Quick Thoughts on BarCampBlock

I emerged from my summer hermitdom to attend parts of BarCampBlock this past weekend. My favorite part of Bar Camp was actually something I missed because I overslept on Saturday morning: the unveiling of the original Bar Camp attendee list (photo by Chris Heuer):    (MJC)

https://i2.wp.com/farm2.static.flickr.com/1352/1176806198_263159d5ab.jpg?w=700    (MJD)

This is such a wonderful picture on so many levels. Seeing it brought back vivid memories of the first Bar Camp: the sense of excitement about what a few passionate folks had created in a ridiculously short amount of time, the forging of new friendships and the strengthening of old ones. This little touch created a strong sense of continuity between the first camp, this third year anniversary celebration, and everything in-between. It also demonstrated the subtle difference between holding space well and simply holding space. Masters of this art understand the importance of the artifact, of Leave A Trail.    (MJE)

I didn’t get to stay as long as I would have liked, but here are some quick thoughts on what I did see:    (MJF)

  • The organizers (Chris Messina, Tara Hunt, Ross Mayfield, Liz Henry, and Tantek Celik) and volunteers did an incredible job of making everything run smoothly. The hardest part of a collaborative event isn’t the process; it’s logistics. In this particular case, the organizers had to deal with a sudden spike in registrations — 900 to be exact — with no clue as to the actual number who would show up (564 on Saturday, 260 on Sunday) and a location literally spread out over 11 locations within a few square blocks. When I saw various organizers on Saturday morning, I noted with surprise how calm everything was, and everyone just looked at me and laughed. There’s a ton amount of behind-the-scenes hard work and stress required to make any event run smoothly. Kudos to all who contributed.    (MJG)
  • There were a ton of first-timers there. I saw several people I knew, and many more I didn’t. I like to see about 25 percent yield of repeat attendees at events like these, and this came close to that. I think that’s outstanding. The danger of events like these is that they become cliques. That wasn’t the case with this Bar Camp. In some ways, I think the oversaturation of networking events in the Bay Area — including many Bar Camp spin-offs — as well as the spirit of Bar Camp prevented this from happening.    (MJH)
  • I heard a few folks comment on the lack of depth in the sessions, and I experienced some of this myself firsthand. This is common at open, collaborative events, but most folks misunderstand what this means. Open Space-ish events are particularly conducive to building Shared Language among disparate folks. Deeper learning and collaboration often occur as a result, but it doesn’t necessarily happen at the event itself. You can facilitate this deeper learning at events by making them more intentional — Internet Identity Workshop is a great example of this — but Bar Camps are more meta than that.    (MJI)
  • I loved the Continuous Learning, not just from the Bar Camps that the organizers had played an active role in, but from the wider Bar Camp community. The demo party, for example, was an idea borrowed from Bar Camp Toronto, and while the execution needed tweaking, I loved the spirit of experimentation.    (MJN)

More good thoughts from Liz, Ross, and Tara.    (MJJ)

Nexus For Change Observations

I’m about to comment on a conference that I reluctantly didn’t attend: Nexus For Change. Sure, I’ve read rumblings from the conference site as well as the blogosphere and Flickr, and I’m sure there’s more to come as folks recover from what was undoubtedly a mind-blowing two days. I’ll also happily use my absence as an excuse to touch base with friends and colleagues who did attend.    (M1G)

Despite my lack of complete information, what’s compelling me to comment is this picture that Nancy White took:    (M1H)

https://i2.wp.com/farm1.static.flickr.com/168/433799450_fd35e6de3e.jpg?w=700    (M1I)

I love the elephants that were identified. But the thing that really jumped out at me was the elephant on the upper right: “No youth present.” Disappointing, but not surprising. And frankly, probably a good thing… this year. This convening was already a coup, and it takes baby steps to make big changes in the world. But it will be a horrible thing if it becomes a trend.    (M1J)

About a month ago, there was a thread in Chris Messina‘s Flickr stream about the need for a book on unconferences. I commented:    (M1K)

There’s already an excellent book like this. It’s called The Change Handbook, and it documents a ton of great thinking and experience on group process and catalyzing transformation.    (M1L)

The Bar Camp phenomenon adds something new and vibrant to all of this, and is not represented in the book (AFAIK — I haven’t seen the second edition yet). So there’s still a need for that knowledge to be integrated into the larger body of practice.    (M1M)

This is a classic case of two communities with similar values and different demographics not talking to each other and certainly not collaborating. How do you get these communities to collaborate? You either wait for it to happen on its own, or you catalyze it.    (M1N)

