On The Clock Goofiness

At the workshop earlier this week, one woman raised concerns over whether blogging about one’s personal life at work could be considered wasting tax payer’s money. This question isn’t just limited to the government. Many companies ask similar questions about similar tools. For example, a lot of companies were reluctant to adopt IM, because they were afraid that employees would spend all their time gabbing online.    (L93)

There are three problems with this kind of thinking. First, if you’re going to waste time gabbing at work, you don’t need IM. You’ve got water coolers, cubicles, copiers, lobbies, and lunchrooms. Options for wasting time abound.    (L94)

Second, banning a tool prevents you from using it for good or for ill. You have to be rigorous in measuring tradeoffs. In the case of IM, which had legitimate business uses, people’s response to not having access to it was to download freely available software and route around the company firewall.    (L95)

Third, Taylorism is so 1911. We are people, not machines, and people sometimes need to do things like call home from work (which up until relatively recently, government employees were not allowed to do). In fact, encouraging people to feel human can even be productive! Imagine that!    (L96)

This issue came up in response to an observation I made about the importance of play. Play is critical for effective learning, and yet, it can be hard to justify play, especially to the outside world, when your job is to protect national security.    (L97)

Mark Oehlert had a wonderful response to this. There are apparently two words for “play” in German. (I know one is “Spiel.” Can someone tell me the other?) One meaning of “play” describes the looseness that allows a wheel to turn. If there isn’t enough play, the wheel won’t turn. This latter meaning of play can be easier to rationalize in the workplace.    (L98)

We panelists were slightly guilty of playing on the job. The Backchannel (strictly classified) had me cracking up more than once during the discussion. (Did you know that David Weinberger used to write for Woody Allen?) And while this was not a classified event, they asked us not to take pictures of people. This is how we chose to comply:    (L99)

https://i0.wp.com/static.flickr.com/96/254460622_c0281d6488_m.jpg?w=700 https://i0.wp.com/static.flickr.com/86/254460656_2087b466d1_m.jpg?w=700    (L9A)

(Photos courtesy of Jay Cross. Clay, we’re missing you. Please correct this!)    (L9B)

By the way, I agree with everything Marcia says.    (L9C)

BAR Camp 2005 Redux

Thoughts on BAR Camp. Yeah, yeah, a little late, I know. Less late than the rest of my Wikimania notes, though.    (JQX)

Many Hats    (JQY)

The most bizarre experience for me at BAR Camp was the number of people I knew from different worlds. My brain was constantly context-switching. It made me painfully aware of the number of different hats I wear, all in the name of Blue Oxen Associates.    (JQZ)

  • Purple Numbers guy.    (JR0)
  • Wiki geek.    (JR1)
  • Identity Commons contributor.    (JR2)
  • Doug Engelbart translator.    (JR3)
  • Usability guy!!! Obviously because of the sprints I’ve organized, but awkward for me, since I have no actual background in usability.    (JR4)
  • Pattern Language hat. I’ve been doing the collaboration Pattern Language dog-and-pony show the past few months, and some folks who’ve heard me speak on the subject were there. I’ll be doing a lot more of it too, so stay tuned. Patterns are damn important, useful, and interesting.    (JR5)
  • Facilitation / event organizer hat.    (JR6)
  • Nonprofit hat. The lack of nonprofit contingent was disappointing, but I had a good conversation with Ho John Lee, who’s done some great work in that space. (We were also both wearing our Korean hats, along with Min Jung Kim, a rarity at events like these.) I also met Phil Klein, a nonprofit guy who also participated in our usability sprint the following week.    (JR7)
  • Ex-DDJ hat. Some fogies, young and old, remembered me from my magazine days.    (JR8)

All this was testament both to my ADD and to the job Chris Messina, Andy Smith, and the other organizers did in only one week. Three hundred people walked through the doors over the weekend. Amazing.    (JR9)

Talks    (JRA)

The best part of the event was strengthening familiar ties and building new ones. I met lots of great people, including folks I’d only known on the ‘net. I wasn’t blown away by the talks for the most part, but some stood out.    (JRB)

