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.