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There is a tendency--at least for engineers--when building new media, or anything for that matter, to delve directly into technical details and then seek to build the most flexible or most powerful or most featureful thing possible. But while you may indeed make a stunning piece of software, a community you will not make.

Communities form because there is some collective purpose they need or wish to fulfill. They don't naturally push into every space they can; people conserve their focus. Quite simply, a community solves a purpose.

The first settled communities were about survival, tending flocks or farms or what not. As civilization progressed, other subcommunities (or supracommunities depending on how you look at it) formed. For instance, the scientific community formed to trade information and PeerReview each other (amongst other things). The punk subculture formed out of a boredom for the status quo.

Now, online communities are solely about communication. There is nothing else they can achieve directly. Thus, when building online communities it is important to remember the goal: help people communicate more effectively.

At the centre of communication is information. Effective communication is free of fluff. Fluff-free information is content. (See WhatIsContent)

It's the difference between plaintext gopher, with actual information at each node, and stylish HTML, its brochureware and pictures of pet cats. Looking at eye candy is a passive event. Communities aren't passive. Engage TheAudience's minds!

So, when I murmur, content over form, I mean to focus on useful information instead of style, or whizbang technology, or "ever so clever" features. Solve a problem! Focus on people! The form will follow and I'll bet it will be lauded as better than the latest net.art project. -- SunirShah

Well, there's my rhetoric laden mini-essay as requested. Please pick it apart. It will be enlightening for me, I think. --ss

See also FormOverContent.

I understand that you're interpreting communication broadly, but I'm not sure that I agree with "solely" no matter how broad your definition of communication. It would probably be more productive if a clarification could be provided before I start blindly coming up with examples of on-line communities that (I feel) have purposes beyond mere communication. :-) -- anon.

The purpose of the people in a community is conceptually different than the purpose of the structure of the community. The infrastructure, the forum, the plumbing, whatever exists to improve communication between people so that they may achieve their end purpose. -- SunirShah

Not always. Battle.net (a way of playing some computer games online) exists to allow people to play computer games. Almost as a side-effect, it allows communities to form and communicate, but that's (by design) secondary, and there are a number of fairly obvious problems with using Battle.net to communicate - sent may be lost if the target user is joining/leaving a game, for example, or using the interface in a particular way (ie, they don't click the "Enter Chat" button, but start games from the welcome screen). --MartinHarper

Another clarification requested: could you elaborate a bit more on "fluff". What you're saying could almost be interpreted as stating that the only communication of value is that which, in the language of InformationTheory, has naught but entropy. I think this is a bit stronger than you perhaps meant to indicate. I assume, given the title ContentOverForm, that fluff is being used to denote things such as formatting, etc. I may just be suffering from simple confusion; the more I re-read the preceding paragraph, the more clearly I see that it doesn't refer to the information itself, but something external to the information. But I'm not sure that's made abundantly clear. I think also that there is a gray area to be explored here -- one person's fluff might well be another person's treasure. -- anon.

I pretty much mean the InformationTheory stuff. Actually, there are only really signal (content) and noise (fluff). I'm extending fluff to include not just 100% entropy, but high entropy data. For instance, often Wiki:JigglingBaloney don't really provide a lot of real bits of information in the number bits transfered, so they would be high in fluff value (entropy). -- SunirShah

You may feel the FormOverContent problem in the USA, but it is much more depressing here in Austria, Europe. Most people nowadays are used to full-featured, shiny applications and styled websites. A comparable developers community looking through all that hype doesn't exists.

So presenting Wiki systems to this audience immediately results in negative reactions. We had to put Wiki techology within the framework of configurable arbitrary HTML-templates to convince that WikiWikiWeb is not a toy. We added a number of experimental layout features and hope to arrive at a compromise. But I do have the fear that we might reduce our chances to grow communities by doing so. -- HelmutLeitner

One compromise: only add form that is content. For instance, the WikiSyntax has stylistic syntax but they were added for their expressive qualities. In the vein of ParaLanguage.

Why not aesthetics?

Suppose you are building a city state (OnlineCommunitiesAreCityStates). Then you are more busy focusing your effort on infrastructure, sanitation, policing, politics, warfare, barbarians, and other more pressing issues than beautification. However, when you have a relatively quiet time, and when you have a large enough population that some people can devote their energies to non-critical survival efforts (i.e. a leisure class), someone will be able to build a PublicMonument? or Wiki:RefactorMercilessly or some other non-functional value-add behaviour. Most CommunityWiki:WikisAreUgly because they are too busy actually doing something rather than worrying about attracting new people. I mean, there are already too many people problems on most wikis to actually want to attract more people.