  • Ka-Ping Yee did two talks, one on voting methods and another on phishing. Sadly, I only caught the tail end of the latter, but the Wiki page is fairly complete. I’ve never seen Ping do anything that I didn’t find interesting or, in many cases, profound, and these talks were no exception. (I’ll have more to say on Ping’s latest work in a later blog post.)    (JRC)
  • Xiong Changnian presented some interesting quantitative analysis of the Wikipedia community. I didn’t have as much of an opportunity to talk with Xiong as I’d like, but for those of you who have interacted with him, try not to be turned off by his bluster. He’s doing some good work, and he seems to mean well.    (JRD)
  • Rashmi Sinha and I did a roundtable on Open Source usability on the first night. Afterwards, we both agreed that we didn’t learn much new, but simply having the conversation and especially listening to a new audience was valuable. One unintended outcome: A participant (who shall remain nameless, but not unlinked!) complained about Socialtext‘s usability, which I dutifully reported on the Wiki. Adina Levin and Ross Mayfield quickly responded, saying they’re looking to hire a usability person. If you’re in the market, let them know.    (JRE)

I was so busy chatting with people, I also ended up missing a bunch of good talks: Rashmi’s tagging session, Rowan Nairn on structured data for the masses, and Tom Conrad‘s Pandora talk, which seemed to generate the most buzz at the camp.    (JRF)

Throwing Great Events    (JRG)

I toyed with the idea of doing a techie session, but in the end, the talk I should have done was one on patterns and throwing great events. BAR Camp was great, and as with all great collaborative events, there were some common patterns:    (JRH)

  • Food. One of the most critical and, amazingly, most overlooked element in an event. Lots of credit goes to Kitt Hodsden, who made sure there were enough snacks to feed a small country, and the sponsors, who kept the beer flowing and underwrote the party on Saturday night.    (JRI)
  • Introduce Yourself. The organizers borrowed the FOO Camp tradition of saying your name and three words to describe yourself, and they did it each day.    (JRJ)
  • Shared Display and Report Out. Folks did a great job of documenting on the Wiki and on their blogs and Flickr. BAR Camp owned the foobar Flickr fight.    (JRK)
  • Backchannel. I’m not a big fan of IRC at face-to-face events, and there were definitely times when I thought it detracted from the face-to-face interactions. But, it was there, and it was useful. It wasn’t logged, though.    (JRL)
  • Permission To Participate. Lots of Open Space techniques were present — again, borrowed from FOO Camp — like the butcher paper for scheduling sessions. Lots of this was also cultural, though. I think this is the hardest thing for folks who do not live in the Silicon Valley to get — the spirit of sharing that comes so naturally to folks here.    (JRM)

I’d do two things differently at the next event:    (JRN)

  • Incorporate a ritual for new attendees to make them feel welcome and to avoid clique-formation.    (JRO)
  • Add slightly more structure. Now that the organizers have done it once, they can use it as a template for the next event — for example, publishing the time slots ahead of time, and actually enforcing them, at least as far as room usage is concerned. Also, I like scheduled Report Out sessions.    (JRP)

In the postmortem, we talked a bit about what BAR Camp is supposed to be, and I really liked how Chris positioned it: As a model for organizing grassroots, free (or very cheap) alternatives to more expensive gatherings. I’m toying with the idea of incorporating BAR Camp-style alternatives to complement some non-free events I’m organizing.    (JRQ)

Online Community Summit: Friday’s Sessions

Notable talks and comments at last Friday’s sessions at the Online Community Summit:    (2F4)

  • Soren Kaplan described iCohere’s work with World Vision, a billion dollar nonprofit with 20,000 employees worldwide. There was an online collaborative process leading up to a conference, using iCohere‘s software.    (2F5)
  • Dave DeForest discussed the online communities at the Motley Fool. There’s a 40:1 read-write ratio on their bulletin boards. The Fool’s strategy for monetizing the communities was to get the readers to pay, and to comp the writers. The comping process is transparent in that participants know that some people are being comped, but the actual process for comping people is not concrete. When the Fool went to a pay model, it had a 90 percent attrition rate. 73 percent of its community participants are also likely to perform another transaction on the Fool.    (2F6)
  • Mark Williams discussed Apple’s support forums. Right now, he’s handling everything — management, development, etc. His managers tell him that the objective is to reduce phone volume, but he sees the two audiences as separate. Robert Labatt noted that Apple does a great job of converging threads on its support forums.    (2F7)
  • Anne McKay posed the following theory, citing last year’s The Atlantic Monthly article on introversion: You need extroverts for a successful online community. I would argue the opposite, although I have no numbers to back me up. We had an interesting discussion about this very topic in the Collaboration Collaboratory about a year ago. It would be interesting to do Myers-Briggs analysis on online communities in a future case study.    (2F8)
  • Steve De Mello told stories of “bad behavior” on some of ezboard’s online communities, and noted that hosts should only deal with black-and-white issues. The best pressure is peer pressure. Gail Williams agreed with Steve’s assessments, and noted that while paid communities helped filter out trolls, they didn’t eliminate them entirely.    (2F9)
  • During a breakout session on metrics, Gail suggested that our biggest problem is understanding and serving lurkers. (See my previous entries on lurkers.)    (2FA)
  • Tom Coates informed folks on the IRC Backchannel about Wiki proxy, a cool little proxy that automatically links terms to Wikipedia.    (2FB)

