Information technologists often recite David Wheeler’s famous aphorism:
Any problem in computer science can be solved with another layer of indirection.
Often, though, they omit the corollary:
But that usually will create another problem.
Those problems used to plague only IT folk. But now we’re all involved. Effective social information management is quite severely constrained by the fact that regular folks are not (yet) taught the basics of computational thinking.
For example, when I explain my community calendar project to prospective contributors, they invariably assume that I’m asking them to enter their data into my database. It’s quite hard to convey: that the site isn’t a database of events, only a coordinator of event feeds; that I’m only asking them to create feeds and give me pointers to their feeds; that this arrangement empowers them to control their information and materialize it in contexts other than the one I’m creating.
I’m having some success explaining this model, but it’s slow going. People don’t take naturally to the indirection and abstraction.
Here’s another example. I know various folks who are trying to create online resource directories of one kind or another. I’ve identified a pattern, which I call collaborative list curation, that is an ideal way to solve this problem. Consider this directory of blogs for the Monadnock region. It looks like any other such directory, but it’s made differently. Again, there is no explicit database. Entries come from the del.icio.us tag delicious.com/judell/monadnockblog — a personal collection whose items are, currently, the same as those in the global collection delicious.com/tag/monadnockblog.
I’m subscribed to the global collection at feeds.delicious.com/v2/rss/tag/monadnockblog which means I can monitor it for new items, vet them, and transfer those I want to include to my personal collection. If I wanted to delegate that editorial control, I would point my directory-making service at the del.icio.us account of a trusted associate and have it camp on that account’s monadnockblog tag instead of (or in addition to) my own.
Of course this is all way too indirect for any normal person to grok, which is why nothing has been added to the global collection. Even many IT-savvy folks, I’m finding, don’t take naturally to this model.
That said, I’m finding that once I can get people to walk through one of these experiences, and see the connection — OK, I do this over here, and that happens over there, and it can also happen somewhere else, and I’m in control — the light bulb does go on.
Now we need to take forward-thinking evangelists like me out of the loop, and get people to discover for themselves how to wire the web. If Live Clipboard didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. Oh wait. It doesn’t, and we do.