Where have the Online Neighborhoods Gone?

After linking to the “One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age Photo Op” Tumblr in my last post, I started reading around a bit on the Geocities research blog. This post by Olia Lialina (pioneer web artist and theorist) about Neocities got me thinking a lot about how we are framing Domain of One’s Own here at UMW. Neocities is a project by Kyle Drake to “help me keep the creative, independent internet alive!” and it’s built in the spirit of Geocities. Lialina has some deeply insightful observations that she jotted down as soon as the service went public this Summer that I’m finding helpful to think more broadly about building community around DoOO.

We have the basic hosting worked out, we’re currently exploring more sophisticated syndication, but we still need to figure out how to imagine community more broadly. In this regard I think the same is true for Reclaim Hosting—in order for both to be more than just hosting they have to be able to expose what’s happening around the community.

As she was testing out Neocities soon after its launch, Lialina notes that….

There are still people out there who can write HTML, want to have their homepages made by hand and want to express themselves through HTML code. What seems lost is the idea (or skill) to make links to each other, manually, to build anything outside of your own “profile”. Neocities users do not link to other users’ pages, except user youpi and myself.

This idea of isolation in managing one’s own site is a theme that recurs through the first impressions. What’s more, I think it’s also apparent for anyone who has been blogging for a while. The slow death of the blogosphere is just that, the cultural amnesia that links between sites and people is what makes the web. Like with syndication, we want this to happen as a part of a siloed service like Facebook or LinkedIn—the idea of a personal profile seems almost divorced from the social self online—and that is something we need to challenge with DoOO.

There is also a discussion about the changing rhetoric around Geocities over time. In 1996 and 2004 Geocities was referred to as a priosonhouse of one’s content. Free web hosting services like Geocities “were seen as a prison for creativity and self expression.” There was a push to controlling your own webspace through commodity web hosting services like Bluehost and the like. But the rhetoric around Neocities, an updated verion of Geocities in many ways, is framed by Kyle Drake as a….

….place for the users to be “in complete control of the content and presentation they provide to their audience”. It is of course an over-over-statement. However, compared to the industrialized nothingness Facebook offers, any “pimp my profile” service can be regarded as offering “complete control”.

This is fascianting to me because the critiquing of Geocities in 1996 and 2004 was not so much about ownership as it was about ease of use. For the replacement was not cheap commodity web hosting for most folks, but rather “the industrialized nothingness Facebook offers.” So much so that something like a simple, third-party service for hosting HTML pages seems like the second coming of Freedom online. What an interesting shift in the rhetoric of the web over the last 15 years or so. There’s a dissertation in that alone.

But what is most interesting and useful for me in her early impressions is the fact that Neocities is cultivating a series of disconnected sites that don’t foster community. No one is linking to anyone else, and that frames the “beginning of the end.”

Very bad move: Calling it Neocities and not starting with neighborhoods. When Yahoo bought Geocities, they only offered vanity profiles and discontinued neighborhoods and suburbs. Users became isolated, it was the beginning of the end.

How do we build neighborhoods in DoOO and Reclaim Hosting? Is it around topics? -interests? -academic disicplines? -academic departments? -courses? -people? I imagine some combination of all these will be the case? And the more I think about it the more the idea of rolling out DoOO by a class of students, i.e. freshamn, didn’t make all that much sense for the project. The success of DoOO is going to depend as much on academic programs, courses, departments, and individuals—and like everything else we’ve done at UMW it will depend on an organic push. I’m just wondering what the idea of “neighborhoods” looks like for DoOO and how we might start experimenting along those lines.

Reclaim the Chronicle

RECLAIM_LOVE_GRAPHIC_grandeMark Sample wrote a really good post laying out what Reclaim Hosting is all about on ProfHacker yesterday. He lays out the nuts and bolts of what something like this means:

Reclaim Hosting is a web hosting service for educators and students, providing simple one-click installation of a variety of web apps, including WordPress, Omeka, MediaWiki, and many others….And indeed, the one-click installation of popular web applications is only part of what Reclaim Hosting offers its users. Each domain includes secure FTP access, an email account, the ability to run Cron jobs (which execute scripts and programs at regular intervals), and SSH/Shell Access, meaning students can work on the command line, programming in Perl and Python. In short, students get all the benefits of a typical shared server hosting service (say, Dreamhost) for the cost of several slices of pizza.

I’m a big fan of pizza, so I love that closing analogy. One of the other things we’ve started realizing recently thanks to Martha Burtis’s work on creating customized packages using “Installatron” (an aptly named application installer) is that we can start offering particular WordPress installations that are customized to be out-of-the-box solutions to something like course syndication. The idea that faculty and/or students can deploy a fully- functioning syndicated course hub in seconds is really exciting. This is an idea we’re working though currently at DTLT, and you can see the early stages of thinking through this here. This approach is done with WordPress, and it populates free plugins and some custom code that enables students to automatically push their work to the course hub.

