Online Community Summit: Marc Smith

I spent last Thursday and Friday at the Online Community Summit in Sonoma, California. Forum One, which organizes the event, brought together a fantastic group of folks — about 60 people, including corporate and grassroot community facilitators, foundations, venture capitalists, consultants, and researchers. Zack Rosen joked that he wanted to come to this gathering, because he always sees the same people at the other events he attends, and he didn’t recognize anybody at this one. I saw several familiar faces — Zack, Tony Christopher (who informed me of the event), Jerry Michalski, Jan Hauser, Paul King, Thomas Kriese, and others — and recognized the names of several other attendees, but most of the group were new to me.    (2E1)

I enjoyed meeting and talking with Marc Smith, whose work I’ve blogged on multiple occasions, and who kicked off the day by giving a fantastic overview of the work he’s doing at Microsoft. Marc is doing very, very good stuff, and I’m not just saying that because it overlaps with some of our own work and thinking.    (2E2)

NetScan performs a variety of data analysis on USENET newsgroups based entirely on postings, and presents those metrics in useful ways. A lot of the innovation is in the visualization (see his slides for examples), and the visualization software is freely available. Some key points:    (2E3)

  • About two percent of the 13 million USENET users post three or more days a year. That doesn’t sound like much, but it works out to a quarter of a million people.    (2E4)
  • Support communities need about 40 active posters to be sustainable.    (2E5)
  • The metrics you expect depend on the type of newsgroup. The alt.binaries.* newsgroups have lots of posts, lots of posters, and very short threads. Metrics describe the interaction, but to place a value judgement on these metrics, you need to combine them with qualitative analysis.    (2E6)
  • Marc posed a bunch of metrics to look for in a healthy community: retention of leaders, interaction, size and growth, topical focus, speed, and host participation.    (2E7)

I am amazed that more people have not done this kind of research. The opportunity for evolving our applications in useful ways is tremendous. As Marc sardonically stated, “There’s a little room for conversation in our UIs.” Marc showed a few possible directions in which to evolve UIs, but whether or not these features will show up in future applications remains to be seen. There’s a tremendous opportunity for Open Source developers to study this research and implement its findings in their own applications.    (2E8)

Marc also described Project A U R A, which I blogged about a year ago.    (2E9)

Blue Oxen and the Commons

There’s a fascinating discussion going on in the GivingSpace collaboratory about the commons, instigated by Phil Cubeta. Since that discussion is really focused on the Omidyar Network, I thought I’d throw in my two cents by describing how I see the Blue Oxen Collaboratories fitting into this discussion.    (2DK)

We currently host 22 alpha collaboratories, some of which are private spaces for organizations. The vast majority of them are public, however, and we encourage all of our groups to have public spaces. In fact, we will probably mandate that all of our organizational members have at least some public space in order to use our infrastructure.    (2DL)

We have not yet explicitly licensed the content of those discussions. It’s not an easy problem, although I suspect one of the Creative Commons licenses will work. However, we do know what principles we want the license to espouse:    (2DM)

  • You own your own words.    (2DN)
  • You’re speaking in public, so react accordingly.    (2DO)

Blue Oxen is interested in open discourse, the free exchange of ideas, and most importantly, collective learning. We’re not interested in demanding royalties from someone else’s idea, just because that idea was formulated in our space. We’re interested in facilitating a better ecosystem, and we’re betting that we will benefit far more from a better ecosystem than we would by making claims on other people’s IP.    (2DP)

“Facilitating the ecosystem” is something people hear me say often. It’s why all of our research is available under a Creative Commons license, and why all of our software is developed as Open Source. It’s why we emphasize interoperability with our tools, and why we’re doing our best to make it easy to export content from our collaboratories over to other sites. Our goal is to improve collaboration, and a policy of openness enables us to do that.    (2DQ)

All that said, it’s not as simple or as easy as it sounds. For example, what do you do about requests to remove content from a Wiki or one of our mailing list archives? (We discussed this issue a few months ago at the Collaboration Collaboratory.) Also, what about governance? Our collaboratories are not the commons. Although we try to be as open as possible, I’m not inclined (as of yet) to make the space entirely self-governing. That said, because our tools are Open Source and because we share our knowledge openly, people have the flexibility to create a self-governing commons using our tools and knowledge. In this way, we’re supporting the creation of commons. Again, it’s all about the ecosystem.    (2DR)

There’s also the question of sustainability. We’ve obviously closed off potential sources of revenue by being as open as we have. I strongly believe that we can not only sustain ourselves. We haven’t proven that yet, but I’m confident that we will soon enough.    (2DS)

