Archive: The Masks We Wear

(Repost of an archived blog post from my old blog here.)

Back in the “olden days” of my first online community experience (1996-1997) on Electric Minds there was a topic called “The Mask We Wear.” It was one of those discussions that enabled me to see the power of online communication, and to explore with others how we can hide behind masks and use them to express our identity.

I can’t recall the details of the conversation. But I remember the visceral feeling of understanding something more deeply than before I entered the conversation.

Tonight I came across a link via the New Media Consortium’s Blog (Thanks, Alan) to this video from Robbie Dingo called Mask.

After watching it, I had that same feeling I had in the Electric Minds conversation those many years ago.

How we both see ourselves and represent ourselves, online and off, is an essential part of our connection with others. Even when we “hide” behind our masks, we are being some part of ourselves.

When we had only text based online interaction, with the occasional picture thrown in, we created those masks in our writing. Second Life, World of Warcraft and other games and virtual environments give us new ways to express ourselves, to hide, to flaunt, and to embody our identity.

A good friend of mine, while expressing her delight in her new Second Life experiences, said “I love my avatar.” When I saw it, I understood what she meant. She had captured something ineffable about herself in the avatar. At 600 miles away, her spirit and love showed through that avatar. It was remarkable.

In making our mark online – in our blogs, wikis, discussions, emails, avatars, digital stories and writings – we are sending a bit of ourselves out to the world.

It is pretty darn remarkable, these masks we wear.


Anonymous Candace said…
Interesting post but it loses something when the video is no longer available. Could you give an idea of what was there?

5:38 AM
Blogger Nancy White said…
Candace, the YouTube video embedded in the post is showing for me, along with the link. So it may have been unavailable for a bit. But your question leads me to think about how I can more carefully reference external material in case it IS unavailable. Good learning.In any case, it was a montage of Secondlife avatars, merging from one to the other with music in the background. What was fascinating to me was a) they way people have chosen to represent themselves in 2ndLife and b) what I saw in common and different as the images merged from one to the other. How are we alike? How are we different?

6:36 AM

Testing with a little history

One never knows a lot about one’s forefathers. I know a heck of a lot moreForefathers about my two grandmothers, a bit about one grandfather and almost nothing about the other one. While I’m testing my new WordPress site, I thought I would go ahead and scan and embed a picture my mom shared with me this summer.

Archive: Communities: Dancing with fire?

(Original post here on my old blog)

Originally uploaded by pteronophobia182.

The ongoing conversation about communities, networks, groups and individuals is always fascinating to me. I deeply appreciate the new possibilities unearthed for networks in the digital era, the flexibility personalization allows the individual, particularly for self directed learning, but I cannot let go of this voice inside of me that affirms and reaffirms the value of community. Particularly of community in the larger contexts of networks and individuals. They are a productive and interdependent set of forms; an ecosystem.

Martin Dugage wrote:

Why is it that the strongest advocates of a networked economy fail to see the importance of communities, which they wrongly equate to social networks?

Perhaps our resistance or worries about community may come from the fact that communities are like dancing with fire. There is something exciting and beautiful about them. When we have sufficient practice, we can dance with fire. When we don’t we get burned. They can and are both “heaven and hell.” But we can do things within them that most of us simply cannot do alone.

This is just a simple analogy and full of holes, but it just came to me when I saw this picture of my niece, Ayala, fire dancing. And not just fire dancing alone, but with others. With her community of fire dancers. Have they ever “burned” each other? I’d hazard a guess of “yes.” But in that quick burn, comes learning (hopefully!).

Last week 18 of us gathered here in Setubal Portugal for 2 days of dialog about communities of practice and three days of working together for others. Three days of practicing together, as John Smith called it.

The last time we were together in such numbers was 5 years ago. We were a barely formed group them. I was struck this time of how much we had grown, both as individuals in our practices and as a group. We danced with fire better. It was a joy to reflect with some of the group about how I experienced their deeper practice and how they have nurtured their natural talents and energies into forces in their worlds.

