I have just sent a message with the title "Goup-forming's next incarnation" to our mailing list, thinking out loud about how the next system we'll use ought to encourage and facilitate knowledge organization. The trick is of course to develop healthy hyperlinking and synthesis habits. Here's how it starts:
This week I've begun feeling that the mailing list has already run its course.
It has served us well, helping us in gathering people easily, finding out who we are and what we know and sketching out where our respective interests lie. However, as Eric has just pointed out, a big cause of dissatisfaction is the fact that the content we're pooling is poorly organized, which is likely to make us less effective in actually getting somewhere. So I think we might be due for a first bootstrapping effort here.
In his last post Eric has thought about ways to complement the mailing list; here I think about what we should replace it with.
I see two aspects with the situation, one that relates with the tool itself that we're using (mailing list software), and one that relates to the way we use it. The two are interrelated.
Just as mailing lists, weblog networks enable conversation. I've been thinking about the dynamics of personal weblogging for a while (for details see this article) and I want to stress the important differences that exist between the way weblog posts and mailing list posts are typically written.
When you write something you need to somehow relate it to a surrounding context. In a mailing list the context is usually indicated by the post you're replying to, and by quoted segments of that post; the rest of the context is implicit in the (possibly long) chain of messages leading up to your post. By contrast, when you write in a weblog, your post needs to stand on its own; it is a little more like a news story. The result is that you need a little more footwork to set up the context. Typically you'll write a meaningful title, a couple introductory sentences, summarizing and linking to related posts by you or others.
What I find is that this extra context-elicitation work is excellent practice, both for the group and the individuals. It lets newcomers or revisitors much more easily get into the groove when they need to. The context-setting effort is also good for the author because it forces him to think synthetically, and because the hyperlink patterns reduce the chances that his contributions will fall into obscurity.
To summarize, I'm advocating more blog-style posts as a way of amplifying our collective memory (and, hopefully, intelligence). More elaborate ways have already been proposed and will undoubtedly come further down the line (or in parallel), but I think we'd already be better off if we directly made our conversations more approachable.
Now it is true that we could discipline ourselves to use mailing lists in that way, citing URLs as I have done in a few of my posts. But it's not an elegant hack, and I'm sure we'll get lazy and won't do it most of the time.
I've taken a quick look at the Drupal engine, and a few features struck me as being appropriate for the need I've outlined above. [read more...]