First, excuse the short book (though I've been looking in on this and other forums here for at least 6 months, and this is my first posting - so I may have some "banked space" coming?)...
To me, a person who may be as close to being a "pure end-user" as one can get (while still having the ability to ferret out this particular page in the openACS.org complex of pages), this is one of those "incredibly important," yet (apparently) "most overlooked" topics associated with whatever openACS actually is.
Allow me to play real world end-user devil's advocate for a moment:
Am I more likely to discover and wind up a user of AOL/Time Warner's, or Microsoft's answers to those questions, or is it even remotely possible that I will somehow discover the ACS system, recognize those things about it that make it such a better alternative, and, ultimately, wind up using it to communicate, cooperate, collaborate?Not to be cruel - don't forget the devil's advocate aspect - but referring to the openACS.org home page, this system has 3,753 registered users as of today, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 downloads of (both versions of) the system. What exactly that means or translates to in terms of the number of people actually using it, I have no clue. It probably means the number of actual users is somewhere in the high thousands, maybe hundred thousands, maybe low millions (probably not that high, but maybe).
- Does anyone who understands what ACS is, how it works, etc., have a (real and clear) understanding of how little I actually know about computers, software, the internet in general, let alone things like its potential for whatever this stuff called "collaborative opportunities" is? ("Is it like email then, or what?")
Last I heard, AOL/Time Warner had something like 23,000,000 people sending them money every month to use a system no one who visits these pages would be caught dead even thinking about using (for good reason). And when it comes to the M word's relatively new megaplex of "online communications opportunities," who can even begin to venture a guess as to how many people are finding themselves signing up for their "passports" so they can do whatever the idea there is?
In order to keep the book as short as possible, one of the main personal points is this: I'm in the beginning stages of working with an actual, physical, well-defined community of people who are: A) "technologically disadvantaged"; and B) could really put a great online communications, cooperation, collaboration system to beneficial use.
Because of my exposure to Philip Greenspun's more "ancient" (but still amazing) online comm offerings (particularly this program - LUSENET), I've kept loose tabs since late 1997. And even though I am probably the next best thing to a pure end-user (I can make simple web pages, "get" some of the bigger "concepts" involved, and can connect easy to connect dots to make web sites more "end-user empowering"/"interactive" - things like LUSENET, Boohoo, SPAM), I'm capable of appreciating the "true internet genius" and "spirit" involved in everything going on here.
BUT (to get back to that local community that could really use a great system), here's my real world, real time, end-user problem: Even though I've made about a dozen trips to the openACS.org web site over the past few months, I still have no real clue as to:
- What the system actually is
- How it actually works
- What, from the administrative point of view, it takes to use it (besides a degree in computer science)
- How, from the end-user's point of view, it is used
- Where I can find out those things in a way that doesn't take that degree, and won't take me two or three weeks of digging (for things I can't seem to find anyway)
In short, where are the basic, simple, "user friendly" pages that give "average people" the idea?
Or, for completely graphic example (and thanks to an earlier posting on this topic by David Geilhufe, and a little extra searching around), where is the stuff that does what these people are doing to explain their online community/collaboration system? And, more specifically, where is the openACS equivalent of their "Tour"? (Check it out... It really is a good one).
And yes... I'm sure openACS is a different kind of thing when it comes to the "idea," "underlying philosophy," "spirit," or whatever the abstract aesthetics are. But when it comes to those things, let me see if I can grasp and communicate one of the most basic (as I seem to perceive it):
Everything going on in connection with it and openACS.org is being done by people who are (mostly) not only highly proficient software engineers or adept "managers" (who comprehend and are fluent in things most computer users don't and aren't), but are, in a sense, true artists who share a set of values related to keeping the "original spirit" of the Internet alive and well;
Part of that "value system" is a deep (and well-founded) digust with the "commercialization" of the Internet; and
Anything that smacks of "sales" or "marketing" is (by default and often "unconsciously") a part of that commercialization; and
- The ACS/openACS system is a (truly) wonderful alternative to the usual load of commercialized crap the majority of the world just can't load onto the internet fast enough. It is a system that comes as close as anything can come to embodying the best the world has to offer when it comes to online communication, cooperation, and collaboration. It's a (true) labor of love that shouldn't be bastardized, adulterated, or lumped into the aforementioned in any way, so on so forth.
