Fighting on the Internet – is there anything we can do?

When all is said and done, some debates will be acrimonious regardless of the medium in which they are conducted. What asynchronous public discussion boards or forums are liable to do is vastly aggravate any tendencies in this direction. And of course, some people find fighting on the Internet very life-affirming. This is fine if they can hook up with other recreational belligerents, but otherwise they take some handling.

One way or another people who attempt to carry out asynchronous textual debates online are prone to dish out and/or experience angry and insulting messages. Even if you’re careful yourself, your readers can explode in response. It’s not surprising really – the social cues of tone, expression, stance etc are missing and the medium encourages rapid unpolished responses. Moreover in these democratised times, everybody is encouraged to consider their contribution valid and deserving of a platform, so it’s not as if the right to respond is restricted only to accomplished writers and thinkers.

So be it – is there anything we can do? Well, effective as this may be:

we’re not going to stop having these debates at a distance. Assuming you are not in fact attempting to provoke your correspondent, one way to avoid web rage is to give ample benefit of the doubt, take pains with language, and argumentation, and slow down. Unless you do this, people will take you for a thug or an e-social inept.

There are also some technical ways to replace social cues. MyChingo is an audio comment tool which at least injects some tone and non-verbal emotion into the words. Video comments like Seesmic give you the whole shabang minus the pheromones (and maybe that’s to everybody’s advantage).

Thing is, I’d say all discussion board conversation have some educational function – this is why they’re both public and available in posterity. People are supposed to be able to encounter that debate once it’s gone cold and actually be able to follow the thought processes of the participants.

If you value this, then text becomes not just a default due to a lack of anything better – it becomes important because of its unique texty properties: you can read it at your own pace; you can scan it rapidly for keywords or gist; and you can copy and paste it. Audio comments aren’t at all self-paced and relying on them exclusively would box up and hide all the contributions, making it impossible to scan the conversation as a whole or follow a particular dialogue within it.

So I’d argue that all multimedia comments require a textual form in addition. In fact I’d say that the transcript should take centre-stage, with the video available as a supplement, and the comments should be viewable in different ways, including threaded and flat (i.e. by scrolling).

Starting to sound a little less spontaneous now? Well, why not – maybe spontaneity is dispensible on comments boards.

Wikipedia – number of users (summer 07)

April 2007 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life project finds that “36% of online American adults consult Wikipedia. It is particularly popular with the well-educated and current college-age students”.

E-consultancy reports (9th July) that “figures from Nielsen/NetRatings show that Wikipedia had 46.8m unique visitors in May 2007, a 72% increase on June 2006. In addition, the site topped the news and information category every month this year.”

If blog comments are driving the online education revolution, then why are they organised so badly?

Blogging in Their Own Words is a short film in which secondary school students in the US respond to the different types of blogging their teacher has required them to practise.

They seem to like it and find it helpful. But their responses give them away as – and this isn’t intended to be insulting – naive users with low expectations – none of the advantages and positive qualities either the students or the teachers identify for blogging are unique to blogging, and actually some of them are better found elsewhere. One thing I find slightly mystifying is that they’re not using discussion forums – mystifying because blogs are timebound, most recent post first – is this really the best way to organise student input? And also because although blogs are good for making individual presentations they are often poor at organising the ensuing discussion – again, if comments are presented in reverse chronological order it becomes impossible to follow any proliferating threads in the response. This kind of comment system makes blogs far inferior to discussion forums. The screenshots on the film show this – one post had 144 comments and the comments page shown was entirely flat – how are you going to find your way round that?

Blogging has a romantic appeal that discussion forums never had – in making a presentation you, common or garden citizen that you are, have a voice and people, if they respond, pay homage to you. Certainly, the layout and presentation on blogs is more conducive to an individual taking centre-stage – the preeminence of the blog post and the way it stands alone from the ensuing comments are different from merely starting and contributing to a discussion thread. There’s a hierarchy in which some voices are given emphasis over others.