At the Blue Oxen Associates 4th anniversary party last December, I said that I’d have some exciting things to announce this year. I was being dramatic then, and I’ll probably be dramatic again in a few months when I announce some new initiatives. In short, I’ll be describing a concrete plan for catalyzing collaboration between these communities. I’ve been preparing for months now, and I’ve still got a few more to go, but I’m already giddy. This has been the vision behind Blue Oxen Associates from day one. When I started the company, I had a five year plan for achieving this vision. It’s a good thing, too, because I’ve needed each and every one of the past four years to reach a point where I felt like I could make a significant difference. I’ve still got a ton to learn, but I also feel incredibly empowered, and I can’t wait to share and apply what I know with the rest of the world.    (M1O)

FLOSS Usability Sprint Quick Impressions

Coming to you live, quick impressions from our fourth FLOSS Usability Sprint:    (LZC)

  • Each of our sprints have had a distinct personality. One thing that strikes me about our participants this time is how well all of them understand and buy into usability. One big reason for that is our projects — we have three repeat projects plus Firefox. It also reflects nicely on a growing shared understanding on what Open Source and usability are, and how we can marry the two together.    (LZD)
  • After having gone through three and a half of these sprints, I find that I have inadvertently become a knowledge repository for a ton of great learning about both usability and Open Source. While I love the learning, I can’t help but think that there’s someone in the community with a greater individual stake than I — a usability practitioner or an Open Source developer — who’s missing out on a great personal opportunity to serve that same role and really become a champion and leader of the cause.    (LZE)
  • Great space + great people + great process = Group Genius. It never fails.    (LZF)
  • People who have never participated in this type of event before don’t realize how exhausting it is. This is not Bar Camp. Yeah, we’re connecting, we’re knowledge-sharing, and we’re having fun. But we’re also working. And it’s really fun watching these folks — after an exhausting week of regular week — crank away on these projects. If work were always this fun, the world would truly be an interesting place. It feels even better knowing that we’re working on tools that will make an impact on the world at large.    (LZG)
  • Google‘s very own Leslie Hawthorn is awesome. I know, I know, I’ve gushed about her before. But it needs to be said again and again and again.    (LZH)

Folksonomy Taxonomy Philosophy

I love playing The Book of Questions types of games with friends and colleagues, but when it comes to answering those types of questions myself, I’m a terrible waffler. When I play these games with my friend, Steph, she often complains scornfully, “You’re such a ‘P’.” “P” refers to the “Perceiving” Myers-Briggs personality type, which refers to folks who are highly context-sensitive (also known as “wafflers”).    (LNM)

Suffice it to say, I hate truisms (except for that one). You could even call me a “philosophical relativist,” which according to Elaine Peterson, would make me a fan of folksonomies. Also true. And in a metaphysical twist that will drive the less philosophically-inclined (and Steph) crazy, if you were to ask me if folksonomies were better than taxonomies, I would respond, “That’s not a valid question.” Folksonomies and taxonomies are not quite apples and oranges, but they’re not apples and apples either. Debating the two is intellectually interesting, but it obscures the real opportunity, which is understanding how the two could potentially augment each other.    (LNN)

The impetus for this little outburst is Gavin Clabaugh‘s recent piece on folksonomies. Gavin (who cites Peterson’s essay) argues that taxonomies are better for finding information than folksonomies. Do I agree with that? It depends. Clay Shirky outlined some situations when taxonomies are better for search and vice-versa in his excellent essay, “Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags”.    (LNO)

What troubles me about the claim at all is that it highlights a distinction that I find to be misleading. In Elaine Peterson‘s essay, “Beneath the Metadata: Some Philosophical Problems with Folksonomy,” the main problem she cites has to do with philosophical relativism. Folksonomies allow it; traditional classification does not.    (LNP)

What is philosophical relativism? If I show you a picture of a mono-colored object, is it possible for that object to be both black and white? If you answered yes, you’re a philosophical relativist.    (LNQ)

On the surface, “philosophical relativist” might sound like another term for “dumb as hell.” But, what if the picture was of a person? And what if that person had an African-American father and a Caucasian mother? Now is it possible to classify this photo as both “black” and “white”?    (LNR)

Language is highly context-sensitive. Philosophical relativists acknowledge this. Believe it or not, so do librarians and traditional taxonomists. A taxonomy attempts to make classification more useful by restricting the scope to a single context. If you happen to be operating within that context, then this works great. There are plenty of situations when this is the case (Gavin cites the medical community, which is a great example), but there are also plenty of situations when it’s not.    (LNS)

