A Technical and We Hope Also Social Transformation of ZCom
By Michael Albert at Sep 29, 2009
We are very very busy this Fall. It is a pivotal and thus also a tense time for us. If you call us on the phone, or pass us in the street, and we are terse - we apologize in advance - but we hope in you can understand!
A few days ago, for example, I offered a blog noting that we were upgrading the ZCom site while I made a preliminary case regarding our need for financial support. I will elaborate on the financial situation in the next couple of weeks, but I already said that shortly we would make the fund raising appeal public with a big display on the site including providing prominent - very prominent - avenues by which you can help during the month of October, and indeed, barring unforeseen problems, we will do that this week, probably Thursday.
I also wrote in that blog that I would next explain the context, logic, and broad character of the coming technical innovations, which we are soon going to have Sustainers beta test, and then likely a week or two later have all users test, all during the same fund raising campaign period this October, so here I will explain that, as promised.
Then there is the Reimagining Society Project. By familiar standards it is already a gargantuan success, eliciting in six months about 150 articles on vision and strategy which is easily many years worth at a non project pace - plus provoking an also greatly enlarged level of commenting, etc. Still, even with its interim successes, this project too, in our view, is only now reaching its turning point. Will it roll along as a giant compendium of essays and comments, slowing steadily until it is but an archive - albeit a very valuable one - or will we be able to turn it into something more, via polling, via further discussions, and then via new undertakings, again, this October?
And finally, some of you may have also noticed that not long ago I was in Caracas for a time, with Noam Chomsky. During this busy period, which is to say, right now - we are also waiting to hear from Venezuela about another hopefully imminent trip in order to do the extensive interviews and discussions which were interrupted by events a few weeks back. October, it seems, is our time of reckoning. Years of planning and effort, arguably a few lifetimes worth, are potentially coming to fruition. So I hope you will understand if we are a bit tense awaiting outcomes here in Woods Hole. But, okay, as promised - on the technical front...
You may remember that about a year and a half ago we did a site makeover by which we fully entered the age of database driven display and organization. That upgrade was on most counts a major success - but not without some blemishs. The upgrade brought us enough into the modern era of display and navigation to retain our user base and even enlarge it, and also enlarged user participation in information creation and gathering, while inducing critically needed growing donor support that has enabled us to keep operating.
That technical makeover was, however, not without pain. Initially, we had programmers, who without our knowing, decided they wanted to try to do the work using a new language called Ruby on Rails. Six months after beginning, when they were supposed to be done, they had nada, nothing, bupkus. Waste.
So, with money hemorhaging, we switched teams and also went to Php programming. That worked, though we had to navigate, as is usual with programming, incredible ups and downs of testing, failing, and correcting - and though the finished update, under the hood, was not nearly as grand as the surface innovations and successful reception suggested. The infrastructure of the site, we discovered after just a few months using it, was not as suited as we had intended to sustaining further steady innovation. More, there were aspects - speed, ease of maintenance, the forums - that weren't up to snuff themselves.
We wanted to be better than Facebook and MySpace for the purpose of radical social networking and popular participation, as well as of course being top notch for information display and navigation. We made it part way to our goals with the update a year and a half ago. ZSpace showed potential, but it was too hard for most Sustainers to use - a big setback for many, a big step forward for some. And the same was true for the forums. And while commenting on content was excellent, navigation of comments and their display wasn't so optimal.
Mainly, however, when we surveyed for reactions, users complained - and this was a mark of progress when you think about it - that they couldn't make the site whatever they wanted - as if that was an option anywhere else, or here, in the past - and that they had to abide our choice of menu entries and abide the links we chose for display on the top page, etc. One user wanted something added. Another wanted something deleted. And so on.
We huddled with our programming team and came up with a new vision for the site - not cosmetic, but functional. The details follow below, but an irony was, with specs in hand the programmers said they wanted to return to the previously disastrous Ruby approach. We were horrified, but they talked us into it - and now we are all about to see the results.
What were we seeking by undertaking another psychologically tumultuous and incredibly time consuming period of renovation?
On the one hand, we wanted typical gains such as better searching, more speed and stability, a slightly improved display of data, better store features, and better maintenance tools for updating the site daily. On the other hand, we wanted a big breakthrough in user functionality and experience. We wanted to push the Sustainer Program, and specifically ZSpace, into a whole new level of creativity and capacity. And we wanted to establish a foundation for steady new innovation in the future, too, some of which we would initiate now.
What caused us to be discontented with the prior upgrade - which is the current live site?
Well, partly it was obvious. The forums were clunky and not integrated in the overall operations. The store was somewhat clumsy to maintain and to use. The search system befuddled people and wasn't fast, at least for some purposes, as we would have liked. The group page tools were too hard for people to use and, despite our taste for them, didn't attract users. Likewise, users without prior experience got little help when they needed it, when they were trying to do something new. And while creating personal ZSpace pages was possible - and many did it - it wasn't easy enough or beneficial enough, to induce thousands to do it.