That isn’t bad in itself – but part of this emphasis is an inadvertant function of the bad handling, common to much off-the-shelf blog software, of comments. Moodle’s (for instance, but there are many others) discussion forums are very helpful for getting the measure of a conversation topographically (visually). The indented threading option, combined with the ready processing afforded by each contributor’s graphical icon (as opposed to textual name) allows readers to gain an overview of the discussion, and follow arguments and/or the development of individual contributions in a way that most blog software still doesn’t. But what Moodle doesn’t do is allow commenters to reply (formally, I mean, so that a link is created) to more than one post at once – this almost certainly interferes with a learner’s ease of synthesising and weaving what is coming out of the conversation.

Another thing that most blog software has yet to offer, Moodle also allows rating of comments; in a discussion with Andrea about this he mentioned the emerging idea of inter-platform ‘kudos’ – the sum of your comments’ ratings which, with the advent of Open ID, you can carry with you between different environments. This echoes the Technorati approach to calculating ‘authority’, and accordingly is fraught with all the hazards and pitfalls of the Technorati approach – bias to the norm, bias against complexity, etc. However, it may work well in an educational environment where there is an ethos of risk-taking or experimentation in discussions, and I dare say there is research on this I’ve yet to read.

Here is an alternative (2005) response to the problem of responding to more than one post at once, which is addressed by prompting commenters to list the post (or posts – can be more than one) which inspired their comment and, if their comment inspires further posts, automatically updates the post links to the posts they inspired. Clicking the names takes you to the post. I don’t know how you link your comment to your post because the blog is no longer active. This approach is a bit disorientating (in all the jumping around you’re not sure if you’ve missed something important) and what it doesn’t do which is so important, and which Moodle and Digg do so nicely, is show you the shape and extent of a thread.

I await more alternatives with anticipation.

E-learning / E-research 2.0 – web page annotation with Diigo

Remember how happy and excited I was when Wikalong, an early social Web annotation tool, came out? How I wrote excoriating notes about the royal family in a sidebar to the Buck House Web site that everyone else who had the Firefox Wikalong extension could read and edit? And how Wikalong died in the water because using it was, frankly, purgatory?

A quick review of Web annotation tools threw up various sticky notes software which work with Firefox browser button add-ons. MyStickies and Sticki had their limitations though – they interfered with the flow of the page, and were not specifically enough positioned. Diigo is still the best. Diigo can highlight, add sticky notes, tag, bookmark (simultaneously to other online bookmarking accounts too), clip, aggregate clippings, and manage groups. You can make your work public (though they ‘raised the bar’ to avoid ‘littering’ – you have to have two invited friends with accounts), private and/or collaborative.  TechCrunch reviewed Diigo last summer.

I’m finding it particularly useful for annotating contributions in blogs and discussion groups, as well as Web sites in general. You can make the important passages salient which is a great help if you are a tiny bit dyslexic and/or have a sieve brain.

A round up of some other online annotation tools via

Academic boycott on Facebook – update

Further to this earlier post, a roundup of group membership on Facebook:

Stop the Academic Boycott of Israel: 6,092 members.

  • And another of the same name – 187 members.

To UCU, unity not division. Cooperation, not boycotts: 134 members.

Stop the Academic Boycott of Israel by British Universities: 178 members.

And three Support the Academic Boycott of Israel groups:

  • MPAC: 12 members
  • Boycott Israel: 678 members
  • Robert Ander Lugg: 5 members

Slightly on a tangent, one Free Palestine group which dates the occupation of Palestine back 59 years (i.e. 1948), demands that all refugees return (ignoring Tabah) and fails to tackled alleged racism (moderator Satti Satti: “you know how it goes, put up or shut up, don’t waste my time.”) 5,463 members.

Nick Carr disputes the worth of Citizendium

Nick Carr’s blog piece (besides insulting Larry Sanger) makes a number of interesting points, some of which don’t stand up.

Firstly, he takes a swipe at (love it!)

“pixel-eyed apologists for the collective mediocritization of culture”.

He reckons that democratisation of knowledge is a mass dumb-down which will benight, rather than enlighten, us. Neither will it, he contends, be achieved through the Web, because the Web is a medium for information and thus incapable of inculcating knowledge, let alone wisdom. He then proceeds to draw a distinction between Sanger’s “what everyone knows”- the common knowledge of an encyclopedia – and his own principal concern, “what we know”, by which I think he means the limits of human research endeavour.

