Individual voices in the Federated Wiki chorus

In recent days I’ve been immersed in the Federated Wiki Happening, a group exploration of Ward Cunningham’s Smallest Federated Wiki (SFW). When I first saw what Ward was up to, nearly a year ago, I resisted the temptation to dive in because I knew it would be a long and deep dive that I couldn’t make time for. But when Mike Caulfield brought together a diverse group of like-minded scholars for the #fedwikihappening, I had the time and took the plunge. It’s been a joyful experience that reminds me of two bygone eras. The first was the dawn of the web, when I built the BYTE website and explored the Internet’s precursors to today’s social software. The second was the dawn of the blogosphere, when I immersed myself in Radio UserLand and RSS.

During both of those eras I participated in online communities enaged in, among other things, the discovery of emergent uses of the networked software that enabled those communities to exist. The interplay of social and technological dynamics was exciting in ways I’d almost forgotten. This week, the FedWikiHappening took me there again.

I want to explain why but, as Mike says today, so much has happened so quickly that it’s hard to know where to begin. For now, I’ll choose a single narrative thread: identity.

SFW inverts the traditional wiki model, which enables many authors to work on a canonical page. In SFW there is no canonical page. We all create our own pages and edit them exclusively. But we can also copy pages from others, and make changes. Others may (or may not) notice those changes, and may (or may not) merge the changes.

In this respect SFW resembles GitHub, and its terminology — you “fork” a page from an “origin site” — invites the comparison. But SFW is looser than GitHub. What GitHub calls a pull request, for example, isn’t (yet) a well-developed feature of SFW. And while attribution is crystal-clear in GitHub — you always know who made a contribution — it is (by design) somewhat vague in SFW. In the Chorus of Voices that Ward envisions, individual voices are not easy to discern.

That notion was hard for some of us in The Happening, myself included, to swallow. In SFW we were represented not as avatars with pictures but as neutral “flags” made of color gradients. Identity was Discoverable But Not Obvious.

Then Alex North cracked the code. He read through the FedWiki sources, found the hook for uploading the favicon that serves as SFW’s flag/avatar, and worked out a procedure for using that hook to upload an image.

The next day I worked out a Windows-friendly variant of Alex’s method and uploaded my own image. Meanwhile a few other Happening participants used Alex’s method to replace their colored gradients with photos.

The next day Mike Caulfield bowed to the will of the people and uploaded a batch of photos on behalf of participants unable to cope with Alex’s admittedly geeky hack. Suddenly the Happening looked more like a normal social network, where everyone’s contributions have identifying photos.

That was a victory, but not an unqualified one.

It was a victory in part because Alex showed the group that SFW is web software, and like all web software is radically open to unintended uses. Also, of course, because we were able to alter the system in response to a perceived need.

And yet, we may have decided too quickly not to explore a mode of collaboration that favors the chorus over the individual voice. Can we work together effectively that way, in a federated system that ultimately gives us full control of our own data? That remains an open question for me, one of many that the Happening has prompted me to ask and explore.

14 thoughts on “Individual voices in the Federated Wiki chorus

  1. Hi Jon, i think your last question is an important one and I think at the moment, my feeling is that it is contextual. Some posts more readily fit themselves to non-authorship while others seem to work better with clear authorship. Mike sort of alludes to that a couple of times. I know I am seeing the beauty of someone taking something written by another and taking it to another level and it blows my mind sometimes. Scaling this is more scary, though

    1. Faceless contribution is a new experience for me too, and I’m opening myself up to it. But I agree that to scale it out we’ll want stronger mechanisms for orientation and navigation. I very much like Discoverable But Not Obvious as a guiding principle.

  2. I’m feeling that familiar nostalgia too, wondering if it’s being in proximal, somewhat parallel experimentation of a relatively small number of people. My pins are in first web/HTML, then RSS working everywhere, and more recently RSS (despite death rumors) as syndication hub juice.

    Ironically I kidded Mike for months about the goofy gradients, but his idea of a neighborhood rang true to me… in that I wave hello and interact with people in my physical neighborhood (well the one back in Arizona) regularly but I do not need to have a big sign hanging over the head with their name. The flags started to make sense, until I saw in Recent changes at least 2 or 3 other wikis with my gradient, so sometimes it was not clear w/o a hover check, who was who.

