Build the walls higher, boys

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

I was astonished to read this morning, a little brain storm between Don Park and Dave Winer, to have ‘refereed conversation’, i.e. a conversation between two people on their weblogs, given a special category, which is then aggregated and captured into a weblog and managed by a third person. Or I should say ‘refereed’ by a third person.

Dave Winer’s idea runs as follows:

Suppose there’s an issue, say Choice vs Life (to pick something heavy) and you’ve got two people who like each other enough to be willing to have a refereed online back and forth. So there are three people, one on each side of an issue, and the third making sure that there are no personal attacks. The discussion takes place only between the two people, for two months, two years, two decades, two lifetimes, however long it takes, however long both have something to say. (Of course people can comment on the discussion on their own blogs, on mail lists, radio shows, where ever.) A document with three authors that’s constantly being revised. Sure you can take vacations, maybe a month or a year at a time, as-needed. This would be different from a mail list, or a blog, or anything else. A deliberate respectful discussion, more about the respect and exposure of issues, than about settling the unsettleable. An interesting idea?

We have come so far in this medium to do what we can to open the doors on conversations, to enable the technology to allow people to join in based on interest, only to turn around to purposely pursue a path that guarantees to shut most of this down.

Mike Sanders in comments loved the idea, writing:

It’s a great idea and I hope you focus some of your seemingly endless energy to show how well it could work. Maybe you could get it going by picking three high profile bloggers to take on one side of an issue and three relatively unknowns to take on the other and have three high profilers moderate. I think this would give it a nice dose of drama (ie big guy vs little guy).

Here are some possible topics/bloggers: Rich Interface Apps vs Web Apps (Scoble vs whomever) Foreign Policy – Preemptive or Protective (Daily Kos or Atrios vs whomever) Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Resolution (Eric Alterman vs whomever) Limitations of Blogging (Dave Winer vs whomever) Limits of Indecency (Jeff Jarvis vs whomever) Truisms/Fallacies of Cluetrain (Doc Searls vs whomever)

I wrote at Mr. Winer’s weblog the following comment:

What you’re proposing is to increase the voice of the elite, while simultaneously shutting down the voice of the dissident.

Mike Sanders, look at what you’re doing? You’re promoting those who don’t need more voice. Why?

Do we need to hear yet more opinions from Jarvis and Scoble and Winer and Kos? Why even have weblogs? We’ll just install random link generators to these gentleman, and call it quits.

Are you all so afraid that fresh voices will take away some, even a tiny bit of your audience?

As for moderated conversations, I responded in Don Parks’ weblog on this.

To be fair, Mike did recommend that on the other side of the ‘fence’ there be relative ‘unknowns’ — but why can’t there be unknowns on both sides? Why do we keep returning to these men, again and again. Are we so dazzled by the light of their linkage?

Don wrote about the idea:

Very cool. Dave’s blog-based debates can be implemented using a new type of blog category: Conversation Category. The idea is for a small number of people to share a single blog category and converse over a long period of time through their blogs.

A conversation aggregator subscribes to the category feed of all the participants and merge them into a single feed and publishes a mini-website dedicated to the conversation. The ‘referree’ of the debate or the conversation moderator gets editorial rights over the merged feed and the mini-website.

There, I responded with:

What you’re doing is taking what we’ve achieved in weblogging, and then limiting the number of participants (which smacks of elitism) and allowing an outside person to constrain the conversation even further (which smacks of censorship and control) and then wrapping it up with a syndication bow (we’re assuming RSS 2.0) and calling it new technology.

Are you and Tim adults? Can you manage the hypertext link? Are you willing to turn off comments on those posts to eliminate distraction? Guess what — you’re all set to have a conversation in weblogging. And if you need examples of how to do it, I can point out about a couple of thousand.

Whatever happened to people monitoring and being responsible for their own behavior? To allowing fresh voices into a conversation? To keeping the barriers to participation low?

What’s even sadder is the number of techs who have jumped on, specifically talking about this implementation or that, not even really paying attention to the social ramifications–somewhat like the scientists who pursue research regardless of the consequences, just to see if they can make it happen.

Here at this site, we kept the Kitchen door open. We’re using basic weblogging technology. We want fresh voices, and diverse views.

Shame on us for doing this all wrong.

There is precedence for a formalized match between webloggers, refereed by other individuals.

Books Just Shelley

A little puffery

I discovered that I’m a Google Scholar. I guess this means that you’ll have to treat me with more respect; call me “Ms. Powers” or perhaps “Lady Burning” (please, not “Lady Bird”) and that sort of thing.

I don’t normally jump on all the cool gadgets that come out, but the Google Scholar looks to be very useful, and intriguing. For instance, when I did look up my name, I could click on a Library Link associated with my book, Practical RDF, and find out that it’s part of the stacks at St. Louis University and the University of Missouri. Which is rather cool if you think on it: the service and the fact that my book is at these two universities.

