Author Archives: iamronen

Why a Researcher needs a Personal Website

This post is inspired by my meeting with Carla at Nyeleni 2016.

Carla is a young researcher who is primarily focused on how to do research she is interested in. She is an academic. She is an activist, active in numerous forums. She is interested in issues that can be considered marginalized in main-stream society, and therefore also in academic circles. She connects with people face to face when she can. She is a member on many mailing lists where she can connect with other researchers like her.

Story

Before Carla actually does any research, her search for research opportunities is already creating content. The subjects of inquiry that interest her, the forums she is active in, the funding sources she discovers, applications that she may submit, people she connects with … all of these are an unfolding story of Carla as a researcher. That story is not being told.

Maybe Carla and a few close friends can see it –  though even she and they may not see its wholeness because of its fragmented nature. Some people catch glimpses of it when connecting within specific contexts.

Carla’s unique story (as a researched and as individual) is key to her being able to connect with others and to advance her research. I am guessing that when Carla applies for research funding she is required to include some kind of CV. A personal website can be like a living CV where a reader can explore so much more by browsing across more subjects and digging deeper into interesting and relevant ones. It is and constantly changing CV. It can be kept up to to date with the latest occurrences in her life. It also allows her evolving narrative (the way she sees things, in addition to the what she sees) to come through for others (and for her) to witness.

Archive

A personal website can act as an information archive. Information can be intentionally stored on it so it can be accessed again in the future.

Documents can be published as articles  (rather then proprietary format documents which act as sealed containers), making them always accessible for reading, for searching, for sharing (sending links to others), for conversation (others can leave comments and provide input), etc.

With simple organization using basic taxonomies information can be categorized and tagged in multiple contexts making it easy to retrieve and use. Interesting websites, articles, academic institutions, people, sources of funding, etc. Researchers are particularly prone to discovering and generating much valuable information.

Linkability

Linkability gives Carla the ability to easily share her work with others and to allow others to reference hers.

Publishing an article (or any other piece of information) on a well structured personal site inherently creates a URL for it. This URL essentially becomes a unique address for that article. It makes easy to share with others, to reference (a key function in research) and, it desired, can be a theme of conversation via commenting.

Linkability is a cornerstone of the internet – it is a backbone of HTML. It was invented as an academic collaboration tool. But at the time of its invention an internet server and a website were expensive and so institutions such as universities were the place for researchers to publish their works and reference others.

Now every researcher that wants it can easily create a website to bring their work to the world.

Ownership

Anything that is published on a site is de-facto directly controlled by the person who owns and operates that site. If that site is yours, then you control it. When you publish somewhere else you implicitly agree to give that person / group of people control (and sometimes, unconsciously, ownership) over your work:  if it is presented, how it is presented, when it is presented and to whom it is presented.

Given the current state of technology there is no reason to relinquish control and ownership of your work. Publishing on a personal site does not need to be exclusive. Work can still be submitted to other established publication channels, however that can become secondary to making it a part of the knowledge-commons.

Commons

Ownership gives rise to the question of who really owns your work. If your work as a researched was funded with public funding, shouldn’t your work belong to the public who funded you. Shouldn’t your work become, by default, a part of a knowledge-commons that is in service of society.

Unfortunately that is no the situation today. Most academic papers are hidden behind paywalls that only privileged people (in academic circles) can afford and have access to.

That can change without a structural change in research itself. If every researched took on herself the responsibility to make her work, by default, available to the knowledge-commons we would be living in a different reality.

Audience

Each medium of publication reaches different audiences. I would say that the internet, as a medium, has one distinct advantage over others … that it is unknown. You don’t know who will come across your work, how they will discover it and in what context they will meet it. The Internet creates a network of circumstances far more diverse and dynamic then other targeted mediums which reach limited and often predictable audiences.

Also, when academic works are published in traditional channels they are formatted in traditional ways. Often their structure and wording may be alienating to lay-people. I would suggest that by committing to making research a part of the knowledge-commons a researcher may learn new ways of expression that make her work appealing and relevant for a wider audience. Publishing online can include mechanism of direct feedback that can help inform and shape such evolution.

