Brakman poem
A poem by Willem Brakman on the university’s steps: philosphy makes sense, science explains. But art shows, shows what it can’t say.

I facilitated two unconferences this week, on Monday and Thursday. The Industrial Design professorate at the Saxion University for Applied Sciences in Enschede celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. Karin van Beurden who has been leading the professorate from the start wanted to have a celebratory event. Not to look back, but to look forward to the next 15 years. She also wanted to do it in a slightly unconventional way. Karin participated in one of our birthday unconferences, and asked me to help her shape the event. In the past 2 months, Karin, her colleague Nienke and I collaborated on this. It was unconventional in the eyes of the university’s board, as well as for the network Karin invited. So we had some explaining and managing of expectations to do in the run-up to the event.

When the professorate started, the theme of Karin’s inaugural speech was how “oysters turn their irritants into pearls”. Now after 15 years it was time to not just look at the pearls created during that period, but mostly at what the pearls of the future would be and thus the issues of today. Under this broad theme some 50 people participated in the unconference, and it was a pleasure to facilitate the process.

After opening up the space, making everyone feel at ease and explaining the process, we created a program for the afternoon in BarCamp style, listing 15 sessions across four spaces, in a 2 hour program.

the program on a whiteboard

What followed (the way I experienced it) was a carroussel of amazing stories, ranging from financing challenges for research projects, enabling alternative energy provision discussion, the psychological impact of turning breast prostheses from a medically framed issue into a fashion issue, and the use of 3d printing to reduce time needed in operation rooms. Afterwards we had a pleasant bbq and further conversations nearby, and during the train ride back I had further good conversation with one of the participants. It was a pleasant day to be back in Enschede.

FabLab Session
One of the sessions, in the FabLab space
A session in the FabLab Enschede space

Discussing the energy grid
Using pluggable hexagons to discuss energy grid issues

Medical 3d prints
3d printed elements for bone reconstruction

What stood out for me was how various participants encountering the format for the first time, immediately realised its potential for their own work. The university’s chair mentioned how she would like to do this with her board to more freely explore issues and options for the university. A professor remarked how it might be a good way to have better, more varied project evaluation sessions with students in his courses. Also, judging by the conversations I had, we succeeded apparently in creating a space and set-up that felt safe for a range of very personal stories and details to be shared.

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As I had a few minutes before my train left, I got to visit our favourite ice cream parlor in Enschede, our home town until 2 years ago. We haven’t found a comparably good ice cream vendor in Amersfoort.

(At CaL earlier this month in Canada, someone asked me if I did unconference facilitation as work. I said no, but then realised I had two events lined up this week putting the lie to that ‘no’. This week E suggested we might start offering training on how to host and facilitate an unconference.)

I facilitated two unconferences this week. On Monday with our company The Green Land we hosted a 90 minute unconference on (the future of) open government. It was a sweltering day, without much wind. Held on the rooftop of our office building, we had precisely the amount of shade needed to keep all participants out of the sun. With some 20 people from around our network we compared notes on open government, civic tech, and potential collective action. Having built the program with the group I participated in conversations on public versus market roles, what ‘sticks‘ we have in our toolbox when working towards more open government, and the Dutch Common Ground program.

A group in discussion
Groups in conversation

The program
The program

We ended with a fun ‘open government pubquiz’ led by my colleagues Frank and Niene.

(At CaL earlier this month in Canada, someone asked me if I did unconference facilitation as work. I said no, but then realised I had two events lined up this week putting the lie to that ‘no’. This week E suggested we might start offering training on how to host and facilitate an unconference.)

Frank Meeuwsen pointed me to this article by David Yates, which contains explanations of IndieWeb components and their purposes, for less tech-oriented people. It concludes that, yes IndieWeb has a wide range of cool features, that let you use the Web itself as social medium, but that implementing them requires tech skills. It works very well for online interaction, “but the only people you interact with are other programmers who’ve also managed to implement all this stuff.

