(2022-06-02) Bjarnason On Online Collaboration And Our Obligations As Makers Of Software

Baldur Bjarnason: On online collaboration and our obligations as makers of software. So, you believed in having a personal website, what of it? No, you see, at the time blogging was supposed to be so much more than that. I truly believed that it heralded the future of collaboration, communications, publishing, and intellectual discourse. (collaborationware)

I was quite wrong.

Blogs didn’t quite die. You could even say that they won

I still to this day revisit old blog post favourites for fresh inspiration.

One such major influence, one that probably changed my entire outlook on both writing and software development, was Kathy Sierra and her blog Creating Passionate Users.

And Kathy Sierra’s social media story—that began with a group of self-styled ‘mean kids’ revelling in mean jokes and ended with literal nazis calling for mass murder—is the reason why I fell out of love with weblogs and began to distrust the tech industry’s approach to social media and online collaboration.

Getting back to notetaking, or the one where I piss off the punditry (again)

I reject the ‘external brain’ (outboard brain) hypothesis for notetaking. Or, more specifically, I think it’s a counterproductive metaphor for notetaking.

The problem is that even if our observations about these notetaking systems are correct, we don’t know if we have the arrow of causality pointing in the right direction

  • was he a genius because he had a complex and involved notetaking system? Or did a complex and involved system work for him because he was a genius?
  • Is it the notetaking system that’s helping you think more clearly? Or is it the act of writing that forces you to clarify your thoughts?
  • Is it the complex interlinked web of notes that helps you get new ideas? Or is it all the reading you’re doing to fill that notetaking app bucket?

If the external brain hypothesis is correct, then complexity is essential. You can’t have a neurological extension of the brain without neurological complexity.

if my suspicions are correct, then the primary benefit from notetaking comes from regular, deliberate practice. It doesn’t matter if you’re sketching, journaling, collaging, jotting down bullet points, recording a daily video, or just writing. It doesn’t matter if you’re filing it all away with a detailed ontology into a structured database or if you’re dumping it all into a box. It’s the habitual practice—in a way that fits your skill, personality, and practices—that matters. If I’m right, then you can get the results of a complex notetaking system with a lot less work. Or, to be more specific, with a lot less wasted work—it should all go into the writing (or sketching, recording, etc.).

If I’m right, then you can get the results of a complex notetaking system with a lot less work

The key is that the object of notetaking is never to take notes. It’s to do a better job:
Build better software.
Write better blog posts or finally finish that novel.
(hero's journey)

Kathy Sierra’s work has a single recurring idea from the very beginning of her first blog, Creating Passionate Users to her amazing 2015 book Badass: Making Users Awesome: the job of the tools we make is to set the user on a path of mastery.

the generally accepted key to mastery (or skill-specific expertise, if you want to be nitpicky), is twofold: deliberate practice and perceptual knowledge (The second attribute of those who became experts is this: they were exposed to high quantity, high quality examples of expertise.... After enough exposure with feedback, your brain began detecting patterns and underlying structures, without your conscious awareness.).

I began my research into writing and notetaking well before I began the Colophon Cards project itself. I came to the project with a set of ideas.

The purpose of the survey and the interviews was to see if I could validate or invalidate some of my guesses before I advance to the implementation stage proper.

The research I’ve done isn’t enough to lend my theories scientific legitimacy (for that I’d need way more money) but it’s enough to give me confidence in going forward.

My hunches:

these are the kinds of notes I’m hoping to support. The app should help those in creative or knowledge work become better at their jobs. Most of these kinds of jobs involve other people. Couple that with the need for the high-quality examples required for mastery and the key to a great personal notetaking app is then, paradoxically, other people.

We need to have a clear idea of what people are trying to accomplish with collaboration. Knowing the tools we can provide them with as UX designers is not enough.

A non-exhaustive list of the primary goals of most collaborative office work:
Feedback and review.
Knowledge sharing.
Parallel work.