Secondly he rightly questions the undue importance ascribed to Wikipedia – only an encylopedia, after all:

“Whatever happens between Wikipedia and Citizendium, here’s what Wales and Sanger cannot be forgiven for: They have taken the encyclopedia out of the high school library, where it belongs, and turned it into some kind of totem of “human knowledge.” Who the hell goes to an encyclopedia looking for “truth,” anyway? You go to an encyclopedia when you can’t remember whether it was Cortez or Balboa who killed Montezuma or when you want to find out which countries border Turkey. What normal people want from an encyclopedia is not truth but accuracy. And figuring out whether something is accurate or not does not require thousands of words of epistemological hand-wringing. If it jibes with the facts, it’s accurate. If it doesn’t, it ain’t.”

The problem here is that he trivialises the enterprise of contstructing an encyclopaedia. He writes as if there were already authoritative sources available out there against which all assertions could “jibe”. But isn’t that the whole problem – knowledge is contested, and some types of knowledge particularly so? Granted, the business of running an encyclopedia would be much simpler if it were to limit itself to objective facts – but since when has that been the case? Wikipedia isn’t that simple – like other encyclopediae it contains entries about social phenomena – like Biggs’ theory of constructive alignment, or the Expressionist movement, for example – as well as the process through which granite is formed or the height of Mount Ararat. Unless there’s a consensus or universally acknowledged authoritative source on the matter, there won’t be much jibing going on.

But more importantly, still related to the undue importance ascribed to Wikipedia, he points out:

“… if you’re lucky enough not to face those barriers [to learning], then the getting of knowledge comes down not to the workings of either media elites or media collectives but to personal desire and initiative.”

This is the crux of his and Sanger’s difference of opinion, I think. If Sanger seriously believes that the most important thing standing in the way of enlightenment is a lack of good information, he’s extremely optimistic. But if Carr seriously believes that desire, initiative and – don’t forget – discrimination reside in each of us equally to be tapped at will, his thinking is similarly wishful, in that it omits the underlying circumstances of this desire – an inspiring spark of imagination, a feeling that it is one’s business to learn – ‘ownership’ of learning, other circumstances. And you could argue that the massive exposure of Wikipedia improves its opportunities to inspire (OK, it’s a long shot in its current state – let’s say “pique interest”), and you could argue that all those little Edit links send a strong signal that knowledge is the business of everyone (I do mean ‘knowledge’ – Nick Carr’s point about the dominance of information on the Web stands, but not inevitably – the Semantic Web promises more meaningful ways of representing information. And even for the time-being an encyclopedia, as an informative resource which introduces the basic science in any area, can play a necessary part – allbeit early and fleeting – in building knowledge.)

It’s interesting that, unlike many others – most topically Andrew Keen in his forthcoming book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy – Nick Carr seems unconcerned about our natural ability, once we’re switched on to the job, to discern truth from dross – until the end of his post, where he makes an important point – one which is also at odds with his argument that acquiring knowledge is principally a matter of the right attitude:

“Jaron Lanier distills into four words the biggest problem with Wikipedia’s articles, and my guess is that the criticism will apply equally well to Citizendium’s: “The emphasis is random.” So true. Even when Wikipedia gets the facts right, the balance of those facts, a more subtle issue but one that’s equally important to accuracy, is often off. Small points get blown out of proportion – particularly those subject to debate – while big points get expressed poorly or glossed over. This is not a problem of expertise. It’s a problem of expression.”

Meaning that the Wikipedia entry for Bart Simpson may be bigger than the entry for Roland Barthes, or that the Kilroy-Silk article may place more emphasis on his representation in the Little Annie song I Think Of You than on his role in the UK Independence Party.

I had the impression that Sanger et al had addressed the internal balance criticism by installing an editor for each article. Regarding the inter-article balance, Carr’s right, and this proportion-shifting is an inherent quality of wikiness. Short of imposing restored proportions, maybe a message at the top of each entry to the effect that relative article size is liable to fluctuate as a function of media coverage, and not to place too much stock in comparisons? If we’re as naturally discerning as Carr (mostly) believes us to be, that could be enough.

