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Low floor, high ceiling
Since the very beginning of Public Lab, we've been aware that we're experimenting with new modes of production, and that the means of publication and communication we employ are keys to success. We started with a range of different "types" of content on the first Public Lab site, including:
- Research notes
- Wiki pages
Some of these have been merged -- Places and Tools are now just special wiki pages. Reports were merged into Research notes early on, as they were not well differentiated.
I've been thinking about, and discussing with other Public Labbers, a series of related challenges we face in the Research Note format, and wanted to talk through some of them here. And one metaphor introduced by Seymour Papert (author of the 1980 book Mindstorms) in the context of educational technologies is the phrase "low floor, high ceiling" -- where a medium with a "low floor" assures a low barrier to entry, but the "high ceiling" simultaneously does not restrict an creator's ability to create complex, powerful works. Mitchel Resnick of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT also argues for "wide walls" in his 2005 paper with Brian Silverman, "Some reflections on designing construction kits for kids" -- which is to say, accommodating a diversity of types of work.
First, let's discuss some of the challenges we've faced with the Research Note format:
Though we've worked hard to make it easy to post a research note, and to lower the technological and cultural barriers to doing so, relatively few of our community of thousands post them. In fact, only around 500 have been posted over five years -- and the rate of publication shown on our stats page is actually down a bit since one year ago.
Even the name "Research notes" -- so carefully chosen both to denote informality and to encourage and recognize anyone's contributions as "research" -- has been cited as intimidating: "Is what I'm doing really research?"
Even our most active members can go weeks or months without posting. Why is this? Is it a problem? Some are busy, sure, but others are actively working on PL projects, but haven't found the time to publish. Have we built up the idea of research notes too much, such that people feel they must be long and carefully crafted? Some folks may "save up" work until they think it's "ready" -- saving time by not pausing their process too often, and waiting until they have something more substantial to share, or they're more assured of the outcome. See, for example, this sampling of four fairly active posters, over the last 52 weeks (the shortest bars indicate a single post):
The research note posting interface has been carefully crafted to emphasize simplicity and clarity. But it's definitely not designed for longer-form work. Some on the organizers list and on Github have argued persuasively for a richer, more powerful editor that is simultaneously easier to use without knowing Markdown, the simple formatting system we use.
Many of the above issues seem to push us in different directions. What I'd like to explore is the possibility of a shorter research note format, perhaps as an alternative in parallel with a longer version.
But first, how do we know what exactly is needed?
How do we know what's needed?
I just want to take a step back here. We've often discussed how to make experiences richer and deeper, because we see the amazing work of our most involved members -- long, articulate posts by @cfastie, @hagitkeysar, and so many others. This is of course a good thing.
But what about everyone who didn't post? I'd like to focus on that hard-to-measure group who we didn't manage to entice into posting something. Basically -- selection bias: we don't have feedback or input from those who aren't participating. If participation were a pyramid, we're only measuring the top, most involved, and I'd like to look at the base -- the lurkers, the observers, and those who we could do better at engaging.
I believe there's a great deal of untapped potential there! Even if we count only the 5-8000 people subscribed to our various websites and lists, that's still over 10x the number of people who've ever posted a research note. And look at the numbers for how many people have posted twice, three times, eight times:
I'd also like to think more about how to better understand that group -- those who aren't posting. I want to think about how to structure a study or survey, for example, that can help us address selection bias and inform the design of our site in a more balanced way. Farm Hack, for example, ran an in-person user study with passers-by (non members) at national organic farming event.
Short form posting
In thinking about how to reach people who are not yet posting, the idea of shorter, more regular posting is appealing. Rather than "all at once" posts, authors could share (as an example) just their question or background story in one post, their proposed experiment in another, their field test itself in another, and analysis and closing thoughts in a fourth post.
To be clear, what I'm proposing is not cutting down on content, just breaking it up into multiple pieces, and scaffolding that "shorter posts more often" pattern through our editor, which could remain simpler as a result. In fact, as each individual post would need less formatting, the basic posting form could just be plain, unformatted text, as a default. If people could spend more time inviting others into their work, and less time formatting their posts, that seems like a good thing to me.
One experiment we did which I think we may be drawing the wrong conclusions about is the Question and Answer function, which was a limited experiment to invite people to make short posts where they ask a question. Although the questions posted are a bit untidy and sometimes oddly formatted, if you look at the authorship of these posts, they're ALL first-time posters! As a format, we hadn't really thought of it as a success, but by this measure it certainly is.
In summary, although I definitely want to spend time "raising the ceiling," I think we should "lower the floor" as well, and set a goal for ourselves to increase the number of regular posters (i.e. at least one post per month) tenfold in the next year.