Finally, Reid Hoffman and Ross Mayfield gave a quick walkthrough of Social Software. I was amazed at the blank stares in the room during this talk. These folks seemed to have some awareness of Social Software, but certainly not a deep understanding. The previous day, Marc Smith said that threaded forums aren’t going away. I agree, but the common wisdom in the group seemed to be that threaded forums tend to be the end-all and be-all of online communities. I strongly disagree with this assessment. Dave asked what Wikis offered that threaded forums do not. That question missed the point: It doesn’t have to be one over the other. (Ross enjoys needling folks by claiming that email and threaded forums are dead, but I don’t think he actually believes it.) My response to Dave was that there’s great potential for integrating Wikis and threaded forums (as I and others do with blogs).    (2FC)

Battling Group Think

Geoff Cohen asked:    (PM)

As we build different kinds of groupware/social software, what’s the role of consensus, and how powerful is it? Does software make reaching consensus easier or harder? For purely message-driven systems like email lists or USENET, consensus is much harder to reach than it would be in a real-life meeting. But once consensus is reached, breaking that consensus often brings down the flames of wrath. All of this is somehow invisibly coded in the interstices of the software architecture and human nature.    (PN)

…    (PO)

Could we architect social software that fought groupthink? Or does it just make the gravitational attraction of consensus, even flawed consensus, ever so much more irresistable?    (PP)

Seb Paquet responded:    (PQ)

I think the key to avoiding unhealthy levels of groupthink has to do with designing spaces that consistently exert pull upon outsiders (or social hackers or community straddlers), so as to keep the air fresh.    (PR)

…    (PS)

I think the blogosphere exhibits this kind of “outsider pull” much more than topic-focused forums.    (PT)

…    (PU)

But what about action? A diverse group has fewer blind spots, but on the other hand, agreement in such a group can be harder to establish, so there is a real possibility that the group will go nowhere beyond conversation. Is a core of agreed-upon ideas necessary for group action to take place? I think so. Does this mean that group action requires groupthink? Not necessarily, because some people are able to act upon ideas without believing in them so strongly they can no longer challenge them.    (PV)

Ross Mayfield added:    (PW)

He [Seb] is right that groupthink is avoided by a social network structure that allows a dynamic and diverse periphery to provide new ideas, but the core of the network needs to be tightly bound to be able to take action.    (PX)

That’s the main point of Building Sustainable Communities through Network Building by Valdis Krebs and June Holley.    (PY)

…    (PZ)

The ideal core/periphery structure affords a densely linked core and a dynamic periphery. One pattern for social software that supports this is an intimacy gradient (privacy/openness), to allow the core some privacy for backchanneling. But this requires ridiculously easy group forming, as the more hardened the space the more hard-nosed its occupants become.    (Q0)

Finally, Bill Seitz commented:    (Q1)

I think a shared mission is necessary. Whether that amounts to groupthink is a fair question.    (Q2)

There are a goldmine of ideas here, and the discussion is highly relevant to issues currently faced by the Collaboration Collaboratory. I’ll address them one at a time.    (Q3)

Group Think Versus Group Action    (Q4)

Bill’s comment points to the crux of the matter. What qualifies as Group Think or Group Action? We’ve discussed this question a lot at Blue Oxen Associates. In our upcoming research report, we draw a distinction between bounded and unbounded goals, and individual and collective goals. Generally, having shared unbounded goals is enough to constitute group alignment, but having shared bounded goals is required before you can call an effort “collaboration.”    (Q5)

