Modern Censors

Communist regimes used to be largest censors in the world. Lately, they are being surpassed by the new generation of in-house censors: IT staff in charge of your email.

Censorship is bad – how do they get by with that self-assigned role in progressive societies? Your friendly vigilante censors usually let machines decide what email you can and cannot read. If the server decides for you that your message is unwanted, it often gets dropped without you or the sender even knowing it, not even going into your spam folder. Hey, why bother users – they have tons of messages, who cares if a few disappear!

Often, we’re asked to help solving the problem of someone not receiving mailing list messages. We’d start with the person in charge of organization’s email server and demand escalation until we reach the highest instance willing to approve change in machine’s rules to allow messages from a specific mailing list; only to be met with vice presidents and CIOs that even block email from own organization’s staff, and refuse to do anything about it – all in the name of “security” or “performance.”

It doesn’t stop there: “reputation” companies sprang up that will – for a fee – automatically feed an organization’s email server with (completely arbitrary) “reputation scores” of senders of each message. If this company lowers one’s “reputation score,” email won’t go through. IT types love it: “we could not let your email go through as your reputation is low, it’s really not up to us.” Beautiful: they still get to censor to their heart’s content, all without taking any responsibility.

For us, dealing with most “reputation providers” is the easiest: we simply keep sending the same request to provider’s (outsourced) support until we find the person willing to flip the switch and change the score from bad to good.1 Social engineering at its best: thanks to IT types, I’m in power to decide who gets to see the email in your organization, and you won’t even know it.

No wonder communists are falling behind.

1We do deserve good reputation score, however sometimes they just classify us as bad for technical reasons when we introduce new server, etc.

The Myth of “Digital Natives” and Email

In a discussion the other day someone put forward the statement along the lines that the so-called “digital natives” – the current generation of teenagers using the Facebooks of the world – will reject email and will “bring better ways of communicating once they enter the workforce.”

They won’t. Email is the original killer app and will reign for another ten years as the best way to engage in a meaningful asynchronous conversation, or as a means of asynchronous communication. They’ll use it just fine to their own advantage as part of the digital communication toolset available to all of us today. And those younger ones will be much more critical of the slowness and futility of having to open a web page on the go when a text-only message will do.

I don’t buy this whole “Native” vs. “Immigrant” debate. As a civilization, our body of knowledge and understanding of the world is ever expanding, and every new generation knows more than the previous. Not much of a revolutionary revelation there. Besides, we’re all immigrants into the digital world – there’s still only wetware between our ears – hard to claim our native language is binary.

Finally, going back to the source, much cited Marc Prensky’s original paper from 2001, here’s what he had to say:

There are hundreds of examples of the digital immigrant accent. They include printing out your email (or having your secretary print it out for you – an even “thicker” accent); needing to print out a document written on the computer in order to edit it (rather than just editing on the screen); and bringing people physically into your office to see a interesting web site (rather than just sending them the URL). I‟m sure you can think of one or two examples of your own without much effort. My own favorite example is the “Did you get my email?” phone call.

Doesn’t sound as if he even thought of those “natives” rejecting email, no?

Here’s one of my favorite questions when it comes to the “email is obsolete” debate: what’s the fastest growing consumer service in mobile telecom these days, predominantly fueled by the young?

Strength in Numbers

Past couple of years I’ve informally researched different edge communities and platforms at conferences and in workshops, listening to and asking people about their community sites. What I have learned so far is that the number of registered users is number one metric. The second interesting finding is that most organization-owned platforms I heard of hover between a few hundred to thirty thousand or so registrations (both active and inactive). Yet nothing ever comes close to millions that popular social networking sites claim.

This is certainly the case even beyond the international development world – while researching this post, found a post about Bank of America reaching some 15.000 users on their online communities.

Yet, there is strength in numbers: only a small percentage of the registered users is contributing actively, and user attrition rates are significant – in my experience can easily be 15-20% per year (those registrations are kept and counted, but users never log in and their email address bounces). We all want to build communities with large numbers of users; lacking any other “serious” quantitative measure, all success is based on that sacred number and donors want to hear about it (in addition to “number of countries engaged”).

The question is will we ever be able to increase the number of users to reach the Web 2.0 levels of millions? The way we approach building community platforms now, I think not.

