Friday, April 23, 2010

Stone Soup

This article is my experince in participating for the past 25 years in the self organization of an online community centered around the 4000 year old strategy game called Go.

Being a computer scientist working on computer networking I quickly can in contact with an emerging online Go community shortly after learning the game in 1984. In the mid 1980, the online Go community was centered aroud the Usenet newsgroup At that time, Usenet consisted of a loose mesh of computers at universities and research labs in business which periodically connected with each other using dialup connections to transfer accumulated newsgroup articles and email. With this technology, information propagated relativly slowly through out the network. Newgroup postings were on the order of a couple a day. The population was small and a very homogonous demographic of technical people. With the Japanese Go culture of politeness, this community was very calm and friendly so it was not noticed that there were no formal controls or moderation on the content being posted other than an admonishment of being off topic by other posters. A public shame approach.

In the late 1980s into the 1990s, The dialup connections were being replaced by dedicated links and eventually TCP/IP networks. This sped up the comminucation and increased a population a little but the community did not change much in it's friendly flavor.

1991 saw the introduction of the first Internet Go Server. Knowing the developers personally, I was able to participate in the development and debugging of its first rating algorithm. These were very exciting times watching a new era being born. Control and content moderation was enforced by the owners of the Server with a few of the users being punished with banning or ejection from the server. Most existed peacefully with this, but a few felt that free speech rights were arbitrarily trampled.

Approaching the mid 1990s, when Al Gore invented the Internet, there was a steady change in the demographic on the newsgroups. The internet is starting to open up to people outside of universities and research labs and into the general public. Traffic increased, but since Go is not well known, the population on is still relatively polite.

In the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, the population on th einternet and also the xposure to rec.gammes.go explodes. This brings in spammers and people who were only interested in disrupting the community. With no formal controls, becomes a wild west shootout and is essentually unusable for the average Go player.

In the 2000s, there were a few attempts to compensate for the problems with A very successfull wiki named Senseis Library was created to act as an online repository of Go information. This was very useful but did not satisfy the conversational need previously provided by

About 2006 GoDiscussions forums was created by a single individual and quickly became the premier spot for Go conversations. The forums had moderators that kept spam, flaming and off topic under control. A very cohesive community collected there and it was very successfull. Late 2008, the owner stopped working on the site and became unresponsive. Features started break and the sit slowly degrated until it was almost unusable in the fall of 2009. At the end of 2009 a few users went on a crusade to raise money to move rehost the site. Calls were made to turn the control of the site over to the community so that it could support itself. Early 2010 when all of the logistics were worked out the owner steps back in to reclaim the site and does execute the rehosting of the site bringing it back to a minimal level of functioning again. The majority of the community decides to stay hoping that the owner will take interest in the site again. But in mid April, the site fails. A partially complete replacement had been setup by another member of the community during the earlier problems with GoDiscussion at LifeIn19x19. Since the owner of LifeIn19x19 expressed a desire to open control to the community and even turning it over to the community if we can determine how to do that, a core of network developers, who offered services to GoDiscussions and were largely ignored, jump on LifeIn19x19 and brought it up to and surpassed the functional level of GoDiscussions in 3 days. Within a week that majority of the active participants from GoDiscussion had transitioned to LifeIn19x19.

What does the title "Stone Soup" have to do with all of this?

"Stone Soup" is parable that goes like this:

There once was a traveler who carried a large pot. He stopped for the night at a common traveler gathering spot, filled the pot with water, put it on a fire, added a single stone and sat back and waited.

Shortly, another traveler stops by and asks "What are you doing?"
The first traveler, says "I am making stone soup. It is the most delicious soup you could ever taste. If you want some all you have to do is contribute a small amout of food to the pot."

The second traveler decides to contribute a few carrots he is carrying for chance to try this mysterious soup.

This scenerio repeats with each new traveler that appears until there is about a dozen people, each who have contributed a small bit of food, waiting for the stone soup to be ready. The group starts various conversations while waiting, some singing and some telling stories.

After the meal, every traveler expresses thanks for the delicious meal, noticing how the stone soup was so much more satisfying than the little scrap of food would have been if eaten alone. Not only the combining of the food, but the spontainious creation of community.

The lession from this parable is that by creating a container and interest in a possibility, the possibility can easily and spontaneously appear. Life self organizing.

With there was a container and interest. Early on the community thrived. Later with no controls of what people can put in the container, a few started throwing in stick, mud, and even vile poisons. Thus the community was destroyed.

With GoDiscussions there was a container and interest. There were also controls to keep out the destructive contributions. But the owner failed to maintain the container, and when the container failed the community dispersed.

LifeIn19x19 improves on GoDiscussions with a shared access to maintain and improve the container. This should lead to a longer and more successful life for this community.

Enjoy your "Stone Soup".