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by Jay Fienberg

Group voice and wiki aesthetic

posted: Jun 6, 2003 2:12:55 AM

I posted the other day about the voices of wikis and weblogs in response to Ross Mayfield's Group Voice, and Ross added a comment to my post.

I say:

From my own experience, I would add online discussion forums as another media for group voice.

And Ross says in his comment:

Discussion boards are still about individual voices, just in one place. The form doesnt work to bring harmony.

I agree with Ross, and I also disagree with him. It is a matter of what one means by "group voice", and to be fair, this is Ross' phrase and I suggested something that didn't fit in his definition. So, he is right.

I am a musician, and my ideas about harmony, voice, and groups of people adding their voices to make something harmonious are all totally framed by my experience as a musician. So, from that experience, I say: sometimes a group is harmonious because it sounds like a single unified voice wherein the individual voices are not discernible, and sometimes a group is harmonious because its individual voices are strongly working together while retaining their individuality.

Ross' comment suggests to me something about why many wiki's are not nice to look at or navigate: design by committee. (Note: see also Brent's Law of Wikis.) I don't mean that all wikis have to end up this way, but I know from experience that collaborations that are oriented towards the ideal of a collective result can fall into a trap where it is uncool for someone to be a lead individual and instead everyone has to equally get to make decisions.

I have worked with visual designers who will tell you, practically every day, "I don't do design by committee". And, I don't know if people realize what a big difference there often is between design by committee and good design.

I have had so many experiences where someone who doesn't understand web design starts telling the visual designer what to do, and it is not that the person doesn't have useful points or shouldn't contribute to the project, but they don't know how to translate their ideas into good visual design. The result, when the committee gets control, is that major aspects of design features get compromised or broken. You get Soviet-state-approved music instead of Stravinsky.

In my experience, often the best collective voice comes out of people trusting each individual to more individually do things. When that trust is there, each individual finds their time to harmonize the voice, whether in a lead role or simply as backup.

I can see how, with wiki, this might not happen. Wikis are really good at letting everyone participate. And, one way everyone can participate is by trying to make sure everyone has an opinion about everything. I bet great wikis start to show off individuals, even if they remain unnamed for their individual efforts. But, many wikis presentation remains at a lowest common denominator: design by committee.

So, in discussion forums, individuals always keep their names. But, in a great discussion, each individual has to harmonize. Individuals have to be quiet sometimes. A good forum discussion is collaborative with each participant working towards a common goal, like come up with the best solution to a problem. (Webmaster World has good forum discussions, as an example.)

Of course, discussion forums can be as Ross says: a disharmonious collection of individuals who don't listen to each other and just say whatever they want whenever they want. But, I have been in discussions that were a harmonious collection of individuals listening to each other and working to express a collaborative voicing of some topic.

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