Also, if you have an aesthetic online community, they will want to attract more aesthetic people (birds of a feather flock together), so they will spend time building an aesthetically pleasing environments that appeal to those who like such things. Most wikis to date have been rather content-heavy, programmer-centric affairs. Now that more artists are interested, then things will change.

Finally, we prefer ContentOverForm since FormOverContent disrupts collaboration, although it's clear that some form (qua rhetoric) is necessary to provide context and guide the cognitive process; this is why it's really ContentAndForm?, but we emphasis content production and collaboration more. In contrast, beautiful blogs are very TheIndividual TheAuthor publishing to TheAudience disconnected. -- SunirShah

I have a feeling that 90% of what everyone does is mimickry, and that FormOverContent people are mimics. When the form of communication actually is a coherent syntax, it conveys a lot of meaning. True master works are like this. But people who cannot decode the language in the structure of the work, but recognize the work is powerful, copy the portion that is visible on the surface. They do this without understanding the underlying syntax, and that leads to mutated and deformed syntaxes that make communication more difficult. If you eliminate form, and make the content the only visible layer (i.e. ContentOverForm), then it is much harder to focus on the visible. MarshallMcLuhan makes the point that reading has the gaze just above the text, whereas watching (i.e. television) has the gaze directly on the text. That is we don't notice the font of the books we are reading, but we do notice the colours, the outlines, the shape of the letters on television. It's unsurprising that by making the mind focus on the wrong thing--the form. If the imperfectly mimicked form has no intrinsic meaning, if it has no internal syntax or language, no organizing coherent reason for being as it is, then this confuses the message; it's no surprise that typical television then conveys less information to people than the average printed book, even though we know it is possible that moving images + sound can actually convey more. Ugliness is necessary because it defends against mimickry. -- SunirShah

Hugh speaks in similar ways. [1] [2] [3] Having concern for quality, for the real substance of something is a deep experience that comes from deep within you. People can try to rip it off, but they will never understand it like you do. And they will only want to after you are successful simply because they want the money too.

A more charitable interpretation of this last paragraph is small talk, and genre literature, and Kuhnian normal science. Most human communication isn't original, or art, or great science. It isn't intended to transform the world or the participants. It reinforces social bonds a bit, it creates small diversions; it's a theme park version of a pilgrimage; it moves the state of learning just a little bit; it accrues a bit of social capital to the participants.

I think the FormOverContent problem is different -- it's western culture's view of the right-brain/left-brain split. Many people who are trained in design are trained to make things pretty, not to understand things deeply. Hence ditzy visualizations and pointless html/flash/powerpoint fluff. Meanwhile, people who are trained to think don't learn how to communicate. Hence the antisocial harshness of the geek crew.

The ugliness technique doesn't work. Bohemian artists have done this for a couple of hundred years now -- they revel in the gritty, denying the satisfaction and comfort of bourgeois prettiness, and yet punk rock and postcoherent avant garde film have more than their fair share of pointless clones -- perhaps more than their fair share, because it is easier for the unskilled to make ugly work, and the avant-garde get social props for being incomprehensible. Academic writing style partakes of this, I think. --AdinaLevin

I disagree about designers. Design theory is full of understanding of depth and substance, but there are mimics and there are people who understand, just like in any other field.

So, I don't really know if it's about ugly. Is MeatballWiki really ugly, or is it beautiful? It takes a certain type to appreciate this place, and I strongly feel that everyone else can go play somewhere else (to put it mildly). When I look at the world, I look for substance, for depth, for understanding. That's what I find attractive. It's about quality, through out, not just the first impression, which should never be the last impression for anyone who understands. -- SunirShah

Depends on how ugly is measured. Meatball is visually undecorated. The structure refrains from obvious entry points. The writing is quite good, with a style and structural genre that are distinct enough to be parodiable, I think ;-). A true focus on ContentOverForm would permit bad writing, too. -- AdinaLevin

The initial essay and a couple of the early comments made me think of a fairly recent addition to my sargasso of email taglines. It stirs up a lot of questions about online communication, but I make no promises what answers you'll find. That is the real business of communication - finding out stuff. And it certainly can happen in reading too, but there is this difference: in communication that's all that happens; in reading it is the barest beginning. -- Richard Mitchell -- MartinManey?, an occasional reader of wikis



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