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Why we're doing this?

By Henri Poole, February 14, 2002

Because the world would be a much better place if people were more educated, more tolerant, and more humane. I personally believe that better dialogue can get us there. Individually, many of us need to be more open, receptive, and expressive. This can enable us to be more educated about the little things that we do that cause problems for others. Fears of being alone cause many people to close up. The internet has the potential to bring us in touch with like minded people from across the world. By exercising openness with people, we can experience connecting with others with similar values and similar fears. If we have tools that can help us each to open up to new people with new ideas, at our own pace, then we are on our way to a more humane place.

Many of these tools are being developed by free software developers around the world. These tools are enabling many people to have equal access to new ways to connect. These tools require a large investment of time to develop, and funding could help. Spreading awareness about the people behind these projects and foundations and the needed resources will only help to further cultivate and improve the state of these tools. Many people want to help, but don't understand how a small bit of action can make a big impact.


In 1977, I was introduced to the power of the personal computer by Bonnie Pride, a university professor of mathmatics and computer science. I found comfort in having a place where I could have more control than I had growing up in the physical world. It was a great tool to isolate myself, and become comfortable with my ideas and talents. Over time, it became a great tool to enable me to reach out, connect, and help others.

By the late 1980's, I realized that many people were using personal computers to help others. The computer user interfaces were enabling non-computer professionals to engage in meaningful dialogue. In 1994, I was introduced to the real power of the electronic communities by a guy named (mo) Maurice Weitman, who was the director of the WELL (Whole Earth Lectronic Link). He, and some members of the WELL community, were interested in creating tools to facilitate more effective dialogue, and they hired my company, Vivid Studios (not the same Vivid that makes videos), to design the human interface and API for this new platform. I was the team leader on that project.

What had been going on at the WELL was a touchtone for me personally. We began the project by interviewing some members of the WELL community. The medium offered certain attributes that were not available before the advent of this type of technology. People could open up and share their ideas, and learn to become more social. They could role play and try out concepts and confront fears that had been hidden away prior to their involvement. This new form of communication enabled personal growth and a mechanism for learning tolerance.

There were limitations to interactions on the WELL, and our job at Vivid was to try to enable a more fluid dialogue. During our interviews, we discovered that many members were quite happy with their original text based interface, but some had difficulty with it, for example: finding out where the most interesting things were happening at the time they were online. A few people had invented a new word to describe a flurry of creative activity on a particular discussion group. That new word was "storm". A storm was defined as a moment of intense dialogue in a particular forum.

Another thing we discovered was that people were introduced to various communities by others who they had began to trust, and who shared similar values and intellectual interests. The process of becoming involved in various new groups was haphazard, and required a history of interactions. People would learn who they could trust, and who they could not, with regards to particular issues. This took time, and appeared inefficient.

We ended up completing our work at the WELL, and like many projects, this work never took root. Nevertheless, critical questions about online forums were defined. Key attributes of the successfull WELL communities like persistant identities and rules of social conduct became apparant. Finally, very important relationships with many individuals who experienced this hotbed of social experimentation were established.

One thing was clear by the mid-90's, and that was that dialogue was happening in a big way. With the exception of AOL, many closed communities were failing...and fully open lists, newsgroups, and free infrastructure software was flourishing. Fortunately, bumps in the road were cleared by loud voices resonating the sentiments of many of us from some great philosophers of our time, including Richard Stallman and John Perry Barlow .

I'm honestly amazed that we still do not have better tools to facilate dialogue. In early 2000, I met a wonderful guy, Chmouel Boudjnah , at a GNU/Linux conference in Canada, and he shared with me a common dilema amoungst active linux kernal hackers (hacker is not meant here as a "bad" person - in the free software community, hackers are just clever people ). He explained that he was subscribed to several mailing lists, and he received between 1000-1500 messages per day. I asked him how he could possibly sort through that much mail, and he explained that he had written a bit of code that scored each message as it arrived. I asked him what kind of rules he used, and he said that messages with certain key words got one score, messages from certain individuals or domains got another score, messages from proprietary mail programs were discarded....etc. He had basically written some code that filtered and prioritized his messages. He is a very bright programmer and he could change the scoring process at any time. I was impressed. But everyone is not a programmer and these tools would be valuable for everyone.

A few weeks later, I was back in the SF bay area, and I went for a hike on Mount Tam with Howard Rheingold, and I asked about the current state of affairs for tools for online dialogue. He informed me that there were some closed systems (proprietary as well) that had promise, but not much. Being a strong advocate of Free Software and firm believer that code is law...I wasn't too excited about closed system whereby people wouldn't have freedoms to control their tools. Around that time, I took was recruited to join MandrakeSoft SA in Paris France. I met some extremely talented and ethical people in the Mandrake community. That was a wild ride.. . One thing I learned there was the importance of community in the technology infrastructure space. The entire business was built upon cooperation with customers and idealisic contributors from around the world.

One of the challenges was getting funds to those organizations and volunteers who provided so much value. In January 2001, after speaking at a conference in Amsterdam, I discussed some of these related problems over lunch with Richard Stallman. A strong advocate for creating only free software, RMS admitted that money could certainly help get more & better free software for the commons. Programmers need to eat...and writing free code for money is a steep hill for many of us. After leaving Mandrake in May of 2001, I decided to see what could be done to solve some of these problems.

I got together with a few colleagues and started to work on a business plan and this software project.

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