    I do like the idea of loosening of loud identity markers, but it will be for all a rather counter experience to what we do online.

    Maybe we just need more gradient flavors.

  3. Thanks for the post Jon. I was really struck by ” like all web software is radically open to unintended uses”. I am feeling that some of the unintended uses will not require technical change but be guided by more social arrangements. For example, different modes of collaboration might emerge or they might be explicit and planned. Some might submerge identity, others acknowledge it. My difficulty at present is that I feel that there are some important things that I just don’t ‘get’ yet. I am continually confused about the editing track through (forks) of posts and don’t know if it’s my misreading or an error that has crept in.

    1. Many unintended uses do not require technical change. The classic example is the Twitter hashtag. It was purely a convention that was proposed, then widely adopted. Only later were hashtag-related affordances built into the software.

      Your difficulty at present is everyone’s. FedWiki is very new, and radically open in many dimensions, and as yet lacks some key mechanisms for orientation and navigation. We’ve seen some of these emerge during the Happening, notably photo flags and the “conversation club” view. One of the things that’s exciting about being involved with FedWiki in this formative era is that you can help to shape those emerging ways of navigating and orienting. But it does require a high tolerance for confusion and frustration.

  4. Oh wow. This post caused me to take another run at SFW. After maybe 45 minutes of poking around I was looking at Frances Bell’s “Layers of Meaning” page (note?) through Jon’s wiki. And then I clicked on the Frances’ avatar image at the top of that note and the perspective changed to Frances’ wiki’s view and the history was reversed (I saw Jon’s “Welcome Visitors” page to the right whereas it had been to the left previously; and now Jon’s page had the blue halo).


    I imagine that if I were to host a SFW (that I could authenticate to), I could fork somebody’s. Each link to a foreign wiki would result in a notecard with a blue halo. Editing that notecard would make a copy on my site. I could use Conversation Clubs Trending to drive convergence across the forks if that’s what I was after.

    And in advance of hosting my own SFW it’s my understanding that when I edit a notecard/page, it’s saved in my browser local storage. If that’s right, I suppose that could be viewed as elegant or a reductio ad absurdum. Or maybe it’s only absurd until someone invents a way to make the SFW stored in my browser persist somewhere more permanent, or more public.

    1. Thanks for that description of the two perspectives Bill- very illuminating. I am still struggling to understand neighbourhood practices inwiki at FWH – between wiki forking may very well blow my mind;)

  5. If in the “Chorus of Voices”, “individual voices are not easy to discern”, is that at odds with at least the spirit of the CC BY-SA 3.0 which appears on every SFW page?

    Specifically I’m talking about the attribution (appropriate credit) clause.

    I suppose if Chorus of Voices is at odds with that license then one easy solution is to simply adopt a different license (one without an attribution mandate.) But it seems that doing so would narrow the author pool for obvious reasons which I, unfortunately, do not have room for in this margin.

    1. Very good point, Bill. Every aspect of FedWiki is like this. It’s radical in all dimensions: social, cultural, technological. Much is unknown, contradictory, uncodified. That’s part of the fascination for me. I literally cannot tear myself away from it at this point.

      1. I wonder whether the transclusion implemented in the card-based (JavaScript) reader is fundamental or merely incidental to SFW. I wonder because there are two kinds of sharing going on here. The first, transclusion, is (apparently) syndicating content across domains (without modification). The second is derived works where I edit (copy and modify) someone else’s page.

        If transclusion is not fundamental it would be simple enough to differentiate links to “CC BY-SQ 3.0” pages versus links to pages with more restrictive license terms. The latter could be handled by good old <href target='_blank'… links instead of transclusion.

        Would such an SFW still exhibit fundamental SFW-nature? I wonder.

        Another take: I think a good case could be made that the JavaScript wiki viewer could rightly be viewed as an "application". And since "blue pages" (foreign pages) are actually never served from any server other than their originating one, maybe this isn't actual syndication at all.

        Then again that view might be naive, What the SFW viewer does is similar to "framing" of third-party content using HTML iframe tags. And framing is tricky business Even if content is explicitly packaged for syndication (e.g. RSS) you run into legal snares

      2. Transclusion feels pretty fundamental. Among other reasons, I’ll fork your page even with no intent to modify to a) notify you of my interest, b) bring it within my search scope, c) help preserve it, d) raise its visibility in my neighborhood.

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