Dec 16, 2010
On arrival at Newsfoo a couple of weeks ago in Phoenix, Arizona, each participant was given a notebook. The notebook may have just been a rather fine example of conference schwag, but looking back at it after the weekend, I realise that mine speaks volumes – not what I jotted down during sessions, but what I didn’t. Or rather, the pattern of my note-taking during the event.
I noted down on a fresh page the name of the session I was attending, and the time, so I would later be able to piece together the sequence of sessions I attended at least, through a fug of jetlag. Underneath each session’s title, there follows about a page of notes – the questions under discussion, framing the topic, perhaps, or salient quotes and ideas. And then, by the time we get to the second page, the notes descend into lists – of names (people in the room and beyond), book titles, publications, other references cited, half ideas, questions – all headed by an underlined FOLLOW UP LATER.
This tells me two things about my experience of Newsfoo: One, that I was frequently too busy listening, thinking and participating to record the event. There was so much going on! And two, that each session acted as a catalyst for further thinking, reading, conversation afterwards. In other words, you needed your attention in the room; and the session was only the beginning.
This perhaps provides some context for the misunderstood suggestion from O’Reilly organisers, who dissuaded people from liveblogging and tweeting during sessions. Some – who weren’t there, incidentally – saw this suggestion on the event wiki and reacted angrily, referring to a “twitter ban” and alleging that this was part of a conspiracy to keep the content of the event secret, cabal-like.
On the contrary. My impression was that people were free to socialise and cover their perspective of the event (at least anything that wasn’t covered by O’Reilly’s famous FrieNDA, which is like a person- or statement-specific Chatham House rule), just not in real time. And since the weekend in Phoenix, there have emerged a number of stimulating, informative and thoughtful blog posts – and I expect more will emerge in time.*
So it’s not that nothing was said. It’s that, like coffee, Newsfoo reactions took time to percolate – though, as a non-coffee-drinking Brit, I’m bound to say that a good cup of tea needs time to steep (we call this “masting”) before it’s ready to drink. Whisk the teabag out too soon and your cuppa is insipid, weak – hardly worth bothering with at all.
In my experience, inserting a pause in usual social reporting activities/obligations provided time and mental space to listen to, reflect on and add to what was being said.
It was a welcome change. As a frequent event speaker, Twitter fills me with both joy and dismay.
Joy, because seeing an audience full of people cradling glowing screens tells me that whatever I say will resonate louder (beyond the conference hall) and longer (archived online and findable beyond the timebox of the event) than it ever would have done previously.
Dismay, because I recognise as a blogger and long-term Twitter user (since Nov 2006) myself, that a third of their attention will be spent hunting my words for appealing bon-mots: portable insights and notable quotables (which in turn makes me change or form messages to be easily tweetable – focused on the wider audience getting all this context- and slide-free and second hand, rather than those in front of me. That means it’s harder to weave a story through a presentation, because every slide and statement needs to stand alone).
Another third of attention will be taken up with the intricacies of transcription, editing down and paraphrasing to fit the cruel constraints of a text-entry box on a screen.
And the last third of their attention will, inevitably, be occupied by consuming the aggregated output of everyone else in the room – the backchannel – or elsewhere, because it is practically impossible to make using Twitter a broadcast-only occupation, even if you want to. Once the connectivity portal is open, our attention too-easily tumbles down it like Alice and the rabbit-hole. Under normal circumstances, that’s good – it should be read, as well as write – but when you’re competing with the rest of the world’s status updates for someone’s attention, it feels rather less positive.
On the wiki and at the opening event of Newsfoo, the organisers urged us to ‘be in the room’. They weren’t talking about physical presence – they meant attention.
This is important for a couple of reasons.
In a small conversing group, the social dynamic is changed when someone’s attention – and eyes, and fingers – is focused on their personal screen. Try it next time you’re out with friends, an see how long it takes one of them to wave a hand in front of your face and say “Hello? We’re right in front of you! Are we boring you?”
Second, attempting to liveblog or tweet proceedings mean making a conscious transition from participant to observer. By doing do, you step back from the circle, choosing to document and interpret from above rather than being involved. Even anthropologists say that skews your perspective.
The combination of these two things is that at an event like newsfoo, you wouldn’t be able to effectively participate and you wouldn’t be able to pause, reflect and parse the conversations you were present for, because your focus is on an external audience – yours – rather than a present community right in front of you.
I ruminated on these ideas in a comment on Steve Buttry’s recent blogpost about the event:
“…we were encouraged to be “in the room” – fully engaged with the conversation taking place around us. That felt like a good thing, and meant I focused on the conversation and participating in it, ruminating over ideas in my head overnight and on the journey home and since.
One thing I noticed was that since the sessions were much smaller than you might see at a normal conference – I counted 5 in the smallest session, 30 in the biggest – it was very involved and discursive. A discussion among engaged peers rather than a presentation from someone on a stage, witnessed by an audience. There was no audience. Everyone was involved and engaged. As a result, there was actually very little opportunity – or time, or desire – to tweet or liveblog in real time. Doing so would have involved making a conscious shift from “participant” to “observer” – stepping out of the conversation, focusing attention on fingers and the context of an external audience, not presence in the room at the time. And there was so much to discuss! Plenty of time for distillation and external exploration (and exposition) later – but who’d want to waste the opportunity to be present and engaged?
