One of the problems in the Western world right now, in my estimation, is that we see “freedom” as an artificially good thing in an abstract & idealized sense. humans, whatever else we are, are animals, and we have developed biological and cultural systems to deal with the universe. and nothing is “free” in the universe. you must obey the laws of physics: when you get punched in the nose it hurts, and when you eat rocks, they taste bad and make you sick, and break your teeth. that they are painful helps you try to avoid getting punched in the nose, and discourages you from eating rocks instead of apples, both of which are helpful if you wish to survive in the world. that is what the universe is “like,” yet in the western world we have abstracted out “freedom” as some kind of thing which is good in itself. I too think freedom is good, but not “in itself.” i think it is good because increased freedom for a larger number of people results in a better ability to solve important problems (firstly, how do we feed and clothe ourselves, and protect our families, and then other more complex, but less important issues).

so librivox is a kind of demonstration that says: here are the rules. everything *else* is free, but the rules are not negotiable. and they are not negotiabale BECAUSE librivox has an objective that defines everything we do: “to make all public domain books available in audio for free.” the rules have been/are set in order to help us achieve that objective. everything is weighed against the objective, not against some abastract “freedom.”

that is very powerful. i believe one of the driving evolutionary forces that has made humans successful is our desire to build and pleasure at building things.

but building things takes discipline and dedication. it is always easier to sit on your ass and do nothing. and you are - in our very rich, and very easy world, “free” to sit on your ass and do nothing, but I don’t believe you will ever be happy if you take that approach. In order to be a happy human, I believe, you must build things.

and *that*, to me, is what freedom means: the freedom to build the things you want to build. not freedom to do whatever you want, wherever you want, because “freedom” per se is sacred, but the freedom to pursue objectives you believe in.

we have lost our sense of discipline, and I think that makes people very unhappy. I don’t mean that in any draconican sense, I just mean that in western world, we are told (by psychologists, parents, media, etc) that we can do whatever we want, that we are the centre of the universe, that our freedom is the most important thing and we have a *right* to it, that just believing in ourselves is enough to succeed. all of which is, frankly, bullshit.

and that kind of thinking makes, I think, for unhappy people, and a disfunctional society, because we are NOT the centre of the universe able to influence it with our belief in how important we are; we are just a little part of it, subject to its laws. among which is, not much ever gets done without work.

A few people have gotten involved with LibriVox, been impressed by the anarchist underpinnings, and argued that we needed to allow full freedom (ie to rant, to be disruptive etc). but librivox as a system works in part because of the laws of our little universe, some of which we understand, some of which are mysterious. I’ve been careful to try to defend and protect those mysterious things - even if I do not totally understand them (hence my defense of the “disclaimer” - I don’t want to mess with something that’s worked unless it is very clear that messing will make LV work better).

I read recently somewhere that real freedom only comes from the pleasure of succeeding within constraints. Which seems to me to be about right.

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Apparently TextoSolvo got hacked, so I’ve changed the theme temporarily while I try to figure out what’s up. Bear with me.

UPDATE: immense gratitude to the wonderful kristin for holding my hand though the scrubbing, cleaning & upgrading wordpress process. Now I have to write some content!

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In the rough project outline I gave a long list of some of the reasons I think LibriVox has been successful. I’m going to try to write about each one separately, and in no particular order. This post is about Clarity, in my opinion the most important pragmatic (rather than thematic) reasons for success of LibriVox. Clarity comes in a variety of guises, all of them important and I’ll touch on each of them individually:

  1. Clarity of Purpose - what are you doing?
  2. Clarity of Language - use plain, exact English (or whatever language you are using)
  3. Clarity of Participation - give people an action they can do right away to participate
  4. Clarity of Process - how does it work? make barriers for entry low. make it clear how it works.
  5. Clarity of Policies - as the project evolves, you need simple, clear policies (less important in the early days)

Clarity is important in any enterprise (hence the 80s/90s/00s fetish for mission statements etc), but that’s especially true in an open web project. If you want to get volunteers involved in what you are doing you need to immeditately let them know:

a) what you are doing
b) how they can contribute

If someone comes to a website and has to read through long texts explaining who started a project, why it was started, what tools are used (technological, management, back-end etc), what influenced the project, what inspired it, or other extraneous information, you will quickly lose the majority of your potential volunteers. Some will read through, but the majority will not. And once “inside” the project, clarity is no less important.

