Wiring up the Web's Components: My Interview with Jon Udell

Mozilla's Michelle Levesque sent me an email late last week asking how things were going with my research project. Any thoughts to share, she asked? Any patterns emerging? I held off on responding to her email (because yuck, email) in part because I knew I had lined up today conversations with several people whose input was too important to make even the earliest of conclusions without talking to first.

I'm glad I waited, because what Jon Udell and I talked about today was a very different sense of what's meant by Web thinking and what in turn matters with Web building.

Udell is the author of Practical Internet Groupware (1999), a former editor of BYTE Magazine, an evangelist at Microsoft, and developer of the elmcity project. He's been thinking about what it means for people to understand the Web for a long time.

After our conversation, Udell sent me a link to this post -- "Seven ways to think like the web," describing it as his "current best summary" of what to teach people about the Web. It's an utterly different model than a "Scratch for HTML5," I think, and as such completely reframed this whole research endeavor for me.

My notes follow…

Are Mozilla's goals "Web literacy" or is it a "programming tool"? If the goal is to reach a broad audience, then teaching HTML and programming is "not the level that is appropriate." Programming isn't appropriate. Programming by its nature is going to appeal to a much smaller segment than those who need to become Web literate. The programmable Web is "farther up the stack."

What most folks don't know: It isn't simply they don't know HTML or don't know Javascript. They don't understand the components of the Web; they don't know what protocols exist. They don't know how to get components "wired up." And so they don't really know how to do any novel stuff. "There's a tremendous gap of the most basic stuff in the most broad way." So setting aside a question of building a new tool, we need to build a set of "understandings and practices."

The elmcity project: Udell's latest project, elmcity is, as he described it "no more complicated than publishing calendar data" on the Web. And yet without an understanding of what we mean by "calendar data" -- the difference between structured and unstructured data, for example, or the difference between a PDF and an XML file -- this is actually quite a challenge. The vision is to build a comprehensive calendar of public events because everyone was publishing their own calendars as iCal. "But we are so far from having any sort of understanding of that incredibly simple possibility that teaching people Javascript is the farthest thing from my mind."

We don't even know what we know. "We have this tacit understanding" -- we being technologists, the "thin slice of the technocracy."

Can the process of building up a calendar hub in a community be an educational exercise that engages a broad audience in tech (and civic!) principles?

What's relevant? Is it building a website? Or is it understanding the services that are out there? Is it learning to be a remixer of services? How do we help people understand the importance of controlling their data, controlling their domains, controlling their online identity? How do we help people bind their various Web presences to an identity, and not, say, cede all authority to Facebook?

The problem of Web (il)literacy: How do we solve it? Is it about code? (Udell says no) It is about understanding the components of the Web and knowing how to tag and then manipulate them. By thinking and developing sets of named resources, you are a Web thinker. This isnt about programming but rather the creation of sets of resources and the identification of components that work with those resources and combining them to create a solution. How as you operate online can you do things intentionally and consciously create possibilities for other people to hack and remix?

Is the solution a tool? (Is this the fault of the tech community) Solutions come in the form of tools, rather than changing practices or developing practices that enable solutions to emerge. How does Mozilla think about itself as a product and a service across the continuum? How does it defend the open Web if it's not fully engaged? How can Mozilla help people manage their own information online? [Me: Badges and open infrastructure and open data and control of learners' personal data locker?]  This means reframing the discussion:  what do we mean by Web literacy and Web-building?



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