Contra Citizendium

Further to this earlier post on Citizendium, back in September when Citizendium was just kicking off, Clay Shirky made a strong opposition rooted in the cost of enforcing authority and in the nature of authority itself:

“Deference, on Citizendium will be for people, not contributions, and will rely on external credentials, a priori certification, and institutional enforcement. Deference, on Wikipedia, is for contributions, not people, and relies on behavior on Wikipedia itself, post hoc examination, and peer-review. Sanger believes that Wikipedia goes too far in its disrespect of experts; what killed Nupedia and will kill Citizendium is that they won’t go far enough.”

He challenges those assumptions about quality which are based on a given post’s author’s reputation or credentials. (Sounds alright, though what are reputations based on if not public presentations?) As an alternative mechanism for deference he suggests survival of edits, and this clearly illustrates the tenuous link between ‘deference’ and ‘validity’: there are many reasons for the duration of a given edit’s survival – numbers of readers, perceived relevance and degree of active engagement being three. In giving preeminence to the survival of edits, Clay fails to address either the edit wars or vandalism which plague Wikipedia. At the same time, Wikipedia is working pretty well, possibly because as one of the commenters points out, it is an institution of sorts, and not the dissolute jumble of activity Larry Sanger perhaps suggests. Clay downplays the value of validity, but he does talk about “good edits” leading one commenter to accuse him of straying ineptly into poststructualist territories. Meanwhile others make many confident predictions about the ways Citizendium will fail.

For somebody who seems to reject ad autoritatem arguments Clay’s critique of Citizendium is somewhat ad hominem, a point which he allows Larry to make in a published response on Many 2 Many.

Shirky, C. (2006). Larry Sanger, Citizendium and the problem of expertise. Many2many, 18th September 2006. Available from

Sanger, L. (2006). Larry Sanger on me on Citizendium. Many2many 20th September 2006. Available from:

Citizendium seems to bob, noah’s-ark-like, on the turning tide of wiki-populism

Conceived by Larry Sanger as “a more reliable free encyclopedia” to “correct exactly the sort of abuses that people demonize Web 2.0 for”, Citizendium pitches itself as distinctively rigorous compared to Wikipedia. It delays calling itself an encyclopedia yet, requires accountability, assigns the ultimate editorial privileges to experts, deploys a constabulary and is intolerant of disruption, certifies articles, categorically refuses to mirror Wikipedia entries, and makes policy decisions by representatives rather than by general consensus.

It was conceived as a fork from Wikipedia because

“… boatloads of academics who know about Wikipedia now, are upset about it because their students (and the general public, and worse, their colleagues) are constantly getting misinformation from it, and they are motivated to do something about it.” (Sanger, 2006)

A ‘fork’ is a way of distancing Citizendium from its untrustworthy but well-known and successful parent Wikipedia without disowning the parent and losing the inheritance. It’s a way to market a made-over Wikipedia to experts, a way which assumes that the trust of said experts in Wikipedia is irrevocably lost and that they will adamantly refuse to steward their subject areas within Wikipedia – even if the new governance adopted by Citizendium is applied there. The fork is a bid for legitimacy “a handy way of joining [Wikipedia] (their content) without *really* joining ’em (their community)” (Sanger, 2006). The Wikipedia community is something to be shunned for the sake of one’s reputation, then.

Inevitably Citizendium “will soon attempt to unseat Wikipedia as the go-to destination for general information online” and of course, that means go-to for authors as well as readers. All those Wikipedia contributors who can, should abandon ship and become Citizendium authors and editors. Wikipedia looks set to wither and die, unless Citizendium, when it comes of age, assumes its name.

Looked at one way, Citizendium is an indictment of populism in the enterprise of defining our world. It implies that our unprecedentedly evolved educational and social systems are failing to endow sufficient responsibility, expertise and discrimination for us each to participate equally in a collaborative encyclopaedia project. In this respect, it is anti-constructivist and somewhat patriarchal. In conversation Sonja adds that this move places Wikipedia as an encyclopedia first-and-foremost, underplaying the behind-the-scenes discourse as people come together to discuss the object of their interest. She also doubts that it is possible to reproduce, in an orchestrated fashion, an explosive phenomenon like Wikipedia, and has reservations about the validity of the authority conferred by an editorial and policing process.

