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Role of Face-to-Face Interaction in Building and Complementing Online Community
Primary Author: Kaliya Hamlin
I got into a technical community looking at how to innovate an identity layer of the web. This community however was not built ‘online’ it began from conversations with others who shared similar interests - we only saw each other once in a while to keep the conversation going we began with a mailing list, many of us started blogging and then we had a wiki to support developing our shared vocabulary.
Our community is alive and active online and much of this book talks about this medium for community. This chapter is about our face to face gatherings - how they work and their design patterns and how they complement our online life. I co-produce and facilitate our major conference The Internet Identity Workshop that happens twice a year. They have been particularly powerful for the community and been a key factor in our success. I have extended this work and now design, facilitate and produce events for a range of different technical communities.
An obvious starting question why bother getting together face to face? Well, there are lots of reasons particularly that we are biological animals with millions of years of evolution geared to help us succeed in social face to face group interaction. Supporting face to face gatherings amongst online community members improves the quality of interaction online and can speed innovative and collaborative efforts. What do you do when you get together to really take advantage of the rare opportunity that face time presents? Two formats that I see again and again BOF’s and Traditional conferences are well understood but fail to take advantage the opportunity that face to face meetings provide. I will touch on both but go into detail about alternatives that offer more for community development. I will highlight some design patterns that work well for these gatherings.
Why get together?
Another page about face to face and its power
For these reasons face to face meetings change the quality of the conversation that you community can have online. This does not mean that everyone has to find a way to be in one place at one time. It does mean that facilitating opportunities where appropriate to meet up and connect helps create a deeper understanding. These meetings can be small around other events or they can be people from a world wide community getting together for several days.
Text is an format that seems simple - it just says what it says right? but can emotions can become amplified in that form. The reason for this is that it lacks tonal and visual context - hence emotional expressions can be over interpreted. This problem is added to by the fact that as we respond to text with matching emotional intensity - hence the cycle of escalating emotions in written form that can lead to flame wars. (reference Chris Allen, Life with Alacrity Flames:Emotional Amplification of Text Feb 13, 2006).
It is very hard to read in the emotions that people are expressing. The ability to read emotions and subtle meaning and tone is increases after you have met people face to face. It was startling to me how different I came to read the text of people in community mailings lists (my main technical community is working on user-centric identity) how differently I read the words people wrote on the Identity Gang list before and after. IT was like when I read the text after I met them I could ‘hear them’ say the text I was reading - get a sense from having met them what they meant and intended.
The disagreeable guy who was always contradicting folks on the mailing list. After you met him and talked with him and understand him better - both is personal style and maybe event some ‘issue’ going on in the back ground of their life that helps explain their tone or attitude things can go more smoothly.
Creating a Welcoming Space
Overall bringing people together is like hosting a dinner part. You need to think about providing nourishment, creating comfortable surroundings, a balance of activity and rest. There are a similar list of things to consider for a community gathering when bringing a community together.
Supporting Network Convergence
My experience has been in bringing together and supporting face to face processes in technical communities that are networks with shared interest and are outside organizational or corporate boundaries. This network convergence as opposed to organizational convergence (you are there because it is mandated by your job to participate in this Organizational development exercise.
There are many people who are attend these events because it is part of their work but they do so because they choose to be part of a community of fellow professionals working on a shared set of problems. They as a whole “mandated” to be there but choose to come together voluntarily.
Supporting communities coming together that do so voluntarily means that it is important to create opportunities for convergence - a shared meaning and purpose. This must be balanced with enough space for discovery and exploration.
There are two different directions for the energy of a group - convergence and divergence. Understanding how different processes support these energetic directions and how to design events so the flow between the two is right is important. I will draw from online tool examples to help explain this. A wiki is a converging tool it gives everyone in a community a shared display - it supports the recording and aggregation of information about community topics. Name space clash happens this where two people create a page with the same name and they find out about it - thus helping them grow some shared understanding.
A mailing list is divergent it supports a dialogue - back and forth discussion about different points of view. Having edit revert wars on a wiki is not a good away to have ‘discussions.’ This ability to express oneself is supported by the space and differences are ok in this format - not annoying. Hopefully through dialogue shared understanding emerges but the format supports a diverging energy. There is of course converging and diverging energy in both formats as there is in the following face to face processes and flow outlines.
There is a long tradition of BOF’s (Birds Of a Feather meetings) happening at technical conferences - often these are arranged by mailing lists/ communities ahead of time.
The BOF is well understood - basically you get together in a room and all introduce yourselves and then have a conversation about whatever the topic is. Often it is done in a room after hours at an event and does not involve food. BOF’s are my least favorite kind of meeting for communities. Isn’t their more you can do?
Local Evening Gatherings
These are another way to support a distributed community having face to face meeting opportunities.
One way you can do this is to just meet at a restaurant and eat together or have beers. A local pub can be a place to have this kind of event. It is good for just socializing. Face time is so rare that having these times not be filled with technical activities like writing code is important. This is the time to connect and learn with someone or a group in ways you cannot simulate or do in online environments. Good options for this kind of meeting include the buffet, the family style/asian restaurant where everyone can order one thing and share, casual dining places where people order and pay at the counter and food is delivered to the table. Tools like Dopplr facilitate face to face meetings for people who happen to be traveling through a city. I think it is good to encourage introductions amongst the gathered group so that people can recognize each other’s (remember most of them just know each others online handles) from their online context.
