On Conversations and Collaboration

Seb Paquet and I were chatting on the phone last Friday, and the conversation turned to Old Boy Networks. In particular, Seb noted that it wasn’t enough to eliminate barriers to conversation or collaboration. You need to catalyze it. The oft-noted Echo Chamber nature of the blogosphere is Exhibit A in this regard. Despite the lack of technical barriers, people tend not to interact with people of different background and views.    (JJM)

This issue became the theme of the day for me. Later that afternoon, I met Nancy White for the first time, who was in town for Blogher. She was ecstatic about the expected turnout, explaining that the conference had attracted all sorts of new faces, traditionally invisible folks — mostly women, of course — on the ground doing great stuff and writing great things. Nancy, Mary Hodder, and others have been vocal about the sameness of attendees and speakers on the conference circuit, and Blogher was in many ways a reaction to that. I’m sorrry I missed it. What began as a casual conversation between Nancy, Beverly Trayner, and myself grew quite large and energetic, as random folks — Mary, Danah Boyd, Elana Centor, and several others — saw us at our table and joined the discussion. It killed me to break up that conversation, but we all had other meetings we had to go to.    (JJN)

I ended my day in Campbell for SocialWave‘s one-year anniversary celebration. Sheldon Chang, SocialWave‘s driving force, has evolved the business in much the same way that I’ve evolved Blue Oxen Associates — learning by doing and refining the strategy over time. What began as a general desire to counter the Bowling Alone effect in regional communities is now focused more on bringing community back to city downtowns. I really like this strategy, and I really like how effective SocialWave has been with its flagship community, Campbell. The party was a manifestation of that. Several local stores sponsored the party, which was held in Campbell‘s beautiful downtown in conjunction with the weekly summer outdoor movie series (which has its own wonderful grassroots origins). Of course, SocialWave members — who span the entire demographic — were out in force, both as volunteers and as party-goers.    (JJO)

I congratulated Sheldon on what he had accomplished so far, and — as it had throughout the day — the discussion turned to catalyzing conversations and collaboration. In a small downtown, the barriers to interaction are low in theory. People are physically near each other, and there seems to be big incentives to collaborate with each other, as all of these stores share goals and concerns. But in reality, it doesn’t always happen on its own. Campbell, like many of the downtowns here in the Bay Area, has had its share of economic troubles, and yet, most people have dealt with those in isolation. Sheldon noted that several store owners weren’t even aware of what stores were around the corner.    (JJP)

In reality, collaboration rarely just happens. Someone has to catalyze it. This can happen from both the top and the bottom, but it almost always happens. This holds triply true when it comes to collaboration between diverse groups. If we truly want to work with people different from ourselves, we have to work proactively to bring those people together. This doesn’t happen often enough. It’s hard, but the benefits are significant.    (JJQ)

Sheldon Chang’s SocialWave Blog

Sheldon Chang, a member of our Collaboration Collaboratory, recently announced a new blog: SocialWeaver: Building Real Communities Online. Sheldon has a startup called SocialWave that builds online communities as a way to strengthen communities within neighborhoods. He’s thought quite a bit about community-building in general and has a lot of interesting things to say, which is why I’m very glad to see him join the blogosphere.    (W1)

In his first post, “A Real Model for the Virtual Community,” Sheldon suggests that people must feel comfortable to build their online identities in order for an online community to be successful. This requirement prevents effective online communities from truly scaling.    (W2)

Sheldon’s blog entry generated some discussion in the collaboratory. John Sechrest discussed latent energy in forums, emphasizing the role that lurkers play in the effectiveness of an online community. He also posed and elaborated a theory of group size: The maximum size of a manageable community is 256 people. (Ross Mayfield described a more scientific theory of group size, based on Robin Dunbar’s research, at his talk last November.)    (W3)