Entry in the category: Digital Communities

Title / Name of project: Meatball

Year of work was created:

Type of project: Community-Projekt

Description of project: If you please, this is covered in great detail below.

URL of the work: http://usemod.com/cgi-bin/mb.pl

Project Details

Objectives: The Meatball Project was founded in April 2000 by Sunir Shah to explore "collaborative hypermedia". Its initial focus was to provide a common space for wiki developers and proprietors from all over the Internet to collaborate, but it has grown into a thriving project of community and culture. Although the Meatball project is larger than just one website, Meatball's work is predominantly represented by MeatballWiki. The name Meatball came from the analogy that the web looks like a bowl of meatball spaghetti, where the links are the spaghetti and the content is the meatballs. In that respect, Meatball places a premium on content over form. Also, Meatball plays into the distinction amongst early net.culture between "meatspace" and "cyberspace". Meatball doesn't consider itself a community of avatars in cyberspace; instead, it is a community of people in meatspace who happen to interact over the internet.

Language and context: English primarily with multilingual facets (French, German, Italian)

Project History: As mentioned, Sunir Shah founded the Meatball Project was founded in April 2000 to explore "collaborative hypermedia". In a sense, it was an outgrowth of the then burgeoning wider wiki community that could not find a home on the original wiki, WikiWikiWeb. But more to the point, it was a culmination of much of Sunir's experience online, as he had witnessed the great joys and great problems that come with organizing people online. As the experience of working online is not unique, it wasn't hard to find others interested in the project. Clifford Adams, author of the trn Usenet news reader and the UseModWiki software, offered to host MeatballWiki for the project. While at the time UseModWiki was a relatively unknown engine, over the years the coupling between Meatball and UseMod has made this engine one of the most popular on the Internet. And that's because we've designed it to work well for people rather than for computers. Given our experience with wikis, it wasn't long before MeatballWiki became the centre for the then wiki development community. We have the most detailed list of syntax, indexes, and community patterns. We have helped negotiate standards in the wiki way. And we are proud that we helped wikis become as vibrant as they are today. Over time, Meatball has also been involved in a number of different ventures outside the realm of wikis. We have helped redesign Kuro5hin's moderation system. We have analyzed Slashdot. We have written the most detailed history of weblogs available, available in English, French, and Japanese. We have thoroughly analyzed case histories on the Internet. Simply put, we have been active in trying to grapple with the fundamental question of digital community. And given its influence, it has inspired similar projects that vary in style, like the pseudonymous FermentWiki, the copyleft CommunityWiki, the French CraoWiki, and the German GründerWiki. We're proud of that tradition too.

People: Meatball only exists as a community of support for other communities. This makes it different from other submissions in that while it is a community itself, it is in a very meaningful way also a community of communities. First, Meatball acts as a centre for the wider wiki organization. Meatball has greatly impacted the operation of WikiWikiWeb, the original wiki, as well as Wikipedia, the largest wiki. In fact, Wikipedia began by using the UseModWiki software, Meatball's own. More specifically, we have created the unique MetaWiki search engine, a search and analysis tool that spans many wikis; we have standardized the Rich Site Summary wiki extension, ModWiki; we have organized the "Tour Bus", a communally-edited tour of wikis worldwide; and we are currently collaborating amongst the wiki development community to build a standard wiki data protocol so that people may write new higher-level applications like wiki editors and visualization tools. More importantly, however, we spend most of our time helping others learn how to navigate the difficulties of online community. With our soft security ideas: a belief in social order over technologically imposed order; our exploration of identity; wide-ranging advice on conflicts; an ongoing study in trolling and stalking; and a mantric zeal in reapplying forgotten basic principles in human relationships (like "Assume Good Faith" and "Forgive And Forget"), we have help countless communities mitigate their internal social problems. Although most luminary amongst our friends are Kuro5hin, Wikipedia, and the original WikiWikiWeb, we strive to help anyone. We have even saved ZWiki from a Slashdotting.

