Thursday, March 13, 2003

South by Southwest 2003 XX
One last batch of SXSW Interactive reports. Nancy White took some great notes on Cliff Figallo's session Tuesday morning, which I missed. Here's Nancy's report, barely edited:

Cliff Figallo: Putting Online Conversation to Work

Attention is energy. If a small child is acting out, giving them attention gives energy to those behaviors. Online you have to pay attention to whom you are paying attention. Pay attention to negative behaviors, you "feed the energy creature."

These are concepts we’ve put to work. Having a conversation you want to get things out of consider:

  • Who’s talking
  • Intentions
  • Commitment
  • Tolerance
  • Traction

    A productive conversation can only happen under certain conditions. Forcing people who don’t exhibit the right intention, commitment, tolerance -- sometimes you have to be selective as to who you invite. The Well said anyone with a modem, money and could navigate on, they could join. Everything else was up for grabs. Stuart Brand thought it would be good to have people with communal experience managing this thing rather than business or technological experience. There were tradeoffs there, but we did understand what it took for a community to be productive. In this case, be functional. We went through quite a learning phase in the first 5 years. Some people could inhibit others from participating in an online conversation. How can we make these things work when people who are more willing to join the conversation could dominate a conversation and send it off in directions that chase people away.

    We’ve learned a lot over the years. Now millions online who have experienced chat, online communities. Seen how they can work and be a total pain in the ass. It would keep people up at night on the well because there was such hope that people would join this group, writers, consultants who did not work with a team on a day by day basis. They had a hope that the well would thrive as a community. When someone came and tried to crash the party, they wanted us to throw them off, but we did not want to be the despots, the cops. We wanted the community to sort out it’s own problems. There were cases where we had to remove people because they were detractors from the conversation. It’s important to know who’s talking

    Intentional Community
    If you have an intention about a conversation in an organization or business. Shared sense of mission, purpose, ethos. It is then easier to solve problems. All aimed in the same direction and willing to tolerate each other. To listen as well as talk.

    Nardi, Whittaker and Schwarz called them "Intentional Networks’ PERSONAL Social networks. "We chose the term intentional to reflect the effort and deliberateness with which people construct and manage personal networks.

    In a conversation in NY last Fall, Listening to the City, a conversation about what to do with the site around ground zero. WHT TO do with that neighborhood, how to redevelop Manhattan. They had a 1 day F2F LARGE Meeting with tables of ten with facilitators and laptops who collected the conversational themes and feelings and fed them back to the larger group. Briefly they formed an intentional conversational community. All of their aims were tom come up with a good solution for where the WTC had been blown up. Even though they did not agree- some were strongly opinionated that it be a symbolic building that NY will not be defeated, we’ll put up something bigger. The final design is taller.

    We took this online the week after in groups of 30. Half with facilitators and half without facilitator. All could read each other’s conversations. Most of the groups that did not have an assigned facilitator, one rose from the ranks and took on that role to lead the conversation. It was quite and emotional couple of weeks. Some had lost close relatives, friends, involved in recover efforts, had seen the towers collapsed. Everyone had a strong emotion around it and willing to engage in the conversation. But there were differences between groups. Some people were tying to shout their positions down the throats of other people. We call them the tall towers people. Bu t there were other people who were victims family who said the memorial was most important. There were complaints that they were getting more than their representative voice. It wasn’t
    fair that their emotions were going to sway how things would developed.

    Mostly people were concerned about the trust that their input would be part of the decision. They hoped to have some effect on the decision makers. As it turned out it really did. The F2f conversation was widely reported as expressing strong disapproval to the initial plans. Based on that the publicity of getting this strong disapproval and sent everyone back to the drawing board. The online conversations contributed that yes it was important that the towers be tall and there be a memorial. And the chose design reflects this.

    Trust, Identity, Reputation
    These are concepts you see being talked about on the web. Software is being developed and put in to portal software. I was associated with a company called RealCommunities which had a flexible database where people could establish identity and a reputation management module. A lot of this stuff operates in our daily life according to where we trust people, what we know of their identity and reputation. When engaging in online conversations with people online you rely on many other factors to determine if it is worthwhile in engaging in the conversation. You are investing your time. Don’t want to feel like you’ve wasted it.

    What we found on the Well when we all came together, a bunch of people who didn’t know each other with just a bunch of words on a screen connecting. Came to a point when Howard Rheingold and Howard Mandel started a conference called "True Confessions." It was basically a place where people could write stories about themselves. Up until them people learned just what they learned about each other in conversations about politics, news, sports. That was valuable especially if you engaged in conversations across topics. A person in politics might be a flaming liberal and you were conservative, but in the parenting conference both have kids and shared experiences. A multidimensional relationship, the way it is in real life, we know each other from at least two different contexts. Helps us get a sense of what these people are. IN True CONFESSIONAS once they saw a bit more about each other’s background, it opened up the community. They knew this person was what they stood for, what they’d been through, why they were what they were.