And while some might balk at the automation of this, it by no means precludes anyone from hacking away, building their own, or taking this in a bold new direction. What this does is makes the syndicated course setup that much more seamless for faculty to use, which I ‘ve found makes a huge difference in their willingness to experiment with such an option. The fact that the experimentation with this through Domain of One’s own has made such an idea possible already justifies this project, but add to that the fact that we are using Reclaim Hosting as a way to make these possibilities available to as many faculty and students as possible is downright awesome.

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Another feature I’m beginning to explore in the True Crime Freshman Seminar with  the students, all of whom have their own web host and domain as part of UMW’s Domain of One’s Own, is being able to help them manage their web hosting by being able to access their cPanels (see image above). With this setup I can act as a server admin for all of their sites and  help them out with issues that in the past I found difficult to resolve when teaching ds106. I can help them trouble shoot DNS issues, installation problems, plugin snafus, databases problems, etc. If you’re using Reclaim Hosting as a way to show your students how to manage web hosting, maintain their own space online, and get familiar with the affordances of web hosting—this is one possibility for enabling some powerful support. That said, you might want to let them know as much,  becuase with great power comes great responsibility.

Decentering Syndication or, a Push Away from RSS

Yesterday Steve Covello tweeted a post at wpmu.org my way.

I was prepared  to read about a premium suite of plugins that I could buy for the privilege, but was pleasantly surprised to find Chris Knowles’s post “How to Publish to Multiple WordPress Sites from a Single Install” to be a thoughtful, clear, and  beautifully documented articulation of how the spoke/hub model for pushing content from one site out to another works more generally in Content Management Systems, but for the purposes of his example in WordPress in particular.

452_oseAt first I was interested in this post to start showing faculty and students alike how they can use their WordPress sites to push content out to a number of different social media services like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc., but still keep their own version of everything they publish. That, for example, is one relatively simple and powerful reason to use such a spoke and hub model, you are the hub that pushes content out to the various spaces around the web you want it to appear.

But as we got talking in DTLT about this model at 9:30 this morning, it started to get much more interesting. In particular, the plugin that is pushing ones posts, images, videos, etc. in WordPress to all these different sites (what I’ll affectionately called “the pusher”) is Push Syndication  Syndicate out [Update: Tim and Martha tried Push Syndication but couldn;t get it to work so went with a similar plugin Syndicate Out]. One way to think about this plugin is it is does the absolute opposite thing then FeedWordPress, rather then pulling RSS feeds in, it uses XML-RPC to  push content out. So, as Marx did to Hegel, DTLT is doing to distributed course blogs—we’re standing syndication on its head :) Rather than insisting on making the course the hub as has been the case with ds106 (and scores of courses sites on UMW Blogs over the years), why not decentralize the syndication and allow each of the sites to push their content to the hub. Same effect, jut a different approach.

But why? What are the benefits? 1)  it is techncially inline with the ethos of giving the students more control over their work; they can control the syndication in this regard because “the pusher” plugin is installed on their blog. 2) It is far simpler than FeedWordPress for faculty to get up and running with—you don’t have to ask faculty to load in tens of feed URLs for the syndication engine to work. 3) It’s immediate, with XML-RPC, there is no wait for the post to show up. Publishing on the course hub is immediate. 4) It allows for both students and faculty alike to become a hub or a spoke. When I was at the Reclaim Open hackathon at the MIT Media Lab in April Kin Lane was conceptualizing the Reclaim Your Domain around this idea. 5) Less load on the server CPU pulling 100s feeds as weas the case in ds106, in this model you decenter that to a distributd push. 6) The whole process can be automated to some great degree on both the Reclaim Hosting and the Domain of One’s Own server thanks to Installatron. Tim Owens did a mock-up of what this might look like for students and faculty alike.



When going through the process of installing a WordPress site in Installatron (pictured above), we can actually build in a dropdown list of courses that you want to publish to from your own site. Martha Burtis, who has been working on the idea of packaging WordPress plugins suites  in Installatron already, is seeing if we can’t get the Syndicate Out plugin to not only get automatically installed and activiated on the student (or spoke) blog, but also identify the hub it will be publishing to based on the dropdown selction. If a student or faculty member choses to create a course on the fly by selecting that option and then naming it accordingly, it will immediately populate in the dropdown along with  a unique identifier. Instantaneously it will allow others to subscribe to it seamlessly. All of this with no mention of RSS! EDUGLU heresy, and I love it!

Thinking out loud here, what Howard Rheingold labored through for his Social Media Issues site, which admittedly is awesome, could be accomplished at the server level with next to no overhead. This is the in-a-box that we actually need to make synidcation course practical in highered. It is a bit hazy here for me (as much of it is right now), but I  think we can manage copy all the login information from the student blogs into the hub at the level of Installatron by grabbing their username and password and copying them to the hub database.  In other words, every student and faculty in such an environment becomes a spoke and/or hub, the idea of the motherblog becomes deprecated  and we start to move toward a more decentered approach wherein each learner can control what syndicates where.

And this is just the beginning, this model would also allow students with a Domain of One’s Own blog at UMW to use the Syndicate Out plugin to seamlessly send their posts out to any UMW Blogs blog they’re an author of. We tried it out today, and it’s absolutely seamless. You can see the spoke post here and the hub republishing on jimgroom.umwblogs.org here. So cool.

