Webmaking, one year in

August 19, 2012 § 3 Comments

The Mozilla Webmaker idea has come a long way. This time last year, it was just that: an idea. The Mozilla Drumbeat team met late last July to discuss where to go next. While on vacation, I wrote up notes from that meeting and began a series of blog posts about what became Mozilla Webmaker.

During this year’s vacation, I took a look back at last year’s notes. Here is the summary section:

a. We set up Drumbeat to figure out how to extend our mission beyond Firefox (and beyond software).

b. What we found: Mozilla has an opportunity to build the next generation of web makers. This opportunity is huge.

c. At it’s core, this is about helping makers and creators understand, use and extend the building blocks that make up the web.

d. It’s also about creating a new kind of learning institution and new web tools that invite creativity, tinkering and invention.

e. We can — and should — do these things. They will help us keep the Mozilla spirit alive even as the web changes.

It felt good to look back at these notes. I’m proud of how we’ve focused and refined these ideas. We’ve really doubled down on this original thinking and brought it to life. In particular, I’m proud of where we’ve gone with the idea of ‘new web tools that invite creativity, tinkering and invention.’ Creativity apps for the web could become one of Mozilla’s biggest sweet spots over the coming years: Popcorn and Thimble have given us an early glimpse of this.

It does feel like we left one very important thing out of the bullets above: community and contribution. This really struck me as I re-read my notes. In our early work on the Mozilla Webmaker concept, we did good job of nailing the ‘why’ (create a web literate planet) and the ‘what’  (tools and learning programs the fuel creativity on the web), but we focused much less on the ‘how’ (by working with people around the world who share our vision).

Of course, a great community has sprung up around Mozilla Webmaker. Well over 1,000 of you helped shape our early thinking and ran events as part of our Summer Code Party. But this omission from our early framing does make me wonder: have we put enough emphasis on contribution and community?

My guess is ‘probably not’: we could be doing a better job of finding, supporting and providing value to people around the world who want to help create a web literate planet. Personally, figuring out how to up our game in this area this is my number one priority this fall. I’m going to post more as I dig into this. In the meantime, I’m very much open to suggestions and feedback on this front.

Branding at Mozilla community events

February 2, 2012 § 3 Comments

The Mozilla Japan team did a great job at branding at the recent Hive Tokyo Pop-up. In particular, they a) made a typical cafe look like a Mozilla space while also b) giving community projects a good way to explain themselves with hackable signs. It impressed me enough that I wanted to share.

The core asset was a poster-sized glossy foam core board with Mozilla branding around the edge and a big whiteboard space in the middle:

For people who don’t do events, this may seem like no big deal. But it’s huge. At something like a Mozilla Festival Science Fair, these posters let presenters tell their own story while still using a single brand to pull together the whole event. Here are a couple of signs from the event:

In addition to these poster boards, Mozilla Japan also did a good job of general signage and small elements that pulled the space together in a cohesive way. They even had small event signs to cover over the cafe’s own signage (didn’t get photo). A nice touch!

We should emulate some of this stuff for our community event spaces at Mozilla offices. I’m going to investigate building up a set of materials like this for the Toronto office at the start using generic Mozilla branding. We should also investigate for community events we do in cities around the world. We’ll probably also do some stuff like this for the Mozilla Science Fair at MacArthur’s DML conference in San Francisco.

Of snowballs and speedgeeks

April 25, 2008 § 2 Comments

I love watching snowballs roll downhill. The whole unconference meme is certainly one such snowball. In many ways, geeks have taken open space meetings further and wider in the last three years than mainstream facilitators have in the last 20. Which, as someone who has tented in both camps, has been amazing to watch.

Of course, rolling snowballs rarely leave time to reflect on questions like: why is this snowball rolling? and how can we make it roll faster? The result for unconferences: few people have moved beyond the basic open space tool set. Which is okay. Open is groovy on its own. But it gets even better when you spike the punch some additional catalytic ingredients. Oh, and a pinch of flattened power dynamics also helps. Very important.

