How a Group is its own Worst Enemy/Part 2
How a Group is its own Worst Enemy
Part Two: Why now?
If these things I'm saying have happened so often before, have been happening and been documented and we've got psychological literature that predates the Internet, what's going on now that makes this important?
I can't tell you precisely why, but observationally there is a revolution in social software going on. The number of people writing tools to support or enhance group collaboration or communication is astonishing.
The web turned us all into size queens for six or eight years there. It was loosely coupled, it was stateless, it scaled like crazy, and everything became about How big can you get? "How many users does Yahoo have? How many customers does Amazon have? How many readers does MSNBC have?" And the answer could be "Really a lot!" But it could only be really a lot if you didn't require MSNBC to be answering those readers, and you didn't require those readers to be talking to one another.
The downside of going for size and scale above all else is that the dense, interconnected pattern that drives group conversation and collaboration isn't supportable at any large scale. Less is different -- small groups of people can engage in kinds of interaction that large groups can't. And so we blew past that interesting scale of small groups. Larger than a dozen, smaller than a few hundred, where people can actually have these conversational forms that can't be supported when you're talking about tens of thousands or millions of users, at least in a single group.
We've had things like mailing lists and BBSes for a long time, and more recently we've had IM, we've had these various patterns. And now, all of a sudden, these things are popping up. We've gotten weblogs and wikis, and I think, even more importantly, we're getting platform stuff. We're getting RSS. We're getting shared Flash objects. We're getting ways to quickly build on top of some infrastructure we can take for granted, that lets us try new things very rapidly.
I was talking to Stewart Butterfield about the chat application they're trying here. I said "Hey, how's that going?" He said: "Well, we only had the idea for it two weeks ago. So this is the launch." When you can go from "Hey, I've got an idea" to "Let's launch this in front of a few hundred serious geeks and see how it works," that suggests that there's a platform there that is letting people do some really interesting things really quickly. It's not that you couldn't have built a similar application a couple of years ago, but the cost would have been much higher. And when you lower costs, interesting new kinds of things happen.
So the first answer to Why Now? is simply "Because it's time." I can't tell you why it took as long for weblogs to happen as it did, except to say it had absolutely nothing to do with technology. We had every bit of technology we needed to do weblogs the day Mosaic launched the first forms-capable browser. Every single piece of it was right there. Instead, we got Geocities. Why did we get Geocities and not weblogs? We didn't know what we were doing.
One was a bad idea, the other turns out to be a really good idea. It took a long time to figure out that people talking to one another, instead of simply uploading badly-scanned photos of their cats, would be a useful pattern.
We got the weblog pattern in around '96 with Drudge. We got weblog platforms starting in '98. The thing really was taking off in 2000. By last year, everyone realized: Omigod, this thing is going mainstream, and it's going to change everything.
The vertigo moment for me was when Phil Gyford launched the Pepys weblog, Samuel Pepys' diaries of the 1660's turned into a weblog form, with a new post every day from Pepys' diary. What that said to me was: Phil was asserting, and I now believe, that weblogs will be around for at least 10 years, because that's how long Pepys kept a diary. And that was this moment of projecting into the future: This is now infrastructure we can take for granted.
Why was there an eight-year gap between a forms-capable browser and the Pepys diaries? I don't know. It just takes a while for people to get used to these ideas.
So, first of all, this is a revolution in part because it is a revolution. We've internalized the ideas and people are now working with them. Second, the things that people are now building are web-native.
When you got social software on the web in the mid-Nineties, a lot of it was: "This is the Giant Lotus Dreadnought, now with New Lightweight Web Interface!" It never felt like the web. It felt like this hulking thing with a little, you know, "Here's some icons. Don't look behind the curtain."
A weblog is web-native. It's the web all the way in. A wiki is a web-native way of hosting collaboration. It's lightweight, it's loosely coupled, it's easy to extend, it's easy to break down. And it's not just the surface, like oh, you can just do things in a form. It assumes http is transport. It assumes markup in the coding. RSS is a web-native way of doing syndication. So we're taking all of these tools and we're extending them in a way that lets us build new things really quickly.
