OCTribe Unconference: Not Uncommunity, not at all

On Tuesday, May 21, Mountain View’s Computer History Museum was buzzing with a gathering of the leaders of many tribes.  People who think about online community in all its permutations had gathered to find out what we know and where these specialties are taking us and our communities.

Drawing from the popular emerging format called an “unconference” a group of 150 community management and related practitioners arrived to find themselves continuing a conversation that had last taken place three years ago in the Online Community Summits and Unconferences originally convened by Forum One.  Randy Farmer’s notion of a non-centralized “tribe” arising out of those gatherings was something I’d described at the time, here:  https://gailwilliams.wordpress.com/2009/06/18/are-we-atribe/   But more about the backstory later.

One of the great features of this kind of fluid gathering is the building of an agenda and a spread of small groups to explore whatever matters most to the participants.  Here is just one visual slice from the grand explosion of ideas and questions on the day’s board.  OCTribe2012 Unconference board

Another fabulous Unconference tradition is the distributed taking of notes and the group process that continues as the proceedings are documented on the web, something that is happening now over at the OCTribe site.

Thanks largely to ongoing presence of Susan Tenby’s Online Community Meetup based out of Tech Soup in San Francisco, members of the prior unconferences and prior gatherings of community managers such as Bill Johnston, Mark Williams, Scott Moore, Kaliya Identitywoman and Maria Ogneva were able to reconnect and make the event happen again.  If you may be interested next year, and you are in the area, that O. C. Tribe Meetup  is a good starting place for connecting with a wider community of community-builders.

Oh.  How was it?  It was amazing.  It was a room of brilliant practitioners and familiar faces.  A gathering of tribal leaders.

The WELL, going forward

WRITTEN — but not posted — IN THE SUMMER OF 2012, before the deal went down, saving The WELL Community.   I didn’t want to so anything that could be a distraction, so I decided not to post at the time, though I really needed to get busy finding work at that time.  Now, after about ten months, it’s a tidbit of history.  I am even doing some community operations and management consulting for the new owners of the grand old third place itself.  The beat goes on.

Yes, it’s true. I  am actively looking for new adventures… at least part of the time. I’ll rely on my friends to help me learn the exact right thing to do next.

Here’s the backstory.

I starting working at a subscription-supported dial-up forum site called The WELL in 1991, after almost two years of intense involvement in that place as a customer.  And did it ever feel like a place.  Sometimes it felt like a town with neighborhoods, and sometimes it felt like a grand old hotel with grand halls and many rooms.  This was a world entirely made of text, yet the feeling of being in a place was palpable. You were inside the book you were reading.

In general, people drifted from place to place freely, and might show up in more than one part of the hotel on a given session when I wandered through, talking about politics in one conference room, casually helping somebody figure out to add memory to a computer in another, trading side-splitting puns at the hotel bar, and making rash predictions about the future of human social networks around a grand old fireplace late in the evening. There were more parties going on in private rooms. Sometimes I’d hear from newcomers I didn’t know or participants I didn’t like, but they all used real names and acted like real people. My family and co-workers were not there, but could be if I helped them learn the complex command-line software that we all used to participate.

That’s already incredibly different than modern social sites.

But think of that interactive book as being written by people who could really paint a picture with words. Freelance writers and novelists and just good old story tellers.  Mixed in with plenty of articulate music fans and scientists and every flavor of impassioned geek and expert.  Think of a great place you could go and enjoy wonderful people, sometimes wretchedly argumentative and flawed in various grand ways to match their seeming brilliance, but on the whole engaged in a coversation just as good as the best late night group conversations you had in college, or wanted to have. With some great participants. Imagine talking about your taking your very sick pet to the vet, and getting sympathy from your favorite science fiction writer. All parts of you, personal, professional, intellectual… it seemed that all could thrive.

