I am sure we all agree that the OAC depends on individual members caring enough to share their thoughts with others and the Admins team would like to thank all of you who have contributed to the kaleidoscope of our common life here.

We have been discussing for a while how we might encourage people to pool thoughts about ways of developing the OAC site. One idea is to open up a thread of the main Forum for a limited period. If something comes of it, we might do something similar twice a year. So please come forward with your observations and recommendations. Do not hesitate to comment on the discussions we hope will follow.

Here are some topics on which we would particularly welcome feedback.

We have altered the features, look and access to the main page. What do you think?

We have an enormous number of Groups, many of whom are dormant. How might we regenerate particpation in more of them?

Some aspects of the site, the Press and the Wiki, are concerned with generating and storing durable content. How might they be improved?

Do you have any comments on the governance of the OAC?

English is obviously the main language here, as elsewhere, but we are making an effort to open up to other languages, e.g. by adding a Portuguese section to the Press. What more could be done?

Would you like more accessible technical information to aid your participation?

What features would you like to see added or strengthened? How?

This by no means exhausts the possible range of topics to discuss. So let's hear from you, the members. The floor is open.


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Hello Keith, Admin team, everyone

Being a "semi-regular" poster these are my observances.

It seems to me that navigating around the OAC isn't as easy as it appears.
The tabs bar at the top has tabs that don't actually lead to anywhere. Discussion for instance does not have a valid URL assigned to it and this could actually be made to link to the full forum. A Blogs tab could also be a help with navigating.
There are multiple ways to access Groups but only 1, if you don't count the activity feed, to access the forum. Likewise with the Blogs.
The activity feed shows a alot of activity but 99% of the time I am online it shows "such and such joined the OAC' or "such and such joined this or that group". It isn't showing, IMO, important material instead it is showing spam and who is joining what group.

A while ago I had a look at the groups and I come across a few that were pretty much the same thing but with a different name. There may have been differences but at first glance it didn't look that way.

I like the idea of the purpose behind the Press and Wiki. I wonder though is it possible to stop the Wiki, at the very least, becoming a pooling of ignorance. Is the Wiki content "moderated? If not it possible to "moderate" wiki content before it becomes public. I know this is against the idea of an Open Co-op but I feel more damage could be done by allowing the posting of material that isn't factual, backed by evidence, or peer reviewed.

These are just a couple of observances I have, there will probably be more.
We have an enormous number of Groups, many of whom are dormant. How might we regenerate particpation in more of them?

- It's too many and spread out, especially for the amount of active users we have. It's difficult enough to keep University's clubs active and engaging, much more so here.


Do you have any comments on the governance of the OAC?

- I have noticed one article where a person made a topic and then soon after (with one reply) closed it, saying it is to help the clutter... I do not see how it helps clutter if it will still be there, moreover maybe someday we will end up wanting to discuss the topic and have to make another topic... hereby contributing to clutter.


Would you like more accessible technical information to aid your participation?

- Captioning to the videos. I'm deaf.

What features would you like to see added or strengthened? How?

- I don't like Ning, the features are too cluttered and too difficult to sort out in a organized manner. Ning has been known to have bad business practices and it worries me, would be best if OAC was independent and used its own platform in its own web hosting...
Some of the drop-down menus do not function properly if Javascript is disabled in visitors' browsers. For example, when Javascript is disabled, one cannot reach the link to the blog page from the top menu.

There exist various accessibility problems with Ning, that cannot be resolved by OAC. My accessibility plugin for Firefox gave a report for the front page, which I'll paste in below.

I agree with Michael that filling up Ning's news feed with notifications of new membership is not optimal.

I've already made my suggestion as to the best way to combat spam- namely to give more of the community the power to police spam themselves.

