Open vs. closed networks

As part of my [thesis][] research, I have been reading a stack of books, including [Linked][linked], [Six Degrees][sixdeg], [Design For Community][dfc] and [The Future of Ideas][tfoi]. At the same time I’ve been exploring and studying various online communities, trying to determine what makes them tick.

Is there a common characteristic of successful communities? So far, I’ve been nursing along the notion that “openness” is a common feature (among others) of the groups and communities that I’ve been studying.

[thesis]: /archives/2004/05/my_thesis_topic.html
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My Thesis Topic

I am currently working on my thesis for a Master’s degree in Engineering Management. The topic I am studying and writing about deals with online collaborative environments and communities. Specifically, I’m compiling case studies of various successful online collaborations, looking for the qualities that are common among them. My hope is that I will be able to identify some fundamental characteristics necessary to foster effective collaboration across geographical and cultural boundaries.

The groups/communities I am currently investigating are the Apache Software Foundation, Wikipedia and {fray}.

I’ll be posting more on this topic in the near future.


Another door opens

Scripting News: “At some point in the next few months, there will be an open source release of the Frontier kernel.”

Congratulations to Dave Winer on reaching a new milestone in the history of Frontier. Another loop closes as a new door opens.

The roots of blogging today can be traced back, in part at least, to the release of Aretha in May 1995. At that time, Frontier was locked away, unused, unprofitable and largely unappreciated. It could have ended there. But Dave made the software free (as in beer) and so started a chain of events that eventually lead to Clay Basket, Manila, Radio, XML-RPC and RSS. It also helped launch the career of Brent Simmons, the author of NetNewsWire.

Of course, that is not the whole story of blogging, but Frontier and Aretha are clearly high up in the Blog family tree. I’m glad to see Dave and Userland taking it a step further and I look forward to seeing where this journey takes us. Thank you and good luck. Let a thousand flowers bloom.


Google, the fallback for trackback?

Sometime yesterday or early this morning, flowdelic was added to the Google index. It’s official — I’m now “in the book” as it were. Yeah.

As I expected, my site is in the top spot (easy to do with an invented word I guess), but I also found some sites that that pointed here that I didn’t see previously. Thanks and thanks.

It’s great to see those other links — but I wonder, why did I have to wait on Google to find them? Having been a reader of blogs for some time (okay a really, really long time), but not an author, I had thought that trackback links were more automated than they appear to be. I found the very helpful How TrackBack Works — but it really just confirmed what I’d recently discovered — trackback is a very manual, error-prone process. (BTW — I’m also using MoveableType)

That’s not what I expected. My expectation was that if I linked to another blog’s post in my blog entry, that link would be extracted when I posted the entry, and a trackback “ping” would be sent to the referenced article automatically. I understand that trackback URLs are different than permalinks — but shouldn’t the remote blog system be able to map permalinks to postings?

Why do I, the user, need to go track down a special URL? Is this how all blogging systems work — or is this something specific to MoveableType?

Before I got the hang of this I was entering permalinks into the “URLs to ping” box in my editing interface. (Why should I need to type these in at all?) MT gladly accepted these and dutifully “pinged” the incorrect URLs I had given it without a hiccup. I would have expected to see some kind of error message if the ping wasn’t accepted. At least then I would have know I was “doing it wrong” and could have learned faster how to do it right.

I see trackback as a crucial feature of the blogsphere. It enables readers to follow a conversation from blog to blog. Wouldn’t it be cool if RSS readers could organize posts by thread as well as by blog? Without that I feel like I’m missing part of the conversation (and I probably am). Why should the burden fall on users to discover and follow cross-blog threads? If any RSS readers do threading, I’d like to know, I just haven’t seen it yet.

It seems obvious to me that trackback is a useful feature of blogging — but to be really useful, it has got to be reliable. And if the reliability is based on trusting blog authors everywhere to track down and correctly use trackback URLs, well we’re going to have to continue to rely on Google to piece together strands of conversations for us for the foreseeable future.

UPDATE: I found “A Beginner’s Guide to Trackback” on the MoveableType site. There, I found that there is an auto-discovery feature that works how I would expect it to work. Nice. But — if that’s how it works, why didn’t I get trackback pings from all the sites that linked to my posts? It still seems that trackback reliability leaves something to be desired.

Also, I wish I could use the bookmarklets too, but they don’t work in Safari. (My laptop at work is Windows XP, but at home I have a G4 PowerBook with Mac OS X.)


Blogs: The Other Half of Customer Relationship

I’ve been reading with great interest recent posts by Robert Scoble and Tim Bray about blogging in a corporate context.

As Scoble and others have shown, blogs are a powerful way to quickly react to negative publicity, to establish real credibility, and build lasting bonds with customers and the community. For all the millions upon millions of dollars that companies have poured into customer relationship management (CRM) systems, it is surprising more haven’t encouraged their employees to blog. Companies seem to willing to talk the one-to-one talk, but when it comes to empowering, and trusting, their employees to connect directly to customers on a mass scale, the commitment usually whithers away.

Isn’t it ironic that companies will spend big bucks to build “relationships” by compiling and cross-indexing information about their customers, without realizing that a relationship, by definition, is inheritently reciprocal? Does having a website greet me by name make me feel like I have a closer relationship with that company? No it doesn’t—in fact it kinda spooks me out. Why? Because it lays bare the fact that my “relationship” with said company is out of balance—they know a lot more about me than I know about them.

While CRM systems may help you know more about your customers — they don’t build relationships because they don’t help your customers know more about you.

And that is the beautiful thing about employee blogs. It is one way to bring some much-needed parity to the customer relationship. All companies are ultimately organized collections of people. And by getting to know some of those people a little better, we (the customers) get to know the company better.

I can think of no better example of this than the Channel 9 site at the Microsoft Developer Network. I feel like I know infinitely more about Microsoft now because of this site. Getting to listen in on interesting conversations between people who have built and are buliding tools I use everyday is very valuable to me. I am so glad Microsoft decided to do that instead of making sure I see a “Welcome, Mason Hale” message everytime I visit their website.