Finally, our work (research or otherwise) is often a means to connecting with other people and expanding our circles of existence. If that is true, why would a researcher limit herself to traditional channels? Why would she not want to cast a wider net and allow herself to connect with people she may otherwise never meet

 

 

Gov.UK Verify

One of the things I discovered in this talk about Government as a Platform was a userverification scheme.

The UK government decided to go with a distributed approacht to user verification. Open authenticaton protocols are used to interface with existing authentifying authorities. These are bodies who already have information about us (such as banks) and can help to confirm our identities.

This also prevents the goverment from having to develope a centralized database which becomes an attractive target for hackers and needs to be constantly defended.

 

If You Have to Start with Community

This post was born as part of a response to this comment on a Loomio thread.

Though I do believe that a proper socio-technological architecture starts with individual self-owned online presence it may very well be that actual applications will begin in social spheres. Those beginnings will probably gravitate towards creating online-community space (as they often do).  In my opinion this presents an opportunity.

Architecture

I believe that especially in these cases the underlying socio-technological infrastructure still matters very much. A typical architecture where a community site is created and proprietary account architectures are created for participants looks something like this:

oameni_community_centralized

Ideally I believe it should be more like this:

oameni_community_distributed

Which makes things like this possible:

oameni_community_multiple_distributed

However, pragmatically, we are not yet near a situation where a majority of people have self-owned sites. So they will come to a community site and “open accounts” to participate. We could choose to create these “accounts” in such a way that, when people do wake up to the benefits of an individual presence, they could “break away” from the community site to become free (participating) individuals:

oamenicommunitytoindividual

Example: WordPress

To demonstrate that this is not theoretical but is not just possible but already happening, consider the example of the WordPress project. There used to be two primary ways to get a WordPress website:

  1. By registering for a free (with optional paid upgrades) site on WordPress.COM.
  2. By self-hosting a site based on the software freely available on WordPress.ORG.

Because both services use the same underlying code it is possible to freely export a site that was started on WordPress.COM and transfer it to a self-hosted server. So one can start “inside” WordPress.COM and then move out and become a self-owned and managed site.

Today there are more WordPress hosting companies and because they all use the same underlying code, it is inherently possible to export your content from any WordPress based platform to any other.

The Opportunity

What if we could harness the motivation of people to participate in intentional and purposeful online communities to lead them towards online-independence.

I am guessing there were different movitations that got people to join Facebook. Regardless of the motivation, the end result is that people walked into a trap (even if a comfortable one). For many people their online presence is defacto their Facebook page – which means its in the hands of a corporate overlord with its own agenda and motivations. This has and continues to create plenty of friction.

So yes we can create online community spaces. But we can build them in such a way that when the time comes people will realize that they do have an alternate online presence and that when they want to take it further they can. We can design it so even though it looks like “an account was created” … actually what was created was a pod of independence … and that pod can be launched and separated from the mother ship (the community site).

Where Facebook created a trap where freedoms were taken away, we can create an pathway to freedom. We can harness the motivation for people to congregate, to discuss, to vote, to shape their communal lives … as a reason to become free individuals in cyber-space.

We can do this subtly. The user experience can be simple and seamless. The underlying architecture can be drastically different.

 

 

Fred Wilson on Voting on the Blockchain

“Imagine if every voter was issued a token/coin and every candidate/issue to be voted on was issued a wallet. Voters send their coins to whatever wallet they want to vote for.”

source

I believe that a more networked version of this dynamic will introduce inherent security (like Oameni) which means that something like this can be achieved without the currently inherent wastefulness in blockchain technology.

Douglas Rushkoff at the Personal Democracy Forum

In the second half of this podcast, Douglass Rushkoff talks about the inherent contradicton in trying to develop civic technological tools within the existing paradigm of technological businesses.

I enjoyed this talk and it re-inforced my belief that a bottom-up approach: gradually unfolding technologies that start with the individual and include tools for invididuals to come together for diverse purposes in diverse ways.

Charles Eisenstein on Transparency

Charles writes about transparency as it is unfolding naturally … and I wonder what it would be like if (some of) the people who represent us would embrace this (inevitable?) shift willingly instead of denying it and struggling against it.

