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A funny thing happened on the (way to the) forum

21 January 2009 3 views 4 Comments

I love Stephen Sondheim musicals. In particular I love the way he can build an ensemble piece in which there can be 10-20 people onstage, apparently singing, shouting, and speaking complete disconnected lines, which nonetheless build into a coherent whole. Into the Woods (1987) contains many brilliant examples of the thoughts, fears, and hopes of a whole group of people building into a coherent view and message (see the opening for a taste and links to other clips). Those who believe in the wisdom of crowds in its widest sense see a similar possibility in aggregating the chatter found on the web into coherent and accurate assessments of problems. Those who despair of the ignorance of the lowest common denominator see most Web2 projects as a waste of time. I sit somewhere in the middle – believing that with the right tools, a community of people who care about a problem and have some form of agreed standards of behavior and disputation can rapidly aggregate a well informed and considered view of a problem and what it’s solution might be.

Yesterday and today, I saw one of the most compelling examples of that I’ve yet seen. Yesterday I posted a brain dump of what I had been thinking about following discussions in Hawaii and in North Carolina, about the possibilities of using OpenID to build a system for unique researcher IDs. The discussion on Friendfeed almost immediately aggregated a whole set of material, some of which I had not previously seen, proceded through a coherent discussion of many points, with a wide range of disparate views, towards some emerging conclusions. I’m not going to pre-judge those conclusions except to note there are some positions clearly developing that are contrary to my own view (e.g. on CrossRef being the preferred organisation to run such a service). This to me suggests the power of this approach for concensus building, even when that concensus is opposite to the position of the person kicking off the discussion.

What struck me with this was the powerful way in which Friendfeed rapidly enabled the conversation – and also the potential negative effect it had on widening the conversation beyond that community. Friendfeed is a very powerful tool for very rapidly widening the reach of a discussion like this one. It would be interesting to know how many people saw the item in their feeds. I could calculate it I suppose but for now I will just guess it was probably in the low to mid thousands. Many, many, more than subscribe to the blog anyway. What will be interesting to see is whether the slower process of blogospheric diffusion is informed by the Friendfeed discussion or runs completely independent of it (incidentally Friendfeed widget will hopefully be coming soon on the blog as well to try to and tie things together). Andy Powell of the Eduserv Foundation comments in his post of today that;

There’s a good deal of discussion about the post in Cameron’s FriendFeed. (It’s slightly annoying that the discussion is somewhat divorced from the original blog post but I guess that is one of the, err…, features of using FriendFeed?) [Andy also goes on to make some good point about delegation - CN]

The speed with which Friendfeed works, and the way in which it helps you build an interested community, and  separated communities where appropriate, is indeed a feature of Friendfeed. Equally that speed and the fact that you need an account to comment, if not to watch, can be exclusionary. It is also somewhat closed off from the rest of the world. While I am greatly excited by what happened yesterday and today, indeed possibly just as excited as I am about yesterday’s other important news, it is important to make sure that the watering and care of the community doesn’t turn into the building of a walled garden.

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  • Chris Rusbridge

    Yes, I’ve found this business of blog items plunging off into Friendfeed very disconcerting, since I don’t have an account. In a way though, it’s no worse than plunging off onto an email list to which I’m not subscribed. The good thing in either case would be for someone to report (their view of) the conclusions of either discussion back to the place of origin, eg the blog. It seems a bit rude otherwise, if you’ll pardon me: you tell some folks something interesting, then go off and discuss it privately with other folks, potentially coming to a different conclusion, but don’t update the first lot. So we might say, CN thinks this, see his blog, when in fact he no longer does think this (I know, there’s no promise that a blog post is a considered thought like an article, I’m just saying how it feels). I’ve tried this sort of summary of some discussions that have taken place on the DCC-Associates email list (which is not archived); unfortunately, the way I’ve tried to do it, using contributors’ own words, it’s a lot of work.

  • Chris Rusbridge

    Yes, I’ve found this business of blog items plunging off into Friendfeed very disconcerting, since I don’t have an account. In a way though, it’s no worse than plunging off onto an email list to which I’m not subscribed. The good thing in either case would be for someone to report (their view of) the conclusions of either discussion back to the place of origin, eg the blog. It seems a bit rude otherwise, if you’ll pardon me: you tell some folks something interesting, then go off and discuss it privately with other folks, potentially coming to a different conclusion, but don’t update the first lot. So we might say, CN thinks this, see his blog, when in fact he no longer does think this (I know, there’s no promise that a blog post is a considered thought like an article, I’m just saying how it feels). I’ve tried this sort of summary of some discussions that have taken place on the DCC-Associates email list (which is not archived); unfortunately, the way I’ve tried to do it, using contributors’ own words, it’s a lot of work.

  • http://openwetware.org/wiki/User:Cameron_Neylon Cameron Neylon

    Chris, thanks for the comment. At least the advantage with Friendfeed is that anyone can at least look at the conversation via a direct link, as opposed to a completely private mailing list (actually it occurs to me that this is not immediately obvious when one lands on the Friendfeed front page – which probably doesn’t help)

    If you follow this link anyone can see the conversation around the original post whereas if you go here you can find the commentary on the current post. And if you go here you can find conversation and click through to another item where I have been roundly told off. So it is all accessible but from the outside you wouldn’t necessarily be able to connect it all up except by, for instance, grabbing the RSS feeds [1, 2 off my own Friendfeed and that of items where I have commented.

    The question is whether that is compelling enough to make you want to join up for the conversation.

    There is also something here about intrinsic timeframes of the various discussions on different services that don’t map onto each other that makes it difficult to bring everything together in any meaningful way.

  • http://openwetware.org/wiki/User:Cameron_Neylon Cameron Neylon

    Chris, thanks for the comment. At least the advantage with Friendfeed is that anyone can at least look at the conversation via a direct link, as opposed to a completely private mailing list (actually it occurs to me that this is not immediately obvious when one lands on the Friendfeed front page – which probably doesn’t help)

    If you follow this link anyone can see the conversation around the original post whereas if you go here you can find the commentary on the current post. And if you go here you can find conversation and click through to another item where I have been roundly told off. So it is all accessible but from the outside you wouldn’t necessarily be able to connect it all up except by, for instance, grabbing the RSS feeds [1, 2 off my own Friendfeed and that of items where I have commented.

    The question is whether that is compelling enough to make you want to join up for the conversation.

    There is also something here about intrinsic timeframes of the various discussions on different services that don’t map onto each other that makes it difficult to bring everything together in any meaningful way.