Accessibility Extension

List of Accessibility Issues Summary

FAE Rule Violations Message Class
Warn  The words contained in each h1 element should match a subset of the words contained in the title element. Words (%1) in h1 elements should also be in the title element.  Title 
Fail  Every frame element must have a title attribute with content that describes the purpose of the frame.  Frames 
Warn  If the content of the alt attribute is not empty it should contain at least 7 characters and less than 90 characters. The text should provide people who cannot see the image orientation to the content and purpose of the image in the website.  Images 
Fail  Each heading element (h1..h6) must have text content.  Headings 
Check  Heading content should be concise (usually 65 or fewer characters in length).  Headings 
Warn  Avoid using text links that are shorter than four 4 characters in length.  Links 
Fail  Each input element with type=text | password | checkbox | radio | file and each select and textarea element should either be referenced by the for attribute of a label element via its id attribute, or have a title attribute.  Forms 
Fail  The b element must not be used to bold text content, instead use heading (h1-h6) elements for heading text or the strong element for emphasizing words, phrases or sentences.  Text Styling 
Fail  The font and center elements must not be used for text styling, instead use structural markup should be used with CSS for styling.  Text Styling 
Fail  Each img element should have alt text.  Images 
Warn  The content of the headings of the same level within the same section should be unique.  Headings 
Warn  Avoid using images that are smaller than 16 pixels by 16 pixels as links.  Links 
Warn  12  Each map, ul or ol element that precedes the last h1 element and appears to be a navigation bar should be immediately preceded by a heading element, preferably an h2.  Menu and Navigation Bars 
Warn  126  Ensure that links that point to different HREFs use different link text.  Links 
Warn  139  Ensure that links that point to the same HREF use the same link text.  Links 
One additional comment regarding participation. Other successful communities (outside of the Ning network) sometimes implement a means of rewarding quality content by various sorts of public recognition. For example, Stack Exchange, a programming Q&A site, has a system where useful answers to questions are rewarded with a system of points awarded by their peers. The result has been an incredibly vibrant site with a committed body of users submitting quality content, for the peer recognition that it garners. I don't know if such a system can be implemented here.
@ Jacob. I use Linux (Ubuntu) with Firefox and Chromium. I also have access to Windows with IE and it doesn't matter what OS and browser combination there are times the Tab links don't work. I admit I use NoScript in FireFox but that can be turned off easily.

I think the suggestion you made above can be easily abused, actually I don't think it I know it as I have seen it happen in good online communities to often. Things like "Reputation" meters become popularity contests and it doesn't matter if you are posting good material or not. To get a high reputation number all you have to do is be "smarmy" enough (good Australian phrase that indicates the actions of politicians during election campaigns, things like kissing babies and slapping backs) to get a personal following. As soon as someone says something opposite to people with a big "reputation" they get howled down. This can lead to a pooling of ignorance. If this is something the membership of the OAC want then I think we are missing the big picture.

My personal, call it gut, feeling is KISS "keep it simple .....". Don't add to much to make it as complicated as it is already. You are better to strip things away and focus on the big picture of usability and accessibility than to add shiny features that don't add anything to the experience except to give a few individuals a superficial boost in cyber self esteem.
Thanks, Michael, Carolina Maria and Jacob. I hope that this thread will run for a while and that other Admins and the membership generally will chip in. So I want to make an organizational suggestion rather than answer all your points immediately in detail.

Can I suggest that we use simple bold headers to identify sub-threads like Groups, Navigation, Participation, Main page, Technical, Governance etc? Feel free to make one up if what you have to say doesn't fit an existing sub-thread.

Groups

We agree that there are too many Groups, but not on what to do about them. In the early days, many new members started a Group when they joined and then often left it unattended. We have taken the view that if navigation of the Groups is made simpler, as it is by aoc.collected, there was no point in deleting or forcing a merger of them. Nor are we keen to act in an authoritarian manner. But maybe the resulting proliferation is a deterrent to participation. This is worth considering further.

Main page

We take the view that listing recent member activity is useful. New members are usually grouped and it is surely good to know if someone has done something new somewhere on the site. Let's have more views on this.

Technical

Your point about captions is well-taken, Carolina Maria. You have certainly reminded me to do something with the videos I posted recently. But it is a lot of work.

Governance

It is an annoying feature of Ning that a member can delete any thread they have started and all their posts if they decide to leave, with obvious consequences for those left behind. We don't know what to do about this, beyond posting a reminder somewhere.