What does this mean in practice? Unconferences need to layer in a bigger diversity of engaging, catalytic, people-connecting session formats. World Cafes. Spectrograms. Fishbowls. And even (gasp!) games. Like the web itself, formats like these focus unstructured space in ways that help us make new friends, spark new ideas and run with them really fast.

I’ve put stuff like this in my events for years, as have people my like friend and co-conspirator Allen Gunn. However, most events that call themselves unconferences haven’t evolved past pure open space. Which is why I was so happy see Sarah Milstein‘s post on speed Q+A’s at O’Reilly Web2Open:

We ran small speed Q&As with the experts: we set up five tables,
one each for programmers, designers/UI specialists, marketing/community
experts, businesspeople and undeclared, and then we had five experts–Clay Shirky, Kara Swisher, Matt Cutts, Saar Gur and Tim O’Reilly–each
hold a nine-minute informal Q&A at a table. Every nine minutes, the
experts switched tables until they’d hit them all. The whole thing took
50 minutes, plus lots of lingering afterward. It had great energy, and
people were smiling the entire time.

This is akin to the speedgeek format that Gunner started using in 2004: ten presentations great presentations in an hour, with everyone roving around the room.

What excited me most about Sarah’s post was not that she was using a session format I like (which I do). Rather, I was happy to see someone reflecting out loud about ways to innovate and improve unconferences. We need more of this. And, I suspect, there is more of it going on than we know about.

Which makes me wonder: is there a simple way to capture, synthesize and share techniques people are using to make unconferences better? There is the Aspiration wiki, but that deals quite specifically with how Aspiration runs events (full disclosure: I am board member). And, there is OpenSpaceWorld, but it is religiously just about open space. I am thinking about something like a ‘making-the-unconference-snowball-roll-faster’ collective wiki of techniques.

Would this be useful? A waste of time? Does something (good) like this already exist? Should we just use wikipedia (which already has some useful entries)? I’d be interested to hear what people have to think.

A small feedback note for Sarah about the speed Q+A format: Most of the responses to your ‘what could we do differently?’ question suggest adding more time for each presentation. Having facilitated dozens of speedgeeks everywhere from CopyCamp to the iSummit to Web of Change, I would suggest the opposite. Make them shorter, and do more of them.The idea is to spark ideas and to help you radar people to talk to later. It’s hypertext. Take note of who you liked, and find them in the hallway track. Also, get beyond the ‘expert’ idea. It makes the whole experience more like television and less like the web.

Challenge. Change. Conversation. Revolution.

March 24, 2008 Comments Off on Challenge. Change. Conversation. Revolution.

Whatever it is that I do for a living today, it all started with community video. Five years as a portapak toting video activist in the early 90s gave me deep roots. It sparked DIY entrepreneurship and hacking. It taught me that media is conversation. It fascinated me with the power of fluid, open, participatory ways of working. In so many ways, community video made me me.

Much of my inspiration came from the NFB‘s Challenge for Change: a late 60s effort to put video cameras in the hands of the poor and marginalized. Like the Challenge-for-Changers, I trained scores of people to make their own media. I helped build half a dozen media collectives. I pitched in on a few very important tapes, and on hundreds of energizing, but ultimately forgettable, hours of video fun. I committed every waking hour (and many dreaming hours, too) to the community video revolution.

And then, one day, I just gave it all up. I gave it up for the Internet.

In 1994, as the non-techie world got it’s first glimpse of the web, I stopped preaching video and began to teach activists how to send email. Unlike the television world of the early 1990s, the culture of the Internet encouraged me (and millions of others) to use words like ‘participatory’ and ‘media’ in the same sentence. It was the perfect backdrop for a 10+ year adventure building social change media channels, co-creating participatory, unconferency conversations and collaborating with community tech activists all around the world. This adventure has become my life.

The thing is, I’ve never forgotten Challenge for Change. I’ve carried it in my heart everywhere. Last week this part of me stirred, and I smiled.

