from TextoSolvo: Clarity (Why It Worked #1)

by admin

NOTE: I was in a bit of a conundrum about what to do with TextoSolvo vs. dose, and decided to just cross-post TextoSolvo articles (which are mostly about LibriVox) here.

This is a cross-post.

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.

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.