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Jon Udell: Radio UserLand 8.0 Is a Lab for Group-Forming

by Jon Udell

In the first installment of this column, I cited an excellent point made in Clay Shirky's P2P keynote -- that the value of a group-forming network rises exponentially with the number of groups formed. I was tempted to name this phenomenon "Shirky's Law" but didn't. That's lucky because, as UserLand's John Robb showed me, it is in fact known as Reed's Law.

The UserLand connection was predictive, as it turns out. Two months later I found myself deeply engaged with a new piece of software, Radio UserLand 8.0, and with the community (or communities) forming around it. The best one-line description I've seen so far is Peter Drayton's:

WYSIWYG Blogging+Navigator Links+RSS Syndication+Referrer Logs+FTP Upstreaming==Topic-Oriented Web of Smart People.

My life's work revolves around hypertextual communication, Web services, peer networking, and scripting, all woven together to achieve group collaboration. So it was inevitable that my path would intersect with this latest incarnation of UserLand's software, in which all these ingredients that have been cooking for years finally become soup.

I thought, by 1997, that Netscape Communicator had become this kind of soup, and I wrote a book on the subject. When I zigged, though, the rest of the world zagged. Netscape was imploding as I completed the book in 1999. The amazing collaborative power of Communicator 4 -- which to this day remains unknown to all but a handful of the millions who have used the product -- has become (tragically, I think) a historical footnote.

But the impulse to collaborate online, in ways richer than email allows, is finding other means of expression. Blogging is a major ingredient of the emerging story, but it is not the whole story. A lot of things are coming together all at once, creating a rush of excitement like I haven't felt in a few years.

Constitutional Values

Lawrence Lessig's Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace dwells deeply on how online communities, or spaces, may be constituted in different ways, in order to express different sets of values. As I explore and homestead this new Radio space, I find one of its core values to be that of transparency, as defined by David Brin, for whom surveillance is inevitable but -- so long as it is mutual -- less disturbing than we imagine. For example, I found the following URLs in my Radio referrer log last night:


What this means is that Sam, Jenny, and Peter came to my Radio blog from their Radio referrer logs. Of course, since everything is transparent, they can see me seeing them by looking in my referrer log.

This dizzying recursion will undoubtedly soon inspire a more intimate version of blogdex's social network explorer. It is possible, incidentally, because of a very simple feature of the software. Radio templates include Web bugs that phone home when pages are viewed. That's true for pages hosted on the Radio community server or elsewhere.

Do you find this creepy? If so, you can turn the feature off, by removing the <%radio.macros.staticSiteStatsImage ()%> macro from your templates. The constitution of Radio space does not require that you include this macro, it only encourages that you do so -- by not offering a Pref (default: Off) controlling the insertion of the macro. When left in place, the macro enables a Radio user to see inbound referrals, and also to see rankings. Observing these things is habit-forming, and can seem (perhaps is) voyeuristic. Probably the system should offer a Pref (default: Off) called Hide My Referrer Log. Why default to Off, though? Because transparent measurement of influence and interconnectedness is one of the key ingredients of the Radio experience.

Conversations and Publications

Radio is not a discussion system, it is a publishing system. I have spent years using and exploring the value of discussion systems, and they remain central to my vision of Internet groupware. The fact that Radio is not a discussion system seemed to me (and some others) at first to be a bug. Here too, while Radio's constitution does not explicitly empower you to follow the now-common convention of enabling every published document to be the seed of a discussion, it allows (indeed, could not prevent) such implementations. But after a little while, I began to suspect that the Radio's default separation of publication from conversation might be a feature rather than a bug.

Think about how the enterprise of science proceeds. It is an essentially collaborative activity. Collaborations span a range of topical, institutional, and social scopes, and often take the form of electronically-mediated conversations -- phone, email, videoconferencing. But there is a separation of these informal conversations from the more formal communication seen in scientific publications. These writings also form a kind of conversation, but one that is less immediate and more reflective. Monitoring the flow and interconnectedness of this meta-conversation, by means of citation indexes, is central to the way science creates shared knowledge.

In CiteSeer, the most powerful tool for doing such monitoring, I appear just once, for a 1994 article that was clearly my most broadly influential piece of writing -- at least among scientists, of which group I am not a member. Neither are most of us. But a great many of us are busily trying to create shared knowledge -- within small workgroups, within departments and divisions of companies, and in the world at large. As Steve Lawrence reminds people on every CiteSeer search-results page: "Articles available online have much greater impact."

Crossing the Threshold

What I now hope to achieve with Radio and software like it is exactly what I used to think I'd achieve with mail/news clients and servers: the ability to collaborate in many communities using the tools of hypertext, indexing, search, and cross-referencing. As the experiment proceeds, issues that I addressed in the past resurface.

One that's seemingly trivial but in fact looms large is the tool available for hypertextual writing. Like some other Web-writing software, Radio uses the MSIE WYSIWYG edit control, which of course, is not universally available, and in any case (I'm sad to report) is less capable than the Netscape mail/news client I explored deeply years ago. Standard, easy-to-use, and yet powerful tools for Web-oriented writing remain one of the key obstacles standing in the way of wider adoption of collaborative styles that resemble the world of scientific publication.

Another major obstacle is standard, easy-to-use, and powerful ways to control transparency. Science is not, after all, completely transparent. Far from it: science is hotly competitive, and many private collaborations precede and surround those made public. Blogging communities today cannot easily form opaquely bounded zones within which transparent interaction can occur. For this, we continue to rely on email. Or, in some cases, we take our collaboration into Groove spaces that enable the ad-hoc group formation that is email's greatest strength, while rectifying many of email's deficiencies.

Both approaches are valid, but there is a middle ground -- more coherent than email, less isolated than Groove -- that needs to be occupied. Radio doesn't yet know how to occupy that middle ground. But it has the tools people need to do the experiment: a distributed scripting engine and object database, Web-services protocols. When Radio's currently-centralized community engine itself becomes distributable (as is planned), I expect to see an explosion of group-forming activity. The spaces thus constituted will express different sets of values, but they'll federate in the way that Reed's Law predicts.

Jon Udell is an author, information architect, software developer, and new media innovator.

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