Networks and Pickup Basketball

When I read about or listen to others talking about networks, I often find the examples people cite to be too narrow. They’re either Internet-mediated networks (which are interesting) or organizational networks (which are not). I wish that more people would consider things that look like the intersection of the two — networks that look similar to the Internet, but are not primarily mediated by the Internet.

One of my favorite examples of this also happens to be one of my passions: pickup basketball — casual, just-for-fun (but sometimes highly competitive) games that anyone can start or join. Not all games are open, but most of them are. You can find a pickup game pretty much anywhere in the world, and you’ll find that the rules and norms — mostly unwritten — are almost identical, with some common variations. Half court or full? Ones-and-twos or twos-and-threes? Winner takes ball? Win, you’re in?

Still, each game is made up of different people, and as such, has its own culture and practices. Some games are unapologetically meritocratic — as long as you win, you stay on the court. Other games are more inclusive — if you win two games in a row, you sit and let others play. In my game, we stop play when someone falls. There was never any up-front agreement about this. Someone started doing it in the early days, and it was highly appreciated by the older players (i.e. me).

I’ve had many regular pickup games over the years, some of which I’ve started, some of which I’ve joined. In some cases, I accidentally stumbled upon them and just kept showing up. In other cases, people would add me to their mailing lists or online forums.

One of my favorite organizing models was a game a colleague invited me to join in Menlo Park in the early 2000s. We generally played on Tuesdays and Thursdays during lunch. Someone had set up a mailing list, and on the morning of, someone — it could be anyone — would send an email to the list with the number, “1.” That meant they wanted to play. If you were up for joining, you would respond to the list and increment the number. In other words, the next person would respond, “2,” the next would respond, “3,” and so forth. If you hit, “4,” you had enough to play, and the game would officially be on.

I currently play every Sunday morning at Julius Kahn Park in San Francisco, a hidden gem with views of the Bay and the Presidio. We’ve been playing every Sunday for four years. Originally, a few friends and I invited others to come play. After a few sessions, someone started a Facebook group and invited more people that way. Initially, he would set up an event every week. One weekend, he was heading out-of-town. He didn’t tell anyone, but I noticed that he hadn’t set up the event as usual, so I decided to do it. For a while, I kept doing it. Then, I needed to head out-of-town. Sure enough, someone else stepped up and set up the event without anyone asking.

We also have gotten a good number of folks who accidentally came upon the game and kept showing up. Some of them are on the Facebook group, but many are not, not because we’re trying to exclude anyone, but because it’s largely unnecessary at this point. We’re consistent enough that if you show up, we’ll likely be there.

How is pickup basketball like the Internet?

First, there’s some basic infrastructure — a hard surface, a backboard, a basket, and a ball.

Second, there are protocols. Some of them are formal and unshakeable. For example, on the Internet, there’s the Internet Protocol, the base-level protocol that everything on the Internet uses. With pickup basketball, there are the basic rules of basketball — between 1-5 people per team, dribble with one hand only, once you stop, you have to pass or shoot, whichever team scores more wins, etc.

Some of them are informal and loosely enforced, such as the aforementioned pickup basketball variations. Most of the protocols on the Internet began as RFC’s (Request for Comments) — informal technical specs and design documents. Many — such as HTTP, the basis for the World Wide Web — were widely adopted before ever becoming officially standardized.

Third, they’re both decentralized and open, which leaves a lot of room for experimentation and different kinds of leadership (both good and bad). I’ve already mentioned the different cultures and kinds of organizing you’ll find at different pickup games. Another important form of leadership worth noting is the role the NBA plays. It can’t directly dictate what happens on the thousands of basketball courts around the world. However, its athletes and teams have been very intentional in investing in infrastructure — building and maintaining courts, for example — and for acting as ambassadors. The league as a whole has created many channels via media (both old and new) and on-the-ground work to create more exposure for the game all across the world. That ultimately enables the NBA to do what it does best — inspire people all over the world to watch and play the game.