Which is a good reminder to self. I’m not one of those ‘other programmers’, though I can keep up with tech oriented conversation. Which makes me a bit of a boundary spanner, between the techies and the less tech oriented. Given Peter’s notion of having an obligation to explain, I already had half baked plans to start writing a few explainers. While reading this blogpost by David Yates I had some additional ideas of what that should/shouldn’t look like. And that it should be in both Dutch and English. So thank you David for the nudge.

Meanwhile, I have E as an in-house ‘tester’ to see if my explanations work, and if I understand things correctly myself, while we are indiewebyfying her websites.

Read Untangling the IndieWeb by David Yates

I’ve been peripherally aware of the IndieWeb movement for a few years now – mostly because they seem to like RSS almost as much as I do – but I’ve only recently dug into it. In a nutshell, IndieWeb is about using the World Wide Web itself as a social network, through a set of open standards …

Kicks Condor dives deeply into my info-strategy postings and impressively read them all as the whole they form (with my post on feed reading by social distance as starting point). It’s a rather generous gift of engagement and attention. Lots of different things to respond to, neurons firing, and tangents to explore. Some elements with a first reaction.

Knowing people is tricky. You can know someone really well at work for a decade, then you visit their home and realize how little you really know them.

Indeed, when I think of ‘knowing someone’ in the context of information strategies, I always do so as ‘knowing someone within a specific context’. Sort of what Jimmy Wales said about Wikipedia editors a long time ago: “I don’t need to know who you are“, (i.e. full name and identity, full background), but I do need to know who you are on Wikipedia (ihe pattern of edits, consistency in behaviour, style of interaction). As Wikipedia, which is much less a crowdsourced thing than an editorial community, is the context that counts for him. Time is another factor that I feel is important, it is hard to maintain a false or limited persona consistently over a long time. So blogs that go back years are likely to show a pretty good picture of someone, even if the author aims to stick to a narrow band of interests. My own blog is a case in point of that. (I once landed a project where at first the client was hesitant, doubting whether what I said was really me or just what they wanted to hear. After a few meetings everything was suddenly in order. “I’ve read your blog archives over the weekend and now know you’ll bring the right attitude to our issue”) When couch surfing was a novel thing, I made having been blogging for at least a year or two a precondition to use our couch.

I wonder if ‘knowing someone’ drives ‘social distance’—or if ‘desire to know someone’ defines ‘social distance’. […] So I think it’s instinctual. If you feel a closeness, it’s there. It’s more about cultivating that closeness.

This sounds right to me. It’s my perceived social distance or closeness, so it’s my singular perspective, a one way estimate. It’s not an estimation nor measure of relationship, more one of felt kinship from one side, indeed intuitive as you say. Instinct and intuition, hopefully fed with a diet of ok info, is our internal black box algorithm. Cultivating closeness seems a worthwhile aim, especially when the internet allows you to do so with others than those that just happened to be in the same geographic spot you were born into. Escaping the village you grew up in to the big city is the age old way for both discovery and actively choosing who you want to get closer to. Blogs are my online city, or rather my self-selected personal global village.

I’m not sure what to think about this. “Neutral isn’t useful.” What about Wikipedia? What about neighborhood events? These all feel like they can help—act as discovery points even.

Is the problem that ‘news’ doesn’t have an apparent aim? Like an algorithm’s workings can be inscrutable, perhaps the motives of a ‘neutral’ source are in question? There is the thought that nothing is neutral. I don’t know what to think or believe on this topic. I tend to think that there is an axis where neutral is good and another axis where neutral is immoral.

Responding to this is a multi-headed beast, as there’s a range of layers and angles involved. Again a lot of this is context. Let me try and unpick a few things.

First, it goes back to the point before it, that filters in a network (yours, mine) that overlap create feedback loops that lift patterns above the noise. News, as pretending to be neutral reporting of things happening, breaks that. Because there won’t be any potential overlap between me and the news channel as filters, no feedback loops. And because it purports to lift something from the background noise as signal without an inkling as to why or because of what it does so. Filtering needs signifying of stories. Why are you sharing this with me? Your perception of something’s significance is my potential signal.