Navigation

I will leave the technical questions brought up by Michael and Jacob to my colleagues who are much better equipped to answer them.

Ning and its discontents

This would be a good time to assemble a list of the pros and cons of being here at Ning. I hear more cons than pros, but I am painfully aware of what would be involved in moving to an independent site. It would take a lot of skill and work, plus the OAC would be more dependent on the voluntary labours of maybe only one or two people. Justin and Fran have been experimenting with BuddyPress as an alternative. But for now we are resigned to making the best of what we have, at least for another year. It is not just a matter of features, but of organization and politics too.

Stored content

Michael raises the issue of moderating content at the Wiki and more generally. Members vary (as does the Admins team) in the value they attach to ephemeral chat and durable content. At present additions to the Wiki are sent to all of the Admins to check when they go up. I don't know how seriously we take this job, especially since the traffic is low. Paul is the founder of the Wiki and probably has most to say about it. I am not sure that we are setting up to be an authoritative source of record. We are not Wikipedia, although we did discuss that once. At the OAC Press the editors monitor quality, but so far have not gone the peer review route. All of this should be open to discussion.

Network interaction

Jacob brings up an important point with regard to members ranking content in some way, whatever we may feel about the specific suggestion he made. Ning is adding possibilities all the time (maybe we need a niotice board somewhere to alert members to them). I know some people who hate the very idea of making friends or the Facebook practice of saying I like this. There is room for a wide range of tastes on this one which suggests that Michael's advice to do less not more is possibly wise.

Participation

Although our active membership is small, we are a remarkably cosmopolitan network and cultural standards are highly variable. What one sees as friendly joshing may be interpreted by the recipient as a violent putdown. We know, as does anyone who has been around this medium in the last two decades, that networks form clusters of insiders who may seem to repel newcomers. It's a serious problem and one that the Admins have occasionally brought to the attention of some of our more regular contributors. This one runs and runs. But what are we here for if not to air such issues?
Main Page

I am looking at the main page, I have two tabs open in FF at once, and I see Josh Wells has joined a huge number of groups each one having its own announcement in the activity section. Keith has sent Josh Wells a message and Keith has posted a reply on this thread. Now, while this this a great thing and can be quite informative I'm not really sure having 90% of the available space in the activity section taken up by one member is all that interesting to many.

Participation

People will participate when they want to. I know a few here and I also know they are all very busy but would participate if and when they can.

Governance

Unless Ning changes what it allows members to do with their own materials there is no way around the issue you raise Keith.

Ning and its DIscontents

I don't have a problem with Ning, it has a purpose and it serves it well. Having said that there are many options available and it is easier than you think to use another service or to host something yourself on Open Source Software. If this is a serious consideration Googling "Ning Alternatives" will bring up a plethora of hosted options. If you would like to go and host yourself, actually not that difficult, there ar also many fine options available. I'm personally playing with Drupal and like what I can do with it.
As someone who has been a strong advocate of pruning the groups, I would like to repeat what I've said before. Inactive groups are clutter. They discourage participation by those who might bring new life to an old topic but can see at a glance that it has been discussed before and died. And personally nothing is more annoying to me than seeing a notice indicating new activity, checking it out and finding that nothing has changed. The activity counter is, apparently, keyed to hits instead of new contributions.

So, what can be done? I don't know if Ning allows this, but as a sometime programmer, I know that, logically speaking, it should be trivial to set up a routine that compares the last activity date with the current date and if the difference exceeds a certain period, e.g., one month, automatically suspend the group and move it to an archive, at which point it remains accessible but no longer clutters the display of currently active lists. This step, combined with changing the definition of "activity" from "hit" to "new post or comment" would cut through the clutter, communicate activity instead of somnolesence, and leave blank space for those who might want to revisit a topic if it didn't seem like it had already been beaten to death.