Clarity of Purpose
This is probably the most important of all. Being clear about your purpose is so important because it helps a new web visitor decide whether what you are doing is interesting or not. By purpose, the focus should be: “What are we trying to do?” Leave the politics, ideals etc. out of it. If your purpose is clear, people can make their own decisions about whether or not they want to join you. Consider the most successful of the non-software open projects, Wikipedia. Here’s their purpose:

Wikipedia: the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.

Contained in that purpose is everything you need to know about the project:

  1. it is an encyclopedia
  2. it is free
  3. you can edit it

Note that you can be interested in 1 & 2, without being concerned by 3. And that’s another thing about open projects - they should be useful no matter what your participation level. The wiki reader:editor ration is, I am told, 50:1 … meaning there are 50 people who use Wikipedia as an information source for every one person who edits. So in a sense, for the random visitor, the “free encyclopedia” part is 50 times more important than the “edit” part. But it’s the “edit” part that wikipedia has to “sell” in order to be successful.

The beauty of that purpose tho is how clear it is.

Clarity of Language
Turning to LibriVox, compare this slightly baffling introduction text I started with on project launch in August 2005:

LibriVox is a hope, an experiment, and a question: can the net harness a bunch of volunteers to help bring books in the public domain to life through podcasting?

LibriVox is an open source audio-literary attempt to harness the power of the many to record and disseminate, in podcast form, books from the public domain. It works like this: a book is chosen, then *you*, the volunteers, read and record one or more chapters. We liberate the audio files through this webblog/podcast every week (?).

Good: It tells you what you need to know.
Bad: It’s wordy, and filled with jargon that only certain tech-heads would understand (podcasting, open source, audio-literary).

Luckily the original “market” for volunteers could decipher those jargony words - in fact it was just that group of sophisticated techies interested in Creative Commons, podcasting, copyright issues, open source that would be able to figure out what LibriVox was all about. But as the project got a bit bigger, the early group of volunteers pared things down and now the “About” text says:

LibriVox volunteers record chapters of books in the public domain and release the audio files back onto the net. Our goal is to make all public domain books available as free audio books. We are a totally volunteer, open source, free content, public domain project.

Maybe still a bit long compared to Wikipedia, but everything you need to know is there, in plain English. The jargon is at the end, which isn’t great, but it’s still important info.
The tag-line, however is still pretty high-falutin:

accoustical liberation of books in the public domain

Which should probably be changed to:

free public domain audio books

Still, I’m a bit of a sucker for lofty ideals, and the high-falutin one maybe does a better job of articulating the dream behind the project, rather than the nuts-and-bolts.

Clarity of Participation
So now you’ve described what you’re about; your visitor has decided whether or not she is interested in your project. Now you have to tell her what she can do to participate. There is a famous website from the US Department of Agriculture that was developed to help the market for buying and selling hay (Haynet … defunct, but the wayback machine provides the preceding link). The site is so simple, not flashy, and lets users decide what they want to do in clear simple English. Need Hay? click here. Have Hay? click here.

Since LibriVox has two potential “markets” - listeners, and volunteers - we used this model, and split the screen into two options: Read/Listen.

And crucially we provided actions for either one: buttons to press to take you where you want to go. That’s important too - if you want people to participate in something, you have to give them a call to action. Read? Listen? You decide, and by deciding you’re already on your way to doing whatever it is you’d like to do. You can abandon ship if you like, but most people who click through to one or the other option are likely to keep going.

Clarity of Process
You’ve hooked people in this far, and this is where, truth be told, things get more complicated. The LibriVox process is “simple,” in a way, but it does require some thinking. The important thing here is to make sure your volunteers understand the bare essentials of how things work, and that they not be frightened by how complicated it is. In the case of LibriVox, our process doc looks like this:

1. a book coordinator posts a book (with chapter info) in the Readers Wanted Section.
2. volunteers “claim” chapters to read
3. the readers record their chapters in digital format
4. the book coordinator collects all the files of all the chapters
5. the book coordinator sends the collected files to a “metadata coordinator”
6. we check the files for technical problems in the Listeners Wanted section
7. the metadata coordinator uploads and catalogs the files… working their secret magic
8. yet another public domain audiobook is made available for free!

