Tangled in the Threads

Jon Udell, May 24, 2001

Telling a Story

The weblog as a project management tool

Not everyone is a storyteller, but every virtual team ought to have one

Almost all the work I do is virtual and distributed, but lately I've been working in a project that's unusally virtual, as part of a team that's radically distributed. During the final years of my BYTE tenure, I was able to deploy web, mail, and news servers that -- in various ways I described in my book -- helped me and my colleagues work together more effectively. Nowadays as an independent consultant I have a lot less influence over the infrastructure deployed by the companies I work with. That, I'm starting to think, may be a good thing. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter whether I can show that an intranet/extranet news server is a cheap, compatible, and secure way to turbocharge team communication. That's true, but such infrastructure is not pervasive. When I face reality, I must admit that cyberspace really only guarantees two ubiquitous resources: email and the readable web. For the time being, any viable collaborative solution has to make the most out of these available resources. And thereby hangs a tale, but first I need to explain what I mean by the readable web.

The readable web

Email is a subject I return to obsessively because it's so fundamental. The readable web is equally fundamental. The term sounds odd because we hear more commonly, nowadays, about the writable web or the two-way web -- an environment in which everyone can produce as well as consume web content. The web began in this state of grace, soon fell from it, and has recently been trying to find its way back. It's been a hard road, frankly. Key writable-web technologies, such as WebDAV and WYSIWYG HTML editors, have emerged but not yet gained the traction they deserve. Lately I've been wondering if there's a reason for this. Could it be that, despite Tim Berners-Lee's dream (and mine), the writable web is not the natural state of affairs? That, in fact, it is appropriate for consumers of web content to outnumber producers? And that tools and technologies are not the major constraint on the production of web content?

Recent history suggests that the answer to all of these questions is probably yes. Personal computers have forever changed the way people make publications, movies, and music. But they have not changed the people who do these things. If you lack writing or editing or illustration skills, or filmic flair, or musical ability, then desktop publishing or video or music tools can't change that. What they can do -- and it's no small thing -- is help people with latent abilities in these areas discover and grow their talents.

The uses of storytelling

There's one talent common to all these creative disciplines: storytelling. We are, as a species, hardwired not only for language but for narrative. A story is, you might say, an evolutionary mechanism designed to focus the attention of a group. Sometimes the point is to entertain, sometimes to teach, often both. The power of narrative, whatever its purpose, flows from a deep human need to identify with a group, and above all to find out what happens next. What's this got to do with virtual teams? Perhaps quite a lot, I concluded last week. The distributed project I mentioned was under intense time pressure but lacked focus. Documents were flying around in email crossfire. Phone conferences dragged on as people rooted through their inboxes. Days were passing. The project needed its own weblog, and I needed to write it.

Weblogging, or blogging, has emerged as a genuinely new literary/journalistic form. The narrative structure of a weblog is that of a daily diary, The style is one of commentary -- that is, a weblog refers to the readable web, focuses attention on selected items, and tells a story about those items from a particular point of view. The web's leading blogger is clearly Dave Winer, who has for years pursued parallel careers as a software developer and storyteller (or, he might say, technology journalist). Not coincidentally Dave's product, Manila, enables others to do likewise. The connection between these two activities at first seems unlikely, perhaps because blogging can look more like a form of entertainment than like a tool for goal-oriented business communication. I stressed the latter use of blogging in a paper I wrote last year on Internet groupware for scientific collaboration. In that paper, I made a remark that drew some heat from Dave and from Evan Williams, creator of another leading weblog tool, Blogger, who complained that I had "trivialized weblogs." Here's what I said:

The current weblog craze is, in all likelihood, a passing fad. If you visit Blogger (http://www.blogger.com), a portal site that aggregates over 1000 weblogs, you may conclude that this form of communication has already suffered the same fate that befell the Usenet. One "blogger" (short for "weblogger") recently complained:

There was once a hope that the weblog could become a powerful tool for reaching out and connecting with the world. Instead, it has become a powerful tool for self-gratification and self-absorption.