Lessons learned: We have greatly developed the theory of soft security http://usemod.com/cgi-bin/mb.pl?SoftSecurity Soft security is now the canonical name for the architectural decisions that have gone into wiki design to ensure that their essential openness is not unfortunate naïveité. It flows from a few basic principles: 1. Assume Good Faith We trust everyone, confident that occasional bad will be overwhelmed by the good. 2. Peer review. We watch out for one another. 3. Forgive and forget. We all make mistakes. 4. Limit damage. Mistakes need not be catastrophic. 5. Fair process. Transparency and giving everyone a voice are essential management skills. Technology is only introduced to assist the people in their work. Because soft security relies entirely on social forces to maintain order, it remains not only adaptable to new threats, but tolerant in its responses. Conversely, encoded, programmatic ("hard") security is incapable of distinguishing attacks from mistakes, nor can it be argued with, nor can it be held accountable. Generally, soft security seeks to be humane and liberalist rather than impersonally technocratic. We have made a few important technical advances in soft security on MeatballWiki. The most important advance being kept pages, which tracks all changes to the site, but forgets changes older than two weeks. This allows us to revert undesirable changes while "forgiving and forgetting" regrettable exchanges. Moreover, inspired by kept pages, we also derived safe ways to devolve power to the public to make destructive changes, such as deleting pages, as well as allowing the public to safely change central system files on the server, including the script itself. Simply stated, only if after two weeks no one vetoes a motion to make a destructive change, the system will carry it out. Since the initial construction of the soft security pattern language, it has gone on to influence a few other domains, such as Adam Shand's PersonalTelco "guerilla network" project and Rusty Foster's discussion salon, kuro5hin.org. It has been compared to religious perspectives, such as Jain Ahimsa, and the Zen metaphor "bend like water".

Technical Information

Technological Basis: Wikis are communally editable websites, where every word on every page can be modified by each and every person. They are consequently highly collaborative spaces, where no content is explicitly controlled by any one person. Wikis were first implemented in 1995 as the WikiWikiWeb by Ward Cunningham as a backend to the Portland Pattern Repository. Influenced consequently by Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language (Oxford University Press, 1977), wikis architecturally are heavily-crosslinked hypertext, where each node in the hypertext represents one concept (e.g. a Pattern). They are identifiable not only by their universal editability, but by their simple "page name is link name" equivalence. Wikis and particularly MeatballWiki tend to value content over form; there is a heavy emphasis on raw text as opposed to graphical style. Hundreds of wiki implementations exist, targeted at various user groups, and running on many different platforms. Wikis are used by corporations, small project teams, software developers, research teams, and individuals. MeatballWiki currently uses the UseMod wiki server software, which is a Perl CGI script. We are not tied to our choice of server software, however, and may switch to a different wiki software package.


Implementations: UseModWiki is one of the most popular wiki engines on the planet, and wikis in general influenced by Meatball number in the millions. It is used in thousands of different contexts, such as universities, workplaces, community projects, and personal information managers. The question isn't "Where has a wiki been used?" but rather "What else can we do with one?" Most notably, there is Wikipedia, the free online collaborative encyclopedia, that used as its basis UseModWiki.

Users: Since it's a wiki, it's people are its users are its people. Readers are authors, and authors are readers. We admit, however, that not every reader is an author, so as a community we bear them in mind as best as we can, and as a result MeatballWiki is viewed as a valuable resource to other online community leaders. Nonetheless, see "People" above for a sense of who our users are.

License: MeatballWiki opted to take the most minimal approach to copyright as possible. We only request the rights that allow us to be a wiki, and thus we reflect "default copyright" conventions rather closely. In this way, content on MeatballWiki is available under any license its authors choose to place it. We have copyleft, "public domain", author-controlled, FAQs, standard documents, and whatever else is considered important at the time. Our license reflects a core view of wiki culture that everything is a collaboration and a negotiation. Indeed, for this reason, on request, we have let our license be replicated by other wikis seeking to aspire to this culture.

Statement of Reasons: MeatballWiki is one of the central hubs of the growing wiki community. It has produced the clearest elucidation to date of the "soft security" philosophy which explains how and why to run a successful open community. It contains a rich body of wisdom on how to resolve personal and impersonal conflicts between community members. It has been a place where leaders from open communities can meet, discuss problems in their communities, and get advice from each other. From the beginning, it has served as a gathering place of wiki software designers, and has been the genesis of many useful wiki features which have becomes standard.

Planned use of prize money: For the most part, Meatball tries to keep itself grounded and away from a fickle and dangerous fame. One of our half-joking credos is that "Meatball is boring to everyone who is not interested in us." Entering this contest goes against our very identity, so why did we enter? First, it was a fun way to bring the community together once again. We appreciate all forms of barn raising. And second, the chance to free Meatball from fiscal matters was worth persuing. We felt it would be better to give the community its own resources rather than relying on the charity of others. In that way, we may continue our mission to support other communities without worry for years.

Role: Representative of the project

Salutation: Mr.
First name: Sunir
Last name: Shah
Company / Institution:
Street: 65 Rutherford Ave. P.O. Box 2033t
City: Deep River
State: ON
Country: Canada
Telephone: +1 (416) 894-0043
E-mail: sunir@sunir.org

Role: Speaker of Project

Salutation: Mr.
First name: Helmut
Last name: Leitner
Company / Institution: HLS Software
Street: Rosenberggürtel 41t
City: Graz
Country: Austria
Telephone: +43 316 383820


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