In fact it’s a bit more complicated, but that gives an interested reader a sense of how things happen. The important thing is that they can get a snapshot of what goes on, see that the process is relatively straightforward, and understand that their participation is a manageable chunk. Thats a hugely imporant issue, for another post, that you want your first-time contributors to feel that participating is easy, and small, that they will not get roped into a complicated project they are not prepared for. Some LV contributors record one mp3 for us and that’s it. Others do many. And some get obsessed and end up running the project. You need all three types of contributors to succeed, and you have to make sure you take care of all of them.

Clarity of Policies
This last issue is really important as the project gets bigger. In the early days of LibriVox, we had a small group of dedicated participants who all had a shared understanding of what we were doing and why. But as it gets bigger, more people come, more questions get asked and some controversies come up. It really saves a lot of headache if you can define you base policies right away. In the case of LibriVox, here’s what we came to as fundamental principles:

  • Librivox is a non-commercial, non-profit and ad-free project
  • Librivox donates its recordings to the public domain
  • Librivox is powered by volunteers
  • Librivox maintains a loose and open structure
  • Librivox welcomes all volunteers from across the globe

The most important principles there are: no ads; all recordings in public domain (not creative commons); no one is getting paid; we’ll take any language; and the project is open. In addition to these principles, we’ve developed a few policies that help guide what we are doing:

  • we only accept published texts in the public domain (no self-published, creative commons stuff)
  • everything done for LibriVox is public domain - audio, images, text etc… this just makes life so much easier
  • no criticism of reading styles allowed on the forum (unless requested by the reader) - this one is controversial, and I’ll address it separately later
  • be nice - we have a pretty stringent non-flaming policy on the forum which has come under some fire, but the result is that we have among the friendliest forums you’ll find on the net - which helps keep volunteers around

The policies cover a number of things, but it’s been helpful to limit what texts we can take. And on the other issues we tend to make policies that help make volunteers comfortable about participating. That’s been such a huge part of our success, I think, cultivating that sense of a supportive community of volunteers - rather than the more critical communities that are elsewhere.

Conclusion

Clarity in what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how people can participate is of utmost importance if you want to compete for eyeballs, and more importantly participants in this busy web world. If you feel passionate about something, chances are others will too. Trust that passion, but be careful to articulate exactly what it is you are trying to do. Leave out the politics, the ideals, the history, or at least leave it off the front page. All those things might be important to you, but they might be less important to others. Focus on exactly what you want to do. Tell people in clear English. Give them a clear path to participation. And as things develop, make sure you head off complicated conundrums by making your policies clear.

If you do all that, and if you manage to pave a way for others who share your passion to easily participate, you’re on your way.

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(I am having a discussion with Traceyhttp://dosemagazine.blogsome.com/2007/01/12/parallel-structures about the Parallel Structures post below, and you can read some of our banter over at dose…some of it spilled into email, and here is a revised version of something I just sent).

I think the only effective way to change things is to build tools and mechanisms to do things differently, and build them bit by bit. If they are successful, then they will win admirers; if they are not, then they will fall away (as they should). The net allows you to build all sorts of interesting projects with: an idea, a bit of tech development, and interested people. The results can be small projects like LibriVox, or massive projects like >wikipedia.

Theory is fine, but it floats around in academia and grad schools and coffee houses, and has very little to do with the real world. Occasionally (say with the neocons in the USA, the CNT in Spain in the 30s) a group of idealist adherents gets power and implements an idea in a sweeping, revolutionary way. The usual result is tragedy of some kind, because theory does not map well to the chaotic nature of the world. Further, powers that be don’t like idealist revolution because they tend to take away their power. Even more, the majority of people do not trust radical change, because they prefer to trust the devil they know (that is, they are wise: they prefer to be shown a better way, than to trust an idea of a better way). Finally, good theories often don’t work in practice.