Or something like that.
But Here's the Thing...
Everyone can adhere to that approach/perspective if that's what their sensibilities demand. But while everything's being kept "pure," AOL/Time Warner and "M" will just keep poluting everything in site until 90% of the Internet population so entrenched in their vision of what's best that they'll never be able to pry themselves loose, and all genuinely superior ways of using the "greatest communications medium since the telephone, radio, television" (not to mention the most important practical parts of the "spirit of the Internet" equation), will be religated to the big fat Land of Obscurity where a tiny handful of people use tools like openACS and wonder why "the masses" were so stupid as to allow themselves to be fooled into using such second-rate crap...
Okay... I've probably used up my 6 months worth of server space. In my own defense, allow me to say I've been THINKING of posting something along the lines of this note for several months. I think of it every time I return to this site to see if there's any (apparent) easier way for me to answer those basic questions above (not to mention answer/demonstrate them for the Completely Pure End Users of that actual physical community I'd have to convince! A community that has thousands of members, and is just one of several hundred similar communities, by the way).
So, in a nutshell, Yes! I agree. It would be tremendous if an effort could be made to communicate the basics of the openACS system to the "lowest common denominator" of computer users. It would be wonderful if some of the obviously brilliant people here would collaborate on putting together something that is even better than the examples linked above (when it comes to explaining things - not necessarily the "sign up" and "download it now!" things, but the "clear picture/simple story" things - and, by the way, an abbreviated, interactive set of demo pages would be nice too).
Given the level of expertise most postings reflect, and, no doubt, most openACS community members possess, a person wouldn't think it would be that hard to do. Frankly, I'm amazed it hasn't happened yet. It baffles me every time I visit the site and still find myself unable to understand just how great the system actually is. It's like it's some kind of very well-kept secret.
And now, having said all of the above, it's entirely possible I've simply overlooked the kind of thing I'm talking about. It may already exist, may have a prominent link on the home page which would be just one more example of how idiotic some people can be when it comes to displaying their ignorance. If so, please don't hesitate to point it out to me (I'm not an overly proud person). But please don't suggest I look through these forums, or check one of the FAQs, or read the "Scalable Community Systems" chapter in Phil and Alex's online book (been there twice - at least). Excellent material (of course), but not the kind of thing I'm talking about, and definitely not geared for people who think email qualifies as an advanced communications tool who don't like to read any more than they absolutely have to (too many important emails, ICQ, and Messenger messages coming in as it is!).
Please just put something on the home page that's as clear, simple and straightforward as the home page graphic that will take me (and people even less literate) to something that will show and tell me (us) everything a person needs to know in order to wind up wanting to get an openACS system running ASAP. And then tell us what it takes to do that, how we can get that done, and where we need to go after that to learn how to use it.
And when it comes to "sales" and "marketing," even though those terms may disgust you, remember: You probably don't mind at all when you get an email that tells you all about the latest groundbreaking developments in modem technology, or in the openACS source code or overall system. As you probably know, those messages are what "sales" and "marketing" are all about, when sales and marketing are "at their best": Those words CAN be code for "communication of worthwhile information in forms people can understand."
And as one last subtle related point, I'm not talking about the kind of "sales" and "marketing" that has to do with broadcasting or "advertising" the openACS system to people all over the net so they'll see the hot banner ads, click, and wind up on the home page. No. I'm just talking about the form of it that happens after people arrive. The kind that's already happening here, but to a very "narrow," "highly targeted market segment" that seems to consist almost exclusively of accomplished computer scientists.
And that's great. Nothing wrong with it at all. The only thing is, if people are serious about superior tools being used by people who use the Internet, and that includes people less technologically able than computer scientists... If people are serious about trying to do something to help keep the AOLs and M-softs of the world from dominating the whole works, there is simply no escape from the necessity to "broaden the market appeal" and "dumb-down" at least some of the communication to the level where it can be understood by those who get a little tingle everytime they hear their computer say, "You've got mail!"