    When you start a conversational community you will find different kinds of leaders. Founders who understand the mission, where the conversation is supposed to go, who was invited and why. The Implementers who actually start the conversations, comfortable with the tools, recognize what to do with the vision provided by the founders. The Sustainers hang in there. The facilitators, the challengers who keep volatility in the conversation and attract more people to it because conversations generally want to expand.

    Power Imbalances Destabilize
    Make it difficult for people to trust. Today’s world situation. People don’t necessarily want to go along. They don’t want the US to say not only are we the most wealthy, but powerful, military strength, democracy – and thus our vision is the most powerful vision. But will we be kept in our place. Will other nations keep their validity. France is digging in it’s heels. Other countries are digging in their heels.

    The Truth Will Out
    The internet has lent this whole other side to propaganda. You can’t keep a lid on things anymore. There will be other visions represented. Blogging, even though its in principle the same internet publishing model, we’re probably being blogged as we speak -- this element was not there when Berners-Lee put up the initial web pages. Blogging is now a medium, or an application of the medium, that allows many viewpoints to come together, cross represent each other, disagree with each other. A wide conversation that when used well in communities in trust -- which does nto mean you necessarily agree, but you understand where they are coming from, but as long as you believe they are speaking from the heart, you have a level of trust that they are a known element, not a maverick, one who spoofs you.

    In a conversation if the truth doesn’t out, if people don’t agree to speak truthfully, not a balance of weight in the conversation, and least everyone going in the same direction of having a productive conversation rather than shouting each other out. On the well we had "subtext" you could read a conversation and tell if there was dissatisfaction or lack of cred under the surface. People might not say it, but a vibe, of argument running below the surface. In an online discussion that happens on a company’s intranet you will find a lot of that. People are afraid to really express what they believe because their jobs at stake. If the company does not have a culture that encourage people to say what they believe, if people don’t’ feel they can say what they believe, it will still come across in refusal to participate or what you can read between the lines. People’s subconscious. Belief system at work that they did not want to express because it would create a hassle, an argument. But their subconscious will still come through in how they talked.

    Weinberger: Typical in business that there is an imbalance in power. What do you do to accommodate conversations?

    This is part of the problem with business culture and how it’s developed through the years. In the first couple of chapters of Building the KM Network, we run through a quick history of civilization and how we got through the industrial age, how orgs formed in a hierarchical sense built on a military model. Was not important what the lower ranks thought. Whoever was running the place held all the knowledge and wisdom, hired lower ranks with wisdom and now power. The net has broken into distributed non hierarchical model. Business has not caught up. They go through team building sessions and OD trying to enable a more open and distributed conversation, but still that power balance exists if the upper levels of management don’t participate in conversations that cut across the layers. At the Well it mattered that Steward Brand as founder of the Well participated. But he was sort of thin skinned. If anyone criticized his vision or suggestions, he didn’t stick around very long. We always wished that he would. He was initially a very vocal participant but when the hard questions started he did not feel it was necessary to answer them. That’s when the leadership model has to move on. When the founders and CEOS aren’t going to participate… now the customers are much more powered. They can talk to each other. They can talk about products through boards such as Epinions, online gatherings like on about their cars, and if the company is not going to be part of this conversation, its going to suffer from not getting, taking and using that feedback. I think not being a CEO and not choosing to work within a company as an employee, throwing rocks from over the wall as a consultant, my council is that companies have to evolve. Look at Enron and all these scandals. If these conversations aren’t enabled with in the company all kinds of things can take place. If they aren’t talking about it they see how it gets out of control. Companies, careers, 401Ks ruined. It’s hard to visualize what its like working in a co with tens of thousands of employees and how you get them started. But conversations start incrementally and can spread within organizations.

    Weinberger: Short of changing the ethos of the org, a big challenge, many companies would rather die than do that. Experience on the well, someone gets on where the power imbalance is wrecking the conversation, the answer to Brand is not step down from your role, but change your conversational behavior. Do you have advice or help for working within the conversation itself, short of changing the way businesses work?

    Tom: All the things you talk about operate in my world of online support groups. If you put a doctor in a conversation it changes the conversation. Just breast cancer survivors the conversation is more open and wide-ranging. In these communities you do not have the flames. A built in "we’re in this together and we need to help each other." Similar response to a disaster when you work with people you had not worked with before.