The most effective way to change people’s minds is to demonstrate that another way is better than the one they are using. If you describe a carrot to me (it’s a root, from the ground, it’s orange, tastes good!) I probably would not be inspired to seek one out. Give me one, let me taste it, and i’ll say yum! Gimme more.

That is, theories put into practice without proper testing and feedback mechanisms, without growing naturally, and without demonstrating that they are better than the alternatives, tend to cause unforeseen problems, and ideas are not a good way to change the general public’s mind.

Much better, I think, is to put little ideas into practice, and allow them to build organically so that they can grow and become a robust and healthy ideas that are actually implemented and do something interesting, and are supported by the pragmatic requirements of the universe, rather than planned in the abstract and applied as is. More specifically, ideas prove their worth by actually achieving things that people care about, rather than forcing people to abstract out the potential benefits of the idea itself. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Things that improve people’s lives are what matter.

Take wikipedia for instance. People could have come up with all sorts of legitimate objections to the idea (in fact they did, and still do). Six years ago Britannica would have laughed their asses off at such a stupid project. So if wikipedia went out in 2000 and said to the world, “Stop reading Britannica and come join our project to build an encyclopeadia that will be better than Britannica!” … it would have been hubris and silliness, and would not have worked. Instead, they said, “Here is our idea. Here are the tools and mechanism to implement our idea. The process is open and we’ll allow it to evolve as participants want it to.” And so, a complex and difficult series of norms and policies and compromises were implemented, all in order to better assure the central idea, and the project attracted more and more people to participate as editors, and also readers came, hungry for information, and now no one laughs anymore about wikipedia, because whatever Britannica or various critics have to say, it has become the top reference work on the net, and consequently in most people’s lives. It is the de facto starting point for information gathering on any topic. Whether it is theoretically “better” or “worse” than Britannica matters not, because it is *effectively* better. That is, it is the tool people use because it is most successful at being useful to them.

That, I think, is the only way that real change happens: not by giving people ideas (which of course are important), but by providing a better way (concretely) than the alternative. Free software is a nice idea, but free software never had any real impact on my life till Firefox(let’s forget that Google runs on Linux servers).

In my experience, then, the net allows you to easily and cheaply implement radical ideas, that might be more successful at doing certain things than the alternatives. In order to implement ideas you need:

a) a central idea, and central principles
b) tools and mechanisms to implement the idea

Even better, you should add:
c) open and flexible structures so that the mechanisms and tools to implement the idea can be improved
d) a community of people who believe in the central idea, and are able to shape the mechanisms and tools based on the real world challenges they, and the idea, face
e) information to allow b, c, d to happen in the best way

So: I envision a way to allow me and like-minded people have a large pool of money to do important social projects (important to me, to like-minded people), since it seems as though governments have less and less interest and ability to do so. (I also note that governments are pretty *bad* at doing many things. Imagine, for instance, if wikipedia had been a project of the Canadian government!). I envision, essentially, a sort of democratic/anarchist means of collecting and distributing money to projects. It’s a crazy idea, and I have no idea if it could work. I think it is a good idea - probably with many problems that you and others would find in the process.

But that implementation of an idea will have problems does not in any way make me nervous. The only way I would imagine something like this is in an open project, so that the project could be shaped by people who care about it, and so concerns and problems could be addressed somehow: I don’t know how, and I don’t need to … because I have faith in people’s ability to solve problems, given access to data and mechanisms to solve them.

[givemeaning.com, by the way, are doing something like this, and seem to have a great project going, tho it’s still a closed kind of project, and I think they need to open things up if they want long-term success]

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I’ve been chatting a bit with Austin Hill of late. I convinced him to join the advisory committee of the Atwater Digital Literacy Project, and we seem to be interested in many of the same things, mostly revolving around applying the power of online communities to idealistic goals. His Top Secret Project-Ojibwe (based on aboriginal gift-culture) is coming out sometime later this year, which if I understand is going to be one central project, with many little side projects, such as gifter.org.