And here’s why: all community sites operated by organizations imply certain organizational motivation to get people together; it’s all about noble things like working practices, learning, progress… Nothing about our egoistic needs as individuals; what’s in it for us, after all? All those big social sites with millions of users are about the individual’s egoistic need and escapism. It’s about us, not about the organization; dating sites are huge; social networks are huge; nothing else ever comes close. Many other reasons contribute to this disparity, yet this is the biggest one in my view.

Membership potential

Membership potential

The diagram above shows the potential of virtual collaboration applications to attract users. Obviously, the internal organizational communities are limited by the number of staff; the edge is organizationally owned and funded and potentially reaches everyone an organization is associated with – this is where we all are with our tens of thousands of users; finally, only platforms serving individuals’ needs can really attract huge numbers of users.

If you have ever heard of a community platform in international development with a significant number of users, please leave a comment; I’d love to learn about it and why it is successful.

The Siren Song of Integration

Integration is one of those elusive things one can hear a lot in our line of work. Many many meetings go something like this:

Person1: “And we are building this simple web site where people register and then you can send them newsletters.”

Person2: “Oh, we already have this Poodle system for online training and then we could integrate users’ profiles with that.”

Person3: “Yes, that’s a great idea! Then we can manage them from one place… and by the way, while we’re at it, let’s integrate this with our network logins, so we can see and manage all information in one place.” 

This was a really simple paraphrase of a conversation I heard recently; in many cases, the subject of conversation includes much more voluminous and complex data.

Sounds great from the perspective of someone owning all these different properties or a computer geek dreaming about the Hollywood-style scenarios of “push a button and see it all come out.”

In practice though, integration of this kind is premature optimization and in majority of cases leads either to implementation failure or maximum frustration of users of such services, or both. The situation is especially frustrating in edge scenarios, where part of this integrated whole needs to interface with users outside of the integrated system.

Integration of multiple systems brings additional complexity to manage the integrated parts, and this complexity gets passed on to the user as well, in many cases without the real benefits: different users of an integrated systems only have touch points with one small part of the integrated whole. The likelihood of someone interacting with the whole integrated system rapidly falls as more components are integrated. Component integration is an emergent property: rarely one gets it right in advance as things tend to be used in unintended ways.

We could easily apply this thinking to building an organization’s web site. Usually the group in charge approaches this from the integrated point of view, imposing a common look and feel and some organization that either reflects the organizational structure or some topical structure. Of course, there are always departments who would like to have a different position within the web site, leading to a lot of background political play, frustration, and a general slowdown.

More and more I’m convinced web sites or any multi-stakeholder software applications should be built from very simple independent components and then let the integration opportunities emerge through time. Many times it takes more time to develop and manage integration features than it costs in human effort to manage a little of the overlap separately. (Not to mention that loose coupling is sexy and so web2.0).

Redundancy is not always a bad thing, nor are serendipity and opportunism, all of which are often forgotten in the logical world of computer people. Used properly, all three and can lead to new learning and stronger opportunities for evolution and integration.

Why Wysiwyg Sucks

Of all the posts I wrote over the past six months, the second most popular is Why Wiki Sucks – funny, all visits to that post are always from search engine searches for “wiki sucks” or “why wiki sucks.” Seems I’m not alone :-).

So, does wiki still suck? Yes, it does for the same reasons outlined earlier. I’m still convinced that the biggest irritant and drawback is the disrespect for the integrity of the written thought. Yes, it’s okay to ask someone to help you improve your style and suggest changes, but it’s not a free-for-all on my paragraphs.

The good part about the wiki is the instant linking – that’s a pretty good concept; though those CamelCased words are awfully ugly and so unnatural. There must be a better way to do that.

The great thing about the wiki concept is plain-text editing. Still think the best reason for wiki popularity is the wow effect one gets when suddenly this plain text magically turns into a nicely formatted page.

Which brings me to one thing that sucks seriously harder than wiki: so-called wysiwyg editors. Word and such. I won’t even mention crap stuff like now-popular web “rich text” editors, like the one I’m forced to use now to type this post on WordPress, or Google Docs. What a tragedy that is. Why do they need “preview” button if it is wysiwyg? Anyone who has ever seen someone spending hours re-wording sentences just to fit above the page break, or endlessly got frustrated over the formatting of the table of contents, or destroyed the layout, color, and font sizes with a copy-and-paste from another document will know what I’m talking about. It’s forcing one to become a layout designer and to type meaningful content all at once. It’s frustrating.

