GitHub: What’s Past is Prologue

In previous posts, we introduced the GitHub web service, discussed how it represented a fundamental change in collaboration, and could significantly disrupt the culture of hierarchical government. In this post, we look to the future of public institutions as collaborative knowledge organizations. Future uses of GitHub by government are influenced by the evolution of e-government and the continued evolution towards openness. There are parallels between GitHub and the early public sector uses of the World Wide Web over twenty years ago. Learning from that history, we argue that it’s important to look past current deficiencies with GitHub when speculating about the future value of the platform for government.

The Web Was Once Ugly Too

In the fall of 1993, a senior government official asked one of us, “is this World Wide Web thing important?” The response—following some enthusiastic prose about the growing phenomenon of the Web—concluded that the web absolutely deserved attention from the government. A green light was given to create the department’s first website which was, in retrospect, supremely ugly (fortunately, no evidence of this claim could be found).

This was a full year before Vice President Gore switched on and unveiled the “Interactive Citizens’ Handbook”. Time magazine generously describe that site as “strenuously friendly”.

Rarely does a policy analyst get to look back on their recommendations as being so prescient. In the intervening two decades, the Web has indeed proved to be important, transforming not just the mechanisms of governing but every facet of society.

We don’t claim that GitHub is as important an innovation as the interlinked system of servers and documents browsable on the Web. But because Git changes the nature of how collaboration and knowledge sharing can happen and expands Git’s usability, we think it’s something that is deserving of attention from public sector organizations. GitHub is as exotic today as the World Wide Web seemed over twenty years ago and we need to remind ourselves that we’re in the early days of this new approach to collaboration.

Some will dismiss GitHub as ill suited to document collaboration, too purpose-built and inflexible, the learning curve too steep, and the interface too unfamiliar. But remember how ugly our early 1990s websites were? These also existed at least five years before Google helped us find content, and when we had to dial a phone number to connect to the Internet. If we gave up then because the Web was ungainly, hard to use, and slow, we wouldn’t be blogging about it today.

Is this GitHub Thing Important?

While our current assessment of GitHub describes its present state, this does not foreclose the possibility of a significant modification of the GitHub platform — or the creation of new interfaces and platforms — suitable for use by non-technical participants working collaboratively on documents.

The strengths of GitHub – its socialness, openness, transparency, versioning, feedback, and accountability – are the core of its value, and an ambitious goal would be to adapt the underlying Git architecture with a revised user experience more suited to document collaboration.

GitHub is not the same revolution in connection, collaboration, and interaction that Tim Berners-Lee created. But it does represent the beginnings of a revolutionary approach to collaboration and knowledge sharing. The next few years will determine what the new model looks like. We predict one thing in answer to the hypothetical question “is this GitHub thing important?” Yes. And government (amongst others) should be paying attention to it.