Anyway, that project, plus the thinking I’ve been doing over the last few years, and my experience with librivox lead to this little epiphany the other day. Perhaps this is happening already somewhere (and I haven’t fully thought it through or fleshed it out, but there you go)… enough chatter, here’s the idea:

BACKGROUND
1. internet and distributed communities are very good at:
a) building software
b) sorting/managing/making info available (wikipedia/librivox)
c) massive peer-review, monitoring
d) democratic ranking (technorati by links, digg by diggs, wikipedia for info etc)
e) leveraging small-chunk work to make a big project cheap and easy

2. free softare, wikipedia, creative commons, librivox are all examples of PARALLEL structures, that do not concern themselves much with what is happening in the mainstream, instead focus on building something different, in PARALLEL.

3. government is increasingly (or always has been) removed from the actual desires of people - part of this is because the process is hidden from most people. it takes real dedication, time, effort to influence policy (hence pro lobbyists = money talks, not voices)

4. what does government do?
a) raises funds (tax)
b) plans policy
c) plans programs to implement policy
d) decides on budget allocation for different programs
e) (sometimes) implements programs
f) monitors progress of projects

5. this process is hidden, inefficient, and subject to influence peddling. But effectively it makes the rules, gets the money and spends the money.

6. while groups of individuals are not able to make the rules, they can raise money, and spend it.

7. charity generally is subject to some of the same problems … and often only 30% (check #?) of money actually donated to charity goes to programmes - the 70% balance goes to administration, fund-raising.

8. much of the reason for 7 (above) is that getting funding is difficult, time consuming, inefficient, and requires massive efforts, publicity, management. loads of paper.

8. re: #4 … without replacing government, is there a parallel system that could be set up, that could do some of these tasks… with a model like #2.

9. YES! again, looking at the government’s role, the internet & open projects can be very good at:
a) raising funds
b) deciding on budget allocation
c) monitoring progress of projects.

10. Probably not so good at:
b) planning policy
c) planning programs to implement policy
e) implementing programs

(these all take more energy, time, on the ground effort … which is possible, but is not the real power of a distributed system).

PROPOSAL

An open-style charity “foundation,” that works as follows:
-Members pay $20/yr each ($50? $100?)
-This money goes into a fund
-You can donate more money, but no one is given more power because of how much money they have donated (but maybe some sort of moderation karma points, as with slashdot)
-projects “apply” for funding (eg atwater digital media), by posting project description, budget, plan
-Members can:
-ask questions
-make suggestions
-rank projects

-On an ongoing basis (maybe every 3 months?) the foundation does an open budgeting process, where members decide on allocating: short-term, and long-term funding to projects that have ranked well.
-Projects will be required to update progress and info on an ongoing basis, solicit input, etc, and further funding can be decided based on that.
-(an aside: When projects run into trouble, the Members that supported the project should be aware, and can possibly offer more concrete help)

In this way a totally parallel system (to government & usual charity foundations) could be established to fund projects with a community of givers that:
a) funds itself, through membership
b) decides on where the money goes in an open process
c) monitors & provides feedback (and possibly more concrete support) on an ongoing basis
d) is transparent & efficient

NOTE: This principle should be applied also to an new open internet media production house too, to find a way to fund film-makers, musicians, etc, based on an open co-op system…film, music projects funded based on the interest of the Open Production House Co-Op members.

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In the spring of 2005, as I was discovering the joys of podcasting, I was looking online for an audiobook to listen to while cooking. I stumbled on a project by AKMA, to get people - volunteers - to read chapters of Lawrence Lessig’s book, Free Culture. A number of people chipped in, some famous names (I didn’t know those names at the time), and I listened to “Free Culture” over the course of several evenings. That was the most concrete inspiration for LibriVox, but of course there were others.

Probably the most significant of which is Richard Stallman and the free software movement. I had been aware of open source for a long time (I did not yet know the distinction between Free Software/philosophy; and Open Source/methodology). I loved the concept, the philosophy and the idea. As a non-technical guy, though, I was not able to participate as a coder, and in most cases the software required too much tech input for me to use. But the idea, I loved.