Third, in David Weinberger's felicitous phrase, we can now start to have a Small Pieces Loosely Joined pattern. It's really worthwhile to look into what Joi Ito is doing with the Emergent Democracy movement, even if you're not interested in the themes of emerging democracy. This started because a conversation was going on, and Ito said "I am frustrated. I'm sitting here in Japan, and I know all of these people are having these conversations in real-time with one another. I want to have a group conversation, too. I'll start a conference call.
"But since conference calls are so lousy on their own, I'm going to bring up a chat window at the same time." And then, in the first meeting, I think it was Pete Kaminski said "Well, I've also opened up a wiki, and here's the URL." And he posted it in the chat window. And people can start annotating things. People can start adding bookmarks; here are the lists.
So, suddenly you've got this meeting, which is going on in three separate modes at the same time, two in real-time and one annotated. So you can have the conference call going on, and you know how conference calls are. Either one or two people dominate it, or everyone's like "Oh, can I -- no, but --", everyone interrupting and cutting each other off.
It's very difficult to coordinate a conference call, because people can't see one another, which makes it hard to manage the interrupt logic. In Joi's conference call, the interrupt logic got moved to the chat room. People would type "Hand," and the moderator of the conference call will then type "You're speaking next," in the chat. So the conference call flowed incredibly smoothly.
Meanwhile, in the chat, people are annotating what people are saying. "Oh, that reminds me of So-and-so's work." Or "You should look at this URL...you should look at that ISBN number." In a conference call, to read out a URL, you have to spell it out -- "No, no, no, it's w w w dot net dash..." In a chat window, you get it and you can click on it right there. You can say, in the conference call or the chat: "Go over to the wiki and look at this."
This is a broadband conference call, but it isn't a giant thing. It's just three little pieces of software laid next to each other and held together with a little bit of social glue. This is an incredibly powerful pattern. It's different from: Let's take the Lotus juggernaut and add a web front-end.
And finally, and this is the thing that I think is the real freakout, is ubiquity. The web has been growing for a long, long time. And so some people had web access, and then lots of people had web access, and then most people had web access.
But something different is happening now. In many situations, all people have access to the network. And "all" is a different kind of amount than "most." "All" lets you start taking things for granted.
Now, the Internet isn't everywhere in the world. It isn't even everywhere in the developed world. But for some groups of people -- students, people in high-tech offices, knowledge workers -- everyone they work with is online. Everyone they're friends with is online. Everyone in their family is online.
And this pattern of ubiquity lets you start taking this for granted. Bill Joy once said "My method is to look at something that seems like a good idea and assume it's true." We're starting to see software that simply assumes that all offline groups will have an online component, no matter what.
It is now possible for every grouping, from a Girl Scout troop on up, to have an online component, and for it to be lightweight and easy to manage. And that's a different kind of thing than the old pattern of "online community." I have this image of two hula hoops, the old two-hula hoop world, where my real life is over here, and my online life is over there, and there wasn't much overlap between them. If the hula hoops are swung together, and everyone who's offline is also online, at least from my point of view, that's a different kind of pattern.
There's a second kind of ubiquity, which is the kind we're enjoying here thanks to Wifi. If you assume whenever a group of people are gathered together, that they can be both face to face and online at the same time, you can start to do different kinds of things. I now don't run a meeting without either having a chat room or a wiki up and running. Three weeks ago I ran a meeting for the Library of Congress. We had a wiki, set up by Socialtext, to capture a large and very dense amount of technical information on long-term digital preservation.
The people who organized the meeting had never used a wiki before, and now the Library of Congress is talking as if they always had a wiki for their meetings, and are assuming it's going to be at the next meeting as well -- the wiki went from novel to normal in a couple of days.
It really quickly becomes an assumption that a group can do things like "Oh, I took my PowerPoint slides, I showed them, and then I dumped them into the wiki. So now you can get at them." It becomes a sort of shared repository for group memory. This is new. These kinds of ubiquity, both everyone is online, and everyone who's in a room can be online together at the same time, can lead to new patterns.
|Department of Veterans Affairs|