We initially plotted to do this work for others, together, coordinated by Bev Trayner, to fund our gathering. It isn’t cheap to convene a F2F of a global community. Bev and I had had an informal conversation months ago about “how much would it cost to gather and who might want us to do something for them.” Bev, in her typical amazing way, created the connections and made it happen. (Note: don’t underestimate the amount of work, energy and reputation this takes. Bev gave with a depth and breadth that is hard to even calculate.)

This act of working together is not insignificant when you consider that we were doing work for real clients with little pre-planning. Last Friday we were in a van and two cars, split up into work groups and planned a series of workshops for that very afternoon where we would negotiate with a leadership team four workshops related to school librarians in Portugal, which these leaders would then offer to their wider, emergent community the next day. One of our team jokingly called it “van planning” – a new form!

How often would you trust others to do something seemingly insane as this?

We could, because we have relationships of both practice and trust with each other. We have danced with fire together and separately in various permutations, but never as a whole like this. But we pulled it off. And I think it went well.

There were some significant learnings for me, that I’m just starting to unpack. Here are the first set, most easily available to my cold-clogged brains. (Communities share viruses too!)

1. The role of the new-bees in our group. This is always an area of learning for me both about the identity of the group, of individuals and my place within that context. Of the 18, we had 4 who had never been to one of our gatherings, 2 more who had been to smaller gatherings and the rest returned from the original Setubal Dialog from 5 years ago. There is quite a bit of explicit and implicit negotiation that is required to both welcome folks in and to keep forward momentum. The key point for me was when one of our group expressed her feelings about our, um, ahem, chaotic practices, right up front. She made them discussable thus a place of learning rather than solely of stress. In hindsight I would probably not put all the new folks into one team. I think it happened that way because of their particular expertise, but we have so much to learn FROM and WITH each other that perhaps mixing us up might be good.

2. Gender. In talking with Bev after the event, I was struck by an observation she made about gender and the fact that I don’t recall us ever talking about how gender shows up in our community. I want to bookmark this to come back to in the future. I think this may be something significant to explore when we try and develop and improve our practices of planning community events. There is a huge amount of logistical coordination and “scene setting” that goes into a gathering. I don’t think it is an accident that it is usually women doing this work. I wonder if it is easy to romanticize “washing up together” as a central learning experience if you are not the one who has been doing that every day at home for your family and others. I wish I would have had a web cam at the sink to see WHO actually washed up and IF they had significant learning conversations at the sink. I bet things are somewhere between the romantic notion and “total waste of energy.” 🙂

3. Negotiating processes. In a community made up of smart, quirky and diverse individuals who really love and respect each other, sometimes we can get in our own way. (Are we collectively “high maintenance?”) I sense there is a lot of wisdom in our group about group process, yet I also sense (and I would love to KNOW) that we all don’t fully step into the role of convenors at the needed moments. It is as if we are afraid our actions are acts of control and imposition. Our reactions to control are also significant. It would be worth a conversation. We decided to convene in Open Space this time and while I think it was a really good decision, we sometimes did not embrace it fully and may have missed some of the value that way. I also re-learned a lesson that I know and should be practicing: don’t facilitate and meta talk on the process at the same time unless everyone wants that. I made that mistake again. Oi! But I would like to think with my community more about how we make decisions.

4. Caring for the little things. Bev was our Deva of the master plan, carried out in an amazing manner. But there is the community perspective as well. All along there were always these moments when a community member noticed and cared for the little things. A hug in a moment of insecurity. Notes taken and shared during ‘van planning” so we could remember our crazy ideas. Shared shoes and socks. Heaters turned on so a bedroom would be warm after a late night session on the veranda. Driving some of the shoe-lovers to a quick shopping session in Lisbon. Picking people up at the airport even though that meant another drive into town – even when they could take a train/bus/taxi. Food prepared with both expertise and love (THANK YOU >ROGERIO!) Little things matter. I love little things. Personally, they give me great joy. It would have been fun to try and document them and tell that part of the story of the gathering.