Blue Oxen Collaboratories Blog

The Blue Oxen collaboratories now have a sitewide blog. There, you’ll find highlights and links to pertinent conversations about collaboration and communities that occur throughout our network of collaboratories. It’s a way of capturing some of the rich content on our network and sharing it with the rest of the blogosphere, while hopefully bringing feedback from the blogosphere back into our collaboratories.    (2C2)

Self-Organizing Collaboration at the World Trade Center Ruins

In early 2003, I had lunch with Richard Gabriel for the first time, and I explained to him my desire to uncover common collaborative patterns across different disciplines, starting with Open Source communities. Richard recommended that I read William Langewiesche‘s American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center, a book that described the dismantling of the ruins and the self-organizing process that emerged.    (2AW)

Over a year later, I finally got around to following Richard’s advice, and I’m glad that I did. Langewiesche’s book is a gripping, thoughtful account of what happened at the World Trade Center site immediately following 9/11.    (2AX)

Langewiesche first set the stage by vividly describing the challenge:    (2AY)

The weight alone defied imagination. What does a chaos of 1.5 million tons really mean? What does it even look like? The scene up close was so large that no one quite knew. In other countries clear answers would have been sought before action was taken. Learned communities would have been formed, and high authorities consulted. The ruins would have been pondered, and a tightly scripted response would have been imposed. Barring that, soldiers would have assumed control. But for whatever reasons, probably cultural, probably profound, little of the sort happened here, where the learned committees were excluded, and the soldiers were relegated to the unhappy role of guarding the perimeter, and civilians in heavy machines simply rolled in and took on the unknown. (12)    (2AZ)

The defiance of conventional process is a theme that Langewiesche returns to over and over again. The raw scale and emotion of the circumstances both required and made it possible for things to be handled differently. Traditional hierarchies broke down. The ability to act and to improvise trumped organizational charts. As a result, people from the “lowly” ranks, such as firemen and laborers, gained power and influence. (9-11) Leaders emerged from a group of people who arrived on scene and simply started doing things. No one told them what they had to do, and no one told them what they couldn’t do. (89, 94) Agility ruled.    (2B0)

A great example of a leader who emerged and the strategy for action he employed was Mike Burton, a top official at the Department of Design and Construction (DDC).    (2B1)

When he [Mike Burton] roamed the pile, as he did twice each day and once again at night, he seemed to accept the disorder there as being in the nature of an energetic response. Rather than hunting out infractions or putting a stop to unauthorized work, as a less confident ruler might have done, he watched for what he called “dead real estate” — unexpectedly quiet ground that resulted from supply-line breakdowns, trucking gridlock, or simple miscommunication between crews that worked the day shift and those that worked the night. (171)    (2B2)

This was by no means a volunteer effort. After the first few days, the only volunteers on site were the Salvation Army and Red Cross, who fed the workers. (180) Not only was there money available, there was a lot of money available, and the contractors involved were well compensated. This later led to accusations over motivation, but Langewiesche stresses that money was an enabler, not the primary motivation for those who worked the site. (9-11, 89)    (2B3)

While the circumstances at the World Trade Center site enabled a powerful new form of organization to emerge, it also caused some unusual problems. On the one hand, the strong stake people felt they had in the recovery process created a tremendous amount of Shared Motivation. On the other hand, it also resulted in jealousy over “ownership” of the process and territorialism between the police, the fire department, and the DDC. (69)    (2B4)

In addition to being a compelling story, American Ground is also a primer in self-organization and collaboration. Some key points:    (2B5)

  • Self-organization does not mean no organization. The process that emerged at the World Trade Center was hierarchical, and the roles were fairly well defined. What was different was that the process and the roles emerged, they were not imposed. Langewiesche wrote, “Later it seemed that one of the smartest was a back-room decision to scrap the organization charts, to finesse the city’s own Office of Emergency Management (OEM), and to allow the DDC to proceed. The federal government was poised to intervene, but agreed to hold off, and then to hold off again.” (66)    (2B6)
  • Intense, shared commitment is a powerful motivator, and as such, it has the potential to transcend many common obstacles. In reality, it takes intensely emotional circumstances to generate such a Shared Motivation, circumstances that are rare. As the job neared completion, traditional bureaucracy naturally asserted itself at the site. (198) That said, the recovery process clearly demonstrated that our assumptions about what motivates people and how things get done are not always right. The most important lesson is that the power of human fulfillment is a much stronger motivation than money.    (2B7)