Now, the best thing is that the past tense is not appropriate.  You can go there now, and find the old hotel is still open.  This probably sounds odd to all those who learned about the layoffs in the news a few weeks ago. We were confident that the business was going swiftly to a new buyer, and the three of us who’d been laid off from the Communities department resolved that there would be no ripple of disruption in service until there was a new owner. My friends and colleagues Kathy Branstetter and Pete Hanson have shown extraordinary dedication on behalf of the community we love, and we are in the public record as mere numbers in a footnote to a filing, which seems sad after working as a team for so many years. Such is the world of filing SEC documents, it seems. Not like credits for the grand opera, expansive festival or convoluted movie that has been our time at The WELL. Kathy Branstetter and Pete Hanson: credit for understanding it was more than a job and making sure the place stayed alive, through personal sacrifice and deep caring over many years.

For various reasons I can’t say more than that. While things did not unfold as expected, there’s still hope. Here are some news stories that paint a reassuring picture.

NY Times reports on sale in progress based on SEC filing

USA Today with personal regret from reporter

The Atlantic on the historical role of The WELL.

A personal maybe-farewell from Jon Carroll of the SF Chronicle

The Guardian UK on the sale announcemtn

So what’s going on?

Everybody’s waiting to find out, but clearly there is resolve in the community to keep the place alive, even if the hotel had to be moved across town, or in the worst case, if the community had to gather in another building. Salon indicated in a filing that they were negotiating a sale. All the signs are aligned for a happy outcome. We all await word.

Over the last year I enjoyed overseeing four different Salon programs as Director of Communities, and was not devoting full time attention to The WELL any more. So it’s likely that the community group will decide to hire a community manager with less experience, or perhaps find a part time manager. For now I stand ready to help out as a consultant.  So many things need to be done.

I’ve got many other things I’d like to do, after twenty years of WELL management roles, so chances are that I will only consult as part of the transition. This means that I am going through the great letting go phase now.

But only so much grief and distancing makes sense. There’s no reason to doubt that the community will continue in some form, though we are all waiting for the details. I hope that I’ll be dropping in for good conversations as a guest this time, back in that grand and well-loved old hotel, going forward into the future.


Value and Community Behavior Metrics: “Behavior Stoppages?”

Bill Johnston poses an interesting OCTribe question — what is the monetary value to online community member participation and contribution? As we evolve metrics for member participation (watching participants rate, moderate, guide discussions, answer & Inspire, welcoming new members, etc.) it beomes natural to assign value to member contributions (As Bill suggest, “support forum posts, tutorials, reviews, feedback and ideas” etc.).

He speculates that if an organization were to make the valuations of member participation and contribution public, “it may set off a firestorm of debate about member compensation, legal boundaries around “volunteer opportunities”, and ultimately, forcing the host organization to account for true cost and true value of the activities and content created in their online community,” citing the famous  AOL volunteer moderator lawsuit and the estimates of the value of structured, assigned moderating of chat rooms.

His big question: “What is the arbitrage between social and financial capital?” I don’t have an answer, but I do have a further question. Even if all of the rewards are experiential, and nothing looks like compensation, could an organized community that knows about metrics and valuation of a business do a “behavior stoppage” of desired activities as protest against a company action? Valuing behavior like work could extend the work metaphor in directions beyond the company’s valuation. “Interesting” organized group dynamics are possible too.

This is a replay to his Online Community Tribe discussion topic call… a loose association of blog posts for the 2nd and 4th Tuesday. See Bill’s blog for links to other Online Community practitioner’s thoughts on this issue.

Note: This post is part of the OC Tribe series. Each 2nd Tuesday and 4th Tuesday of the month, online community practitioners will be encouraged to explore a particular topic via blog, video blog, twitter, or whatever suites your fancy. The recap will be hosted on the site of another one of the bloggers in the loosely defined OCTribe group. This ad-hoc group (movement?) is just starting up, so please join in! #octribe

Online Community Tribe round-up

Standing out in the crowd, from my Flickrstream.