We still have a lot to figure out with all this, but as we were talking about it today we started recognizing the fact that Domain of One’s Own has already given way to Reclaim Hosting, Installatron plugins and theme packages, and now a whole new way of approaching spoke/hub syndication models for courses. And I firmly believe this is just the beginning of a whole new level of re-conceptualization, experimentation, and innovation—we’re just now realizing that Domain of One’s Own is more than just giving everyone a domain, WordPress blog, portfolio site, etc.— it’s quickly beginning to feel like a  paradigm shift for what’s possible when it comes to digital publishing at UMW and beyond. It’s actually kinda hard to explain just how exciting it is to go to work these days—my head is constantly buzzing, it’s almost hard to think, no less concentrate, on anything else. DTLT is in the zone right now….

Rethinking Forum Software

Some of my worst memories of poorly-designed online courses bring me back to the awful discussion boards of the standard LMS. The instructor, in a feeble attempt at building community with the tools they had, would ask you to go in and introduce yourself, which meant you had to pretend to be interacting with everyone else in there and care that they like Indian food and hot yoga. Later we’d be asked to respond to articles with our thoughts in a new thread, maybe even comment on others. Everything was extremely linear, the editing tools offered little beyond the ability to style some of the text, and if you were a part of a large class, the threads quickly become overwhelming and as a student you just picked something near the top of the pile rather than attempt to wade deeper into the mess. Open source forum software was often only a small step up from that experience. The ability to subscribe to threads, better layouts, and plugin architecture of software like PhpBB and Vanilla Forums is certainly welcome, but ultimately it still felt like we were stuck in the 90s and hadn’t really rethought what a “discussion board” could actually be. This weekend I got a chance to setup Discourse and play with it, and I’m convinced we might finally have an answer to that.

Discourse is an open source project led by Jeff Atwood who runs Stack Overflow and the Stack Exchange Network. The website makes their mission very clear: they want to rethink what a discussion forum could be and they’ve built something from the ground up to do that. The long list of features is impressive: Image handling by drag + drop, endless scrolling instead of awkward paginated threads, @user mentioning within threads, the ability to respond to a thread while continuing to read further down, replying to a topic as a new thread, realtime updates, link expansion for many popular websites, oEmbed and oAuth, and the list continues to go on. Suffice it to say, it’s extremely modern software in look and feel and it’s designed really well.

I had heard a bit about Discourse but not looked into it much further until I was approached by Jim and Howard Rheingold to see if I could help them use it for Howard’s Social Media Issues course this fall through Reclaim Hosting. The trickiness of this request was that Discourse does not run in a shared hosting environment, in fact it doesn’t use a LAMP stack at all. It’s a Rails app that uses PostgreSQL for the database and while they don’t care what OS it’s run on, most instructions for installation pointed at Ubuntu. Discourse also has some pretty hefty minimum specs for the server with at least 1GB of memory so it was virtually impossible that I’d be running this on the same server that Reclaim uses to host our users. It’s worrisome for me that this seems to be the direction of most software out there. LAMP software seems to be limited by the capabilities of the platform and progressive developers are moving to newer methods that use Rails, Node JS, and other technologies that offer better security and performance, but at the cost of losing out on the ability to do things like “One Click Installs” within shared hosting environments. I worry that choice limits adoption to those that can afford hosted solutions or the technical chops to setup their own server, but I’m also optimistic and hopeful that there will be better technologies and ways of getting at this problem in the coming years that will continue to push things forward for everyone, not just sysadmins and customers with deep pockets.

Anyways, I fired up a virtual private server at Digital Ocean (a company I already use for other pieces of Reclaim Hosting and love!) and within 60 seconds I had the server I needed to get started. After a weekend of trial and error I got it up and running and started to really play with it. Their homepage lists many of the greatest features that I also briefly mentioned earlier, but there are a lot of smaller things that really impress me about Discourse. One is that almost always when I googled for an issue I was having, I found a thread on their forum where the developers were actively trying to fix the issue for the user, and in many cases rolling in fixes to the code and releasing them just weeks later. There’s something really encouraging about seeing someone post an issue about wanting better privacy options and instead of responding with “Yeah, we’ll see what we can go” there’s a lively thread about use-cases and what people would want to see ending with the developers posting that they’ve merged code into the source that offers exactly what the user wanted. I also stumbled upon a really great feature of Discourse: Multisite is built in. That means I can use the same server I setup for Howard to create a second install as a sandbox without having to setup a second server (I will probably have to upgrade the specs of the existing one I’d imagine as more forums require more memory).

To that end I’ve decided to focus on using Discourse as a community space for Reclaim Hosting. If you’re at all curious about playing with the software I’d encourage you to head over to http://community.reclaimhosting.com and give it a try. It’s still very much a beta product and this install is probably not fully-configured since I just fired it up last night, but I think you’ll start to see why I’m pretty pleased with it and why I think it could be a big deal for managing communities as well as providing better online discussion spaces going forward.