In Memoriam — Peter Kollock

Peter Kollock via UCLA TodayIn Memoriam — Peter Kollock / UCLA Today

Peter Kollock, 49, a professor in the Department of Sociology, was killed Saturday, Jan. 10, in a motorcycle accident near his home in Calabasas. Trained as a social psychologist in experimental methods, he was an exceptional teacher who provided his students with the analytical tools and life wisdom to reach new levels of personal and social understanding.

Peter, we never met, but through your writings, you were a teacher to me and your writings on how we are together in cyberspace has informed so much of my work and online life. You will be missed than perhaps by more than you could imagine.

Exploring the place between boundaries in communities and networks

the spaces between the scoring spacesIn her PhD work, Lilia Efimova has been one of my teachers and thought partners, starting from the summer she spent with my family here in Seattle while doing a fellowship at Microsoft Research. In the post Blog as Edge Zone, Lilia gets to the heart of what has been drawing me lately in my thinking and slow, personal research.

…blogging supports creating relations with unknown and unexpected others, often across various boundaries.

While many of us struggle to define “community” or “network” or “group” I keep on getting the sense that the important changes, fundamental changes in the way those of us online live our lives, are happening in the margins in between and across boundaries. Yes, we belong to tight bounded communities and broad reaching networks. But it is how we navigate across them, and connect, disconnect and reconnect with ideas, content and people in those transversing practices. 

Lilia has done a great job of describing what I have been “sensing” from the perspectives of blogs. I think there are similar things we can describe around different online interaction tools and the practices associated with them.  We can examine this from the quintessential change these tools and practices create in our ability to “be together.” 

In February, Barbara Ganley, Laura Blankenship and I will be exploring this with a session we’re offering at Northern Voice. We will dance the limbo, talk about being in limbo and look for patterns for making the most of this boundary crossing and all the unnamed places in between.

I had hoped to write more about this, but lately work keeps me away from that loose time I need to write these things. So this is a little bookmarker out to the world. 

Let’s think together.

More on community management (part 3 or “what’s in a name”)

Otto's ear
Creative Commons License photo credit: os♥to
I hate titling these blog posts with the words “community management.” After writing post 1 and post 2 on this topic (triggered by Chris Brogan), the words just feel wrong. But because this is the label that has been floating across our blog conversations, I’m keeping it in as “connective tissue.” I was actually thinking about “The Giant Ear!”

So why am I writing a third post in three days on community management? (Instead of going for a walk this morning. Uh oh.) It is “in the air.” For those who have had a baby, it’s like once you get pregnant, all of a sudden you notice all the other pregnant women walking around town! Once you start putting blogging your ideas on something, you notice others who have thought/said/tickled around the same thing. The waves of blogging conversations about community management seem to be washing on the shore closer together these days.

While catching up on some feeds, I saw Matt Moore’s bit on
chief conversation officer.

Organisations need Social Media Relations people. And because of the participatory nature of the social media, these people will have to blog. And comment on other blogs. And Twitter. And all that other stuff. They will encourage, advise and look out for bloggers and social media headz in their own organisations. And they will have to believe in what their organisations do (be it curing cancer or causing it) or else they will get found out.

Everyone wants to be Chief Talking Officer. Who wants to be Chief Conversation Officer?

Hm. Matt is talking about something different than this animal we’ve been calling community manager, but some of the functions he lists hearken back to Chris’s list. But do you feel the dissonance that I do? Just the title “officer” shows us the polarities that we activate when trying to reconcile a network activity with a corporate structure.

Control <–> Emergence
Talking <–> Listening
Planned <–> Evolving
Being in charge <–> Being able to be an effective network actor

We are recognizing these polarities or tensions. (YAY!) They are showing up in thousands of blog posts and creeping into books. They emerge from deep roots and cannot be ignored or wished away. Yet it seems to be hard to talk about them within organizations and even the “job descriptions” we see more of every day. (Check the listing of online community manager blogs on Forum One’s site or on Jake McKee’s.)

Let’s make them discussable, and we can discover the way forward. Let’s discuss them — with every boss and leader who will listen. Let’s encourage the network around organizations to tell them how they feel about being managed – or listened to. Let’s find a way to use the power of the network for our organizations, and with it, the multiplied, nested power of the communities that live in and spring from the network. (Oh heck, I’m getting all riled up and haven’t even had a cup of tea this morning!)

To circle back to this idea of “community manager,” and what it is becoming in a network age, the first thing is to be brave enough discuss the idea that it may be “management” in the frame of business structures and some “older ways” of doing things, but in terms of the action in the network, it is not management as we know it. It is is about being connective tissue between an organization and the world/network it lives within. It is about activation, listening, pattern seeking and then bringing that back into the current context of the organization – at whatever stage that organization is in becoming a network organization. It is about reconciling that businesses, in their interaction with the world (customer, vendors, regulators) have opened the door to a new way of being in the system that requires more than management. More than measurable data. More than targets and goals. It requires intuition, intellect and heart.

Heart? Community Managers and HEART she says? INTUITION???

Yes. Heart and intuition, but not in the absence of intellect. Because systems include that beautiful, irrational, impulsive part of human life – emotion. “Community” and “network” both imply human beings. The person you entrust to guide and represent and help your organization learn – this person we have been calling the “community manager” – is your person who stewards your connection to both hearts and minds. Who listens with every available channel, including intuition. How do you measure your ROI on intuition? On heart? I’d ask, what are you losing every day by ignoring them.

So what would you call that role? Magician? The Giant Ear? Elder? I’m currently stumped.

(edited later for a silly typo)

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

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!