Sometime in the fall of 2004, a friend of mine who was doing a Master’s in Environmental Studies, with a focus on Biotech and Intellectual Property, asked me to accompany Stallman from one speaking engagement (at talk at UQAM about free software), to the biotech class, where rms had agreed to do a talk on IP in general, and how (he believes) it stifles innovation. My first meeting with rms was … quirky … I knew very little about free software at the time, other than a general interest, so I didn’t have much to say; Stallman carried an old beaten-up laptop in a plastic grocery bag, and when I left him for a minute to confirm where the class was, I came back to find him sitting on the hallway floor, typing away. Other than that, when I asked how a non-tech person should get into free software, he suggested I install GNU/Linux on an old machine, and just hack away till I got comfortable. Which I never did.

But still, I was inspired to read more of rms’ essays, and to listen to much of it too (scroll down to speeches and interviews). I was curious to read what academics - philosophers and political scientists - had to say about this very active and successful pseudo-anarchist movement: amazingly, very little. But I read what I found, including the dotCommunist Manifesto by Eben Moglen, Columbia Law prof, and legal mind behind the GNU Public License, the brilliant bit of institutional underpinning on which the success of the free software movement built: you are free to use copy modify and redistribute this software, as long as whatever you use it for maintains those same freedoms.

The free software movement was a revelation: here was a man (Stallman) who rejected the idea of proprietary software… and instead of thundering around the world complaining about software practices he didn’t like, he did something much more interesting. He started building an operating system, gnu (gnu’s not unix), to be a free piece of software for anyone to use. His objective was long term, and he knew he had to start with the basics. He wanted all software to be free, and he knew he had to start at the bottom, on the operating system. GNU became the kernel for the famous Linux operating system, the posterchild of the open source movement. And Stallman continued (and continues) his evangelizing for free software, a movement that has, some 25 years lated, built an impressive array of free open versions of software anyone can use, copy, modify and distribute for free. Now most of the web sites you surf (google, amazon) are built on GNU/linux-based servers. There are free/open source software alternatives to Microsoft Office (open office), Internet Explorer (Firefox), Internet Outlook (Thunderbird), Photoshop (GIMP), and a good audio-editing suite called Audacity.

Though I was excited about the practical software applications of free software, it was the concept behind it I found fascinating. Here was a successful movement built not so much in opposition to the predominant ethos of, at least, the past 40 years (ie, greed is good, the only useful motivator for large scale problems is the profit motive); but rather in parallel. A place where those inclined were free to contribute their time and energy for large projects …for reasons other than personal financial gain. And more: there was a theoretical and legal framework for doing so, and the movement was successful. I started using some of this software around this time, and it turned out some of it was better than the commercial alternatives. I was impressed that from a humble start at a free operating system, and based on clear articulation of ideals, such a powerful movement had grown, and was now even threatening the proprietary model. And further: I wondered whether (and how) this model could be applied to non-software projects.

I discovered blogging at the same time, and here was another revelation: free, easy publishing. Publishing on the web had been around for years, of course, but not for me. This was different: I didn’t need to know html, and I didn’t have to pay a dime. I sensed the world shifting.

From free software I found the Creative Commons movement … which aimed to do for culture what Free Software and Open Source had done for software. Spearheaded by Stanford Law prof Lawrence Lessig, the Creative Commons project provided a legal framework for those who wanted to make sure their art would be available to other artists to build on, and brought renewed thinking about the importance of the commons, and the public domain.

Creative Commons grew out of a belief that total corporate control of culture is not in society’s best interest. Art has always been built on previous art, and the notion that every bit of cultural heritage should be owned by someone, or rather, something: a corporation … especially corporations keen on charging vast sums, or threatening to sue anyone who they deemed had infringed their copyright. Creative Commons offered a space (legally defined) for people to contribute their art outside of traditional copyright, allowing certain uses of the works. Again, this was a parallel movement built for artists who wanted to maintain the importance of a commons for new art.

