July 30th, 2005

Two can play at this game!

My favorite professor recently left Grinnell Plans and began a blog instead. Lots of folks on Plans have been discussing why he made the switch.

Referring to my current practice of responding in this Web log to questions posed in Plans, Lindsey Kuper writes: “So, you post over there, and we comment over here? Were passenger pigeons not awkward enough?”

Similarly, Nathalie Lauze writes: “i'd like to know why you've done what you've done re: Plans and your new blog. i'd prefer if you posted on Plans so i didn't have to open a new window.”

I realize that the process is more cumbersome than interacting exclusively through Plans. The long-term advantages are (1) that we can use the same system for interacting with people who don't have Plans, and (2) that we can use the same system even if Plans is unavailable. Part of the reason that I'm obliging you to click through to the Web log is that I'm hoping that you will bookmark it or add it to your feed reader, and thus still be able to access it if Plans is down.

Mr. Stone, I'm convinced of the long-term advantages, I've already bookmarked it, and I'd be reading it on my friends page had LiveJournal's goofy syndication implementation not choked on your feed. But let's be honest about this -- could the Conversation part of your blog really exist without Plans? It seems hypocritical that you make a show of lessening your dependence on Plans as a method of interaction while you're still relying on Plans for your audience and, moreover, using Plans-centric information architecture (won't the distinction between Conversation and Reading blur more and more, as more conversations are sparked by blog posts rather than plan entries?).*

I suspect that Ms. Lauze will find that being the Plans maintainer is a difficult and thankless task, and I'm worried that she will tire of it just as quickly as Mr. Laiu has. I don't know her nearly as well as I have known any of the previous Plans maintainers. Although I have exchanged a few e-mails with her and am aware that she has been on the Student Academic Computing Committee, the main evidence of her decision-making ability that I have seen is not all that promising: She was a member of the Grinnell Online Advisory Committee, the body that basically created the College's current Policies for Virtual Communities -- the same policies, Lindsay, that would require me to obtain your name, e-mail address, street address, telephone number, and consent to the terms and conditions of the Grinnell College External User Policies before I could allow you to submit comments to my Web log (which is the main reason why my Web log won't have a comment facility).

Oh. Geez.

Hey, what if just the code to handle commenting were running on a non-college-owned server?...heh. Sorry, I'll stop. How about implementing TrackBack to facilitate what the Six Apart folks call "remote commenting"?

In addition to the internal uncertainties, Plans faces a serious external challenge from Blogger, LiveJournal, and other similar systems. Many of the students who enter Grinnell this year are already maintaining blogs and may not be satisfied with what they perceive as a much more limited environment provided by Plans. This group includes the most active bloggers and probably a lot of the most capable programmers, the ones who would make good maintainers for Plans in a year or two. In my opinion, it is imperative for Plans to learn how to interact with other blogging systems. There is no indication that this will happen.

[...]

I'm no longer enthusiastic about Plans. I'm now enthusiastic about syndication and the possibilities implicit in the standardization of Web document metadata in Atom, and I'm interested in having more control than Plans can give me. This seemed like the right time to make the move.

In a way, my indignation is of the you-can't-break-up-with-me-I'm-breaking-up-with-you variety, because for a very long time I also thought that Plans was too insular and limited. It's not just the community; the software itself promotes insularity -- from the crappy nonstandard formatting of posts that makes it a pain to archive or syndicate your plan in any kind of a way that doesn't suck, to the "guest readable" link that's buried in "preferences" (as opposed to, say, the big orange "Publish" button on Blogger). So I can understand why those who have to cope daily with the geographical and social isolation of living in Grinnell would hate it, too.

But for me, and probably a lot of others out here beyond the "bubble" since moving away from Grinnell, Plans as it is now feels kind of like home. I have other means with which to communicate with the world at large -- means far better suited to that purpose. But there are times when I could care less about the world at large and just want to communicate with the MathLAN denizens or the Vegan Co-op kids, and Plans is the best way to do that. It's a poor substitute for being in Grinnell with those people, but it's what we've got. There are times when the quaint, limited, bug-ridden Plans UI makes me smile, remembering old times. And I'm glad there's a place where I can discuss aspects of our shared culture without having to explain myself, a place where I can indulge in inside jokes. (I would speak here of the Plans mindshare, but my definition of 'mindshare' doesn't seem to have very much mindshare.)

I don't know this for sure, but I suspect that when my class graduated in May 2004, the percentage of Plans users who were alums topped 50%. If not, then surely that's the case now, and the percentage will only get bigger if Plans continues to exist. Even in late 2002, when I started using Plans, I was struck by how one of the most worthwhile aspects of the community was that it did such a great job of connecting alums to the College and to each other -- certainly a better job than the alumni directory (I haven't logged into that thing since, uh, since before I graduated) and the PioneerWeb alumni section (there's a PioneerWeb alumni section?). I'd like to know if Plans users in Grinnell (almost all being current students, faculty, or staff) and out of Grinnell (almost all being alums) have different goals in mind when they use Plans. If they do, and Plans remains as limited and insular as always, maybe it'll continue to gain popularity with alums while continuing to lose appeal to users in Grinnell, for the reasons I've given above. It's going to be really interesting to see what happens.

* I am going to get served.