Misha asked me to help with facilitation for Handheld, an unconference built around an Internet-era participatory media project on inner city health. All of the women participating in the project a) used to live on the street and b) have recently had babies. They took pictures. They shot video. They did interviews. This material was then shown to health care workers, and interviews with health care workers were shown to the women. The resulting video bridge (and I suspect the final cut of the video) creates a dynamic, honest picture of the attitudes, rules and tiny daily actions that are rolled up in our very broken health care system.

Yet, it wasn’t the power of this social message that made me smile. I smiled at the unconferency buzz of 100 people talking about both inner city health *and* media empowerment. I smiled as I met the women from the project, and heard them offer to work with other mothers during the closing circle. I smiled as ideas for a participatory video network for Toronto were proposed to the group. The unconference process was unleashing all kinds of creative energy that would simply grow once Handheld was over.

When I think back, this idea of media as messy beginning rather than neatly folded ending is one of the things that inspired me most in Challenge for Change. And, I suspect, it may have also inspired Kat Cizek, who organized Handheld. Kat’s NFB Filmaker-in-Residence program at St. Michael’s Hospital is very explicitly a riff on the Challenge for Change idea.

Of course, we now live in a viral media world where where open ended beginnings are commonplace. Kat says on her site: “We are in a revolution right now, and many people might not even know it.” This is not only a revolution in access ($25,000 portpaks replaced by $100 cameraphones) but also in the whole form and function of media. We have moved in great part from consumption to conversation, which in was one of the main points of Challenge for Change in the first place.

As Handheld ended, I smiled a very huge smile about this conversation revolution. I also reminded myself that all conversations are not created equal, and the best ones require care, love and finesse. This of course was the brilliance of building an unconference around a participatory video project. It nurtured an already-started conversation further, sparking ideas, passion and commitments in all sorts of new directions.

It’s useful to celebrate the conversation revolution. But then it’s time to move on to nurturing, facilitation and curation. These are things we need more of now. Nicely, Handheld, Kat and the women she is working with offer a very helpful example.

PS. For a little more on what I was thinking about as I switched from video to the Internet, check out From VTR to Cyberspace: Jefferson, Gramsci and the Electronic Commons. Written by a Mark Surman who was much more idealistic and naive than the one you’ll meet today, but still an interesting snapshot of a beautifully chaotic moment in time.

Unconferencing collaboration (and public policy)

January 28, 2008 § 3 Comments

I was just reading on the Doors of Perception blog that Collaborative Innovation is this year’s theme at the World Economic Forum. Maybe this is a good thing (Jimmy Wales got to talk), and maybe it’s not (Don Tapscott got to talk). In either case, the really sad thing is the continued trend events about mass collaboration that are as uncollaborative as possible. Davos is just one long-lecture-fest, with most people zoned out in the audience in passive listening mode. It’s not collaboration, it’s television.

Unconferencers and openspacers of the world have be running real collaborative events for years. However, trying to roll participation into conferences ranging from WEF (big and showy) to the iSummit (small and groovy) almost always meets with heavy push back. Even when talking about collaboration, most event organizers seem to think TV-style lectures are the only viable format. Strange, and maddening.

Happily, today saw a small victory for the unconference crowd, with an article on Toronto’s TransitCamp appearing in the Harvard Business Review’s 2008 Breakthrough Ideas section. My friend Mark Kuznicki describes it here:

… [the HBR] piece tells the tale of a community and a public agency coming together to solve problems in an innovative new way, using social web technology, social media and design methods together with the Barcamp unconference framework. The approach helped to shift the relationship between the organization and its customers and community stakeholders. That organization was the Toronto Transit Commission and the event and the open creative community that emerged from it was called Toronto TransitCamp.

Put simply, TransitCamp was an unconference to gather input on the redesign of the Toronto Transit Commission’s web site. What’s amazing is that the chair of the TTC attended and that many of the new and creative ideas from the event actually got fed into the site design process. Vancouver and San Francisco have ripped off the idea by holding their own TransitCamps.

