Jon Udell recently gave a talk called Hacking the Noosphere. For those interested in the intersection of technology and society, there’s lots of good stuff in there, and if you scroll down, an interesting take on LirbiVox:
Another example, one that happens to be Montreal-based, is LibriVox, the collaborative project to make audio recordings of public domain books. For quite a while the whole project ran on nothing fancier than an online bulletin board. A lot of us here, me included, would have been tempted to write a soup-to-nuts database-backed application to support that project, because that’s what we’re good at, and that’s what we like to do.
But when I saw how the project really works, I realized that would have been a mistake. Like Wikipedia, LibriVox is actually powered by a set of agreements and protocols and traditions. You can imagine encoding those in software, and the project’s founder — Hugh McGuire — might have wanted to, if he’d had access to the right kind of software talent. But he didn’t, which was almost certainly a good thing. Because the agreements and protocols and traditions weren’t known ahead of time, they had to emerge from the collective. As it turned out, a bulletin board — with its weak structure and loose coupling — was exactly the right way to nurture that emergence.
Over time, those loose structures have begun to coalesce. There’s a database behind LibriVox now, but the project still doesn’t feel like a database application, it’s more like a bulletin board that’s been enhanced with some database features. The real innovation continues to be in the agreements and protocols and traditions that attract, reward, and sustain contributors. LibriVox is a success not because of any particular bit of technical hackery, but because of Hugh McGuire’s inspired social hackery.
Which requires a couple of notes, LibriVox is not really Montreal-based … it lives independently on the web, and its only Montrealness is me, and the odd chapter & volunteer efforts from other Montrealers. Also, while I may have instigated some inspired social hackery, there sure were and are a lot of people equally inspired.