Of course, then there were all the wonderful conversations and learnings from them. We need to gather our notes, review our drawings and make sense of all them. But for now, this is enough observations. Back to work!

Oh, and yes, I’m quite happy to dance with fire with my communities!

links to this post

What are your most useful synchronous online facilitation practices?

It amazes me how much the online interaction world has moved to embrace synchronous interaction. And not just in the same time zone. It is becoming common for me to have meetings at 6am or 9pm with colleagues spread across the world. We’re using VOIP, chats and more web meeting tools.

In exploring design options for synchronous meetings, I have been thinking about a gradient of modalities and technologies. For one shot interactions where you cannot expect a lot of investment in learning tools or processes, the conference call (land line and/or VOIP) is still the dominant choice, but I try to include SOMETHING visual in the mix. It could be a document or slide deck sent in advance via email, or browsing a shared webpage. Skype’s latest, version 3.0, has a plug in for a shared white board. It can only serve 2 people, but it allows another modality. Likewise, they have a co-browsing tool (which I’ve not explored yet) which could be a really great addition.

The reason to have something beyond the voice is two fold: one is to increase our engagement and participation, particularly for those of us who are not great in an aural-only mode. With a visual, I’m less apt to start doing my email or staring out the window. For the same reason, I love my cordless phone because I find I listen to long phone meetings better when I can walk around and move away from my computer. It does something to my thinking. I’m still hard wired for VOIP calls and, despite the price, I am tempted to get a bluetooth headset for the computer.

The second reason is other tools can support the process of the meeting or gathering. Using a chat room to collectively take notes, or a wiki to evolve the agenda and take notes during a meeting. Co-editing WHILE discussing a document. Queing up questions in a larger phone meeting via chat so that a) you know you are on deck to speak and b) people have a chance to be heard, especially if they are less inclined to jump in to a conversation.

When you get to the place where you are doing larger meetings (over 8 or so), or are doing ongoing live meeting practices, it starts making sense to consider more sophisticated tools and pratices. This is where things like web meeting tools, co-browsing, and such can be useful.

What I notice about web meeting tools is that most of us don’t know how to make the most of them. We may learn how to use all the tools and features, but we haven’t had exposure to good facilitation practices. We try and duplicate offlinen experiences (be they useful or not) and not really take advantage of the medium.

People like Jennifer Hoffman and Jonathan Finkelstein are seasoned synchronous facilitators who have written about the practice. I’ve been reading Jonathan’s latest, “Learning in Real Time” and it is full of great advice, particularly in a learning setting. Jonathan covers the why’s what’s and how’s. His technical review of web meeting features is excellent.

In the “why’s” he talks about the “threshold to go live.” In other words, know WHY you are going live. There is still a heck of a lot of useful applications for asynchronous online interaction.

But let’s get to the facilitation bit (Chapter 5) where Jonathan dives into practices. I love his line “inflate a bubble of concentration.” In other words, when we facilitate synchronously we not only have to manage the software, the domain of the conversation, but we also are working to legitimately request and get the attention of participants who, for the most part, we cannot see. We have to do this across a diversity of styles and skills. It is truly a “ringmaster” job.

There are some great examples in the book, and if you are facilitating online get the book. What I notice is that Jonathan writes about something I learned from my colleague, Fernanda Ibarra. It is the masterful use of a shared white board to move people from being consumers of a meeting to being active participants. Fernanda showed me how she prepared a whiteboard screen with clipart of a circle of chairs. As people entered the web meeting space, she invited them to write their names under a chair. This helped orient them to and practie with the tool, created a sense of “group” and gave a visual focus as people entered the “room.” It was brilliant. I’ve riffed on that idea and found it very useful. We’ve done After Action Reviews with the white board taking the place of a flip chart used F2F. We’ve even had virtual parties. This brings together voice, text, and images.

