Thursday, June 3, 2010

Rakontu lessons learned

Well, I've finally done it. I've wrapped up the Rakontu project, updated the web site, closed down the beta sites, and written a lessons-learned document.

Rakontu is the free, open source software I wrote last year to help small groups share and work with their stories online. I finished version one of Rakontu in the fall of 2009. There were five beta test groups, but only one of them got to the point of having much content (mainly due to the people managing the other groups being too busy to use it or not finding it fit their purposes as well as they had expected). The group that did gather content was a spin-off from John Caddell's Mistake Bank on Ning. We had 40 members and collected about 45 stories, though most of these were from John and myself going back and forth. That story exchange turned out to be most of the beta testing Rakontu had, but it was surprisingly helpful.

Rakontu has been a labor of love, and at the moment I'm all out of love, so it's on hiatus until more funding comes along, or I make a fantastic amount of money doing other things and can fund it myself. The software is still available, and it works, and I may be able to come back to it eventually, but at the moment it's having a rest.

I thought I'd post a few excerpts from the lessons learned document here. The full document is available on the theory page at (scroll to the bottom) and contains more about the history of the project, the beta testing, and some technology-related lessons. There are also a few other white papers on the theory page on why I built Rakontu and why I think things like it are needed.

The social aspects of Rakontu - what worked

I loved the exchange that got going between myself and John Caddell on the Mistake Bank Rakontu. For a few months we were trading a few stories a week. We were reminding each other of experiences, and making comments, and using the system in the way it should be used. In a way, the interaction between the two of us, over that short time, was the only real test of Rakontu. Rakontu is not meant to work for groups of people who don't know each other already. John and I knew each other, but I didn't know any of the other people in the Rakontu, and those exchanges were awkward. Not because it was anyone's fault, but because things like ratings and comments and views have a different meaning when you know people and when you don't.

In my writing I often reference Harrison White's model of human interaction where he distinguishes between selection activities (meeting people, making choices), mobilization activities (building coalitions, gathering converts) and commitment activities (working together as a team towards some goal). What I saw was that Rakontu worked really well for commitment activities -- John and myself talking together about what we've learned about mistakes. Rakontu didn't work well for mobilization or selection. This is a good thing, because I had meant Rakontu to work for commitment. I chose Margaret Mead's quote in my first writings about it:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
So that's a positive thing. I felt, in this tiny little test, that Rakontu did help a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens do something together, even if it was only a tiny thing. That gives me hope that it can keep doing that, eventually, on a larger scale -- or that its ideas can help with that sort of thing.

A surprising thing with relation to people and Rakontu -- I'm not sure whether to put this into what worked or what didn't  -- is that something like five or six people asked me if they could use Rakontu to collect some stories for short-term story projects. When I explained that it was meant to be used as part of an ongoing relationship and wouldn't work well for in-and-out story collection, they were disappointed. I suppose this is not very surprising, because my discomfort with the surgical nature of most story projects was one of the reasons I created Rakontu in the first place. It did make me wonder, however, whether I have been too purist about what should be created. For example, if Rakontu had the ability to do either short-term or long-term story collection, would the ideas spread more widely, and would it get more funding? Maybe. It's something to think about.

The social aspects of Rakontu - what didn't work

One of the most cringe-worthy moments while using Rakontu was -- and I thank this person heartily for participating, and mean no disrespect -- somebody sent me an email response saying something like "my story got three hits!" Sigh. So, in terms of people and social matters, the performance culture of today's storytelling, where people think they are on TV every time they open their mouths, was very much present even in the tiny attempts I made to try out story sharing. I wanted people to get away from the popularity rating that I believe precludes true sharing, especially of things as personal and emotional as stories, but I couldn't do it. You can't change cultural trends with software. I think any new work on Rakontu will have to confront that fact head-on and think of new ways to work through it.

The other thing that didn't work about people was that I have forgotten how little most people know about stories. There are several hurdles to getting people to understand why we are telling each other stories, what makes a story good or useful, what is a story, what isn't a story, what you do when you read a story, what you don't do, and why any of this matters. I tried to write succinct, helpful pieces for people just joining a Rakontu, but compared to typical social media applications, there is a much larger learning curve involved in storytelling.

One hope for getting people over this curve is that in a committed group, the people who are putting the energy into the project might be willing to explain the concepts in person and watch over things so that early misconceptions get put right. But that's a lot to ask. I was surprised how little the managers of the beta-test groups changed in the settings for their Rakontus. I set up Rakontu to be massively customizable. You can change what questions get asked, how activities are interpreted, what it looks like, what you tell people about why they are there, and many other things. However, I found that all the managers basically left everything the way I had set it by default. This is nothing against them, but it did make me realize that the hump extends all the way up to the people who are in charge of the thing.

I also think I had not realized how overwhelmed people are by all the software they have to contend with today. When I first started writing software, a typical user would have to make sense of only a handful of programs. Back then, it was not hard to find people eager to plumb the depths of your new software. But today, not only do people have dozens of programs on their computers, every major web site is its own program! No wonder people are worn out and don't want to learn anything. I realized this when somebody asked me if I wanted to start using Diigo to share web links. I wanted to, and installed it, but when I dropped down the Diigo menu for first time, I got this overwhelming feeling of too much, and I couldn't do it. I've come to realize that today, it doesn't matter if your software is good. There is just so much software out there, good or otherwise, that people need a very compelling reason to try it and learn it, before they can commit the time to it. It's a different world than it was.