If the conversation is small like 8 or less people around a table this format is convergent - you were all sharing one conversation. Above a dozen people the event has a more divergent energy.
Speakers in the Evening
More then one hour of broadcast one to many format is to much for an evening community meetup. This hour should be couched on either side from anywhere to half an hour to one our of informal social networking time and include snacks and beverages.
I will repeat again do not fill ALL your time with the speakers a two hour thing IS to long to have people listening to a talking head (no matter how good it is) - people are not there just to hear “the speaker(s)” they are there to connect with others who share similar interests who are in the community. This format is good because people like to learn new things from speakers & having shared the experience of listening to a speaker they all have something to talk about. The socializing/networking time is divergent - people are self directed an doing what they want the sitting still and all watching the same presentation is convergent.
It is up to you whether to ask audience members to introduce themselves. It doesn’t take that long you can have a room of 25-100 people introduce themselves in under 5 minuets. If you have people state their name - where they are from and what they are passionate about - basically one sentence each you can do this. This format is more useful early on in the life of a community before people know each other really well (from gathering again and again). If they have been collaborating they will know each other's handle but will not know what they look like. Once a community knows itself well it doesn’t need to do this but it does need to have an awareness of new people entering the group and be sure to welcome them - learn something about them and help them meet others in the community that they might benefit from meeting. This is a process that has a balance between convergence and divergence - everyone gets to say who they are (divergence) and everyone hears everyone else (convergence).
1-2 Curated Speaker Format
Often tech communities meet in the evening and have speakers come and present. This can work really well if you have well curate the talks well - the speakers are knowledgeable and reasonably good at presenting their ideas face to face. This can be done at offices or at a small community center or theater space. It is important to remember that people are coming to these events for two reasons - both to learn and hear from the speaker and to connect with each other. Just assuming that they are there to learn from the speaker(s) and not leaving time for informal conversation or ‘networking’ is a waste of time.
An alternative to one or two long curated talks. Is anyone can present for 5 min model. This format was used in the Monthly Planetwork forms that I first learned about technology subjects. Planetwork invited anyone who wanted to to nominate themselves to talk at one of our evening events if what they wanted to present (we had a web form to accept their submissions). We would publish the list of speakers on the web page ahead of time. Our events started at 6 pm with munchies and wine (both from Trader Joe’s) the series of 5 min talks would begin around 7 and be done by 8 and we would close down our venue at 10pm after 2 hours of socializing / networking time.
An Organized Conversation
Formats like the Fishbowl, Spectrogram, Appreciative Inquiry and World Cafe can be used in evening gatherings with great results.
Getting together for a day or more.
A great way to ‘start’ connecting a community together is to piggyback on another conference. Put your community day for gathering on either side of another event that many of your community members are likely to attend anyways. These first two ways ways for niche communities to meet while also participating in a larger community.
The LONG BOF - As a small online community intentionally pick a conference that your community will find interesting and agrees to attend together. Meet up before it starts and then 'attend together' syncing up once or twice a day to talk and exchange what you are learning. - I met a really fun bunch of ENTJ’s (Myers Briggs) who were part of an online community for that personality type at the Accelerating Change conference. They were having so much fun getting to know each other in meet space and being stimulated by all the content at the event. It was like an ongoing BOF They also spent a day afterwards just hanging out with each other.
Building Critical Mass via other events. In the early days of the Identity Gang when the list was 20-150 people we used to meet at other peoples conference we would ask the organizers for a room to meet in for several hours either beginning, durring or after the conference. anywhere between 10 and 25 of us would gather to talk about different subjects. We began to get a clearer picture of how the we shared similar ideas and where the differences were. We also discovered after about 8 months of this that we really needed more time to really have the kinds of efforts we wanted to see happen emerge.
Format Choices:The Traditional Way
As the leader of the convening or appoint a committee decide who should talk and use the time to present to or lecture the community. This is like a traditional conference. It means that you need to set up a system for accepting submissions for talks, panels then you have to wade through them and pick and choose. If you have a passionate smart committed community that is used to online tools that support discussion self organization, and collaboration then this format can be stifling. Because how do you (the convener) know who has the gems the amazing bits that could propel the community forward or solve a problem. If you are in a fast moving technology sector it is very difficult to tell what the important topics or issues will be 3-6 months ahead of time. People attending with this kind of format typically enjoy the coffee breaks best.
The traditional format works if you are mainly aiming to ‘educate’ newcomers to broadcast information about your communities activities. Even with this desire to educate there are other format choices that you can use to achieve this goal. This format does not support intensive exchange conversation and collaboration amongst technical professionals who are peers.
The Web Changes Everything
The web changes ‘everything’ - including traditional conferences. Why would you go across the country to listen to people present papers, talk on panels, visit trade show booths or watch ppt presentations when you could do all of that ‘online’
- Papers - read them before hand
- Presentations of Paper - watch them on YouTube
- PPT Presentations - watch them on slide share and including podcasts
- Get a sense of someone - Read their Blog and check out their Flickr Stream
- Panel presentations - read a good blog conversation about the subject you are interested in
- Trade Show Booths - Type your industry niche in google - visit the websites of companies and do your research