But back to the practices and skills. What would you say are the top three skills of a synchronous facilitator? The top three practices? Why?

Other Resources:
Top Synchronous Training Myths and Their Realities – By Nanette Miner
InSynch Training and their Synchronous Training Blog
LearningTimes training

Share: The Birth of a March of Dimes Online Community

Share: The Birth of a March of Dimes Online Community

In 2004, the March of Dimes created a new online community to support their mission to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth, and infant mortality.

With over 7000 members, the Share Your Story online community provides a platform for parents to share information and support one another. The most recent version of the community includes the ability for each member to have a blog, which has added a fascinating and well-adopted dimension to the community’s toolset. This paper is the story of designing and building Share.

The March of Dimes is a large, US nonprofit whose mission is to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth, and infant mortality. In 2003, the March of Dimes started its Prematurity Campaign, a multimillion-dollar research, awareness and education effort to help families have healthier babies.

As part of the campaign, the March of Dimes is working to meet the needs of parents who have a baby in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). During this stressful time, parents often find that their peers offer invaluable information and essential support.

Brenda.gif At the same time, the March of Dimes has been inspired by the Howard Dean presidential campaign and other online mobilizations that have used online community technologies to build awareness and cooperation and to raise funds. Why not create an online community to serve the needs of parents who have a baby in a NICU?

Projects like this often require a small and committed group of people to create and follow through on a vision. The staff at the March of Dimes saw the possibility and created a team to generate a vision for the community and build support within the organization to get it started. It worked! In April 2004, the March of Dimes’ new online community Share Your Story began its gestation.

From early on, the team was concerned about scalability and the level of organizational participation that would be required. Team members contacted other nonprofits to discuss online community design and staffing requirements; they used this information to set expectations for managing the community.

Building Share’s Technology

The original vision for Share (as the community came to be called by its members) was to enable members to share their stories and support one another. The online community would provide an inviting, safe, and warm place for members to share personal thoughts.

With this vision and organizational endorsement, the team turned its attention to the enabling technologies. While online discussions were a requirement and the logical starting point, the Share team also saw an opportunity to use weblogs or “blogs” as a platform for members to tell their stories on a continuing basis. The technology needed to handle both discussions and weblogs in an integrated environment. It also had to be customizable to fit March of Dimes Web standards and branding.
Karri.gifLee LeFever of Common Craft worked with the Share team to select a toolset and lay the groundwork. Lee was looking to balance the opportunities of new technologies with usability and the right amount of simplicity. At the time, Web Crossing and Akiva WebBoard both offered the functionality, but the Akiva weblogs were not as mature. The team selected Web Crossing, an established community-platform provider with hosted, customizable discussions, blogs and wikis.

The Share team created a prototype for the community with simple customizations for look and feel. It included discussion boards for the full community, blogs for March of Dimes Ambassador families, and the Dimes Blog, a behind-the-scenes look at the organization.

The team did not initially offer blogs to the entire community because it did not know if members were familiar and comfortable with blogs. No wizard was in place, making blog creation complex. In retrospect, providing some blogs but not opening them to all members may have contributed to their later adoption. Members could see and experience blogs and, at the same time, use discussions as the primary means of connection. When member blogs were added almost a year after launch, they did not compete with discussions, but filled a separate need that discussions could not fill.

With the completion of the site, Share was born on September 1, 2004, and the doors were opened.

Marketing and Opening the Community

As Share prepared for its first steps, BzzAgent donated a “buzz campaign” that provided the catalyst for driving initial membership. The development team invited volunteers and friends of the March of Dimes to log on. March of Dimes public service announcements and materials included information about Share.

Every day, new members joined the community. Connections were made and community was forming. By mid-October, Share had over 1,000 registered members. By Prematurity Awareness Day, a national educational event to raise awareness about prematurity in mid-November, 2,000 members had registered, and many more were visiting the site.

Social Architecture

Share began informally, giving members the freedom to express themselves as individuals. The main areas were Share Your Story, Message Boards, and the blogs.

