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)

Networked Tools and the Email Bottleneck

My friend and colleague, Tony Christopher, recently wrote a wonderful paper entitled, “Tools for Teams: Beyond the Email Bottleneck.” There are two things I really like about the paper, and there’s one thing I want to nitpick here.    (MDS)

First, the good stuff. Tony introduces a new term, “networked tools,” to connote tools that are on the network. These include shared calendars, file repositories, and so forth. Why is this useful? For starters, most people have no idea what a collaborative tool is, and that includes many folks who are ostensibly in the business.    (MDT)

What is a collaborative tool? It’s a tool that facilitates collaboration. Certainly, a shared authoring tool like a Wiki has affordances that facilitate collaboration. But a plain old text editor is just as legitimately a collaboration tool, because it can also be used to facilitate collaboration (for example, when used on a Shared Display).    (MDU)

When most people talk about collaborative tools, what they’re really talking about are networked tools, which is why I think Tony’s term is much more apt.    (MDV)

The main point of Tony’s paper is not to invent a new term, but to shift the focus away from the tool and onto an organization’s needs and processes. His specific advice is a bit oriented towards larger organizations, but the essence of his argument is true for everyone.    (MDW)

My only nitpick with Tony’s paper is that he chooses to pick on email, a favorite practice of another person I like to nitpick on this point, Ross Mayfield. (In fairness to Ross, he’s clearly being a troublemaker — or a good CEO — when he declares email dead, as he’s also written clearly about using email effectively in the context of collaboration. And he’s spot on about occupational spam.) Tony writes:    (MDX)

Email undermines the centralized accumulation of knowledge that could benefit the organization both during the project and long after it’s over. Organizations that have not evolved from email to a broader set of networked tools face lost oportunities and hidden costs.    (MDY)

It’s a bit of a red herring to blame email, because email is a Swiss Army knife. You can do a bunch of things with it, but you’ve got to figure out how to take advantage of this flexibility. This is even more difficult with groups, because if some folks are using their email differently from others, its effectiveness as a collaboration tool drops.    (MDZ)

I suspect that most organizations would see orders of magnitude improvements in how they collaborated if they went through the steps that Tony suggested, then reexamined how they could use email more effectively.    (ME0)

A very simple example of what I mean came out of a conversation with Tara Hunt earlier this week. I was talking to Tara and Chris Messina about their work to move the Freecycle community to something more appropriate to their needs. I observed that while Freecycle could definitely use a better support tool, it’s a great example of how you can leverage a simple mailing list to do amazing collaborative work.    (ME1)

Tara noted that there are 3.5 million people currently on Freecycle, which is amazing. She also observed, “Imagine how many people they would have if the tool were better.” A fair point indeed. When you’ve thought carefully about your patterns and you’ve reached the limit of your tools, the next step for coevolution is to improve your tools. Freecycle — currently serving 3.5 million people effectively — is definitely at that point. Most organizations are not.    (ME2)

Internet Identity Workshop 2007, Day One

Quick thoughts from day one of the Internet Identity Workshop (IIW):    (M9G)

  • This is the fourth IIW. The first one was in October 2005. Amazing. It feels like we’ve been doing these for at least five years.    (M9H)
  • Over half of the participants were there for the first time.    (M9I)
  • I opened the conference with an introduction to Identity Commons. Got some good feedback, and great support from others who have been active in the rebirth of Identity Commons. My big goal is to get the community to think of Identity Commons as “we,” not “they.” We’ll see how successful we are at the end of this workshop.    (M9J)
  • We participated in a nice exercise where folks got into small groups and surfaced questions. It got people interacting, and as Phil Windley noted afterwards, people stayed in small groups chatting away well after the day had ended.    (M9K)
  • One thing that struck me about the group exercise: I heard no new questions. A common characteristic of Wicked Problems is not knowing what the questions are. A good number of us seemed to have successfully identified most of the key questions a long time ago. This is both a sign of progress and of concern. We as a community are starting to face growing pains, and community memory is becoming more and more of an issue. Doc Searls suggested that in addition to surfacing the questions, we should have asked, “Okay, who has the answers?” I think some variation of that would have made an excellent complementary exercise.    (M9M)
  • I like Pibb, JanRain‘s Web-based real-time group chat tool that uses OpenID. (Think IRC on the Web with OpenID for identities.) But I also agree with Chris Messina; Pibb needs permalinks — granular as well as thread-level.    (M9N)
  • We had a series of lightning presentations following the group exercise. They were all well done. Remarkably, they were all about basically the same thing, only told from different angles, something that Mary Hodder also observed. I think this is a good sign. It shows the ongoing convergence of our community. There was also a lot of Spotlight On Others — folks referring to each other’s work, even borrowing slides from each other — another sign of a healthy community.    (M9O)
  • There wasn’t anything new conceptually, but there were many more implementations, yet another sign of progress. Speed Geeking basically consisted of 15 different implementations of Single Sign-On, which doesn’t make good fodder for demos, but which is great for the community.    (M9P)
  • Two Speed Geeking projects stood out: Vidoop and Sxipper. Vidoop is user authentication via image recognition and categorization, which in and of itself is interesting. But what got people buzzing was its business model: sponsoring images that would be displayed to users for authentication. I don’t know if it’s viable, but it’s definitely creative. Sxipper is a Firefox plugin that handles account registration and login. What’s really interesting is what’s happening beneath the covers: It’s essentially an OpenID Identity Broker running from your browser. It looked very slick; I’m looking forward to playing with it.    (M9Q)
  • Doc Searls gave his traditional day one closing talk. I’ve heard bits and pieces of this talk many times, but I never tire of listening to him speak. He’s just a fantastic storyteller, and he’s always on point.    (M9R)
  • I carpooled with Fen Labalme, and as we were discussing our takeaways on the way back, he said, “I’m glad I didn’t sit with you at dinner.” He wasn’t joking, and I wasn’t offended! I felt the same way! One of the really special things about this community is that there are no snobs. We all like to hang out with each other, but we all also really value quality time with folks we don’t know. You could really see this at dinner. I didn’t see any cliques, and there was plenty of mixing.    (M9S)

