obnoxious. We may have been the only pitch that the judges actually heard, thanks to our shouting and gesticulations. Here we are proudly showing off our spoils — Wikimania staff T-shirts and Wikipedia lanyards:    (L03)

https://i1.wp.com/static.flickr.com/84/207953953_4c447c8f34_m.jpg?w=700    (L04)

Ah, sweet, sweet victory. If only it really were 1998 again….    (L05)

Creole Wiki Markup, WikiOhana, and More Ward Wisdom

Several folks asked me on Saturday what I thought about the conference, and I kept saying, “It’s been great, except I haven’t had any interesting conversations about Wikis.” That changed in an unexpectedly generative way on Saturday afternoon, resulting in a new little cooperative effort we’re calling WikiOhana.    (KZ1)

At Thursday night’s conference party, I got reacquainted with Chuck Smith, whom I had met at Wikimania last year. Chuck is the founder of Esperanto Wikipedia and was the one who first introduced Brion Vibber — now the lead developer of Mediawiki — to the Wikipedia community. At the conference last year, Chuck met Christoph Sauer, a German Wiki researcher, and the two of them started working together.    (KZ2)

At the party, Chuck told me that he and Christoph had been working on a proposed WikiMarkup standard, and I loudly grimaced in response. At WikiSym last October, I made it clear to several people that I thought trying to standardize WikiMarkup was a noble waste of time.    (KZ3)

First, people are really attached to their own markup. Previous discussions about standardization usually started and ended with, “Great idea. Let’s just standardize on mine.”    (KZ4)

Second, WYSIWYG in theory obviates the value of a standard markup from a user’s perspective. It seemed more valuable to work out a standard interchange language, which WYSIWYG widgets could use to interact with different Wiki engines and which would make data migration between different Wiki engines easier. It also seemed like it would be easier to come to agreement on an interchange language. In fact, folks have already worked out a good proposal for an XHTML interchange language on the Interwiki mailing list (now migrated to the wiki-standards list) and on CommunityWiki.    (KZ5)

What made all this talk worse for me was that I thought that people were trying to go about this the wrong way. We were not going to come to agreement by group authoring a spec, then getting everyone to agree on it. The only way this was going to work was if a few Wikis came to some agreement and actually implemented the changes. This wouldn’t necessarily result in a standard, but it could act as a catalyst that could lead to a standard. Sunir Shah has been advocating this approach for a long time, to no avail. I would have organized such an effort myself, except that I didn’t think it was important enough to spend any time on it.    (KZ6)

Chuck and Christoph changed my mind. Chuck explained that he and Christoph had extensively analyzed existing Wiki markup, and they had taken pains to come up with a small subset of things that would be as noncontroversial as possible. (There had been a similar effort by others to do such an analysis before, but it hadn’t gotten very far.) They were going to present the results at WikiSym in a few weeks, but they had prepared a poster for Wikimania. Still clucking my disapproval, I promised Chuck that I would check out his poster.    (KZ7)

On Saturday, I finally made some time to check out the poster. I studied it and found myself thinking, “Hmm. This isn’t bad.” Chuck came over later, and we started going over it in depth. I still have some issues with it (discussed below), but I told him, “You know what, this is almost good enough for us to adopt in PurpleWiki. But you really should find one or two other Wikis who might say the same.” We kicked a few ideas around, and then I said, “Let’s go see what Ward thinks.”    (KZ8)

So we rounded up Ward Cunningham, and he took a look and started asking questions. He seemed to be okay with the answers, because he said that if someone were to write a Perl function that converted from his markup to the proposed markup and vice versa, he would consider incorporating it into his Wiki.    (KZ9)

Creole Markup    (KZA)

Well, you know me. Low-hanging fruit, a spare hour before the next party. The long and the short of it is, half of the converter now exists. It’s called Creole, and it’s written in Perl. Currently, it consists of a brain-dead simple script that converts Ward’s markup into Creole Markup (Chuck and Christoph’s proposal) and some tests.    (KZB)

The name was Ward’s suggestion. Rather than call it “pidgin,” which is what it actually is (a non-native language cobbled together from two or three other languages), we chose to optimistically call it “creole” (a native language that emerges from a pidgin), which is what we hope it will become.    (KZC)

I have three issues with the current proposal. First, I don’t like the exclamation point syntax for headers, not because of the character itself, but because of the numbering:    (KZD)

!!!Heading 1 !!Heading 2 !Heading 3    (KZE)

As you can see, you need to remember that a top-level header has three exclamation points, not one, and you are only capable of having three levels of headers. The advantage of the equals syntax:    (KZF)

= Heading 1 = == Heading 2 == === Heading 3 ===    (KZP)

is that the heading level is represented by the indentation.    (KZQ)

Second, there needs to be a proposal for preformatted blocks.    (KZR)

Third, the spec isn’t rigorous enough. You have to answer questions like, “Will italics work across multiple lines or blocks?” The reason I didn’t write a Creole-to-Ward converter was that these questions were not yet answered.    (KZS)

Most of the time developing the Creole converter was actually spent reverse engineering Ward’s markup. Ward pointed me to a Literate Programming version of his source code — implemented in a Wiki, of course — which helped a lot. As it turns out, Ward’s been thinking a bit about how to write a good markup parser recently. Parsers are often on my mind as well, as we’ve been talking about rewriting the PurpleWiki parser forever. Plus, the topic came up at Hacking Days among the Mediawiki developers before the conference. We’ll probably noodle on this problem a bit both before and during WikiSym. Fortunately, Ward knows a lot more about writing parsers than I, as anyone who’s seen the PurpleWiki code can attest.    (KZT)

WikiOhana    (KZJ)

When we were discussing names, Christoph proposed “ohana,” which means “family” in Hawaiian. It has a wonderful connotation — respecting our individuality while emphasizing the bonds that keep us together in a positive, welcoming fashion. It’s also consistent with Ward’s original naming convention, as “WikiWiki” means “quick” in Hawaiian.    (KZU)

We decided to call our little cooperative effort, WikiOhana, of which Creole Markup is a first project. We hope the family grows over time.    (KZV)

More Ward Wisdom    (KZK)

While retelling an experience he had writing a parser, Ward said, “That’s when I learned how to write beautiful code: Get it working, then spend the same amount of time making it better.”    (KZW)

WikiSym 2006 Program

The WikiSym 2006 program is set. Guess who’s keynoting (with Doug Engelbart). That’s right, I’ll be talking Wiki philosophy and showing off some HyperScope goodness. I’ll also be moderating an interactive session on the Future of Wikis, featuring the other WikiSym keynoters (Ward Cunningham, Angela Beesley, Mark Bernstein) and the illustrious Sunir Shah.    (KY0)

I got back from Wikimania late last night with much news to report, and I’m really looking forward to WikiSym in two weeks. I was originally skeptical about having two Wiki conferences in a month, but now, I’m looking forward to continuing some of the conversations we had this past weekend as well as seeing many other core members of the Wiki community. Plus, the program looks fantastic and there will be an Open Space component as well, organized by Ted Ernst and facilitated by Gerard Muller.    (KY1)

To top it all off, it’ll be in Odense, Denmark. I’ll be in Copenhagen from August 17-20, so if you’d like to meet up earlier, drop me a line. Thomas Madsen Mygdal, the creator of Reboot, has graciously offered to organize a meetup. More on that as details come.    (KY2)