Sunday, July 13, 2008

6/5 Morning: Peggy Holman and Open Space Technology

This post is more about organizers structured the JTM gathering, but there may be some lessons/insights for how we run our community websites.

Peggy Holman facilitated our sessions. She refers to her conference-organizing method as Open Space Technology. We're not talking hardware and software; rather, Open Space Technology is a method of getting conference participants to interact, contribute, and create.

Here's how it worked at JTM on Thursday:

After our opening sessions, there were three blocks of time but no speakers set on our program. We'd been asked prior to the gethering to think about sessions we ourselves would like to convene. Our sessions didn't have to take the form of, "I know a lot about X and want to tell everybody about it." We were invited to convene a session along the lines of, "I don't know jack about X, but I sure wish I did, so come talk with me about it." As Peggy said as she got us going, "Questions are invitations for others to join us."

So Thursday morning, Peggy set out a bunch of blank papers and markers and invited us to convene sessions by writing down a title, announcing it at the microphone, and then posting the title (and location—room, corner, general direction, etc.) on the wall in one of the time blocks. Then we could all look at the wall, decide which sessions we thought we could learn from and/or contribute to, and go.

Talk about a marketplace of ideas! (Peggy's webpage refers to a "marketplace of inquiry.")

Peggy didn't try to control the sessions, but she did lay out her four principles for Open Space Technology, which she said apply as much to conferences as to our online work:
  1. Whoever comes is the right people.
  2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could happen.
  3. When it starts is the right time.
  4. When it's over, it's over.
My interpretations:
  1. The people who show up are there because they are motivated to listen, to speak, to learn about what you posted as your title or mission. They're the people you want. Don't sweat trying to recruit everybody else; let them come as they wish.
  2. We can argue about predestination later; for now, let things evolve and happen. Don't sweat control.
  3. Don't be a slave to the clock (Peggy said this!). Folks might come in and out. They might be "late" because they were having a good conversation or just needed a donut or a break. Go with the flow, not the ticking of the clock.
  4. Ditto! If people are still engaged, stay engaged! If the conversation runs out, we've said all we need to say.
Peggy also presented the Law of Two Feet: Open Space meetings like this work when each participant walks with one foot of passion and one foot of responsibility to go where she/he wants to be. Passion here means going where you want to go (and that's where you should go). Responsibility means you don't go to or stay in a session for any other reason than your interest. If you find a session isn't interesting, isn't helping you, isn't something you can contribute to, don't just sit there; go! It's o.k. You have a responsibility to yourself and to your host not to simply take up space in a session.

Now this feels like high-wire stuff: it feels like Open Space Technology could so easily fall flat with certain groups, especially if they are expecting a nice passive lecture rather than a more interactive, participatory experience. But at JTM—holy cow! We had a roomful of people who've started blogs and websites, who want to connect. Zoom! Up went the titles, around the wall schedule we crowded, and off we went to these floating conversations. It looks like chaos, but then that's how self-organization works. Self-organization—that's a key term here!

Now think about how this applies to a community website:
  • You can't force people to participate, and you wouldn't want to.
  • You the website founder/manager can establish ground rules and contribute ideas, but let your community members start their own conversations, too. Ideas, conversation, and action will coalesce where there is true passion and responsibility.
  • You don't have to be the oracle. You don't want to be the oracle. Ask questions to invite others to participate, to lead.
Think a little more, and you can probably come up with other applications of Open Space Technology to community websites. I'm going to keep thinking about self-organization. (We are all fractals... ;-) )

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

6/5 Morning: John Nichols: "Be Online... Be Real"

John Nichols writes for The Nation and is an associate editor for the Madison (Wisconsin!) Capital Times, which gave up printing an afternoon daily this year and shifted to online news as its main product. He knows whereof he speaks with respect to journalism and the Internet, and he's fired up to tell us about it. Here's a lot of what he said:

"What we're doing now online is all about mistakes... massive mistakes." But, says Nichols, the mistake-makers will figure out the solutions we need. No one knows how to do online citizen journalism, so we all have to figure it out by doing, failing, fixing, and doing more.

"The people you are writing for are not consumers." (Gee, where have I heard that before?) It's an insult to call them that. The citizens-as-consumers mindset is killing the mainstream media.

"What you do will save American democracy." (No pressure there.)

Nichols tells us there is no such thing as "Big-J Journalism." A paycheck is a sign of union membership, not profession. He offers the simplest definition of journalist heard this week, the "only definition that matters":

journalist: somebody who gathers information and conveys it to others.

"Journalism ethics is a lie" that actually harms journalism. The corporate media dreamed up the concept in the early 20th century to justify its lies. Only personal ethics exist.

Print newspapers will be dead in 20 years. If we want to create successful replacements with online newspapers, here's what Nichols says we need to do:
  1. Make the digital presence primary. Print editions are cool, too, a nice safety net, but don't worry! People want online news. They'll come to it! With content, too, don't save up the good stuff for the print edition. Online readers deserve the big news, too.
  2. Produce that online news regularly. People want something as reliable and regular as the newspaper on their doorstep. Operate on a schedule: a successful online newspaper is not a hobby blog!
  3. Keep high standards.
  4. Report what's happening now, not what you thought of yesterday. Again, we're not just blogging: we're keeping people in touch with what's happening around town.
  5. Don't measure success by hits. Put down the SiteMeter: the mainstream media have gotten sucked into Nielsen ratings, market share, etc., and they're dying because of that focus. Instead (oh, this is going to be hard), measure success by how you influence the course of the days you live in.
"Be online, but don't be virtual. Be real."

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