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Mozilla, Webmaking, and the Architecture of Participation

Mozilla All Hands meeting, Toronto (10 September 2012)

(I’m currently at the Mozilla All Hands meeting in Toronto)

Last week I attended the inaugural EduWiki conference run by Wikimedia UK. It was a curious mix of Wikipedians, educators and academics who came together to discuss how Wikipedia could be used in more formal educational settings.

Martin Poulter, the organiser of the conference, was at pains to point out that Wikipedia isn’t phenomenally successful just because it allows anyone to edit. There’s a structure, albeit a fluid one, behind it all.

It got me thinking about an article from 2004 by Tim O’Reilly. He talks in that article about the importance of designing in ways for users to contribute effectively:

I’ve come to use the term “the architecture of participation” to describe the nature of systems that are designed for user contribution.

Tim’s focus is upon the architecture of the web and how openness of both attitude and technology allows for participation by more than just geeks:

HTML, the language of web pages, opened participation to ordinary users, not just software developers. The “View Source” menu item migrated from Tim Berners-Lee’s original browser, to Mosaic, and then on to Netscape Navigator and even Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Though no one thinks of HTML as an open source technology, its openness was absolutely key to the explosive spread of the web. Barriers to entry for “amateurs” were low, because anyone could look “over the shoulder” of anyone else producing a web page. Dynamic content created with interpreted languages continued the trend toward transparency.

Any project starts off relatively small and needs enthusiastic individuals (and usually some money) to get things started. Wikipedia, for example, had Jimmy Wales and the money he had made from previous ventures. But even if you do get initial funding, you still have to make things sustainable:

In this context, it’s worth noting an observation originally made by Dan Bricklin in his paper, The Cornucopia of the Commons. There are three ways to build a large database, wrote Dan. The first, demonstrated by Yahoo, is to pay people to do it. The second, inspired by lessons from the open source community, is to get volunteers to perform the same task. The Open Directory Project, an open source Yahoo competitor, is the result. (Wikipedia provides another example.) But Napster demonstrates a third way. Because Napster set its defaults to automatically share any music that was downloaded, every user automatically helped to build the value of the shared database.

We at Mozilla are hoping to help create a generation of Webmakers. By this we mean people who can not only elegantly consume, but help make the Web. To do this we need to get things right from the start: by building stuff, handing it over to the community, and supporting their efforts.

And of course, we’ll give them badges. :-)

  • http://www.oliverquinlan.co.uk/blog Oliver Quinlan

    Really interesting stuff Doug, has got me thinking about what teachers could take from the idea of creating an architechture of participation for their learners…

    • http://dougbelshaw.com/ Doug Belshaw

      Thanks Oliver – it’s certainly something I’m going to explore in more depth!