From there, I can access a page that could be used to request this book, or at least do a search at that particular library. Now that is pretty damn exciting, even for a jaded tech such as myself.

Let’s say I’m interested in finding out which library might have a copy of the popular book, “Birth of the Chess Queen: A History”, by Marilyn Yalom. I can search on her author name and the title, and find a reference to this book. From there I can click a link to find the local libraries that have this. Clicking on one of these, actually takes you to the web-based system to request this book. I’ve had a request in for this book at the County library for a couple of months. However, I found that the city library now has this book, and it’s checked in, so I can cancel my request at the County and place it at the City.

Good stuff. Read more about it at the Google Blog.


Beginning Morph: Wordform for groups

Rather than closing The Kitchen we’re moving into a totally self-sustained environment. To that end, I captured a snapshot of the most recent WordPress 1.3a code and have started modifying it to provide administration free group weblog support. This will become, eventually, a group form of Wordform.

(My inclination is to separate out the group aspects of Wordform into a product separate from the individual installation of Wordform. The main reason why is that the group management aspects should become more encapsulated as a result, and this is a good thing for product development and support. More than that, though–why add extra functionality when 95% of the users won’t need it?)

Before doing so, I did look very carefully at the possiblity of using Drupal; testing it out in an installation of my own, as well as trying out the version at OpenSource CMS. There is no doubt that this is a very powerful product, with some pretty amazing abilities. However, it is the power that makes it, in my opinion, not the right product for a totally self-sustained environment.

First of all, Drupal is a community tool, not necessarily a group tool. By this I mean that the community decides which post shows in the front of the site at any point in time, rather than having posts show in the front as they are created. As such, the sense of community is fostered, but at the cost of the freedom of each individual writer. WordPress, from which Wordform is being derived, is a group tool in that it is provides functionality for a group of autonomous, independent individuals who determine when their writing is going to appear in the front.

Drupal is also a bit too geeky, and though Wordform might border on this at times, not to the extent that Drupal does. For instance, what do the words “taxonomy module” mean to you?

In addition, Drupal is too powerful, and by this I mean there are too many options, even for new users. What I’ve found working in the software and web development business for a couple of decades is that while providing more options might appeal to the geekier folks, too many options can be intimidating to newer users.

WordPress has a way of controlling which options show up by assigning different options based on different user ranks in the menu management file (menu.php). I’ve taken this and modified the settings for Wordform so that a new user has very limited access to functionality: they can write and edit their own posts, add a link to their site, moderate their own comments, and adjust their own profile. That’s it.

Over time they can ask to have their rank increased if they want additional privileges, and any user higher ranked then them can increase it. However, they have to specifically ask for this in a post and another member then has to grant this request.

I’m modifying the WordPress installation even further to automatically add their profile URLs as a link and then removing even the feature to add a link. Eventually, I want to add a newbie edit page to the site that eliminates the post-slug field and the custom metadata fields, as well as limiting their post and comment status options. I’m already eliminating all of the password protected post options from both the group and individual versions of Wordform–I’ve yet to see this used, and if it were, it’s rather rude because it leaves a post in the middle of your page that demands your users enter a password to see it. If you’re going to password protect writing, you’re better off sending email, or creating a new password protected site.

I’m also modifying the Manage page so that only each individual’s posts show on the page, and the posts of those who have lower ranks then themselves. Of course, for new people, this means only their posts will show. Those with the highest ranks of 9, the site admins, will also be able to pull a person’s post and disable a person’s posting privileges.

(Any site admin with a rank of 9 can promote any other person to a site admin.)

One other aspect of the Kitchen site I want to modify is the ability to upload and edit themes. Right now, Kitchen members who have contributed something to this point have earned what I call “Founder Rights”, which also gives them site admin rights. They can also modify themes, but since all of the folk are known, I’m not worried about granting this right. What I would like to do, though, is provide an ability for a site admin to upload a new theme, or create a new theme.

Right now, none of the themes that are loaded can be edited, but I’m about to change this. Again, only site admins can change the files, so this should be a safe change to make. Just in case, and following on the rule that sh*t happens, I’m also creating automated jobs that backup the themes and the database nightly, so that I don’t have to bother the host if we have to back out changes from accidental or malicious changes.

There are other changes I want to make to both the individual and group Wordform, such as replacing the static radio buttons for Post Status with a database driven option so that new statuses can be added without modification to the page (ditto for comment status), and doing something with the categories so they’re not so hard to read. I also want to add in my full page preview option, and remove in the inline preview.

Another major change I want to add is an option, similar to what Movable Type has, to turn on edit formatting options on a per-post basis; so you can choose not to apply formatting (if you use your own HTML), use the basic line-break formatting, or use Markdown, Textile and so on, on a post by post basis but this is a very major change to the underlying architecture of the product and far down the road to a finished release.

For now, I should be able to tweak the installation enough to allow the group to manage itself without an administrator. We’ll see how it goes.