Speaking of the blog and wiki divide, Alex Bosworth, in a reply to my entry from last week concerning the divide between blogs and wikis, mentioned his and SourceLabs’ latest project: SWiK. Officially launched last week, I’d been meaning to blog about this since Alex originally mentioned it back in June.
The idea behind SWiK is simple; centralizing information about open source projects. Alex explains it via the link above as follows:
A common complain about Open Source is that it’s hard to find out how to make it work. I don’t really think this makes sense: if Open Source has any strength, it’s strength in numbers, and if there are many other people figuring out how to use software, they should be able to pass that knowledge along to everyone else.
Unfortunately, life is not always that easy for users of Open Source yet. That’s why SourceLabs is developing Swik, a web service for letting information about Open Source software flow from user to user, in a free and open way.
Swik is a wiki for any open source project. It’s a set of CreativeCommons pages that lets anyone share tips, links, definitions or instructions.
To a certain extent, I’m with Alex. I don’t really understand the notion that open source is difficult to make work, at least initially. Not necessarily because of the quality of the software, but because of the community that surrounds that software. I find Stephenson’s parable from his famous InTheBeginningWasTheCommandLine essay particularly instructive in this regard (tanks=Linux, station wagons=Windows):
The group giving away the free tanks only stays alive because it is staffed by volunteers, who are lined up at the edge of the street with bullhorns, trying to draw customers’ attention to this incredible situation. A typical conversation goes something like this:
Hacker with bullhorn: “Save your money! Accept one of our free tanks! It is invulnerable, and can drive across rocks and swamps at ninety miles an hour while getting a hundred miles to the gallon!”
Prospective station wagon buyer: “I know what you say is true…but…er…I don’t know how to maintain a tank!”
Bullhorn: “You don’t know how to maintain a station wagon either!”
Buyer: “But this dealership has mechanics on staff. If something goes wrong with my station wagon, I can take a day off work, bring it here, and pay them to work on it while I sit in the waiting room for hours, listening to elevator music.”
Bullhorn: “But if you accept one of our free tanks we will send volunteers to your house to fix it for free while you sleep!”
Buyer: “Stay away from my house, you freak!”
Buyer: “Can’t you see that everyone is buying station wagons?”
To me personally, then, open source is anything but difficult to get into. But the “personally” in the former sentence is the problem. Because while I’m certainly not technically on the same level as many of the folks reading this, I’m at a level where I know what I need help on, how to ask for it, and most importantly, where to ask for it. The fact is, however, that a lot of people don’t – even folks that have been in the technology business for a long time.
One of the things that helps me keep perspective on such matters is that with one or two exceptions, none of my friends from school or otherwise are in the technology business. They’re bankers, lawyers, marketers, teachers, scientists, salesmen, social workers, doctors and nurses, but not technologists. As far as my social and family circles are concerned, I can say definitively that open source is very confusing for them. I could tell them to try a new Linux distro by downloading an .iso and burning an install disk, and they’d give me a blank look. I could say, “oh, to install that application just untar the file and do a ./configure / make / make install” and they’d either nod off or run screaming. For these folks, suggesting that they browse an FAQ or cruise through forums just to get something up and running is a non-starter.
Now I’m not saying that SWiK is aimed at folks with that level of expertise, because it’s not (IMO, at least). But I am saying that we all need to be reminded from time to time that not everyone has the time or inclination to navigate an often bewildering array of open source related resources. For those folks, SWiK may be a godsend. I’m betting, in fact, that there’s a substantial population of technical folk out there that don’t live and breathe open source, but are interested in learning a bit if there exists a resource that presents it to them in simple, digestible chunks.
The key to such a resource, in my mind, is unsurprisingly community. This is where the wikiness of SWiK becomes critical. Take my experience as an example. I received the following in an email from SourceLabs last week:
Today we launched SWiK, a free an open database of open source projects that anyone can edit. It combines a Wiki, RSS reader and feeder, tagging and categorization and search functionality to provide a hub for the open source user community. Find it a www.swik.net.
It’s cool! Go search for your favorite open source project, and if it’s not there, our robot will find it and add it to the database.
Taking their suggestion to heart, I hopped over to SWiK and searched for Gentoo. The listing referred to a two paned file manager sharing the name of my personal Linux distro choice, which wasn’t what I believed most people would be looking for when they searched for Gentoo. In a pre-wiki world, the story might end there b/c the likelihood of me emailing SourceLabs with a suggestion that they update their entry is minimal. With wikis, however, I simply updated the listing myself, adding a new description, some download links, news feeds, etc. Then I did another quick search on Tomboy, which wasn’t listed but which I had the robot prepopulate (the feature works surprisingly well). The wikiness makes the project sustainable; providing it at least a chance to remain relevant longer term.
Overall, I think the value of SWiK will be minimal to folks like me, who spend a lot of time on project sites themselves, crawling through mailing lists, FAQs and user forums to gain a better understanding of how and why things work. The fact is, however, that I’d bet for every one of the folks willing to invest that sort of time, there are 10′s or 100′s of people who don’t care and just want the quickest path from point a to up and running, and for them SWiK may become a first stop in their search. My only recommendation to the SWiK folks would be taking a look at the usability aspect in the context of use cases; what do they expect the primary audience to be, for example? Some pages (e.g. Ajax) are overwhelming in their glut of information, while others (e.g. Linux) don’t really provide much help getting started. The fact they are tag pages rather than project pages will not be readily obvious to folks, I don’t think. If the goal of SWiK is to provide those unfamiliar with open source an easy starting point, as I think it should be, the usability and layout need to take that into account.
In any event, it’s an interesting project and I look forward to seeing where Alex and the folks from SourceLabs take it.