For serious productivity, plain-text is the way to go. Especially in full screen, green text on black – beautiful and productive. I prefer Markdown over wiki markup – it’s really as simple as writing an email.

We’ve now switched all text entry in the new version of ECS to Markdown, and the new user-generated help will use it. It will be an interesting experiment to watch how people react to it, and to the fact they can contribute content to the page either through the web editor or by sending an email. (And yes, we’re protecting the author’s integrity and moderating any changes and contributions).

In either case, today’s wysiwyg editors suck much harder than wiki. If I had to choose, I’d take a wiki over Word on Windows any time.

BTW, the last good Word was Word 5 for DOS.

The Art of Incremental

Ever since the launch of Edge of Net, we’re getting a lot of good comments and suggestions for improvements. Suggestions are coming in for both the appearance, as well as the content. Thank you all so far. Please keep the ideas rolling, hopefully we’ll create a great public good together.

In the spirit of the Edge, we had to prepare the first draft, round it in a coherent whole, and then offer it for people to contribute their thoughts and suggestions for improvements. This is how real collaboration is supposed to function – even though each individual contributes a suggestion or a few, the total sum of feedback is greater than the initial effort in terms of impact and usefulness. (Or however one might call and measure the value of contributions to some work).

It’s this incremental development that leads to quality and truly remarkable results. Yes, breakthroughs do help, yet rarely one gets it 100% right immediately. Usually we get things too complex at first. It is through the process of incremental changes that we reach deeper insight that in turn leads us to simplification and improvement. The idea that is now Edge of Network took seven years to form in the present shape; already today I had a great discussion with someone improving on it.

ICT4D world is plagued with attempts to do things from scratch and “project handover” mentality. Somehow, there’s this idea that one should start a project, give it direction and then “hand it over” and move on to the next thing. Apparently, the excitement lies in starting projects. Or projects get started because someone wants to try out the latest buzz in technology.* 

It is very rare in ICT4D to meet someone who understands the value of incremental, of sticking to it and getting it simple and useful. Mostly I hear “Ah yes, we’re thinking of replacing X with something more web2.0 (or whatever buzzword du jour).” Somehow, sticking to it is considered lame and oh so yesterday. 

In the world of international development ruled by annual budgets, it’s hard not to fall into this trap. Especially when success is as easy to reach as proclaiming: “We consider this project to be a success.” (An actual email I got the other day).

Guess that’s why don’t see too many lasting and useful software projects in ICT4D. Most of the time people are on the lookout how to get rid of something started by the previous guy, only to meet someone promising the new new thing. And the cycle repeats.

I’m sincerely hoping that the success principles of the Edge collaboration, as we continue to incrementally improve them, will help break the cycle for an increasing number of people. 

* To be fair, in large organizations many projects do get started with the intent of sticking to them – as a job-saving ticket.


Recently, someone in a discussion commented about a workshop we participated in and suggested “it wasn’t well prepared in advance.” Indeed, the one day workshop practically wasted the time of some fifty people coming from all over Europe and Africa, spending valuable time on basic coordination activities and introductions. Post meeting, email discussion died off within three months, yielding no result. The email mode of communication was simply too restricted for the type of coordination that should have happened in advance and during the workshop.

Guess we all heard it before: “organizer(s) should prepare in advance for a collaborative event;” “a small group of people should do the homework before including a large group of people.” It holds for successful open-source projects as well: “if one wants to start a new project, one has to do most of the work before inviting contributors to join.” Even Kevin Costner had to build it first.

The amount of preparatory work is not symmetrical for a given collaborative interaction. The organizer does most of this work, and participants are expected to process it and give feedback, which is much smaller in volume of information per person. This is very much true on the edge of network. I usually describe it as small group inside engaging large group outside. In other words, the edge of network is about asymmetrical collaboration. Not just because success requires preparation; the communication channel is very much restricted across the edge, and one wants to ensure the focus most important aspects, whatever the real reason was to engage those outside people. Conversely, the small group inside communicates face to face and can process much larger volumes of material and prepare it in the appropriate form for others.

In terms of pure bandwidth spent, in most collaborative communities we see 70%-90% volume going out (usually in the form of downloads of the initial material), and only 10%-30% coming in from the outsiders. Even in an email discussion, a moderator will usually send out more messages compared to other participants. This asymmetry has some interesting design implications for extending the platform into mobile context.