Plus as a participant, it was actually quite liberating to feel that I wasn’t going to be quoted out of context, or would have to limit what I said, or had to speak in soundbites (as is often the case when speaking at conferences). Usually, “anything you say may be taken down and used in evidence…” – but not this time.
For the most part, at newsfoo people were pretty good at being considerate of this. But I noticed a couple of people tweeting continuously throughout sessions – quotes, statements, examples, ideas – which made me uncomfortable, frankly. How will I be able to invoke the frieNDA if what I’ve just said has already been captured and re-broadcast? Would I need to preface everything with a caveat? And also, we were invited as participants, not reporters. But I guess old habits die hard.
Participant is not an accidental word, by the way, used in the way politicians say ‘community’ and mean ‘demographic’, or Mark Zuckerberg says ‘friends’ and means ‘random people you once shared a fleeting context with’. Every invitee – it was invite-only, but according to whose design or criteria I can’t say (because I don’t know, not because it’s a secret!) – was expected to participate fully in the forming and the content of the event as it unfolded over three days in the desert. Indeed, if they hadn’t, then the event wouldn’t have emerged as it did. And that’s the point of an unconference.
I’ve been to unconferences and Open Space Technology events before, and one of the first things you learn is that there are a bunch of overarching guidelines to bear in mind. At Open Space events, these are Harris Owen’s Four Guiding Principles and One Law, the first of which is: whoever shows up (to event or session) is the right group. Though the overall event may be by invitation, all sessions are self-generating and self-selecting. Whoever decides to show up to each changes the content and the dynamic by their presence and participation. A room of 20 people has a very different participatory dynamic – it needs facilitating, and not everyone will get an opportunity to speak, for example – than a cluster of six, which can be more conversational and evolving.
After Newsfoo was over, some of those watching the event from afar commented that it seemed like a forum for Thinkers rather than Doers. I’m not sure that it’s fair to contrast the event with a hackday, where everyone’s focused on building things, with the skills to do so. There were plenty of people there who you might define as “doers” but the important thing is that it was a thinking – and talking, debating, discussing – event. So comparing it to a hack day is like comparing a community meeting to a barnraising.
But beyond this, I reject the classifications being used. Thinker? Doer? The good news is, increasingly, we don’t have to choose which one we are. Calling someone a “doer” is insulting – it implies there is no thought behind their actions. What are they, Doozers? Automatons? And calling someone a “thinker” just reminds me of Deep Thought. I’m a thinker who does. A doer who thinks. Welcome to my world. Stop trying to pigeonhole by increasingly obsolete definitions.
I feel extremely privileged to have been invited to participate in Newsfoo. Though I was invited to a previous FOO in Sebastapol, I wasn’t able to make it, so when the invite came for this one, I jumped at the chance to get involved. And I’m ever so glad I did.
One thing that people who’ve been to FOO events before tend to say is “you’ll often feel like the dumbest person in the room” – but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. In any industry full of posturing, egos, hierarchy and people obsessed with the sound of their own voices, interesting, insightful people sometimes get drowned out. As with any meeting, the first few Newsfoo sessions were understandably rather rife with attendees jockeying for social position, trying to establish credentials and influence the direction of the group (this part of normal community-forming behaviour; happens with monkeys as well as news professionals). But thankfully this settled down and subsequent sessions were frustrating for entirely other reasons – so many ideas! So many brilliant voices and ideas! Not enough time or space to hear everyone! I felt like by the time Sunday lunchtime rolled around, connections had been made, conversations begun and synapses firing through a haze of jetlag and late-night werewolf action (see above: I’m a villager, I tell you!). It was time to leave, and I was ready to begin the next level of conversations! I’m sure everyone who’s attended a similar event will have said this at some point, but I could have done with it being twice as long, to fit in more sessions, more conversations in breaks, more levels of discussion and idea forming. And more Werewolf. Perhaps next time, if there is another one?
But this is where that notebook I mentioned at the beginning of this post has come in very handy since my return. Obeying my own scrawled underlining, I’ve followed up on resources, conversations, contacts and ideas. Newsfoo only lasted a few days in a desert, but the conversations, connections and ideas continue to emerge.
There’s plenty more to say about Newsfoo. I hope I’ll get a chance to distill my thoughts (and sparse notes) about specific topics and sessions over the coming weeks. In the meantime, more thinking and doing…
PS Incidentally, I could claim that this blog post took a couple of weeks to publish following my return from Arizona because since then I’ve been pondering the event, turning the ideas and conversations over in my head like a boiled sweet in my mouth. That’s partly true, but more likley is that unfortunately directly on my return from Newsfoo I succumbed to a nasty seasonal virus – Newsflu? – (possibly related to going from -8°C London, covered in 24″ of snow, to 25°C Phoenix and back, via two transatlantic flights in four days) which knocked me out for most of the last ten days.