It's important here to remember something that David Ogilvy said about advertising. We want to be talking to a moving parade, engaging new participants as they come along. We don't need to fear repeating ourselves. We do need to fear looking like a jumble in which only a handful of the regular ragpickers participate.
Groups

John McCreery said:
As someone who has been a strong advocate of pruning the groups, I would like to repeat what I've said before. Inactive groups are clutter. They discourage participation by those who might bring new life to an old topic but can see at a glance that it has been discussed before and died. And personally nothing is more annoying to me than seeing a notice indicating new activity, checking it out and finding that nothing has changed. The activity counter is, apparently, keyed to hits instead of new contributions.

I have come round to your point of view, John. I don't want to install a machine that will automatically dump inactive Groups into a dustbin. I think that their owners deserve an attempt at consultation before that. We did once approach the owners of private groups and found that most of them had pressed that button by mistake. Perhaps the Admins should post a warning about any new policy before acting. In any case, interaction with owners may generate new ideas and interest.

I am concerned that an automatic approach would end up banishing most of the Groups in other languages than English. There was a time not long ago when we could boast of active Groups in German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Norwegian etc of which the main residue now are some in Portuguese. We had active clusters of members from India, Turkey, Georgia. We need to reach out to these groups to find out how they might be revived.

It seems to me that we might classify the Groups as 1) small membership and no activity for a long time or ever 2) medium membership and no recent activity 3) large membership and little recent activity 4) any size and recently active.

Then we have to figure out what the options are that might result in a reduced and more current smorgasbord while providing access to dormant or defunct Groups in an archive.

Above all, we need to engage with the owners and members of these Groups. In one case, I approached the owner of a very large group who had done nothing since the early days of its formation. He said he had moved on and did not expect to take an active part in future, but it would be fine if I took on the job of animating the group, which I did for a while. But this is unsatisfactory. Maybe we should ask owners if they retain an active interest in their Group and, if not, approach members for volunteers who might start Digital Anthropology 2, for example, while the first goes into an Archive. Of course, any member may start a new discussion thread or post a comment in an existing group.

I am most interested in what Francine has to say about this, since she has done more than anyone with the Groups. She is currently diverted, but I am sure she will enter this discussion before too long. I am willing to put the time into approaching each Group individually because I believe they were once the heartbeat of the OAC and now are too often a stretcher case.
Groups

I also agree that there are too many inactive groups. Despite recent efforts, the biggest problem still seems to be visibility of the groups as a whole and attracting members to contribute at the group level. Although it seems simple to insert a few lines of code to auto-moderate the groups by activity, we have very little access to Ning's code. We have done a lot to adjust, tweak, hack and modify what you see now. Groups have always been a pain, because Ning offers very little for us to play with. Even the group RSS feeds only show entries to the main forum. I had to use an RSS hack to isolate group comments so that they would appear in oac.collected.info.

Without a doubt, the groups need pruning - especially with instances of two or more groups on the same subject. As far as I can tell, this will have to be a manual task. I'd prefer some input from group owners before we axe them, since "archiving" is really not feasible. If a group owner has simply given up, someone else can be made an administrator in their place so that the group need not be deleted and its content removed. The issue of doubled up groups and inactivity comes down to responsibility on the part of the group owners. I am not alone in slacking in this respect with my own group. Despite that, I too am coming around to John's opinion that inactivity is a drag.

John, as you say, the "latest activity" meter that Ning uses to sort groups doesn't work properly. That's one of the reasons for oac.collected. It shows 'actual' latest activity - meaning the most recent posts and comments on all groups - on the main view, and you can toggle to an alternative view to see an "archive" of all posts in all groups. I've tried to promote the alternative view, but I'm not sure how many people notice the View icons at the top of the page.

The groups situation is far from perfect, so if anyone out there can do better, or if coders/programmers know a better technical workaround, please help!

Navigation

Thanks to everyone so far who brought up site navigation as a barrier to participation. I'd like to focus on this, if possible, with concrete ideas on how to modify the user interface for better browsing. One suggestion so far was a direct link to blogs on the menu bar. I just had a thought that maybe we need a secondary menu in the left column linking to the main site components: forum, blogs, groups.