Posts on Online Community Tribe “writing assignment,” for Tuesday, July 14, the second Tuesday this month. Focus on Influence.

Will add in any article or post that is requested to be part of today’s set.  (Just post your link here, tag #octribe or tweet @wellgail)

The initial question:

What are the top three things you do or wish you could do for your community “influencers”?

(Define community any way you please — a group of peers, customers, people with similar interests, people using a communications platform, etc. Define “do for” as you wish — support, create a tool, inspire, learn more about, etc.)  Added angles to explore:  Who in your communities is an influencer of others?  As a facilitator, moderator or community manager, how do you work with the most influential people in your network? As a designer, how would you accommodate the opinion leaders? Got three top tips for rewarding these valued members of a group?

The round up so far, on this initial topic:

Bill Johnston recaps valuable research from the Online Research Network on the state of  Community Influencer Programs with useful real-world examples.

Gam Dias writes about Influencers – and defining yours.!

Me with a recap of  the rise and fall of the Influencer concept, and the value of seeing this in the context of attention.

This post is part of the OC Tribe series. Each 2nd Tuesday and 4th Tuesday of the month, online community practitioners will be encouraged to explore a particular topic via blog, video blog, twitter, or whatever suites your fancy. The recap will be hosted on the site of another one of the bloggers in the loosely defined OCTribe group. This ad-hoc group (movement?) is just starting up, so please join in!

Next host will be Bill Johnston for July 28…  See his link  above.  He’ll base the next assignment  on ideas from this article from Forbes:

Appreciating people who reach out: influencers revisited

3 five year olds, originally posted to my Flickr photostream.


About a year and a half ago, “The Tipping Point” got toppled (or at least wobbled) when Duncan Watts challenged the popular concept of powerful Influencers who determine the adoption of trends.

The commentary in response to this heresy was great — one of my favorite exchanges was where a member of a well-known formal influencer program — a Microsoft MVP — replies to Sean O’Driscol, long time leader of that program at Microsoft. I loved this comment in the replies to Sean’s post: “Maybe it’s down to being British but I don’t like being labelled as an influentials/mavens/advocates. Expert isn’t so bad … and Enthusiast is pretty much how I feel about myself… As soon as the 10% is highlighted in some way you have two dangers; 1) their standing as independent in the community is affected … and 2) the way they are treated by the “products” they are enthusiastic about changes.”

I’ve seen this before, in years past at The WELL: “I’m doing this here for free because I want to participate – don’t patronize me.”

Yet anybody who works in online community knows some people do add tremendous value. We know it intuitively, and we have seen it mapped statistically. (Check out slide number 13 in this sequence for an example where Marc Smith’s math identifies desired behavior by individuals in a peer technical help group.)

Now that we are in the year that everybody knows about Twitter, one of the simplest tools mass numbers of people have been able to play with, we seem to be back to a world where we want to count our importance by tallying up a group who are artfully labeled “followers.”

People are putting a good deal of effort into deciding how to count … for example, carefully comparing influential science-content twitter feeds … and into deciding how to display the counts and secondary calculations as a business venture… here’s another one, called “Twinfluence”.

Most of these counts seem to still be thinking in broadcast mode. From years in an online community where actual human influence is much more complex and much less linear, this looks simultaneously like going backwards and like picking up the thread of wanting to see how continuity, attention, context and meaning are developed in a group. One thing that I wonder about in the attempts to quantify Twitter impact is the dilution created by a follower who has your twitter feed mixed into a mighty stream of hundreds followed, versus one who follows a dozen carefully chosen twitter feeds.  I guess I always come back to the power of familiarity and context.

