I'm starting a week of working in Amsterdam with 150 people from around the world to learn how groups can use available social and technical means to better achieve their goals. Hundreds of academic conferences are held on this topic every year, but the gathering I'm at is neither academic nor a conference. Even though it bears the evocative name Winter Camp, it's not an unconference either.
Instead, the organizers at the Institute of Network Cultures have deployed their funds to invite a dozen existing organizations with geographically dispersed members to come together and see what they can accomplish during intensive sessions. The hope is that these groups will make progress on their own goals. Furthermore, they will develop lessons along the way that we can all use to make our online communities more effective.
What sort of questions could we make progress on? A few include:
- Can the fad for social networking develop into new institutions for working together?
- How can today's institutions make positive use of networks and even reinvent themselves as networks?
- Where is the most effective balance between spontaneity and structure in each network?
- How can online networks finance themselves with minimal legal and bureaucratic overhead? (A beginning answer lies in virtual companies.)
- What happens as networks scale up? Does the limit of effective human group size established by anthropological research (somewhere from 100 to 150 people) still apply?
- How can we maximize the benefits of face-to-face meetings to develop online networks?
By operating on two levels at once, the gathering implies dual deliverables (to borrow a popular term from business) that can create some tension. On the first level, people in each group (called a "network" in this context) deepen relationships within their network and pursue their goals for three intensive days. This collaboration is very similar to "book sprints" run by the network under whose aegis I came, FLOSS Manuals.
But on the higher level, as part of the overall group development, the organizers want to explore the lessons that these meetings and inter-network meetings have for the future of collaboration in general.
This leads to the question of how much each participant in the gathering should strive to understand the broad, abstract goals and bring a consciousness of the goals into the intra-network meetings. The alternative (if for rhetorical purposes we delineate the alternatives as two poles) is to let each network follow its own internal group dynamic and thus serve as a subject of anthropological study, leaving it to the organizers to analyze its behavior in a larger context.
I think the gathering will be more like the latter. Hardly any participant, I've found, understood the larger purpose when he or she arrived. I don't even know when the organizers articulated that purpose for us. In any case, most of us came because we were asked by the leader of our network ("Free trip to Amsterdam! Meet your team members!") and didn't even try to grasp the larger mission. Time pressures exacerbate that understanding gap.
I take the broader goals seriously. I spent as much time yesterday as I could in the lobby of our hostel to meet a few of the participants Camp. Using deeply learned cues to judge class and intellectual background, one can tell which of the hostel visitors are part of the gathering. (Often, recognition is even simpler: most are twenty years older than the other hostel visitors).
Naturally, every participant is fascinating in his or her own way. One is an educator in Australia who, until recently, put out a free newspaper as well. Another is a twenty-five-year-old video artist who now divides his time between advertising and performance art. He had no idea what the gathering was about and came to Amsterdam from New York because his boss asked him to fill in.
Other people spend their time bringing computers and Internet access to underdeveloped countries or studying online cultures; some seem to do nothing except develop manifestos about the need for new forms of social relationships. Some groups have strong cultures and successful outcomes to point to already, while others were formed recently and seem like they would hardly exist were it not for this gathering. All are welcome.