All ideas are welcome, but we are working within some contraints: Ning has a set overall layout that we can't alter in any sophisticated ways. The three columns are set, as is the menu bar (though we can change the menu items and sub-menus), and the ad-space and login module have to remain where they are on the right of the page. All the other modules on the front page can be shuffled around. We also have access to some basic CSS to modify some aspects of the layout, but I haven't found Ning's guidelines on this to be helpful. Within these parameters, I am happy to discuss overall navigation or placement of items for better content management. If anyone is a CSS whiz, feel free to browse Ning's help pages and report back.

Javascript

If Javascript is disabled on your browser, the parts of this site reliant on Javascript won't work (because it has been disabled). There's nothing we can do about that, but if this bothers you, feel free to report the issue to Ning.

Recent activity

We can modify the recent activity feed. It is helpful to me to see who recently joined and that people are commenting on each others' profiles. From an admin perspective, keeping track of new members at a glance is essential (especially for spam management). If the profile comments annoy everyone, we can remove them. My opinion is that the social aspects of the site help to set us apart from other academic networks hosting just forums or mailing lists. Seeing profile interactions can allow us trace side conversations or explore unexpected tangents, or simply get to know new people other than those leaving the most regular forum contributions. This small feature is a type of discovery engine. Since that's one of the reason's I'm here, I don't personally see it as a hindrance.

Ning

I believe Michael mentioned that it is easier than one thinks to port to another open source platform. The admins, especially Justin and myself, have been working with this idea for some time. There are several practical concerns. The biggest hurdle in the past was that Ning never offered a solid data export feature, and that other servers never offered a decent import feature. In other words, if we jumped to another network, we'd have to repopulate the thousands of pages worth of content here by hand. It seems that this has now changed for the better, hence our looking at BuddyPress. Which leaves the issues of governance, coding, moderation, layout - basically, the issues we're essentially dealing with now on Ning. On top of that, a self-hosted platform would have the added concerns of maintenance, making the site work, keeping it running and secure.

These are not small feats (nor cheap if paying for bandwidth and hosting) running on volunteer labour and with a minimal number of committed members with any programming knowledge willing to jump in for the long haul. I've tinkered with Drupal and Joomla, but the amount of work that would go into reprogramming a new site is massive in real terms, at least for myself. I'm happy to invest my time to piece it together towards a clear design plan and functioning end-product, but there are limits to my technical abilities in this respect. Although I am excited about the potential of BuddyPress, I am also beginning to wonder if the benefits outweigh the task of a site overhaul simply to arrive at the same or similar management and design issues. I am open to being proven wrong here, so chime in if you can do better.

Overall

The issues we're discussing here are always double-sided: what we want the site to look like and do, and then how to technically achieve it. I hope that this discussion will continue to bring out more suggestions for the former, as well as those willing to take part and help us to work out the latter.
Francine Barone said:
Navigation

Thanks to everyone so far who brought up site navigation as a barrier to participation. I'd like to focus on this, if possible, with concrete ideas on how to modify the user interface for better browsing. One suggestion so far was a direct link to blogs on the menu bar. I just had a thought that maybe we need a secondary menu in the left column linking to the main site components: forum, blogs, groups.
The issue in doing this is you already have a front page crambed full of things. Adding yet another thing to do what is already available, and from what you say cannot be changed because of Ning's overall constraints, is doubling up. The only way I could see this of being an added benefit is if the new side menu was a floating menu staying in view as members scrolled up or down.
Francine Barone said:
Javascript

If Javascript is disabled on your browser, the parts of this site reliant on Javascript won't work (because it has been disabled). There's nothing we can do about that, but if this bothers you, feel free to report the issue to Ning.
Javascript shouldn't be an issue, most browsers have a way to turn it on or off even if it is an addon. IMO this is a topic of user knowledge not a topic about the OAC and its functionality.
Francine Barone said:
Recent activity