The larger the group, the harder it is to define a shared, bounded goal that every group member will endorse. A good example of where this happens are elections. In the case of Howard Dean supporters, for example, the community is defined by a universally shared, bounded goal — voting Dean for president in 2004. As we’ve seen in the Dean case, having that universally shared, bounded goal was a galvanizing force for a previously unseen community of progressives in this country.    (Q6)

For large groups, I don’t think it’s necessary to have universally shared, bounded goals, although it’s nice when it happens. It’s enough to have small subgroups sharing different bounded goals, as long as they do not conflict with the unbounded goals, which must be universally shared.    (Q7)

The Intimacy Gradient Pattern    (Q8)

An aside on terminology: Intimacy Gradient is an excellent name for the phenomenon I first tried to describe in a previous blog entry, where I introduced the Think Out Loud and Whine In Private patterns. The problem I had in describing the Whine In Private pattern was that some spaces — blogs being the best example — felt like private forums, but were actually public. So people whining on their blogs are not actually Whining In Private; they just feel like they are.    (Q9)

Ross also used the term Backchannel, which I had also recently noted in my Wiki as a good name to describe this mostly private, but partially public space.    (QA)

Community Boundaries    (QB)

One of the founding principles of the Blue Oxen Collaboratories is that the products of the discussion and interaction should all be freely available to everyone. This is why the mailing list archives are publically available, even if participation is restricted to members.    (QC)

There is an Intimacy Gradient pattern involved here. There is a small barrier to entry to participate in tight-knit discussions, which makes the environment more conducive to parlor-style conversations. On the other hand, anyone can benefit from the resulting knowledge, which is our ultimate goal. Our hope is that the collaboratories act as a substrate for a much larger conversation.    (QD)

This has already begun to happen, and blogs play a key role. Bill Seitz, Chris Dent, Danny Ayers, and I have all blogged about discussions on the Collaboration Collaboratory, which expands the conversation to a larger group. The side effects include countering Group Think, as Seb suggests, and also attracting new members who want to participate more directly in the lower-level interactions. Similarly, we mention these blogs on the mailing lists, so the collaboratory members are aware of the larger conversation, thus completing the circle.    (QE)

Are there hidden costs to these Intimacy Gradients? Absolutely. Examples of blogs being read by the “wrong” audiences abound. Gregory Rawlins became a victim when he made some choice comments about another programmer’s software on a private, but publically archived list. (Sorry, Greg, but I always get a good laugh when I reread this.)    (QF)

Nevertheless, I think the benefits outweigh the downsides. I recently joined Howard Rheingold‘s Brainstorms community, and have wanted to link to some of the discussions there, but couldn’t. It’s unfortunate, because those linkages are lost, but it’s a tradeoff I understand. Finding the right balance is tricky.    (QG)

How Open Should Wikis Be?    (QH)

Our original intention with the Wikis on the Blue Oxen Collaboratories was to treat them the same as the mailing lists — restrict writing to members, but allow anyone to read the content. However, we did not configure our Wikis that way, mainly because we couldn’t — UseModWiki doesn’t have this feature — and it was low on list of things to hack. (See PurpleWiki:RoadMap.)    (QI)

Based on our experiences with this configuration and further examination of other Wikis, I’m reluctant to change this model now. One potential compromise is to require registration to write to the Wikis, but to make registration free. The difference between this and simply allowing anyone to click on “Edit This” is subtle, but significant. I’m still a bit undecided on this issue, although I seem to be leaning in favor of extreme openness. The reason for this is simply that we’ve had some interesting contributions and comments to the Wikis that probably would not have been made if there were even the slightest barriers to entry. Again, it’s a good safeguard against Group Think.    (QJ)

This issue recently cropped up again, because both the PurpleWiki and Collaboration Collaboratory Wikis were vandalized for the first time. Chris Dent discovered the act first and quickly fixed it, noting, “In a way this is sort of a good sign. Infamy is almost as good as fame….” My reaction was, “Good catch, by the way. A good sign of a healthy Wiki is how quickly the community fixes vandalism.” Notable in both of our reactions was that we simply fixed the problem and moved on, instead of rushing to implement access control.    (QK)

John Sechrest, however, suggested that access control was exactly what the Wikis needed, which led to some interesting philosophical debate about the openness of Wikis. My response to John wasn’t very deep, but it does sum up my feelings on the matter: “Wikis are successful because the cost to contribute are zero. There are downsides, but there are also upsides. Get rid of one, you also lose the other.”    (QL)