My hope (and the hope of the TransitCamp ringleaders) is that the HBR article will give some legitimacy to the unconference idea, especially as a way to engage in both public policy dialogues and big conferency conferences (a participatory unDavos? … okay, maybe not). Here’s to hoping.

PS. You can read the article in Harvard Business Review, or visit this wiki page
for links that provide a comprehensive overview of the background, the
design, the experience, the media coverage, the conceptual foundations
and the influence of TransitCamp.

Stop that sucking sound

November 21, 2006 § 2 Comments

Over the weekend, Tonya asked me to
help her write a piece of ‘how to make conference panels better’. The
result was a piece called Stop that sucking sound. The
full text is included here:

Let’s face it: most conference panels suck. With dozens (or hundreds) of eager listeners packed in like cinema-goers, the typical panel kicks off with a long recitation on the resumes of everyone on the dais. Audience eagerness immediately wanes . The first speaker then launches into a text-packed PowerPoint, going into every single detail of Topic X, and exceeding the alloted time by double. Half the audience has now tuned out. Three more speakers and three more long PowerPoints later, everyone in the audience is thinking about the weekend or the deadline they are about to miss. The panel chair apologizes that the speakers took so much time and
explains that there won’t be a chance for audience questions as
planned. Everyone shuffles out, tired, confused, bored. On to the
next panel.

The problem with panels is not that the speakers
or ideas are bad (one definition of suck), but rather that the way
most people run panels sucks the energy out of the room
. The
result is bored listeners, ineffective transmission of ideas and,
ultimately, the failure to meet the goals that the panel set out to
achieve in the first place: creating an engaging dialogue about
interesting ideas.

The good news is that it isn’t hard to make
panels better
. All it takes is a little practice and willingness
to experiment (or, better yet, a willingness to change your
definition of ‘panel’. below). The following is a list of tips for
panel chairs who want run more engaging sessions:

  1. Pick a clear, interesting and UNIFYING
    The topic you pick should be focused enough that get the
    panelists talking about the same thing, rather than their own thing.
    For example: ‘how are users benefiting from open source in your
    company?’ If you leave it too open, like ‘open source and your
    company’ you are likely to get a mish mash of things that really
    don’t relate.
  1. Encourage (or enforce!) short, snappy,
    on-topic presentations.
    Assuming there is time for people to ask
    questions later, five to ten minutes should be enough for any
    panelist to get her basic ideas across. Set time limits accordingly,
    and let panelists know in advance that you will ruthlessly enforce
    the time limit. Also, point people web resources on making good
    presentations. (below)
  1. Create real dialogue amongst the panelists
    Dialogue is inherently more interesting
    than monologue. It breaks up the monotony of one person speaking. It
    also ensures that information flow is demand driven. People asking
    questions and making counter points naturally draw out information
    interesting to them, which means panelists don’t have to guess what
    people what to hear.
  1. … and with the audience. This
    principle applies doubly so to the audience. Letting the audience
    engage early and often leads to more interesting and responsive
    sessions. As a rule, at least 50% of time in a panel session should
    be left for answering questions and hearing ideas from the audience.
    You can even put three minutes up front in your session to ask:
    ‘what do people want hear about?’ session for three minutes. This
    kind of audience interaction doesn’t mean panelists talk less. It
    does mean what they say is likely to be more relevant.
  1. Hold a conference call to get on the same
    Preparation is essential if you want the ideas above to
    work. A con call amongst panelists can go a long way towards
    ensuring people have a common understanding of the theme and agree
    to the ground rules. You can even use a call like this to rehearse
    the presentations. This lets your offer constructive feedback, and
    also let’s you find ‘problem panelists’ early.