As I was thinking about all this stuff, I was working on a writing contract for a friend, who was doing a big exhibit for the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, on dinosaurs. The project included a number of information kiosks, essentially little web-sites packed with information and games. I was doing a fair bit of the writing, which required a significant amount of research. And as I plowed through this project, researching on the net, I found again and again that the best source of first-level information was Wikipedia. I had heard about this project too (this was in 2004), but had never paid it much heed: until I needed it. Again, here was a voluntary effort, parallel to other sources of information, and often better than anything else I could find (for free) online. I used wikipedia extensively on that project, and as I was using it, I thought I should give back. Where articles in wikipedia were light on information that I had, I added what I could. I got hooked. The great thing about the project was, you could start an article on, say, the Western Interior Seaway, with very little information or attention to style. Someone else would be by to add to it, correct it; and you could continue to make improvements if you wanted. Harness humans’ interest in sharing information, in helping each other, and don’t force anyone to be an expert, let it grow slowly, and build an encyclopedia. The beauty was, what I added didn’t have to be perfect: just adding something constructive was enough participation. Taking a long view of things, eventually the wikipedia would improve. Don’t let it’s flaws at any given time detract from the larger picture, the larger plan: to become the most complete encyclopedia in the world, available to anyone for free on the internet.

A project I had investigated numerous times was built on a similar foundation: Project Gutenberg, which has been in existence since 1970, and is the real granddaddy of all free culture/information projects on the net. Gutenberg offers a library of some 20,000 free public domain texts, in many languages, in plain vanilla format. I had been to the site often but had never actually read a book from there … I’m not good at reading long texts in digital format. Still, knowing they were there was a great and important resource, especially since those texts could be used for anything: they were public domain.

At some point, as I was listening to huge numbers of podcasts, I heard Brewster Kahle’s talk: Universal Access to All Human Knowledge, a profoundly ambitious talk. In it Brewster argues that it is technically and financially feasible (for some couple of hundred million dollars, not such a big sum when you consider the scope of the project) to put all text, audio and video ever created by humans online and offer it up to the world (for free is Brewster’s idea, though he’s not so much an anti-copyright evangelizer as a promoter of digital access to a robust public domain). From this talk I found his project, the Internet Archive, and realized that there was a home for public domain and creative commons media, a place where storage and bandwidth were free, and with a vision to keep those files forever. A modern version of the Library of Alexandria, with redundancy and back-up systems (servers all over the world) built in to avoid that tragedy of one fire.

The pieces were coming together. The last bit was Audacity: a free, open source, easy to use audio editor. I tested it out. It was easy.

So I had a format (podcasting), a publishing tool (wordpress), a philosophy (free software), a legal framework (creative commons/public domain), a source of texts (gutenberg.org), free hosting (archive.org), free audio editing software (audacity), an approach to information creation (wikipedia), and a model project (AKMA). And finally, after all that stuff mixed around in my brain for a while, I had an idea. Put it all together to make public domain audio books. How about all public domain books? Why not?

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Famous Montreal digital entrepreneur Austin Hill is launching a new (top secret) community-based start-up, focused on philanthropy. (He’s also agreed to be on the Advisory Committee of another project I am involved with, the Atwater Digital Literacy Project). We’ve been talking a bit about a bunch of things, but generally discussing building online communities with a specific purpose - which his blog talks about a fair bit (he also did an interview with me)

He had one post a while back, about leadership, which contained some quotations from the “Tao Te Ching,”, the guiding philosophical text of ancient China. Among the gems:

If you want to be a great leader,
you must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control.
Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
and the world will govern itself.
The more prohibitions you have,
the less virtuous people will be.
The more weapons you have,
the less secure people will be.
The more subsidies you have,
the less self-reliant people will be.
Therefore the Master says:
I let go of the law,
and people become honest.
I let go of economics,
and people become prosperous.
I let go of religion,
and people become serene.
I let go of all desire for the common good,
and the good becomes common as grass.

To the extent that I can be considered a “leader” of LibriVox (Christine calls me the “mayor of LibriVox”), I was surprised to see so much of my approach reflected in this and other bits of the Tao. It was a struggle in the early days, releasing LibriVox from my ego and letting it go where people wanted to take it. Of course, I still try to bend it to my will in certain directions, but in almost all cases that bending is in favour of openness: the two big controversies are “reader standards” (we have none, all are welcome to record no matter how “good” they are); and “niceness” (we don’t tolerate jerky behaviour on the forum - UPDATE: someone asked my how banning jerkyness could be considered in favour of openness … and the answer is inclusion … our forum is very welcoming, so people who do not like other internet forums like ours. Certainly it is a bit of a Nice-Police State, but the results pay off: more people enjoy the forum and contribute to the project; jerkiness would drive away many people. So it’s sort of an openness=access argument, rather than an openness=total freedom…of course this contradicts the Tao a little, but what can you do.). Other than that, things are pretty open. Though as we have evolved, we have become more complex, and more rigid in our way of doing things.