My jury’s out on this, but I’m broadly in favour of Citizendium – because of a persistent opinion that the point of having a collaborative encyclopaedia at all (having skirted briefly round paradigms of knowledge with Sonja, I can add that I’m firmly committed to the idea of having an encyclopedia per se) is enhanced accuracy, currency and completeness – all producers of encyclopaediae (sp?) have these things as their goal, and only differ in their way of achieving them. It’s reasonable to suppose that expertise and accountability can temper this kind of collaboration – it’s just a lamentable loss of faith that the critical academics and experts who’ve been complaining to Sanger don’t roll up their sleeves and get involved with shaping up Wikipedia instead of clamouring for something more exclusive. Is it this again:

“… why should [academics] engage with a public whose political masters have in the past delighted in deriding abstract pursuits because they could not perceive their utility, or who casually conflate and confuse social with intellectual elitism?”(THES, 2007)

Anyway, as an alternative here’s fresh new ground – Citizendium: still a wiki, assuming continual change and participation, and certainly not a closed shop like the Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s not inevitable that it will be either elitist or circumscriptive.

Sanger, L. (2006). Why we should all fork at once. 26 Sep 2006. Post to Citizendium-l. Available from

THES (2007). The UK’s unloved elite. 13 April 2007.

Where have I been?

It’s been a very busy week. Oxford for Shock and Beyond on the 22-23 March. This year the Shock was ‘of the Social’ and concerned with social networking in higher education. The following day was the Beyond debate – this year, Beyond the Search Engine, which tackled plagiarism. S and I had a fine time. I had my new work laptop and we were enthroned in a superlatively furbished Said Business School lecture theatre and blogging the proceedings (to work – see my previous post) via the wireless network. We nattered away – shop – at lunchtime and I think I persuaded somebody from education department at Oxford who was about to advertise a couple of “Learning Technologist” posts to advertise for “Educational Developers” instead. Which is a bit of a turnaround, because I can hear myself only last year pronouncing to somebody quite senior and national at a book meeting that I’d rather retrieve the job title than abandon it. Trouble is, I can’t seem to manage to retrieve it. Then we drank ourselves silly and didn’t manage to get to our hotel a fair way up Banbury Rd before everyone had gone to bed but luckily we managed to arrange the key code to get in. This time we had double rooms and they had a wireless network. Am I addicted to being connected? That would be weird for an introvert like me – must remember to ask Tomas about it.

Then I went to Dublin – more accurated I flew to Dublin. I flew for the first time in 6 years and was so moved as we left the runway that I cried a bit. On the way back in the dark as we made our approach into Heathrow I gasped at Docklands and the Isle of Dogs. The London Eye and Piccadilly Circus shone out like two funky badges. CAL ’07 was the reason. Our symposium went down extremely well, although my particular presentation was just scenesetting for the three that followed – very distinct approaches to Design for Learning. What has happened to that JISC programme is quite remarkable – if you’re feeling calculating, it would seem that the Design for Learning (D4L) projects were conceived (by JISC, though not in a rubbing-hands-together-and-cackling sort of way) as helpmeets for the Learning Design (LD) projects – the idea being to harvest practice and turn it into blueprints or models which could be turned into off-the-shelf designs. A number of the D4L people are turning round and declaring that this isn’t working and that there is too much tacit and contingent and human about teaching and about the subject areas themselves to be readily turned into machine code. The exceptions are revealing – objective testing goes down well, as do lessons on things like referencing and handwashing. But what about teaching about nature in Romantic poetry – never seen that.

Dublin was vastly improved on a decade ago and I soon stopped resenting having to be there. Found an unsecured wireless network on the top of St Stephen’s Green shopping centre and downloaded a couple of MP3 guided walks to my SD card and off I went, popping in on Liz in O’Connell St on the way. It was absolutely lovely, I was so contented and it was springtime in Dublin.