We can modify the recent activity feed. It is helpful to me to see who recently joined and that people are commenting on each others' profiles. From an admin perspective, keeping track of new members at a glance is essential (especially for spam management). If the profile comments annoy everyone, we can remove them. My opinion is that the social aspects of the site help to set us apart from other academic networks hosting just forums or mailing lists. Seeing profile interactions can allow us trace side conversations or explore unexpected tangents, or simply get to know new people other than those leaving the most regular forum contributions. This small feature is a type of discovery engine. Since that's one of the reason's I'm here, I don't personally see it as a hindrance.
Your an Admin who needs to be able to see the things you mentioned. Do the rest of us need to see this though? Some features can be turned off for "regular" members while still being available for Admin to see, at least I think they can.
Some of these sites, Grouply for instance, have the activity feed linked to member activity not to actual events. This means if a member does something it comes up on the activity feed. If they do 15 things like join multiple groups or send multiple messages they still only appear once. This leaves the activity feed being able to show what other members are doing.

Ning

Your comments regarding the possibility of a site change are all quite valid. This leaves the admin group with a difficult choice. Do you stay with Ning which is serving its purpose anyway or do you migrate to something else which will possibly have similar if not identical issues? No one here is suggesting it would be easy but it is easier than people think it is. My gut feeling, even though I said it is possible to migrate, is if you find controlling Ning a strain on time then stick with it because you wont have time to learn another system.
Well, it is true that Javascript has become an integral part of many web experiences, especially with the success of AJAX libraries like jQuery. But a lot of sites do fine without it too, and the standard Drupal installation doesn't rely on client side scripting, for example. Javascript can enhance the user experience, and make sites more interactive.

But Javascript menus can be a particular concern for accessibility reasons. You don't have to believe me. I'll quote:
While the use of JavaScript for the presentation of site navigation elements may result in some minor improvement in the user-experience for able-bodied users, it can be the source of significant problems for users with vision and physical difficulties.

Dynamic menus, like those described above, rely mainly on the use of the mouse and there is no standard way of making them keyboard accessible for people who cannot use a mouse. Blind users for example, cannot position a cursor visually and so use the keyboard in conjunction with a screen reader to access the different elements of a Web page. People with severe physical disabilities rely on simple switching devices, which mirror the function of the keyboard tab key, to move around the page. In both cases, the use of JavaScript can render the resulting navigation items inaccessible to users of these technologies.

If the link function is not applied to the navigation image, but is incorporated in the JavaScript, it will be impossible for the users of many assistive technologies to use the site resulting non-compliance with WCAG Checkpoint 6.3. This violation can be overcome by ensuring users without JavaScript enabled are able to go directly from the primary navigation menu item to a page that contains all the next-level navigation choices within that area of the site.
http://www.usability.com.au/resources/menus-links.cfm

With Javascript disabled, the Discuss link only points to the Forum. The Forum page does not link to the blog or chat page either. This means that the workaround discussed in the last paragraph is not present.

It's Ning's problem, and accessibility hawks have been after them for years. Most blind people can't join Ning anyway because of their inaccessible CAPTCHA system. But I did run across this in a forum:
It is possible to use JavaScript to inject code into Ning to make it have basic accessibility (fixes to the toolbar, some headings, etc.)

So, though it could be a lot better, it can have decent accessibility.

Some features, such as their video player, are a bust in terms of access and rolling your own is preferable. For example, to get video to have accessible controls, we host the video on YouTube and then reference the YouTube video and have it play in a player we built using the YouTube API.

One thing that will frustrate blind users new to Ning is that the sign up uses an inaccessible CAPTCHA.

All of this goes in the Custom Code section and it does a couple of things. It adds a label to the search field, adds a heading above the site navigation as a way for screen reader users to easily locate the site navigation, and it sets the editor toolbar to be keyboard focusable.

We are also importing a library we wrote to host YouTube accessibly. That can be found here: http://wac.osu.edu/examples/youtube-p...


Michael Findlay said:
Francine Barone said:
Javascript shouldn't be an issue, most browsers have a way to turn it on or off even if it is an addon. IMO this is a topic of user knowledge not a topic about the OAC and its functionality.
Francine Barone said:
Recent activity

earn another system.

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