What can we give to those who are providing community connective tissue? I wish we could give ever-improving tools, though in my work we can’t move as swiftly as we’d like to. I wish we could pay a living wage for being part of a community and being fabulous, but that dedication has to be its own reward. It’s neither appropriate or desirable to give money or significant barter items because of tax and labor laws, as AOL learned back in the last century, and as gift economy research has shown. Realistically, in my world, working at Salon.com and specifically with Table Talk and The WELL, the one gift I can give is the genuinely valuable gift of human attention, and of being present. It doesn’t scale very well, though. There’s no simple solution for giving people the attention they deserve. There are times when a nice form thank you letter is appropriate, so long as the mass communication doesn’t have any whiff of spam or propaganda about it. (After all, moden citizens understand that a press conference is all one can realistically expect from a busy government official, for example.) As a rule of thumb the attention has to be unplanned, human and authentic, within the community or privately one to one. But in these online social contexts, at least some of the time, the information we get back when giving that respectful attention has a more profound value than in any other environment.

After all, we do say it’s conversation.


Round-up of OCTribe posts on this topic.

OCTribe call: On Influencers, tomorrow!

Who are the “stars” in your communities, the ones others watch and trust?

Online Community tribe:  Who in your communities is an influencer of others?  As a facilitator, moderator or community manager, how do you work with the most influential people in your network? As a designer, how would you accommodate the opinion leaders? Got three top tips for rewarding these valued members of a group?

Write something tomorrow,  tag it octribe or tweet it as #octribe, and be linked from the recap page.  Each 2nd Tuesday and 4th Tuesday of the month, the call and the recap will be hosted on the site of another one of the bloggers in the loosely defined OCTribe group. This conversational project is just starting, so please join in. More about this tomorrow, July 14th!

Are we a tribe?

Several weeks ago I met with Bill Johnston, Randy Farmer and Kaliya Hamlin in preparation forlast week’s  Online Community Unconference, dubbed #ocu2009 this time around. I have loved the series of gatherings convened by Forum One, (and their powerful and practical affilated group, the Online Community Research Network), and for me they have always been a loose circle of respected social tools designers, subversive online community trend-steerers, researchers, and other online community specialists and practitioners.

Randy posed the big questions. He used the term “tribe” in the sense Seth Godin uses it. Are we — the people who attend and follow those events — a tribe? If so, do we exist outside of those structures? What do we need for our community of people who tend to the many needs of online communities?

It was a juicy idea. People have been trying to figure out the format for loose connections among “the community sector” for some time, and we are getting to where that makes some logical sense to take action. On the other hand, people have tried to create gathering places before. We mentioned some interesting groups like Social Media Club, Community Roundtable (an East Coast originated initiative unrelated to Bill Johnston’s similarlly named events), Bill Johnston’s invitational Online Community Roundtable meetups, and other groups that have formed around people such as Nancy White and Jerry Michalski who are part of the loose Online Community Unconference orbit. Was there something that we could do that built upon the Forum One events and their research projects, but expanded it and made a non-centralized continuing focus?

Problem was, Randy couldn’t attend the Unconference. I offered to pose the question, however, and to get a co-convener for that session. Scott Moore was the one I had in mind, and I spoke to him the evening before.

Scott suggested that perhaps the umbrella is already being created as the peer network called the Community Roundtable. They have a gorgeous peer support site and are as close to a Professional Organization as we have so far.

Still, there is room for other levels of organizational complexity or lack thereof, something that does not compete with membership organizations but might extend beyond them.
The proposal I floated was for a monthly call to blog, write an essay, make a video, or otherwise do something in longer form than a tweetup. Free and expand upon some of the rich material that comes from these events. Surface themes and concerns. Take the opportunity to be considered and thoughtful.

These kinds of calls for commentary have been called “circus” or “carnival” calls for content on a theme before. There are various centralized approaches to them. Here’s an account of making that model work.

If somebody wants to play with that I’d enjoy hearing about it. But I have something more lightweight in mind, if we can make it fly. There are two parts.

First, let’s use #octribe as a tag for short and one-off communiques. Wherever we want to use it. You are invited. If this, or something like it, comes into being we have a way to be an open movement that can encompass other organizations and events that are of interest to our broader tribe.

