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Online Community

I was just at a conference (actually, it was an ‘unconference’) in Mountain View for online community professionals. The design was Open Space Technology, which means the sessions were collaboratively designed ‘on the fly’ by the people who were there. That was a gas, and made it easier to connect with the other participants, including wise, experienced, ‘famous’ (ok, it’s all relative) online community pioneers like Howard Rheingold, Cliff Figallo and  Gail Ann Williams (all from the original WELL, Gail now at Salon).

Unfortunately none of them led sessions, and since this was my
first unconference, I was a bit too shy to propose one of my own. So, until I
connected personally with these folks and others like Jay Cross and Tracy Ruggles, etc. I was
actually beginning to wonder if I was in the right place.

It seemed that no matter what the
‘title’ of the first few sessions I was attending was, every session seemed to
be about control in one
way or another.

As I talked to more people, I realized that the majority of other
professionals at this event were
managers of internal forums at large corporations or equally large and specifically-targeted non-profits and
their main issues seemed to revolve around ”policing’ and managing
aberrant behavior. There were also many folks relatively new to this whole online community world who’d been given the job of developing community in their organizations. They came for ideas & inspiration, but were also bound by rules and objectives laid out by their bosses and/or organizational structures.

It felt a little foreign to me, since the issues and questions I am grappling
with are so different. Rather than struggling to control the interaction,
the groups I am working with want to foster self-determination and
initiative. Rather than wanting to set the agenda, we’re trying to
create the conditions for co-evolution and collaboration.

Maybe it is a matter of being at a different stage in the process, or at a different scale – many of the online communities I help steward or am involved with are smaller (under 1,000 people), more ‘personal’, and tend to be based on shared values and intertwined online / f2f relationships – but I think there are also profoundly different views of what an online community is, what inspires us about them and how to best engage within the field.

So I didn’t quite ‘find my tribe’ there in the way I would have liked, but it was undoubtedly exciting to have
online community be the topic of a large event like that and I
did have some fantastic conversations with the afore mentioned group of renegades. I also learned more about a few cool tools, made some
new connections and strengthened some older ones. Maybe I’m just too shy to really ‘get’ these events where everyone interesting seems to already know each other. I think I need a weekend slumber party to really get going…

At least I’m having a lot of fun with the wiki – provided by unconference sponsor  Social Text – which makes me think it’s just a matter of medium. Maybe I’m one of those aberrant people who is better suited to online conversation than in-person schmoozing in large groups. 🙂 Anyway, I’m having fun with the wiki and getting inspired about new creative ways to use the form.

Next time I’ll propose a session on the art of creating sacred space online, or the importance of beauty in supporting deep connections between people, or developing language for an earth-based internet…

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