“It is getting harder to keep a secret these days. The collective shadow of our society, once safely relegated to the dark basement of the unmentionable, is now exposed to daylight, forcing us to face our contradictions.

Who are we as a people? What is reliable? What is possible? What is real? We aren’t what we thought we were, and it isn’t what we thought it was. This confusion is a good thing. It is a sign of liberation from the old story that confined us.”

Where to Begin: Individual Presence

For some time I’ve been asking myself where would I start developing something like Oameni. It is tempting, as many (most? all?) such projects have done to start with the communal … the place where we all go to vote (for example). This created a centralized place ,created around a specific social domain, where people need to register / signup … and I have come to believe that is not a good begining.

oameni_community_centralized

I believe a correct beginning needs to focus on invididual presence before a proper communal presence one can be established. Everyone who wants to participate in a communal online presence needs to first have their own, self owned and controlled online presence.

I realize that this is far from what is currently popular. Many people do have some kind of online presence on services such as Facebook but that does meet the criteria of self owned and self controlled. There are many reasons for this, but I do not want to get into that in this post, because that would derail my thinking and writing.

One reason I do want to give, which I hope will become more clear over time, is an ethical one: we must first be free individuals online before we can come together to create meaningful communal spaces.

oameni_community_distributed

In this paradigm individual presences are represented inside communal spaces but are not contained within them.

This makes it possible for an individual to participate in more than one community without having to have separate identities in each community. An individual online presence can be connected and be represented in numerous communal spaces.

oameni_community_multiple_distributedMaybe more important though is what happens when a community member leaves a community. However instead of creating a theoretical construct lets illustrate this more concretely via an example.

Consider for example a city block or neighborhood where people want to create an online shared book library where everyone can list the books they have and lend them to each other. In this paradigm each contributor to the shared library would have their own individual website. These websites would connect to a shared website – the neighborhood library.

oameni_community_library_single

Each library member, in THEIR OWN site would list the books she has and wants to add to the shared online library. Because of her membership in the shared library site her books would also be listed in the library. The information would be replicated (and synchronized) between her site and the library site. In this way a library is formed.

oameni_community_library_multiple

 

So far, in this example, information that originated in indvidual sites has been communicated to the share communal space. Now lets see how information can also travel in the opposite direction. Members borrow books from one another through the library (the shared communal space). When a book is borrowed, information about the transaction is created in the shared communal space AND is communicated to both members – the one who contributed the borrowed book from the library and the one who borrwed the book.

In this way the book borrowing is represnted in three different contexts:

  1. A record in the library history of borrowed books.
  2. A record in the book owner’s site of who borrowed the book.
  3. A record in the borrower’s site of what books she borrowed.

Though this may at first seem redundant, it is critical to the architecture of individual presence. Consider whay happens when a library member moves away from the block or neighborhood to another city. They take their books with them and they leave the shared online library. However the past relationship with the library is kept:

  1. The library still has a record of the leaving member, her books that AND who borrowed the books.
  2. The member still has a record of all her books, which books were part of the library AND who borrowed them while in this library.
  3. Each of the people who borrowed the member’s books have a record of the books they borrowed from her through that library.

oameni_community_library_joinother

This demonstrates a core architecture of freedom and independence achieved through correct relationship. No entity is trapped within an information bubble, each exists independently and is enriched by interactions it chooses with others.

Another subtle aspect to this trading more then just information (data), but also trading information skills (meta-data). How does a member come to have a list of books in the first place? By joining a library. When a member joins a library, the library site “teaches” the member site how to collect information about books. That ability is not dependent on the library but on being a member of it. Once a member joins a library, her personal site acquires this new capability to collect information about books. That capability will stay with her even when she chooses to leave the library. Communal sites can endow information capabilities to individual member sites.

How do academics publish papers? By having personal sites that are connected to paper-publishing communities.

How does an individual come to have a capacity to vote? By connecting to a community that does voting. How does an individual come to have a voting record? By voting in communities that support voting.

Without this architecture, I believe, it will be difficult to create meaningful and lasting online community dynamics.