  • frame-jiggle: equivalent to "note-taking isn't the goal", "consensus-building" (etc) isn't the goal, it's "building a business" or whatever.... (meta-level)


Constructive examples from the interviews include:
Meeting minutes in Google Docs or Hack.md to make sure that they reflect the group’s consensus on what was said and decided.
Plan of action proposals that needed to be approved by several people to happen.

The Bandwagon Effect (and the equal and opposite anti-Bandwagon Effect) is what drives most online social interactions. It’s what tore blogs apart; what makes Twitter a hellsite; and what turned Facebook into the propaganda machine it is today. It also tends to lead to bad outcomes in collaborative work. (groupthink)

The dominance of consensus-building online collaboration tools directly leads to worse decisions. (decision-making)

Here’s Kathy Sierra again talking about how this phenomenon is described in the book The Wisdom of Crowds (which, paradoxically, talks a lot about how crowds are dumb):....

Feedback and review

The pitfall here is that if the participants are aware of each other’s contributions, they will almost always automatically switch to consensus-building instead of providing their honest feedback.

To get the best feedback possible from the participants, you need to avoid the mechanisms of consensus-building. You need to ensure that everybody’s responses are kept separate and only visible to those responsible for integrating all of the feedback.

Knowledge sharing

Some of it sits unread in a knowledge base or a wiki. Some of it lies in the drives of individual employees who don’t have a way to share it productively.

Except that’s not how we work as human beings. If you haven’t read it, experienced it, and contextualised it, then it isn’t knowledge to you.

We should be talking about documentation and references. In other words: a library

Thankfully, if keep your scope limited (small organisation or single department) there’s this neat thing that digital files can do that saves the day: digital files can be in multiple places at the same time.

The simplest solution, one that works surprisingly often, is for everybody to maintain their organisation for the document library.

This approach has obvious limitations. It’s crap at helping you find stuff that came up before you started work in the organisation and it doesn’t scale to a large organisation.

A social bookmarking service that supports collaborative tagging (folksonomies) can often fill in that gap.

Parallel work

With Google Docs, you can get a group of writers to work in parallel on whichever part of the document you want. With Git, a group of developers can be working on separate problems in the same codebase without issue. With Figma, you can have all of your designers working on your design library at the same time and the app will handle it without a hiccup.

This can be great and this can be awful. The great part is obvious: sometimes you can sic a bunch of people at a problem and they’ll tear it apart. But also sometimes a problem can only be solved by a single person with expertise and others would only get in their way.

Putting it all together

It would be impossible if you tried to solve all of the problems I’ve described with one app. Instead what the research helped me do is narrow down the focus of the app and validate or invalidate some of my assumptions.

Through this work I’ve been finessing the concept of the app and cutting it down to four main spaces or views, each with a specific purpose, all connected through feedback loops.
The Journal
The Dot Grid The Reading Corner
The Sharing Space

The Journal is your entry point

almost every book on writing or creative work strongly recommends a daily, goalless journal. (journaling)

The Dot Grid is The Box. It’s the semi-structured space you use to collect your things.

The Reading Corner is where you read and review both the articles you’ve bookmarked and your own notes

Finally, The Sharing Space is the same as The Reading Corner except it’s specifically for getting feedback from other people

That’s the theory and the concept. This is what I hope Colophon Cards will be.

Our obligation as makers of software, as explained by the collapse of the blogosphere

The man who escalated the furthest was Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer who has since confessed several times to not only spreading lies about Kathy Sierra.

So, Kathy stopped speaking publicly and stopped blogging. She retreated from the public web while Weev rose to stardom as a ‘hacktivist’. Many people in tech adored him for fighting against unfair laws that ‘stifled’ progress in the industry.

This is when I lost faith in blogs and online social media.

The tech industry either doesn’t understand the harm being done by their idea of how social interactions work or it doesn’t care.

No app I make or work on should prioritise collaboration and work over the well-being of others

Since then Weev came out as a Nazi, got himself a swastika tattoo, and more than once has excused or advocated for mass murder while maintaining one of the more prominent online neo-nazi communities.

the rest of us need to try to be better.

Next, it’s time to start implementing the prototype proper and start testing actual designs.

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