The NBA doesn’t hold meetings for “representatives” of the pickup game network to try to align around a shared vision or to discuss pickup game governance. It doesn’t do social network analysis to try to demonstrate impact. It articulates its own vision of the game by stewarding and showcasing the best players in the world, it invests in infrastructure so that more people can play, and it invests in visibility so that more people are inspired to play.

Folks who are attempting to professionalize networks could learn a whole lot from pickup basketball.

Jor Bagh

I spent the afternoon working in IIE’s Delhi office, located in Jor Bagh, a charming residential district that contrasted sharply with the Delhi I had seen the night before. On the ride over, Sanjay explained India‘s political situation regarding health care, education, and other infrastructural challenges.    (MWF)

India is a study in contrasts. There is tremendous economic disparity. Over a million people in Delhi (about eight percent of the total population) live beneath the poverty line. The infrastructure is poor, to say the least. The roads are bad, the power unreliable, the water scarce and undrinkable. And yet, India has a burgeoning population of skilled and intelligent Knowledge Workers, especially in technology.    (MWG)

To its credit, the current government is trying to do something about its infrastructural woes. It has committed to tripling its expenditures (percentage of GDP spent) in health and education over the next five years, and similarly increasing its expenditures in other areas, such as potable water.    (MWH)

After enjoying a delicious lunch of samosas, dhokla (which I tried for the first time), and gulabjamun, Cheryl Francisconi rejoined us and introduced me to Ajit Motwani, the new head of IIE India, who regaled us with stories of his eclectic past and who introduced me to lime water, water with lime juice, sugar, and salt, sort of an all-natural Gatorade.    (MWI)

https://i2.wp.com/farm3.static.flickr.com/2011/2300756624_db74dc371f_m.jpg?w=700 https://i0.wp.com/farm3.static.flickr.com/2071/2300757920_7e6f51b63e_m.jpg?w=700    (MWJ)

https://i2.wp.com/farm4.static.flickr.com/3170/2300763014_bacb17543a_m.jpg?w=700    (MWK)

In the afternoon, Cheryl and I took a taxi to the airport, where we experienced an incredibly surreal traffic moment. At one point, we crossed a six lane bridge, with rickshaws and buses pulled over on the sides and middle of the road. No one was paying any attention to the lanes, and no one was slowing down either. It felt like I was playing one of those racing video games, except with quadruple the traffic. And yet, it didn’t feel disorderly either. Somehow, everything just worked.    (MWL)

As we watched similar madness in the terminal later, I observed to Cheryl that Open Space must feel comfortable to folks in India, because they’re so used to ordered chaos. That sparked a long conversation about process and culture that continued well into our flight to Patna.    (MWM)

At the airport, we met up with Sanjay Pandey and Narendra Gupta, who will be a guest participant at the meeting over the next few days. Narendra is from Chittorgarh, a small town in the state of Rajasthan, and his background is fascinating. I’m looking forward to chatting more with him and watching him work tomorrow.    (MWN)

Babble Voice Privacy System

Kirsten Jones recently pointed me to Herman Miller‘s Babble Voice Privacy System. Babble is a small device (about the size of a tape player) that takes sound within a certain radius and rebroadcasts it as nonsense. In other words, it allows you to have private conversations in open spaces.    (MQP)

Babble is being marketed as a privacy device, but it’s actually an important productivity device. People are good at ignoring white noise. When our brains hear sounds they don’t recognize, they ignore them. People are bad at ignoring recognizable sounds. Every ambient conversation we overhear is a concentration breaker.    (MQQ)

The list price for a Babble is $695, which is steep for most mortals. However, there’s a simple trick you can use for similar effect: music. People do this all the time on their own: When they need to concentrate, they put on their headphones. However, you can do this for an entire space as well.    (MQR)

The added benefit of using music in this way for Open Space-style events is that you can use this as a transitional device. Raise the volume when you want people to move, and lower the volume when you’ve achieved your goal. MGTaylor does this all the time, but they’re not the only ones. Open Space facilitators often use Tibetan prayer bells to signal transition. Allen Gunn (Gunner) will often start singing when he wants people to transition.    (MQS)

