Scale is a Trap

Software and services that are supposed to make life better are becoming unreliable and untrustworthy. It is increasingly clear that our interests, as software-using humans, are diverging from the interests of software companies. medium

Amidst the pessimism, I do think we still have a chance to build a different path. The only way to meaningfully diverge from the existing trends is to consciously embrace new values and different constraints. To that end, here are a new set of principles.


I could quote further but instead I will consider each of Jesse Kriss' principles in light of our experience with federated wiki. No surprise, we do well. We're also motivated by a few things he doesn't mention that are also important to us.

# The community should have final say.

I'm reminded of shopping for a first motorcycle when the salesman suggested I buy one just like my friends have. A car or a truck salesman wouldn't say that. But a motorcycle was a social vehicle to be ridden together more for recreation than transportation.

Federated wiki supports communities of communities where overlap is possible but not required any more than their members desire. Pages written one place can find their way into another where markups might differ slightly and some items not show. When preferences change servers are reconfigured with new plugins or members move to new communities and take their pages with them.

Federated wiki encourages diversity within individuals. One can easily maintain multiple interests and develop skills unique to each based on software that will not stand in the way of blending those interests where that works. The motorcycle analogy holds where one may have several bikes in the garage, one each for road, trail and trials. wikipedia

# Scale is a trap.

Most of the computing power of the internet rests on people's laps or in their pockets. The scramble to build ever larger data centers and exercise control over the software deployed there is a quirk of evolutionary change. Writing software for one machine has been temporarily easier than writing it for many. Nothing about software says this has to be true. The megaservice niche has grown fueled by business models that rarely look past the investor's liquidity event. Laws and habits will prevail for the short term. Then something new will take over.

Federated wiki aspires to be something new. At once it is just a wiki, that simplest of applications, and it is equally revolutionary to the point of confusing its users as to how it should be used. We've left decades of manipulative engineering behind. Our purpose is not to build a product with a massive audience to be monetized, but to provide a platform where works can last to draw the appropriate audience now and into the future.

We build on three technologies with their own acronyms, CORS, JSON and CC. We expect each to outlive any particular implementation distributed through any particular channel. To live in the moment we choose popular open-source tooling so than new hosts to new communities can be launched with one line.

npm install wiki

In the moment we face many challenges that spring from assumptions of scale that favor the datacenter over individual agency. We've cycled through OpenID, Persona, and now OAuth. That's three identity mechanisms in six years. DNS and TLS require impermanent leasing of numbers that is hard to explain to anyone outside the industry. We bundle solutions with the understanding that what we make is transient, simple enough to be rewritten every decade, so that the work of communities can outlive all of us.

# Hubs, not monoliths.

Federated wiki server software can be launched as a single site or as a farm where new sites are created as easily as naming them within a wildcard subdomain. A five dollar a month host can support thousands of sites though the operator of such a server can reasonably wonder what legal obligations they might be taking on in doing so. This is new legal territory for us where api-based legal entities could be a crucial enabler.

Government bureaucracies are only now learning how to regulate equally large and often better funded corporate bureaucracies. The presumption that the voter's needs are met by policy that protects their role as consumer will accidentally heap more risk on small platform providers such that the "cost of doing business" requires scale and cash flow to cover insurance and legal fees alone.

People have learned how to organize in support of their passions. Every folk music festival or sail boat regatta assumes some risk and assumes sufficient governance so that obligations can be responsibly met.

Server software is presently more mysterious than fair grounds and marinas but will not remain so. Sound practice will emerge. I once met a board member when visiting a model railroad club. He mentioned that proper governance can be difficult when real property is involved. Their solution, board members had to be regular operators. That is, they had to show up monthly and drive the trains.

# Allow the community to create.

Federated wiki is a place to do work as well as talk about doing work. Each community will include implementers that can supplement the available markups with specialized dialects of use to that community.

Unit based calculations, with conversion assumptions.

505 Driving from Vancouver (km) 635 Driving to S.F. (miles) SUM Burns Gas (gallons)

Geo markers, with click to add new markers.

39.7457448, -104.9888492 Grand Hyatt Denver 39.7468056, -104.9922985 Fluid Coffee Bar 1667 Stout 39.7460756, -104.9948359 Los Cabos 1525 Champa

Knowledge graphs, where nodes link across pages.

Type --> Fetch --> Origin --> Emit Build --> Publish --> Install --> Origin

Plugin management, with push-button update and restart.

wiki-plugin-json wiki-plugin-tally wiki-plugin-cypher

Each of these markups are parsed, rendered and shared by javascript modules added to participating servers with no special permission by anyone other than the server operator. Our design considers the case where there are thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of specialized vocabularies moving with pages that use them throughout the federation.


To these I will add more principles that guide our work.

# Tend work as a garden, not a stream.

While the megasites are designed to accumulate users that must visit every day we are much more about accumulating content that grows in value with each connection and can last forever.

# Do what only community can do.

I was once asked by Microsoft how they could use the community to more cheaply translate their computer manuals into the languages in use where they sold their products. They might devise a process to do this but I doubt it would be cheaper than hiring the existing professionals to do the work.

Contrast this to Wikipedia where each group of language speakers makes the encyclopedia they want for the purposes they have. Consider how language itself is made and remade by every generation. That is what communities do.

What makes something small scale technology? site