But underlying the weblogging movement are two technological trends -- RSS headline syndication, and pushbutton Web publishing -- that lay the groundwork for better ways to publicize, and monitor, the activities of professional groups.

Here's how I'd rephrase that today for a more general audience:

Blogging as a form of mainstream web entertainment, with its star performers and its popularity ratings, may or may not be a passing fad. What will endure, in any case, matters more: a powerful new way to tell stories that refer to, and make sense of, the documents and messages that we create and exchange in our professional lives.

The tools aren't the story

Like much else I've written about groupware, that paper focused on tools (discussion forums, group schedulers, bloggers) and technologies (WebDAV, RSS, SVG, MathML). Because I am a technologist, and work with other technologists, I tend to believe that problems -- like the information chaos that surrounds knowledge workers -- will succumb to the right mixture of tools and technologies. If only it were easier for most people to create topical websites, reorganize and filter messages, create and use metadata, manage time-ordered streams of information...and so on. It's always about the tools and technologies. Except that, really, it isn't.

Mainly what matters is telling the story. Bloggers, WYSIWYG HTML editors, and content management systems can make the job much easier, just as software tools for publishing, video, and music can make those jobs easier. But the truth is that these tools are optional. It all boils down to just three things: a storyteller, an audience, and a venue.

Tale of a project weblog

For knowledge workers in cyberspace, as I've said, the venue consists of a messaging medium (email) and a publishing medium (the readable web). At the intersection of these two media there is a niche for a storyteller to occupy. The story that needs telling is a project weblog. Here's a sanitized picture of what I mean:

Here's what's happening in this project weblog:

It looks like a newspaper, and indeed serves a similar purpose. The relationship of the file archive to the project's email flow and to the weblog entries is one of the key points here. In my ideal world, every message (and every file attachment) exchanged in a project context would be captured by default (unless specifically marked as private). By that I mean that this stuff would land not only in one or more email inboxes, but also in a project repository, with a canonical URL for future reference. (I'd particularly like attachments to go primarily into the repository, and messages by default to include attachments "by reference" rather than "by value".) Most discussion systems, including NNTP newsgroups and web-based conferencing tools, have this important property -- namely, that every document is a message, and every message is a URL-addressable document. But, though I have tried mightily to make it so, discussion systems are not ubiquitous and standard. We have email, and we have the readable web, and we've got to make the most of these two resources.

Here's my compromise solution. I'm in the loop on most of the project email. Of the twenty or thirty messages that I read and write every day, only a few deserve to be promoted to the status of project landmark -- that is, added to the file archive, and blogged. It would be easier if I could just refer directly to these messages (or to their attachments) in situ, rather than having to:

There's friction here but, in the final analysis, that's not the biggest obstacle. What's even harder is to:

These are the real tasks. Here as well, the right tools will reduce friction. But it is not for lack of tools that the task is so often neglected. The gating factor isn't technology. It's the commitment of the project weblogger to tell the story of the project -- that is, to bring the right items to the attention of the right people in the right ways. If you've got power tools, great. Deploying Manila or Blogger on an intranet/extranet makes perfect sense, for the same reasons that deploying a news server does. I think every project should have such resources available. But the reality is that most don't, and that doesn't have to be a show-stopper. The weblog I've shown here is made using the equivalent of stone axes -- ftp and a text editor. There are millions of people who can, and do, use these stone axes to make functional web pages. Some of them are, or can be, storytellers. It's a talent worth cultivating.

There's never a magic bullet; the results of this experiment aren't all in yet; I'm still tuning the process. But early indications are that getting everyone onto the same page -- literally -- really helps achieve focus, and more than repays the time and effort invested. I'm convinced, more than ever, of the value of weblogging as an important new form of business communication.

Jon Udell (http://udell.roninhouse.com/) was BYTE Magazine's executive editor for new media, the architect of the original www.byte.com, and author of BYTE's Web Project column. He is the author of Practical Internet Groupware, from O'Reilly and Associates. Jon now works as an independent Web/Internet consultant. His recent BYTE.com columns are archived at http://www.byte.com/index/threads

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