For panel chairs with even more courage, things
can get even better if you are willing to drop the traditional panel
altogether. A few simple good examples:

  1. Talk Shows: With the stage organized
    like the set from Oprah, panelists are interviewed by the panel
    chair. This allows them to offer relaxed, off the cuff insights and
    to interact with each other. Also, just like Oprah, it’s easy to add
    audience questions into the mix. This technique is good for people
    who want to trash PowerPoint presentations but still want the feel
    of a panel.
  1. SpeedGeeks and Cracker Barrels:
    The room is divided into ‘stations’ where small groups
    of people hear presentations and ask questions on a particular
    topic. After a short time (5 min = speedgeek / 20 min = cracker
    barrel), the participants move to another station for another
    presentation. The presenters stay put. This format is excellent you
    have a lot of people with interesting presentations and you want to
    avoid the ‘boring buzz’ effect of ten people on a panel doing
    incoherent slide shows.
  1. Open Skill Shares: Again, the room is
    divided into stations, this time with people offering advice or
    informal training on a particular skill (e.g. how to write a good
    blog posting). The audience members simply find the stations they
    are most interested in. Once they learn what they want to learn,
    they move on and find another interesting station. Great instead of
    a panel on practical advice or techniques.

Whether you choose to spice up a traditional panel
or do something more radical, your role as panel chair is to make the
session as much like a rock ‘n’ roll show or Baptist revival meeting
as possible. You want everyone — the audience, the panelists, the
chair — excited and sitting on the edge of their seats, ready to
passionately shout out whatever comes to mind. What you don’t want is
for people to feel like they are watching television. Sadly, most
panels feel like a local TV news interview show from your worst

Resources worth reading:

  1. Wikipedia page on unconferences. Lots of good
    links to open and innovative conference techniques.
  1. PowerPoint and Presentation Tips.
    Links to great articles on good and bad slideware.
  1. Lessig Method. PowerPoint tips, including:
    ‘it’s not the size of your deck that counts.”
  1. Aspiration SpeedGeek Guide. Step
    by step speedgeeking info from the pros.
  2. Top 10 Best Presentations Ever. Online videos
    that speak for themselves.

This document will be used to brief panel chairs for this years Canadian Social
Enterprise Summit. I expect we will also use it for other purposes. I
am deeply interested in comments on this so we can improve it. If you
have ideas, please let me know.

The power of circles

September 30, 2005 Comments Off on The power of circles

Chennai, India – September 22 + 23, 2005

The Mission 2007 trainers workshop was the first time that I felt the telecentre.org workshop model came fully to life.


An assumption underlying the whole telecentre.org program is that dialogue between people who are passionate about telecentres is the number one ingredient needed for a successful network. Stealing many pages from the Aspiration song book, I believe that this dialogue process is best sparked (and sustained) with face-to-face workshops that follow a few simple ground rules:

  1. Always sit in a circle of chairs with no tables. This lets everyone to see each other and allows movement in the space.
  2. Make sure everyone gets to talk, immediately … and keep the time any one person talks short. Opening circles, line ups and speedgeeks really help with this.
  3. No slideware, except in speedgeeks. End stop.
  4. Allow ideas and leadership to emerge organically. The right people facilitate small groups and the right ideas to move forward will pop up if you let them.
  5. Blog. Wiki. Snap. And wiki again. A flexible online space that everyone can add information to means that ideas are captured on the fly for later process.
  6. Drive to a concrete conclusion, write it down and follow up. Shifting agendas are good, but fuzzy outcomes are not.

While we have played with many of these ideas before, this was the first time that we really embraced them whole hog. The results were better than expected: people were totally charged at the end of the meeting, ready to network and move ahead together on training issues. Also, we had a rough picture of what a common training manual and future knowledge sharing efforts could look like.


Of course, there is much to learn on how to make these events better, and on how to transfer these approaches widely. But still, pulling the Chennai workshop off in this manner was a moment to celebrate in telecentre.org’s early history. Many thanks to all who participated, we made this happen together.

PS. I learned in this meeting that being a lead facilitator and blogging don’t go well together. I am writing this post many days after the meeting.

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