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)

Being Ambushed by Terrell Russell

Gail Taylor told me an excellent story last Saturday that reminded me of an incident at the Internet Identity Workshop this past December. I was doing something that I am deeply opposed to — participating in a face-to-face conference without being fully present. Basically, I was sitting in the middle of the space doing work on my laptop while everyone else was participating in the conference. I felt guilty about it, but I wanted to talk to some people while they were in town, and I had a ton of work to do at the same time.    (LWP)

So I gave a talk on Identity Commons, attended a few presentations, talked to a few people, and spent the rest of my time doing my work and ignoring everyone else. It was actually quite nice. I was sitting in the middle of the large conference room at the Computer History Museum, visible to everyone, with people constantly milling around me. People who knew me stopped by to chat for a few minutes; people who didn’t just ignored me.    (LWQ)

Towards the end of the second day, I was basking in my productive anti-socialness, when a fellow who was sitting at my table started making small talk. It was harmless chatter, stuff that I could respond to while remaining focused on my work, but at some point, it felt wrong continuing to talk without introducing myself. Turns out the guy was Terrell Russell of claimID fame. I knew about claimID, but I knew nothing about Terrell. The same could not be said of him, who had known all along who I was, and who apparently follows this blog. (Hi, Terrell!)    (LWR)

That bastard must have used that knowledge against me, sharing ideas that he must have known would suck me into conversation. Either that, or he was just a nice guy who was passionate about his work. Either way, it worked. I ended up closing my laptop and having a great conversation with him.    (LWS)

What was he doing that I found so compelling? It was his Ph.D. research on Contextual Authority Tagging. The basis of the idea is simple: The best way to identify an authority on a topic is not to ask people to self-identify themselves as such, but to ask others to identify the people they consider to be the authorities. We can leverage this principle to locate expertise by building tagging systems where users tag other users with information about their expertise.    (LWT)

Terrell has thought really deeply about this, and several of his ideas are documented at his website and on his blog. Phil Windley and David Weinberger have also commented on his work.    (LWU)

I heard more original ideas about tagging in that 20 minutes of conversation than I’ve ever heard from anyone else. The one that really struck me was the notion of tag disparities: comparing what people say about you to what you say about yourself as a way of measuring reputation. Sound familiar? It’s a real-life instantiation of the Squirm Test!    (LWV)

I think there are some interesting tools that can be built on these ideas, and I have no doubt that Terrell will build them. There are also some face-to-face group exercises based on these same principles, and I’ve actually done one of them before (described below). You could also apply these ideas towards group evaluation.    (LWW)

I’ve been vividly reminded of our conversation on two occasions. The first happened later that week at the Blue Oxen Associates anniversary party. Peter Kaminski decided to do some social engineering of his own, and instead of asking people what they did, he asked them to tell him about someone else attending the party. Real-life, face-to-face, Contextual Authority Tagging! We actually did this for real at the 2005 anniversary party, where we had people literally stick name tags on other people’s back. It was an idea I stole from Chris Messina, who in turn had stolen it from a previous SuperHappyDevHouse gathering.    (LWX)

The second occasion happened this past Saturday. Gail recounted a story about a group exercise with five people, where each person was asked to write ten words that have to do with “love.” Out of the 50 total words, only three were the same! It was a stark lesson on how challenging it is to achieve Shared Understanding and how critically important Shared Language is.    (LWY)