Still, as a general principle behind building communities, my experience is:
a) articulate a goal
b) follow the tao
c) if you need to check your direction, check against the goal first (objective), and the tao second (way to objective)

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When LibriVox was just a wee project, with a couple of books going, I did most of the management myself. When things got more complicated, a number of people came to the rescue: Kristen helped with the website design and Kara took the reigns on the cataloging, and several others helped in the early days as well. Things got much bigger over time, and now there is a busy team of people (some have come and gone, others have just stayed) who do all that back end work to keep things going. I don’t have much talent in all those areas, and so my role in the project has become more rallying of the troops, and articulating project philosophy and objectives once in a while. Usually this happens on the Forum, generally when a controversial debates come up. These long-winded posts usually get read just by those interested in a particular thread (often many admin types).

One of the big controversial issues that comes up again and again is reading standards, and criticism of recordings: the short answer, is we don’t have any standards, and criticism is not wanted unless requested. This came up again recently on the forum, and here is part of my response which describes why:

Now it so happens that my preference (this is personal) is for readings that are not theatrical. For my ears, more theatrical readings do something interesting: they are performance, and so the reader is taking a text, interpreting it, and infusing it with a particular emphasis and meaning. (True of course for every recordings). But to me, the performance can often overtake the text.

In more subtle, perhaps “flatter,” “duller” readings, two very curious things happen.

Firstly, the text itself becomes more important than the reader. You don’t so much hear the reader’s performance battling for predominance over the words themselves. The text, if it is good, wins. And with great texts, they transcend the voice reading them in some ways, especially if the voice gives the words the space to transcend. To my ears there is less space in more theatrical readings.

Secondly, the reader’s personal relationship with the text somehow adds another layer of humanity to the sounds of the literature itself. With less-theatrical readings, the honest connection between reader-text-listener seems very pure to me, again precisely because the reading is not a performance, but a human somewhere, reading a text they love for me. That is, to me, a beautiful thing, and one of the most wonderful and unique things about LibriVox.

But one is not really better than another; they are just different approaches. Some may wish to change the way they read … they might, for instance ask for advice on how to achieve a certain voice, a sound, how to inffuse more passion or oomph into their recordings. That’s fine, and if someone asks for advice, by all means give it. We have a big wiki filled with information and suggestions, and people often ask and give advice in our forum thread: “Need Help? Got Advice?”

But we do not insist on a certain style, a way to read, a way to interact with the text. We do not promote certain voices, professional diction, BBC accents, or Hollywood voice-over techniques. We are happy when we get them, of course, they add to the diversity of voices. But they are not better, or worse than any other voice. What we insist on is that people read texts the way they would like to read them, without fears of criticism that they are not good enough, talented enough, BBC enough, or anything enough…if you have a voice, and you wish to record a text, you are welcome here, and you will be thanked for adding yet another bit of literature to the audio universe. That is enough. It is not just enough, it is something much more than enough, with all sorts of wonder and beauty attached to it.

Listeners will like some readers better than others. Of course. And they are free to seek out the readers they prefer (soon a brilliant searchable catalog will be released where you can search by reader).

But that one person perfers reader X, and another prefers reader Y is irrelevant to what we are doing here, which, again, is getting volunteers to record the public domain literature which they love. That is what we do, and that is what we encourage… and even if no one finds reader Z as their favourite, it matters not one whit, because reader Z has still gone to the great, and sacred trouble to offer his or her voice to bring a piece of literature to the ears of anyone in the universe who cares to listen. and that is enough.

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Extensive interview over at the Creative Commons weblog about LibriVox.

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James, a LibriVox volunteer, tells me about CouchSurfing as an open project worth checking out. Will-do.

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Musings on open collaborative projects, (mostly non-software) with a focus on idealism and not money-making. The starting point is the LibriVox.org project. Mostly written by Hugh McGuire, but guest writers may join in as well. [more ...]

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