Mainly, though, we were sick and tired of hearing and indeed watching leftists network with other leftists on Facebook, a purely commercial site. To us, it was incredibly contradictory for people to be extolling the need to embody the seeds of a better future in the present, and to urge the need for establishing our own institutions to reflect our own values, and yet to urge those things on Facebook, thereby in fact building not an alternative approach, but a commercial mainstream approach. Young leftists, in many cases strong advocates of parecon and parsoc, would come here to our house, sit in our offices, sing praises to our aims, and yet while away their time on Facebook, tweaking their Facebook pages, interacting with their leftist friends on Facebook, etc. etc. - meanwhile, not even setting up a ZSpace page, much less putting serious time into it, much less telling their friends that ZSpace was where they wanted to interact. They didn't even realize how galling, how much of an affront, how much of a breach of support, this was, at least in our eyes. But we were slow to admit - on the other side of that coin - that the responsibility, ultimately, was ours.
Okay, they would claim that it was because there were millions upon millions of Facebook users. Fair enough, we would say - and if you are literally using that commercial and overwhelmingly apolitical and intellectually and socially insubstantial site called Facebook to reach even a minuscule fraction of those folks, then by all means, keep it up. We agree that you should do that, by all means, just like you should publish in mainstream news papers if you can. But, what are you doing when you do reach someone, say an old friend you haven't interacted with in years, or someone entirely new? How about, among other things, bringing them to ZCom? And to do that, don't you need to have a ZSpace page to direct them to?
But more, we would say, feeling a bit hurt and quite frustrated, it is perfectly obvious that hooking up with people you don't already know, or people who are not yet radical, isn't all, or even mainly, or even in large degree, what you are doing on Facebook. Rather, in hours spent, you are mostly chatting with your radical friends and posting or pointing out materials for them to look at. So for all that, and for much more, why not use ZSpace?
They would say, yes, you are correct, and we will - but then for the most part, they didn't. Why? Well, we decided it was ease of use, plus momentum. An ease of use advantage for an operation with hundreds of millions of dollars of assets, Facebook, over an operation with nearly no assets, ZCom, was enough to lure users away. We found it sad, infuriating, even - whether we were justified or not, we eventually realized, wasn't the point. Depression and anger wouldn't solve the situation. We had to do something substantive. Despite a relative lack of resources - ZCom and ZSpace had to be as easy to use. We had to be much much better at content than Facebook, and that was easy. But we also had to make it as easy to connect with friends, quickly and briefly, sharing, even playing and that was going to be hard. And so we had to upgrade, again, in a big way. And so we began that process, before the last upgrade was even fully in place. And because our programmers understand our priorities and motivations, they not only did the work, but gave us great prices and major insights as well.
Well, the new upgrade isn't a miracle cure. But we do believe the improvements and innovations provide more than enough to warrant every single Z Sustainer who uses Facebook or other commercial networking sites to interact with friends to prioritize at least also using ZSpace - in order to build something radical that matters, not something that sells users to advertisers. However, if you don't give us your creative involvement, and if you don't seriously urge others to do us, even making serious communication with you depend on their doing so, then all the technical virtues of our upgrade will come to nothing much. So, we urge you, give the innovations a chance. Give the innovations your energy, your creativity, and give them your advocacy. Make Z grow. We are doing our part. Now we need you to do your part.
And here is our part. First, here is a video giving an overview of features... http://www.zcommunications.org/zvideo/videoTutorials/59
And here is a text description of changes...
1. For all users, we have made modest improvements in the cleanness and lines of pages, added ease to accessing what you are interested in and knowing where you are in the site, with cues, backtracking, etc., improved the search to be even more robust, diverse, effective - and fast, and, indeed, speeded up the whole site, or at least, it will be once fully in place. We have also upgraded the ZMag site to gain the speed and appearance enhancements of the rest of the site, operate in the backtracking system, be faster, etc., and likewise we are working on a new store, not yet ready to test, that will gain in appearance, but mostly in ease of use. Finally, we are also adding new features to Video/Audio to enhance appearance and ease of use.
2. For Sustainers and Writers, and we hope this will cause virtually very users to seriously consider becoming a sustainer, we have built in access to create and bookmark your own ZNet top page. Do ZNet your way!
What this means is every Sustainer and writer will be able to toggle between the ZNet top page that we offer, seeing the content we deem most important to highlight, and a top page that you literally create for yourself. On your page, you can EASILY have tabbed menu entries of your choosing. you want to remove some - go ahead, it takes a click. You want to move some - go ahead - you can drag them. You want to add some, go ahead, click and type.
