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December 22, 2003 » 11:35 am

A Walk with Howard Rheingold: Collaboration as Craft

I had the great pleasure of walking and talking with Howard Rheingold last Thursday. Howard lives in Mill Valley, a few blocks away from some of the many trailheads leading up to Mount Tamalpais. We had exchanged emails a few times and had met briefly after his talk at Stanford in October. I had invited him to coffee, and he suggested a brief hike instead, which I gladly accepted.    (MG)

Winter is one of the best times to go hiking in the Bay Area. We started walking around 4pm as the sun was beginning to set. The sky was a deep blue with a solitary streak of clouds overhead, and the air was cool and crisp. We walked about a mile to the top of a hill, where a rock formation seemed to form a natural bench around the crest. Looking north, we could see the peak of Mt. Tam. To our west were neighboring hills and the Pacific Ocean. To our east was a beautiful view of Mill Valley, where the city lights were beginning to come on. All of this served as a vivid reminder that I had, as usual, forgotten to bring my camera.    (MH)

Nevertheless, I was there to talk, and talk we did. One topic that came up — and a key reason for wanting to talk to Howard in the first place — was my desire to see the emergence of collaboration and community-building as a discipline, a widely acknowledged craft.    (MI)

People sometimes ask me what I know about collaboration that other people don’t. My response: Nothing. The reality is the reverse. There are many, many people in the world today who know significantly more than I or anyone else associated with Blue Oxen Associates about collaboration.    (MJ)

The problem is that this knowledge is scattered around the globe in isolated pockets. These folks all speak different languages — not just English versus French versus Korean, but also geekspeak versus Wall Street versus academia. Even when they know about each other, they can’t always talk to each other.    (MK)

Even worse, there is no group memory. Narrow the field to online communities. A lot of folks in the field have heard of Howard. How many people know what he’s accomplished beyond his excellent books? How many people have heard of the WELL? How many people know who founded the WELL? Going further back, how many people have heard of PLATO? Most importantly, how many people can cite lessons learned from the WELL or PLATO? Online communities have been around for decades. How many people can trace the lessons learned from these different communities over time?    (ML)

Howard told me that one fellow — perhaps one of the most knowledgable people in the field of online communities, with the credentials to match, and someone whom I’ve admired from afar — is working in retail right now to make ends meet. There’s no shame in working in retail, especially when times are tough like they are right now. Nevertheless, this strikes me as the worst kind of cosmic joke. Venture capitalists are spending millions of dollars on fast-talking entrepreneurs selling Social Software, trying to figure out how to make this stuff work (and profitable). There’s someone out there with decades of experience to share, someone who can undoubtedly help make these efforts successful. And yet, he’s currently working in a strip mall, addressing the needs of last-minute Christmas shoppers.    (MM)

Who’s at fault? You can say that this person — for all his skills — is poor at marketing himself. You can say that companies are short-sighted, and that they don’t understand what they need or how this person can help. There’s probably some truth to both of these statements. But, it’s still a travesty. This guy should be a hero to everyone claiming to be in the business of collaboration.    (MN)

That’s the crux of the matter. This is a field that is in desperate need of self-awareness. If we in the business truly want to improve, we need to be aware of our history and our heroes.    (MO)

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One Response to “A Walk with Howard Rheingold: Collaboration as Craft”

  1. Sounds like just the kind of person we are looking for

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