A while back, I posted a response to a panel I attended at the 2008 Computers and Writing Conference. The panel reported the work of a research group that was designing what amounts to a social network site based on writing. It is very rare to find someone in the field of rhetoric and writing who can program, and I thought it was a shame that this dedicated group of R&C programmers were trying to reinvent the social networking wheel. Generally, I think this situaiton is like the one Tim O’Reilly describes in this piece on the Yahoo-Microsoft merger.
I believe that we’re collectively working on an Internet Operating System, and that it will ultimately look more like Unix than it looks like Windows. That is, it will be an aggregate of best of breed tools produced by an army of independent actors, all playing by the same rules so that those tools work together to produce a whole greater than the sum of the parts.
Fighting over search is a bit like the Free Software Foundation re-implementing cat, ls, sort, and all the other Unix utilities that were already available in the Berkeley distributions of Unix. The real problem was solved by someone outside the FSF, when Linux Torvalds wrote a kernel, a missing piece that became the gravitational center of Linux, the center around which all of the other projects could coalesce, which made them more valuable not by competing with them but by completing them.
I don’t think writing researchers should be spending time rebuilding features that already exist elsewhere for free.
I should reiterate here that I think it is fantastic that writing researchers are coding websites and building web services. This is a crucial writing skill that I think we as a field have neglected in favor of sexier forms of writing like audio and video. However, what we should be programming are innovative new services that fit into the already existing Web 2.0 space, not building our own versions of existing (or new but more popular, better-supported) services.
So here’s a thought: if rhetoric and composition instructors want to use social networking apps, and they want to avoid sites like Facebook (when I voiced my objections after the panel discussion, one response was that sites like Facebook don’t offer the security necessary for protecting students’ work and grades), why don’t they find an unpopular social networking site and populate it? Here’s a list of social networking sites and their membership on Wikipedia. Instructors could find a largely defunct site, colonize it, and use their collective power to get the site to add features and functionality that fit the interests of the field? Of course, this would only work if many instructors and students from many different schools started using the site. However, it could be a great way to get free programming from a dedicated source while also taking advantage of features geared towards the needs of writing instructors.