Like many new community sponsors, the Share team’s first inclination was to build a structured set of discussions and hope that they fit the members’ needs. Instead, they chose to let the members decide the focus. This enabled the community to emerge based on usage, not guesses.

Personal introductions provided a first look at community members, their needs and expectations for the site. When a need emerged, members themselves created new discussion topics.

Melissa.gifAs the community grew and discussions diversified, the Share team at the March of Dimes grouped related topics into new forums, such as Poems and Stories and Feeding and Nutrition. This enabled the navigational structure to emerge based on the needs of members.

In the Share Your Story section of the site, which used the discussion-tool functionality, members described their family’s journey through the NICU. They expressed the joys and sorrows they experienced, creating compelling stories for both readers and writers. Often members would say, “No one knows what I went through except another parent who has gone through it.” These stories were the proof. With over 1,200 stories shared in the first six months, members formed deep and compassionate connections.

Message Boards became a catchall for everything else that emerged: social interaction, medical questions, resources, poems, and March of Dimes events, such as Prematurity Awareness Day. This area quickly grew into a tangle of discussions, many of which stayed active over time.

The early versions of the blogs were the third major feature of the site, but one that existed as a folder, or distinct area, within Message Boards. March of Dimes Ambassador families were invited to start their own blogs. They wrote about their children and their work in helping spread the mission of the March of Dimes. These blogs offered members a window into the organization via its volunteers. To highlight National Prematurity Awareness Day, the March of Dimes created a blog to chronicle the event’s activities.


For a range of reasons, most online communities launched by businesses and organizations include moderators and/or a community manager. Because the discussions in Share often focused on medical and psychosocial issues, five March of Dimes health education staffers read every post and responded on an as-needed basis. This ensured that the community had the information it needed and also prevented the spread of misinformation. Early on, the March of Dimes was concerned about the amount of staff time required for moderation. Each of the five moderators reviewed posts one day a week, spending on average 1-2 hours monitoring the site. The site’s community manager also reviewed posts and addressed general community issues.

When it came to ongoing discussions, the moderators looked to the community—and the community led the way, evolving a ”community culture.” Early members became very dedicated and self-policing—solving their own problems. They became community leaders. One group began to refer to themselves as PoPs (parents of preemies). Together, they worked hard to welcome every new member and to respond supportively to each new story.

The March of Dimes team was protective of the community, ensuring that members would not get strong-armed into donation or volunteer streams. In the spirit of community ownership, the staff was also reluctant to get overly involved in conversations, fearing that members would feel controlled or dominated. This hands-off strategy allowed the community to develop successfully, but later the team would learn that their participation was a necessary part of the experience for members.

The Share Team Gets Involved

Lisa.gifAfter the first few months, the Share community matured and stabilized. Share was providing significant value to members, and they were grateful to have the resource. The Share team found that whenever they posted messages, members would respond with multiple heartfelt thank-you’s. This was the first indication that members sought more participation from the March of Dimes.

While the March of Dimes staff initially took a “hands off” approach, a few team members began to get involved in the community, sharing personal information and pictures. Members greeted their participation with incredible warmth, reinforcing the value of March of Dimes involvement.

As time passed, members made it clear that they wanted to have more contact with March of Dimes representatives and to help the organization achieve its mission. Members did not see the March of Dimes as a faceless institution. Rather, they viewed the staffers as teammates, working with them to achieve the same goals.

Share Grows Up – Redesign

At the end of 2004, the Share community continued its growth. It was time to evaluate the first part of Share’s life and consider what was next. Despite some usability issues and organizational problems, members were happily and consistently using the original site. The connections and support they were finding made up for any problems with navigation or design.

Share Home.gif

For the Share community, the technology was secondary to the connections. But the possibilities of improvements were worth exploration and investment. Growth was straining the existing navigation scheme. It was time to explore if a richer design would make a difference as the community grew.

