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Debby Kilburn: Goatweb

by Debby Kilburn, February 2003

We have the power to create spaces where people come together to do good. That is what I told my web design class last night. The Internet is not about creating flashy websites, trying to sell products, pornography, and free software. It is about bringing people together in ways never before possible and putting them in places they never imagined. As web designers, we have the power to create spaces that attract people and to give them the tools to communicate.

I normally don't share my websites with my class for several reasons. Currently, most of them have outdated designs that I haven't had time to keep up, mostly because of my graduate work right now. I also don't want to hold myself up as an "expert" or a model that they feel they need to follow. I know that some of my students will be better artists than I am, better programmers, etc., and I am ok with that. I see my role in the whole thing as giving them the basic tools and sending them forth to create and learn. However, there has been an experience on one of my websites recently that really drives home the power of what we are doing and why we are doing it.

So what prompted this outburst of reflective insight? A community of practice that has grown up around a space that I created and initially facilitated. A member posted a thread titled "My Goats Were Shot" (http://goatweb.com/coffeeshop/showthread.php?threadid=1293) in January that gave me a glimpse of what was to come. Her neighbor had slaughtered her animals and the Goatweb community rallied to support her. To date there have been over 300 replies and 5600 page views on that thread alone. More recently, a thread called "Good News, Bad News" (http://goatweb.com/coffeeshop/showthread.php?threadid=1558) has captured our attention.

The story begins with a young 16 year old girl, Rebecca, who has always wanted a goat. She lives in Oklahoma and joined our community last November. She asked lots of questions, wanting to know as much as possible before she got her first animal. We could tell she was eager and excited and willing to learn. Finally, the moment arrived and she picked up her new baby from the breeder in January. Of course, she came to Goatweb to share the good news, but to also ask some questions about some problems she thought the little girl had. Our community freely gave ideas and advice, but eventually her little goat became sicker and people recommended that she take it to the vet. It only got worst from there, as the vet could not figure out the problem. Rebecca kept posting this whole time and we could feel her anguish as she saw her dream fade away. Her posts were always detailed and articulate, and we were all impressed by the depth of her feelings for the little goat she had only had for a few weeks. Then, Wednesday, she simply posted "She died". I almost started to cry and you could feel the collective silence in our community as people who had been caught up in the story wondered what to do.

Of course, communities are all about providing support in times of trouble, and that is exactly what happened. Messages of support, comfort, and sympathy poured out, encouraging Rebecca to come back and letting her know that she did all that was possible to do. We didn't hear from her for a day, and I am sure many sent personal emails expressing their concern directly to her.

In another thread, one of my moderators, Paul, was planning a move back to his native Australia. He lives in Lexington, Kentucky and has been trying to get myself and the other 3 moderators to take his goats when he leaves so he could feel secure that they were in good hands. Paul had been following Rebecca's story and was moved to offer her a mother and 6 week old baby. He felt confident that his goats would be in caring hands and was willing to just give them to her. Now the question became how to get the goats from Lexington to Tulsa, Oklahoma. The idea of a "goat train" emerged as people who lived along the route offered to transport the goats across legs of the journey. Rebecca was tentatively interested, but you could tell she wasn't sure it would actually happened. She was still hurting when she attended church this last Sunday. Her pastor spoke to her about life and death and the entire scheme of things, and that helped, so on the ride home, she brought up the idea with her parents. I am sure they were skeptical, but after she showed them this thread, they said "Yes!".

Now this community of goat lovers from around the country has organized themselves (ttp://goatweb.com/coffeeshop/showthread.php? threadid=1733), generated maps and route assignments, set meeting dates, investigated livestock transport regulations, and planned other details to make this trip possible on March 14th. They are talking about documenting the whole thing through digital images and video and maybe even creating a children's book. Someone has contacted Animal Planet, so who knows where it all will go. It has spawned numerous other threads, including one where people can share uplifting stories (http://goatweb.com/coffeeshop/showthread.php? threadid=1752) of how doing something good seems to cause other good things to happen.

So what was my part in the whole thing? I don't know that I even contributed to the thread. I simply created a space where people could come together and learn, share, and build community. I stand back amazed at how people are connecting, what relationships are forming, and what is being created. I recognize that as educators and facilitators, we don't often get experiences that measure up to this one, but I also realize that we do have the power to change the way people interact and learn, the power to set forces into motion that go beyond our wildest expectations. People connecting to people... isn't that what this is all about?

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