Last updated: February 27, 2006
Introducing the attention refinery:
the next step in wiki evolution

1. Why we need a new kind of wiki

We need a new kind of wiki with:

(a) individual zones of control
(b) a column on all pages where readers
      can post comments and criticism
(c) blog-like features
(d) the ability to rate and filter
      pages and comments

In recent years web-based applications such as blogs and wikis (as well as news sites that allow readers to post articles and comments) have proven their usefulness and captured the popular imagination. Sites such as Slashdot, LiveJournal, MySpace, Wikipedia, Indymedia and OhMyNews [*] have earned audiences of millions and been much written about.

For militant leftists who are concerned with making use of the emerging revolution in communications for the purpose of mobilizing the working class for the overthrow of bourgeois rule -- there is much, in these applications, to study and learn.

But we do not study these applications for academic reasons or from the point of view of business investment. We study these applications because we need a digital nervous system for the militant non-reformist left and, ultimately, for the working class.

For our purposes -- to connect with one another; to compete and cooperate; to resolve our contradictions in full view of friend and foe alike -- we need software that combines the best and most useful features of existing blogs and wikis while avoiding the serious shortcomings which at present limit their usefulness. In order to overcome our isolation (from one another and from the working class) we need software that allows us to combine (a) the energy and initiative of individual activists with (b) the power of open criticism and public debate.

2. The weaknesses of existing wikis and blogs

Wikis are democratic, by their nature, inasmuch as anyone can edit any page in order to correct errors and/or disinformation. But this democratic potential tends to collapse as soon as the stakes are raised.

The weaknesses of nearly all existing wikis are revealed in the process of creating a page which can describe and explain a controversial topic (and in hard core politics -- all important and decisive topics will _always_ be controversial). What, for example, is the objective and accurate description of the nature and reasons for US imperialism's war in Iraq -- or the conflict between Israeli Jews and Arab Palestinians?

In Wikipedia (the most widely known wiki) the "controversial" (ie: important) pages end up "locked" in order to avoid "edit wars" between supporters of competing schools of thought. This means that the democratic potential inherent in the principle that anyone can edit any page -- falls short as revolutionary activists are, to a significant extent, locked out of the process of editing these pages. And this is what will always happen in a class-divided society where, in effect, a state of war exists over all key ideas.

This is a fundamental problem that cannot be solved simply by creating a wiki that is controlled by militant non-reformist leftists -- because even within the militant non-reformist left the _crisis of theory_ has made it nearly impossible to have intelligent discussion (much less unity of views) on nearly any important question. What, for example, is the meaning of "socialism" or "communism" which is the supposed goal of hundreds of groups on the left? Or how should we describe the lessons of Lenin's 1917 revolution -- or an assessment of the life and work of Stalin, Trotsky, Mao or Castro? How shall we describe the strengths and weaknesses of all the various groups which assert themselves to be the guiding light of the proletariat's future revolution?

There is no agreement on these topics and little hope of sorting out anything important in the near future -- because the various groups which are based on one or another interpretation of history or revolutionary theory -- find their existence threatened by any conclusions which might shake the faith of their supporters in the group's leading circles.

Furthermore, on existing wikis (such as Wikipedia) -- discussion of a page takes place in an extremely crude form by means of a mechanism (ie: discussion pages) which was added as an afterthought -- and which allows anyone to erase the comments of anyone else and which makes unclear who said what and when.

In addition, many of the editing features on most wikis are somewhat clumsy, non-intuitive or difficult for many non-technical people to quickly understand. Examples of this include the use of tables (ie: that can display information in rows and columns) and the methods which pull text from one page for display on another page. In particular, revolutionary activists will need to make use of tables in order to display information in a systematic way about anything which can be in the form of a list (ie: a list of valuable books to read, worthwhile and active projects, indymedia threads, important email discussion forums, revolutionary or pseudo-revolutionary groups or activists who are deserving of attention, etc). Activists will also need the ability to easily create forms on their pages which readers will be able to use to reply to a poll or to add information to a table.

Blogs overcome the "locked pages" problem with wikis because each blog has an individual owner who maintains exclusive control over the frontpage posts and who can delete comments which are useless flamebait or spam. But while blogs are terrific -- they overcome the weaknesses of a wiki by also giving up the main strength of a wiki -- a single page to which readers can go in order to get the straight dope on any topic.

News-related sites to which readers can post (and sometimes rate) articles or comments, whether controlled by decentralized groups of activists (like Indymedia) or by centralized editors who work for reasons of personal or commercial interest (ie: like slashdot or OhMyNews) also have problems. The rating and filtering which take place can never be fully "democratic" and significant work remains to be done before collaborative filtering (ie: where you can apply the ratings and filters of the subset of people who tend to agree with you) finds practical application on a mass scale.

The great unsolved question of social software that seeks to play a role in the self-organization of the working class -- is how individual responsibility and collective control can enhance one another rather than cancel one another out.

3. My proposal

After much study and consideration, I have put together a proposal, in the form of a mock-up, for something that I call the Attention Refinery. The Attention Refinery may be the next step in wiki evolution. It combines the best and most useful functions of blogs and wikis while avoiding the key weaknesses of both. Each activist will have the ability to create wiki pages in a zone over which he or she has exclusive control. Each page in this ecosystem of wikis will automatically link (in a side column) to all similar pages in all other zones -- and to all comments and criticisms of that page posted by activists.

Each wiki page and each comment will become a node which readers can rate and to which, in a recursive manner, they can attach further comments. Readers will have the choice (and the ability) to make use of ratings of pages and comments in order to find the best stuff and leverage the assessment of other activists in our community. Readers will be able to navigate around this ecosystem -- rating or attaching comments to the side column of any page they wish -- while the main central section of each page will always remain under the exclusive control of the activist who created it and who takes responsibility for it.

4. What practical steps can make this a reality?

The next step for me is to collect comments and feedback on my proposal and to create, possibly over the next few months, a working prototype that includes essential features -- and which is stable. Such a working prototype would serve as a "living spec" (ie: a blueprint for a more professional version) and might actually prove useful for practical work by some activists in the Media Weapon community.

Once a functional prototype has proven itself to be both (a) useful for practical work and (b) stable -- then possibly some activists in the Media Weapon community can begin efforts to link up with open source software developers to implement some of these proven design principles in a code base which is professionally written.

5. Where to find the mockup page

The existing mockup page can be found at: http://AttentionRefinery.com/bart/democracy

None of the forms on the mockup page are functional. However you can post your comments, ideas, questions and criticisms to the form at the bottom of this page.

Your comments, ideas, questions and criticisms are needed!

Sincerely and revolutionary regards,
Ben Seattle
http://struggle.net/ben

Isolated from one another we are easily defeated.
Connected to one another no force on earth can stop us
http://MediaWeapon.com

Postscript Feb 27:

Descriptions and website locations for the some of the sites I mention above (ie: Slashdot, Wikipedia, Indymedia and OhMyNews can be found in the "Related Links" section of the: NewsRefinery.)

 
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