In early 2005, Nancy White of Full Circle Associates joined the Share team. Nancy and Lee evaluated the site and asked the community what they wanted and observed. The team conducted telephone and e-mail interviews with new and experienced members. Feedback on potential features was gathered via discussion threads on Share. This assessment was extremely valuable. Members revealed a number of unmet needs and wants.

For example, members wanted a link to their story or blog to be a persistent part of their Share identity as they found the stories to be a valuable tool for connection. Because of this suggestion, whenever a member creates a blog or short story on the redesigned Share site, a link is added to that person’s profile. In this way, a member participating in a discussion can find the blogs and short stories of other members by clicking on their names across the site.

Community feedback became the foundation for a major site update and reorganization. By February, membership had passed 4,000, and the team dug down to create a new integrated look, feel, functionality and social design.

The challenge was to add features and fix problems without disturbing the primary ways the members were using the site. The revised design needed to build on existing strengths and create new opportunities with technological and organizational improvements.

Using data from the users and a thorough site review, the team created a plan to update the site with new, integrated graphics; reorganize the content that was growing out of control; and add the capability for users to create blogs.

“Showing work in progress” was a key practice during the redesign. As artist Susan Lyons drafted a new graphic look, she shared screen shots with the community for feedback. As the development team considered new features, they asked members for their ideas. This exchange provided important input, kept the community informed, prepared members for upcoming changes, and gave them ownership of the work.

Since the redesign, community members have also served as an ever-ready focus group for other March of Dimes ideas and projects. They have become a world of “virtual volunteers.”

Throughout redesign and implementation, excitement was building in the community. In the end, the new design included:

  1. A new look and feel with integrated graphics and icons
  2. A more logical grouping of the site into four major sections (see below)
  3. A focus on member-created blogs
  4. Improved personal information and navigation

The site moved from having two major sections to four, reflecting the emerging needs of the members.

The new sections are:

  • Community Center: A place to get help with the site, find out what is happening in the community, make introductions and “hang out”
  • Share Your Story: A place for members to describe their experiences as a one-time short story or an ongoing blog
  • Parent-to-Parent: A collection of topical discussions important to parents (for example, health issues, coping)
  • Get Involved: A place for members to support the work of the March of Dimes

Building the Blogs

blog image.gifThe addition of member blogs offered a series of challenges. One of them was features. In creating the blogs, what options should the members have? Should a navigation column with a blogroll be enabled? What about blog categories? In the end, the team chose a simple approach with no columns and only two options for the user: the blog title and the URL shortcut.

Another challenge was to customize the Web Crossing blog feature so that it was both easy to use and distinctive from the discussions. Enabling members to easily distinguish blogs and discussions was an important design priority. Through clear labeling, graphic design and communication, the blogs were differentiated and accepted by members as a different resource.

Relaunch and Birthday Party

On July 26, 2005, the new version of Share went live to strong community acclaim. The team originally envisioned a closed beta with a select group of testers. Instead, they chose to do the beta publicly, much like the development process. Members were invited to help identify and squash bugs, which they did in impressive numbers. As with the original version of Share, they were primary owners of the new site, and their participation was essential.

As Share turns one, it is clear that this is a strong, healthy baby. The site is functioning well, and plans are already afoot for another round of tweaks. As of August 2005, membership is nearing 6,000. In less than a month, over 70 members have created blogs. About 100 new people per week are joining the site, and a second marketing effort is being planned.

Most importantly, the members are as dedicated as ever to providing each other with a supporting and caring environment.

This is a message from Darcy which captures her perspective on Share:

The future of online communities for the March of Dimes is bright. The organization hopes to create a Spanish-language site touching on a broad range of pregnancy and birth issues as well as a community for people affected by birth defects. Share is a great model that can be replicated to support other aspects of the March of Dimes mission.

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Note: This case study or “story” is from Lee LeFever of Commoncraft and I. We created it in part to document the birth of the Share Your Story community, in part to share what we learned, an in part for the Global PR Week event this past September. We are both posting it on our blogs as a sort of “collaborative” share!