Due Process

July 2nd, 2003

The Echo project switched gears tonight, and in doing so moved into deep water. You see tonight was the night when people started producing Echo feeds. That is the sort of concrete results people like to see, the sort of thing that can trigger a cascade. And it spotlights the Echo projects one serious short coming.

SocioTechnical

For me, the promise of a next generation RSS was not a technical one, but a social one. RSS 1.0’s failure was not that it included a few arbitrary tags (most XML formats do, and most people ignore them), but that it failed to create structures that encouraged growth and development. It had a few things going for it: a mailing list with public archives, a working group with a published decision making process, and a commitment to viewing the format as a public standard. What it failed to do was continue to refine its web presence; adding clarifications to the spec, and building easy entry points for new developers. (the constant feeling of being under siege probably didn’t help, and eventually discouraged early community leaders) So Echo was a chance to do what RSS 1.0 did right, while correcting where it went wrong. An act of social engineering.

Something Different

However there are a few traits to Echo project to date which are different then RSS 1.0, or almost any other project like it. Two key ones come to mind.
  1. No mailing list
  2. Incredible speed of convergence
Instead of a mailing list there is the wiki, but perhaps more importantly there is ongoing conversation scattered over blogspace; a conversational circuit familiar to those who have trudge after what Phil called the Semipermanent Floating RSS Argument but totally opaque to most. Some people find the wiki style of collaboration exhilarating, many find it frustrating. The very web centric nature of this conversation to date has been fascinating, but it has also acted to be exclude a large swathe of the population. A population who have been very active in related project, and in the roots of this one. A number of people have state that they are unable to participate because the conversation is purely web-based, more has simply slipped away.

The other factor which has been incredible (and a bit alarming) is how fast it pulled together. Arguably this is because the work had already been done. Everybody knew what the new format was supposed to look like, the project was just to clarify a few details, and rename it. Actually it turned out that there was a fair amount of debate on the wiki about how to do things, even among the small group who showed up, and yet still the convergence has happened blindingly quickly. (Some have suggested there is a story there still to be told, but I wouldn’t know.) Progress is good, concrete results are good, the maxim of open source development is “release early, release often”, so what is the problem? Well combine a fevered working pace, with a difficult to penetrate discussion space and the barrier to entry gets pretty high.

Haunting Echoes

And something else. This rapid, ad-hoc process reminds me of something, something I had hoped Echo would get away from. It reminds me of the development process for the Userland branch of RSS.

Well Formed, and Whither?

We now have some idea about what a “Well Formed Weblog” looks like. I think the next round of work for the Echo project should not be about nailing down the details of the format, and it certainly shouldn’t be encouraging a thousand Echo feeds to bloom (not that anyone is [or has to]). The next round of work should be sitting down and laying out what a well formed working group looks like.

Otherwise all that has been accomplished is changing some names, and perhaps changing who has the power, but an opportunity to create something more interesting and more open will have been missed, and the chance to tap the insight of the larger community will be lossed. In political organizing there is a word for what we have on our hands, we call it a Tyranny of Structurelessness.

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