Folksonomies allow for multiple contexts, but that does not make them inherently less useful than taxonomies. As Clay points out in his essay, in practice, there’s a long tail of tags applied to different concepts. If something is tagged “black” by 98 people and “white” by two, you can be pretty sure that the object in question is “black.” Scale essentially transforms a folksonomy into a taxonomy with a little bit of noise that can easily be filtered out (if desired).    (LNT)

Frankly, I think the concern is less about whether taxonomies are inherently better than folksonomies and more about whether so-called experts should have a role in constructing taxonomies. Gavin also alludes to this, when he describes a conversation with two friends in a San Francisco coffee shop. (I don’t want to out those friends, but I will say that one of them runs a company named after the faithful companion of a certain oversized lumberjack from American folklore. I will also say that Gavin is an outstanding tea companion, and that we’re working on a project that has very little to do with folksonomies, but that will make the world a much better place regardless.)    (LNU)

Gavin’s friends suggested that folksonomies were a great way of collaboratively developing a taxonomy. Gavin partially agreed, but expressed some doubt, stating:    (LNV)

Rather than the wisdom of a crowd, I’d recommend the wisdom of a few experts within that crowd. In the end you’d end up with a more accurate and useful taxonomy, with half of the wasted bandwidth, and in probably a tenth of the time.    (LNW)

I can actually think of many situations where I would agree with this. One is Pandora, the music recommendation service built on top of the Music Genome Project. The Music Genome Project is a formal ontology for classifying music developed by 50 musician-analysts over seven years. By all accounts, the service is extraordinarily good. Chris Allen sang its praises to me at the last WikiWednesday, and it was all the rage at the original Bar Camp.    (LNX)

But having experts involved doesn’t preclude using a folksonomy to develop a taxonomy. Is a folksonomy developed by a small group of experts any less of a folksonomy?    (LNY)

In 2002, Kay-Yut Chen, Leslie Fine, and Bernardo Huberman developed a prediction market using Wisdom of Crowds techniques for financial forecasting of a division of HP. The market was 40 percent more accurate than the company’s official forecast. The catch? The people playing the market were the same people doing the official forecast. The difference was not in who was doing the predicting; the difference was in the process.    (LNZ)

I’m a historian by background. I have a great appreciation for the lessons of the past, which is reflected in my patterns-based approach towards improving collaboration. Five years ago, I reviewed Elaine Svenonius‘s wonderful book, The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization, where I wrote:    (LO0)

Fortunately, a small segment of our population, librarians, has been dealing with the problem of information organization since 2000 B.C. Who better to turn to in our time of need than people with thousands of years of accumulated expertise and experience?    (LO1)

There is a tremendous amount of past knowledge that I’m afraid is being passed off as trite and irrelevant, when in fact it is even more relevant today. How many people building tagging systems know about Faceted Classification? How many of these developers know of Doug Lenat‘s brilliant research on Cyc, or that a huge subset of the Cyc ontology is open source? On the flip side, how many librarians and ontologists are needlessly dismissing folksonomies as not as good, and hence irrelevant?    (LO2)

Philosophical debates over taxonomy and folksonomy are exactly that: philosophy. I love philosophy. I enjoyed Peterson’s essay, and I’d recommend it to others. Curiously enough, David Weinberger, one of folksonomy’s foremost evangelists, is also a philosopher by background. (Read his response to Peterson’s essay.)    (LO3)

However, philosophy sometimes obscures reality, or worse yet, opportunity. We should be focusing our efforts on understanding how taxonomies and folksonomies can augment each other, not on picking sides.    (LO4)

BarBar This Tuesday

Scott McMullan, I, and our other co-chairs decided to disband the SDForum Collaboration SIG. We had an outstanding run, but it just wasn’t compatible with our collective schedules.    (L9S)

Still, Scott and I didn’t want to let go completely. Actually, I just wanted an excuse to have a beer with Scott every once in a while. So this Tuesday, October 3 at 7:30pm, we’re going to meet at Zeitgeist for burgers, beers, and conversation about all things collaboration.    (L9T)

In honor of Bar Camp, we’re calling it BarBar. It will be casual, fun, and enlightening, and you all are invited. RSVP on Upcoming.org, drop me an email, or just show up. Bring friends. And don’t be shy. We like people, even those we don’t know. See you on Tuesday!    (L9U)