Similarly, on your version of the ZNet top page, which you can see anytime, you control the left menu items - what is there, what it accesses, and where in the stack of items it displays. And finally, perhaps most important, you control what appears on your version of ZNet's top page. If you want some specific content - say only articles by some specific author or authors, or only those on some topic or place, or only content of some specific type (like video, or interview, etc.) to appear automatically on your top page, in its own area with a heading you give it, you can easily set this to happen, in as many variants as you desire to have visible, also determining what appears where on the page just by dragging and dropping. You can make your own ZNet top page, in other words, with links and content that you want, and none that you don't want, and then you can bookmark it, or toggle to it, anytime you want. Your version of the top page is for you to see - no one else.
And similarly, you can also have your own ZSpace top Page: Every Sustainer and writer will be able to toggle between the ZSpace compendium top page that we offer, with the content we choose to display on it, and an alternative ZSpace top page that you literally design and populate for yourself, just like the ZNet top page described above, with content and links you choose, you lay out, etc.
3. For Sustainers and writers we have also included a new Chat Facility that you can toggle to be open, or you can close, and that will follow you around the site, if you like, and that will list your friends and show you if they are available to chat, and connect to them with just a click.
4. Also for Sustainers and writers, but with implications for all users, you can now have a vastly improved personal ZSpace Page. Every writer and Sustainer gets a personal page meant to display of his or her own work, as in the old system. BUT - now this is under your complete and easy control just like the above mentioned ZNet and ZSpace top pages - but this time what you create is not just for you to see, it is public for everyone to see. In essence, ZSpace gives you a personal home page with drag and drop and point and click control over contents completely at your disposal - the menus, the boxes of links displayed, the video, and so on!
5. Again for Sustainers and writers, but with implications for all users, we have added a major New Forums/Comments System. Dumping the old forum system we are implementing a replacement that is tightly integrated into the whole site, much easier to search, and for which the site will email you if something of yours gets a reaction, you can easily display comments or posts to you, or by you, on your pages, and so on.
6. More substantial, coming In subsequent weeks for Sustainers and Writers to use and for others to benefit from seeing, will be a new Groups System via which groups will be able to have their own sites!
In the current site we have group pages that are too hard to use for people to get excited about them. In the new incarnation, they will be vastly easier to set up and use and also much more powerful. Say there is some group of users - perhaps those interested in some topic, or on doing some project. This set of people constitutes itself as a ZGroup. They have a group forum, group blog, and of course a group page. People in the group get email updating of content, etc.
But more, the group page is, like the pages mentioned earlier, entirely adaptable by the group's designated members. The group sets the tabbed menu, and the left menu, and the content that displays - and the site has all the capacities of ZCom...forums, blogs, searches, etc. In fact, a group could set up a site for its users to implement and interact via - and for everyone to see - with all these features, at no cost other than that all the group's members become Sustainers. The goal is to have user groups use the full ZCom technology to pursue their own endeavors. The first effort in this direction will be porting the Resoc Project into this new technology.
7. More important, perhaps even somewhat pivotal, we are adding new Facebook Like Friends Features: whereby friends can keep up with one another's efforts. We already have a capacity, which will be easier to use, to ask to be friends with another Sustainer or writer. Now, it will be possible on your ZSpace page - or on either of your two personal top pages - or on any group page - to have a Recent Contributions column that displays notices/links to everything that any friend (or group member) does elsewhere in the site. This, plus the incredible ease of use innovations, the improved commenting and forums, added to the fact of the site's potential for further growth is only people make use of the tools - is why we think we have created a Facebook Killer - at least for radicals interacting with other radicals!
8. And beyond all the above, using the new easier to build on infrastructure, we will also soon embark on building a new facility to allow users to propose debates and engage in them, or urge others to do so, with display of the results, and a new petition facility to help Sustainers or writers initiate a petition, with online sign up, its own page, etc., and a new projects facility that will welcome entering descriptions of projects, discussing them, seeking help with them, sharing lessons from them, etc., plus we are seriously considering a new socializing facility to provide means for users to socialize online and pursue joint political and also personal paths.
Okay, without going on too too long - that's the technical picture.
So the upshot is, this Fall, this October, very very soon - even later this week, we hope - we need you to respond positively to our fund raising effort even as you also begin testing the beta of our upgrade, and begin using its facilities to display your creativity to in turn elevate ZSpace and ZCom more broadly into not just a premier place to get information, analysis, vision, and strategy - but a premier place to participate in developing all that, and especially networking with others who are also doing so.
So come on. We are begging, I freely admit. Help us with the funding effort. Help us with the upgrade effort. Let's make this Fall not just a tense time - we already have accomplished that much - but a turning point time toward new successes.
By Thursday, Friday, or hopefully at least next week - the means to donate and to learn more about and even test the new beta will be front and center on the site!