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Collaboration

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I still remember the moment I saw a big piece of the future. It was mid-1999, and Dave Winer called to say there was something I had to see.

He showed me a web page. I don’t remember what the page contained except for one button. It said, "Edit This Page" -- and, for me, nothing was ever the same again.

I clicked the button. Up popped a text box containing plain text and a small amount of HTML, the code that tells a browser how to display a given page. Inside the box I saw the words that had been on the page. I made a small change, clicked another button that said, "Save this page" and voila, the page was saved with the changes....

Dave was a leader in a move that brought back to life the promise, too long unmet, that Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, had wanted from the start. Berners-Lee envisioned a read/write Web. But what had emerged in the 1990s was an essentially read-only Web on which you needed an account with an ISP to host your web site, special tools, and/or HTML expertise to create a decent site.

What Dave and the other early blog pioneers did was a breakthrough. They said the Web needed to be writeable, not just readable, and they were determined to make doing so dead simple.

Thus, the read/write Web was truly born again.

- Dan Gillmor, Dave Winer: A Toast, Dan Gillmor on Grassroots Journalism, Etc.

The first thing I put on the web was personal, a story. The next thing I made was collaborative, a magazine. This was 1994. We knew we wanted to engage newcomers more fully than the traditional letters to the editor, and many of the letters (and email messages) we received at the time were submissions. People wanted to work with us and we wanted to work with them, and they came from all over the world. We managed for four years with no system in place besides a series of personal understandings, but any form of collaboration requires some form of orchestration, and our ad hoc approach didn't scale.

In the earliest days of online social networking applications (think "Six Degrees" and "Friendster") there eventually came the "so what" problem. You could make an account, register your name, find people, connect to them, and then... what? There was no there there. You might be able to form groups and discuss things but of course you could already do that through a lot of other interfaces (such as email lists and Usenet, for pete's sake) even if they weren't explicitly noted as social.

No, it's only when you start enabling people to do things together that the real power of online social networks kick in.

Today, it's possible to orchestrate collaborative groups through a series of time-worn, well-proven design patterns. Provide people with a shared space, give them a way to invite others, provide means for managing tasks, use [version control], take care for people's rights.

Wiki projects, such as the omnipresent Wikipedia, open source software development using tools like Sourceforge, Collabnet, and Github, Yahoo! Groups, and charismaticly driven groups of people such as Ze Frank's fanbase have all demonstrated the power that can be unleashed when you give people interfaces for working together on their shared concerns.

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Ze Frank's "If the earth were a sandwich" challenge recruited numerous participants into attempting to place slices of breads at antipodes, to turn the planet into a sandwich.

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