Second, I want to propose an Online Community Tribal “open invitational.” The name is to be imagined.  The action is a second Tuesday call to write something on a theme, in a monthly exchange of blog or forum posts, wiki articles, white papers, slide shows or other longer-form contemplations on issues and opportunities in the online community sector (hey, I like “tribe” more and more!)

Here is an extension of one of the questions that was posed at one session I attended at OCU2009, and a them for the first OCTribe monthly post:

What are the top three things you do or wish you could do for your community “influencers”? (Define community any way you please — a group of peers, customers, people with similar interests, people using a communications platform, etc. Define “do for” as you wish — support, create a tool, inspire, learn more about, etc.) Why top three instead of top ten? so we can talk about each in a little more depth. What if I can’t think of three? Write about one, or two.

Deadline: The idea here is to have time to reflect and get something that is longer and richer than a tweet, and to read similar and contrasting ideas. Once a month is a good pace, and it’s easiest to choose the Nth weekday of some sort. Provisionally I’d like to call Second Tuesday for this, but all of this is open to evolutionary forces. For July and August, let’s set July 14 and August 10. Posts, articles, etc are to go up on that calendar day where you are. [Upon edit: since changed to be second AND fourth Tuesdays, to better keep momentum!]

Can this be done without a centralized index? I know it can.  There is a model in the craft brewing community called “The Session”. Here are a few pages that show The Session in action:

Announcing a session about holiday beers.

The round-up when all the session posts go up about a month later

That community of craft beer connoisseur bloggers is a passionate niche community, and they are able to self-organize. Somebody eventually compiled an index, but the structure is loose, and the community does not submit through a form. The participants casually and effortlessly aggregate their thoughts.

So, two items, in review: if you want to play in the tag game, just use #octribe for as an umbrella tag for our community.  You can also pair it with a conference or meeting hash tag once or twice, to clue people in that you are at a conference that is related to the interests of this tribe.

If you want to participate in the longer form on the 2nd/4th Tuesday, the first question for you to explore is What are the top three things you do or wish you could do for your community “influencers”?

On the 2nd Tuesday, come back to the initiating page, here, and post your link to your piece in the comments.  Then on the following day I will get to do a roundup post commenting on all the linked pieces. That post would include the link to the next call to action, for the next set of posts, on the site of another member of the tribe.  (Feel free to volunteer and select a month to host, right here in the comments notes.)  Let’s see what the Online Community tribe can inspire in one another.

Beer, community and online social networks

Dots connecting, worlds colliding

I’ve always been fond of walls, doors and other useful boundaries for conversation. It’s nice to have the ability to make subgroups of the populace, and to stay more or less on a topic as you choose.

That limitation pays off when it gives you some idea of who else is “in the room,” for context and shared vocabulary. Last year at the Online Community Unconference I was discussing Twitter with some social networking geeks and gurus who asked me why I was not using the now-famous microblogging site more. I said, “I recently took an exam to become a beer judge, and I want to talk with my new expert brewing and beer-tasting friends about things like flavors in relation to strains of yeast. I don’t want to drop that kind of geeky obscurity into the stream for my pals from The WELL community, for my professional colleagues like you guys, for people I care about who don’t drink or for my obsessed photography geek buddies with their own specialized lingo.”

Sadly, there’s not a ton of general interest in the strains of Bretanomyces and other “wild” yeasts except on a beer networking site, nor about how to reduce visual “noise” in long digital exposures except for places photographers hang out, such as the Photo conference within The WELL or in groups and photostreams on Flickr. These are not communication-technology preferences, they are context preferences, to reduce the chance of boring or annoying anybody.

Frankly, I think older pre-web social software did some of these things better than Twitter and Facebook do now, and that some of the best ideas and mashups to come will look familiar to some online pioneers.