    What do you do about power imbalances? First acknowledge it. That there is that difference between the person who is operating from a higher rung on the ladder One of the people I worked with on the LTC forum came up with the idea of a "Full Value Contract." When a conversation is engaged, in this case online, that going into it everyone agrees that they are going to give full value to the conversation. They make an agreement going in that they are gong to listen, respect, do what they can to encourage each other to speak, not dominate the conversation, do everything they can to make the conversation as useful for ist purpose as they can. It’s a very important idea that you have an agreement, which formalizes the conversation more than they usually are. Usually more ad hoc. People set up a forum, invite people, a topic. But as far as any kind of social contract they have to evolve over time. On the Well we had "you own your own words" which was formulated to protect the well from liability but adopted as a rallying cry for personal copyright issues. Social contracts evolved by trial and error. When you go into a conversation you set up for a purpose, presenting everyone with some sort of contractually worded agreement can really help, especially where there is a power imbalance so everyone assumes an equal role, even with different levels of responsibility. If a biz is going to have an online discussion w/ CEO and higher folks, that they declare this is the way it is going to be. Not a George Bush press conf where you have to ask the right questions to get picked on.

    Question: Would you advocate to people with power to use an alias to make it a more egalitarian environment?

    I don’t that’s really what you are looking for. You are looking for true identity. If you use an alias that allows the person with the higher power position to act like a fly on wall, Joe Everyman and speak. It might be useful for them, but for everyone else, fi they don’t know this.

    I was thinking more of a person with some dominant power enters the conversation; it tends to polarize the conversation by dint of their identity. If you wanted exchange of content, not identity, it would make it a more level playing field.

    [Cliff asked Nancy what she thought. She talked about unintended consequences of anonymity and the importance of treating root issues at the root. Organizational warts just appear even bigger online.]

    It’s (anonymity) tempting. Does it create a false sense of security? What is the organization is about? An organization that does not operating to certain ideals in the offline world, online they have to be based in reality. We are proposing to do work with a company that is promoting the idea of the democratic workplace. They have models and theories and they want to start online discussion. There are plusses and minuses to the democratic workplace.

    Gonna rip through the rest of the presentation (clock ticking)

    Getting into an argument …saying if we oust Sadam Hussein it’s going to reduce terrorism and the others say increase and it goes around and around. You don’t’ want to spend time doing that. We’re in a loop and shoot for common ground. Sorting, looking for the exit point to looping conversations. Diplomacy, as we’re seeing, does not work all that great when it is relegated to national PR> What are the conversations that are really happening. People being diplomatic can lead to beating around the bush. Talk about the real stuff even if it is hard. You shouldn’t have to have to use diplomacy. Spit it out and say what you mean.

    Not getting Work Done
  • Diplomacy -- communications out of network
  • Politics and
  • Gaming and competition (winners and losers is not what getting work done is about. It’s about achieving and cooperating
  • Gratuitous complexity -- run in to it a lot. With intranet development. We’ve done this and this -- really good business for software consulting development, but it delays getting conversations done via email lists or simple discussion tools. A lot of companies are seeing people use IMs because they need it and it works

  • Reveal all motives
  • Agree on a vision
  • Share the floor (keep posts to reasonable length)
  • No praise, no blame (comes out of the communal era -- don’t heap praise on people all the time. When you praise one and others don’t get it, this creates difference much like blame. Keep even keep for appreciating and thanking for contributions. Don’t get excessive.
  • No free riders -- people should not benefit from a conversation if they don’t’ support it. Tom, we see 80% are readers but they benefit from it. IN an online health support community, they want to see what other people are saying. That is a different context. To solve something then they should all be contributing.
  • Hooray for progress -- praise the progress you have all made. Make sure everybody notes it to encourage continued participation.

  • What’s the best tool for online conversations?
  • I began with asynchronous message boards and certain features of these boards were key. You could always look up who people were. ON well you could always look up people. Have seen effective email lists, newsgroups, and today blogs are incredibly powerful, especially if Dave Weinberger, who was here earlier, is a model of how somebody who has attained credibility, a very good interesting entertaining writer, connected with other people and they quote and point -- has created this huge, expanded conversation. Blogs can be used by companies, CoPs, as a very powerful medium for linking in not only other peoples comments, but current information. I read Dave’s Blog like I read the NYTimes on the web. Sometimes he’s talking about his family, a convergence, an idea. He forms a core of a specialize conversation that’s happening across many areas. He’s an integrator. Serving as a great model. Bruce Sterling has his Viridian list about global warming. He calls himself the Pope of the list, sole publisher, but includes many people who are related and creates a distributed conversation. Our approach as we get more sophisticated we have a range of tools, skills and publishing models that are happening.
  • Q: I work for a national nonprofit and part of the charter is to create an online community, but there’s difficulty because there is a Federally project there tends to be a lot of moderator censoring. Difficult to get the free flowing conversations going. Before things are even put online. Self defeating situation
  • A: That’s the thing about getting funding. If part of the funding proposal does not specify that censorship is not part of the people, once people realize if they say something that crosses the power, then the funding disappears. You have to question how much you are going to accomplish. There’s a lot of power in open discussions.
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