The Awareness Network: the Web as Context Engine and the Issue of Coherence

While preparing the Domain of One’s Own/Open Educational Experiences talk I’ve given at SUNY’s Open Learn, ACCS, and THE Ohio State’s innovateOSu conference I listened to two talks and one IT Conversations interview by Jon Udell.  More specifically, I spent the 7 1/2 hour drives to both Syracuse, NY and Columbus, OH listening again and again to “The Disruptive Nature of Technology”  in early 2007, his conversation with Rohit Khare from UC Irvine about syndication frameworks in Fall 2007, and a talk he gave at the Kynetix conference in 2010 called “Architectures of Context.” I listened to these three  in that order because it helps me map some of the larger, conceptual visions of the aggregation/syndication bus as both a shift in the culture of sharing online as well as a technical innovation. It’s taken me too long a time to realize just how brilliant Gardner Campbell’s alignment with Jon Udell’s thinking was early on in 2005 for highered, but I remain eternally grateful.

I think one of the things I am learning from Udell’s talks and discussions is how he is constantly trying to explain and re-explain his ideas using new metaphors, stories, and examples. He’s all class, his examples are richly complex, and the work he has been painstakingly doing over the last decade or more to help people understand that the web is first and foremost a collaboration engine predicated on heretofore unimaginable scales of both awareness and context is truly powerful, and brilliantly pares down the power of the web. What’s more, Gardner Campbell has picked up this thread in his own blog recently, which has been on fire, taking the time to differentiate the web from the internet:

The Internet transmits information. The Web enables (stimulates, encourages) a set of connections that, from the first link to the enormous set of links we now experience, symbolize ideas about relationship.

The web provides context through relationships and builds a distributed sense of awareness that through the basic power of linking (not only in terms of an href, but in terms of linking ideas, people, and possibilities). I love this frame, and one of the points Jon Udell was making in his “Disruptive Nature of Technology” talk back in 2007 that I find really pwoerful in this regard was that Web 2.0 was not so much an evolution of the web as it was a reclaiming of the web to the read/write medium in had originally been imagined as. Here is a quote from Udell’s 1999 Practical Internet Groupware (I’ve also been reading that!) which is actually just an earlier version of Udell’s quote from the 2007 talk:

The inventors of the World Wide Web were scientists who wanted a better way to collaborate with far-flung colleagues. The intended HTTP to work as a read/write protocol. Users of the web wouldn;t just consume hypertextual content, they would also contribute and aggregate it. As the web went mainstraim, though, it became more like television than groupware. (34)

If collaboration and context is the foundation of the web, than how do we start imagining that for education and beyond. I feel like the work I have been doing over the last seven years has been reclaiming education for the web, making the process of teaching and learning visible, at the same time building “groupware” that aggregates this process and makes it discoverable. This is exactly what I want to keep pushing with the syndication framework I’ll be discussing today at MIT (and which I quickly framed here a couple of days ago). For me, the Rohit Khare discussion (which I understand conceptually, though struggle to some degree with technically)  frames the fact that what syndication and aggregation provide us is not dissimilar from the affordances a system like Facebook or Twitter provide, the difference being, at least for me,  there is a way to control and own your words if you maintain your own domain. This is why the vision of Diaspora was interesting a couple of years ago, but also why Alan Levine’s vision that social spaces online like Twitter, Flickr, etc. are important for congregating still resonates.

The completely distributed,  independent model has its issues, but the biggest issue—and this is what Udell frames brilliantly in the Kynetix talk, is an issue of coherence online. How do we allow people to both own their words and also have a coherence that frames them within an academic community like UMW? This is what syndication and aggregation can solve seamlessly, and it’s the thing I want to see the syndication bus deal with, i.e. the issue of online coherence for one’s sense of identity, a space that helps us contextualize what we do in the academic context as part of a larger community. The challenges of Udell’s practical internet groupware still face us today, and the solutions are still practical, relatively cheap, and seem to look a lot like the web.

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4 Responses to The Awareness Network: the Web as Context Engine and the Issue of Coherence

  1. Tim Owens says:

    I’d be curious how anyone at MIT (or others reading this) feel about RSS as the pipeline for this. Obviously we’ve used it to great effect with what we’ve done so far and the benefit is that it’s widely supported in existing applications like WordPress. But I wonder if technologies like pubsubhubbub afford anything greater in terms of speed of updates and the way that updates happen. I’m way out of my area of comfort with core web technology like that but wondered if it wasn’t something worth putting out there for greater people to ponder and consider.

  2. Reverend says:

    Tim,
    report from the front, we are going to use both RSS and PUBSUBHUB, and turns out Kin Lane is a genius, and we are going to have a version of this over the weekend that we can map onto Domain of One’s Own for centrally registered domains, feeds, and the like—also a push button move to DropBox, GitHub, etc. My mind is blown right now, and Kin has been doing similar things with the federal government agencies recently, so we have a much broader, fascinating frame for our work. I am finding we are on the edge of forever right now, and it is freaking awesome. We are gonna do this big time!

  3. Tim Owens says:

    Kin absolutely is a genius. I subscribe to his blog just in hopes of possibly absorbing by some freak chance some fraction of it occasionally. Man, Boston sounds like an exciting place to be! Keep us all updated.

  4. Pingback: ds106zone: The Fifth Dimension of Teaching and Learning | bavatuesdays

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