Walking and Learning in Chicago

The first time I met Howard Rheingold, he suggested we go on a walk. A few weeks later, I met Howard at his house, which lies at the foot of Mount Tamalpais in Mill Valley, and we walked and talked. It was wonderful.    (MND)

Ever since I moved to San Francisco a few years ago, I’ve suggested to many a colleague that we go on a walk. I live a few blocks away from Lands End, a beautiful trail along the ocean on the northwest side of San Francisco, with gorgeous views of the coast, the Presidio, and the Golden Gate Bridge. I still do the coffee thing, but when opportunity knocks, I tell people to meet me at my apartment, and we walk and talk.    (MNE)

There’s something about the act of walking that stimulates the brain. It brings a natural rhythm to conversation, giving you space both to talk and to listen. The Peripatetics knew this. So did Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s magnum opus was entitled, Sein und Dasein. Dasein loosely translates to “existence,” or “being alive.” Heidegger likened it to walking in the forest and suddenly coming to a clearing, an Open Space, a place to breathe. It’s in these places, at the end of a journey, where we become most aware of ourselves and our surroundings.    (MNF)

I’m in the Midwest this week — South Bend, Indiana visiting my younger sister, then Cincinnati to visit my older sister, my brother-in-law, and my three year old nephew. It’s not vacation. Things are crazy at work (in a good way), and so I’m still chugging along, with breaks here and there to spend time with my family.    (MNG)

My original plan was to work from my sister’s place in South Bend. Then I decided that it would be wrong to be this close to Chicago and not visit some of my colleagues and friends in the area, and that it would be just as easy to work in Chicago as it would be in South Bend. So I made some last minute calls and spent yesterday in Chicago.    (MNH)

After spending the morning working, I had the pleasure of meeting Eric Sinclair in the flesh for the first time. He asked me where I wanted to eat lunch. I responded, “Somewhere distinctly Chicago.” He delivered.    (MNI)

Afterwards, I hopped on the El and headed north to visit Michael Herman. Michael’s still doing lots of Open Space, but he’s also got a new project that’s been keeping him very busy: Restoring an 80 year old home, which he and his wife, Jill, recently purchased. After assessing the state of the house and seeing the most magnificent radiator I’ve ever seen, Michael suggested that we go for a walk.    (MNJ)

And so we walked. We walked through his neighborhood and along the Chicago River. In between catching up on life and work, Michael talked about the city’s architecture and history. We discovered new streets and old bungalows. We saw kids playing in parks with their parents, and houses decorated for Halloween.    (MNK)

We walked, and we talked, and we ended up at the local elementary school, which also serves as the home for a community garden, “community” in every sense of the word. Only the students have plots; the rest of the space is community owned. Anyone in the community is free to garden any spot, weed any plot, pick vegetables and herbs from any plant. In the middle of this beautiful, old, urban neighborhood, amidst the hustle and bustle of the city, was this clearing, this beautiful, Wiki-like, community garden where the city seemed to disappear. Dasein.    (MNL)

I began the day with my nose to the grindstone, working on my various projects. I ended it walking, breathing, talking, learning. As I rode the train back to South Bend, reflecting on the day’s events and conversations, I couldn’t help but feel thankful.    (MNM)

My life and my work is ultimately about people, about maximizing our collective potential. As I’ve pursued this passion, I’ve found myself surrounded by incredible people with similar values and passions. I take great pride in the number of groups I’ve helped, the movements I’ve helped catalyze, and the knowledge I’ve shared, but all of this pales in comparison to what I’ve learned from others. What motivates me is the opportunity to share these same experiences and learnings with as many people as possible.    (MNN)

I’ve got a clear vision for how to do this more effectively, and while the mechanisms that make it work are complex, the actual actions required are relatively straightforward. Walking and talking are excellent ways to start.    (MNO)

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)