I think this overload of web applications meshed with the "ugly" nature of Rakontu (I didn't have time to build in much mouse interactivity), in this way. I think people use the interactivity level of a web site -- its bells and whistles -- as a way of evaluating whether it is worth spending time learning. I do this myself. If a web site looks like somebody wrote it in 1995, I often move on. I'm guessing that when people looked at Rakontu and didn't see interactive graphics, they said "probably not that great" and moved on. I think the expectations for web software have increased so much that -- I should have seen this -- in the time I had available, by myself, I just had no hope of being able to make something as interactive and up-to-date as people have come to expect on the web today. That doesn't mean I think people are unable to see quality without adornment, it just means people are so busy they have to be very choosy. I was facing a bar much higher than I had imagined, and I should have backed off and chosen another path.

Building Rakontu - what worked

I built Rakontu for two reasons. I wanted to experiment with real working software in order to find out what would best support people sharing stories over the internet. I did that, if only in a small way. And I wanted to help other people think about how best to support people sharing stories over the internet. My hope is that the documents that have come out of the Rakontu project, if not the Rakontu software itself, will have a positive impact on the way people help other people share stories over the internet. So in that sense the project was a rousing success.

I think the most important thing that worked was that I got a chance to try out many of my ideas about story sharing in real software. I learned a lot building and using Rakontu. If I was to write Rakontu again, it would be vastly improved over what I could have done before because of all the things I have learned. My rule with building software, or writing books, holds for Rakontu: having done it, I'm ready to do it.

The other thing that worked was that I built something that works. I like Rakontu. I like using it. I would still be using it if I had a group that was using it. If I had written it for the desktop I would probably be using it for my own stories. (But watching over the web sites has taken too much time away from other things, so I can't really get back into that.) If I had more time to work on Rakontu, I would lean fairly heavily toward re-implementing it on the desktop and setting up some peer-to-peer or client-server capabilities on the back end, just to have more control over quality and reliability. (That's a hint of some of the technical stuff that I haven't excerpted, by the way.)

Building Rakontu - what didn't work

I wonder if I should have concentrated so much on building a working system. I only had a little time to work with, and I wanted to build something people could really use, but I probably still should have held back and written more of a proof of concept rather than a working system. In a working system there is so much more work to be done, on the help system, on testing, on talking to beta testers, and on and on forever. Prototyping frees you up to explore. So I wish I had prototyped more.

The other thing I learned, even though I had lovely support from some people (and many thanks to them, because they know who they are), I didn't have as much support as I needed. Bugs are disheartening. Disinterest is disheartening. Rejection is disheartening. It’s hard to keep up a project by yourself. You need moral support, and a lot of it, to keep going.

Still, I'm very glad I had the opportunity to do the project, and I'm glad I did it, and I learned a lot, and I hope to return to it, or to something similar, someday.


Murali said...

I really liked the way rakontu had all the meta information about the stories collected. Sad to see it go. I am hoping SCG will provide pointers to the much needed tools for community narrative work.


Cynthia Kurtz said...

Thanks for the comment, Murali. I'm sad to put Rakontu aside as well, but I hope I can return to it in some form eventually.

Rakontu is essentially a semantic wiki married to collaboration software, with some social networking elements thrown in. The social software handles the verb part of narrative (thinking and talking together), and the semantic wiki handles the noun part (building a library of stories and using it). Perhaps the most important benefit from building and using Rakontu was realizing how important it is to marry these elements well.

As far as other tools, I've reviewed some of the well-supported systems, like Drupal and Joomla and Elgg, before and after building Rakontu, and they all seem to feature one of the two much more heavily than the other. They live in one world and visit the other, but so far I haven't found any systems that bridge the two worlds well. For example Elgg has great social-networking stuff, but it doesn't support structured tagging of items. TikiWiki, from the semantic-wiki side, has structured tagging but its social aspects are weaker. Drupal has a strong unstructured tagging system, but adding structured metadata is more difficult. In Drupal 7 it looks like you can add custom fields to any content item, which may be the missing link. However, I'd have to try it in practice to find out if this really works.

The social+semantic idea is nothing unique; the web is buzzing with the idea these days. The unique part is applying the marriage to support the way people share stories, which is different from the way people talk when they are not telling stories. That's what I'd like to do, whether it is with Rakontu itself or with the ideas applied to another context.

At this point I think there are two ways forward for Rakontu. One is to continue as it is, which is really only possible if I can get funding, either to set up and run sites or to add features. That could still happen, for example with a big interested client who doesn't mind paying for functionality other people also get to use. Some of the best open-source software has been built in that way.

The other way is to take the ideas and learning from Rakontu and apply them to another system that can make better use of limited time and opportunity. For example, I could choose an open-source platform that is closest to supporting Rakontu-like functionality and offer a service where I help firms and communities set up story sharing sites (on that platform) based on their unique needs. I might have to write a module for the platform to make it work well for storytelling, or I might just have to get really good at configuring the core system. This would off-load the babysitting of the server and code to somebody else so that I could concentrate more on what I understand best, the story-related stuff. It would also produce a lower-cost consulting package that more organizations and communities could afford. (And as always I would probably write about how to do it yourself for people who couldn't afford to hire me.) So that's an option that is perhaps more amenable to the life of an independent consultant who is not independently wealthy ;) But it's still an investment that might or might not pay off.

Right now I'm concentrating on the second edition of Working with Stories, which I'm planning to self-publish in paper, though it will still be free on-line. We'll see what life has to offer next. :)


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Cynthia Kurtz said...

I can't figure out if that last comment is spam. On the one hand it seems unrelated, but on the other, project management software does help people collaborate, and telling stories might be a good way to collaborate on a plan. So I'm not deleting it. Even spam can sometimes give you new ideas. :)