However, today I am connecting a lot of the dots and tossing them into the mixed-metaphor stream. Hopefully happy chaos!

I met Brian Yeager, an enthusiastic craft-beer blogger and author of Red, White and Brew, at least a few times before and during the delightfully ad hoc and vibrant beer-community-driven SF Beer Week 2009. That week he did a reading for my pals in the Mad Zymurgists homebrew club, who I’ve collaborated with in producing beer tasting and evaluation events.

One of the things that we do at The WELL, the classic old-skool online community where I’ve worked for seventeen years now, is two-week author “interview” conversations that (unlike most of the site) can be read by anybody. These leisurely asynchronous talks feature authors who are active WELL members, as well as some invited by community members. I seldom suggest authors to the team of hosts who put the events together, but hearing good things about Red, White and Brew, I decided this could be a good time to mix channels!

So Brian started his Inkwell conversation today! His book is wonderfully readable, about brewers and brewing families in the midst of this gentle and delicious revolution, and it is an interesting picture of America whether or not the beer renaissance matters to you at all.  The permanent archive will live here:   Brian Yaeger’s Red-White-and-Brew discussion, on The WELL

Reminders are sprinkled around The WELL, I’m tweeting and facebooking, posting at Open Salon, etc.   So I am repeating myself in the eyes of anybody who actually reads a lot of my stuff.  That can’t be good.  There are real complexities of mixing too many of your specific interests in general feeds or contexts. I’ll give this a try during May 2009, and see if it is a better approach.  If not, I’ll move (most) all of the beer conversation back to BeerbyBART.com again. (Be sure to tell me if I bore you to tears — don’t just forget me!)

Online Community Summit, flocking to Sonoma

Four years ago I photographed these waves of birds at OCS 2004… and now I’m back for 2008. The morning session is non-profits and social software for good… currently Joshua Gay of the Free Software Foundation and Lisa Petrides of ISKME are leading a discussion about education and open source.

In 2004 we had a powerful IRC backchannel discussion. Powerfully distracting too! At the last few Forum One events I’ve attended there has been a shift to Twitter. So I’ll be delving back into twitterworld.

My gripe about twitter is that it does not support groups and subgroups within my stream.

So this will be odd. My Online Community pro pals talking platforms and social strategies, my craft beer pals at GABF talking beer competition, my photo pals talking lenses and curves and printing papers, political pals talking local and national election, oh, and my own YouTube political satire collaboration… all the different conversations ridiculously poured into one. Here goes, back into the narrows:


Exciting unconference for online community pros

The best get-togethers for online community professionals are hosted by Forum One. Their sold-out summer 2008 Online Community Unconference was just held at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. This year the demand was huge, and the percentage of participants from major institutions was up, too. I didn’t present at this one. I wanted to soak it all in.  I dropped in on some great sessions and sorely wished I ‘d gotten around to others, such as Jake McKee’s sections.
community manager brainstorm - worst case scenarios

I’m interested in best practices, all kinds of group behavior and tool-design patterns and also in pitfalls and worst case scenarios. I jumped in to session on what happens when things go terribly wrong from Heather Champ of Flickr and Derek Powazek of the edgy and elegant magazine, Fray. The discussion led to a list of things to remember in the midst of conflict. The items on this big list vary in applicability, based on the culture of a community … and can that ever be different!

My suggestion for the list was to try to let all parties have a way to save face in a dispute. This is one of the ways to do what Derek had advised: avoid creating motivated super-villains. Or noble martyrs, as they may feel if they do not think they were very villainous. I think that in most cases respect and the ritual conveyance of respect through good manners are key in resolving these matters. Even if expulsion is the resolution, there are advantages to having the exiled member accept that they won’t continue to have access to the gathering place for the group. While being all casual with peers works just fine in the good times, courtesy becomes bizarrely important when relations are stressed. That’s just one reminder I sometimes need! Continue reading “Exciting unconference for online community pros”