There is a distinction between news (breaking: something happened!) and (investigative) journalism (let’s explore why this is, or how this came to be). Journalism is much closer to storytelling. Your blogging is close to storytelling. Stories are vehicles of human meaning and signification. I do follow journalists. (Journalism to survive likely needs to let go of ‘news’. News is a format, one that no longer serves journalism.)

Second, neutral can be useful, but I wrote neutral isn’t useful in a filter, because it either carries no signifcation, or worse that has been purposefully hidden or left out. Wikipedia isn’t neutral, not by a long-shot, and it is extensively curated, the traces of which are all on deliberate display around the eventually neutrally worded content. Factual and neutral are often taken as the same, but they’re different, and I think I prefer factual. Yet we must recognise that a lot of things we call facts are temporary placeholders (the scientific method is more about holding questions than definitive answers), socially constructed agreements, settled upon meaning, and often laden with assumptions and bias. (E.g. I learned in Dutch primary school that Belgium seceded from the Netherlands in 1839, Flemish friends learned Belgium did so in 1830. It took the Netherlands 9 years to reconcile themselves with what happened in 1830, yet that 1839 date was still taught in school as a singular fact 150 years later.)
There is a lot to say for aiming to word things neutrally. And then word the felt emotions and carried meanings with it. Loading wording of things themselves with emotions and dog whistles is the main trait of populistic debate methods. Allowing every response to such emotion to be parried with ‘I did not say that‘ and finger pointing at the emotions triggered within the responder (‘you’re unhinged!‘)

Finally, I think a very on-point remark is hidden in footnote one:

It is very focused on just being a human who is attempting to communicate with other humans—that’s it really.

Thank you for this wording. That’s it. I’ve never worded it this way for myself, but it is very to the point. Our tools are but extensions of ourselves, unless we let them get out of control, let them outgrow us. My views on technology as well as methods is that we must keep it close to humanity, keep driving humanity into it, not abstract it so we become its object, instead of being its purpose. As the complexity in our world is rooted in our humanity as well, I see keeping our tech human as the way to deal with complexity.

While we were with friends on one side of the Atlantic, other friends such as Jon Husband and Lee Bryant met under the Lisbon son at SocialNow, brought there by Ana Neves, to discuss digital leadership. I need to find out if some of the talks were recorded and got posted already. Here’s a brief recap, with lots of familiar names from our early blogging forays taking on the push for agency and real transformation in the emerging space now that some of the luster of the big tech platforms has gone out of style and seen for what it is.

From the recap the term neo generalists is something I will explore, as it was put forward by Kenneth Mikkelsen in the context of increasing people’s agency.

At last week’s Crafting {:} a Life unconference on PEI I participated in three conversations on blogging:

  1. What happened to blogging? Initiated by Steven Garrity
  2. The future of blogging. Initiated by Peter Rukavina
  3. Doing Blogging. Initiated by me

Elmine already blogged some of her impressions from these conversations. I’ll add some of my own.

What happened to blogging?
It started with Steven Garrity who asked “What happened to blogging?” in the morning of the first day. Some 20 people wanted to take part in that so we put together a big circle in the main hall. The group had long time bloggers (over 20 years), those whose blogs fell more or less silent, and those who never blogged but are interested in doing so. What followed was a discussion of why we started blogging, and what happened to those initial conditions. I started to think out loud, but kept going because of the wide peer network that emerged because of our distributed conversations across blogs. We suspected started blogging right in the perfect moment: the number of people blogging in your fields of interest was big enough to feel engaged, and small enough to feel like a town you can keep an overview of. We first welcomed the silos like Facebook and Twitter as it made interacting even easier and brought in more people as the required level of tech savvy dropped. What however at first seemed like a source of agency turned into the erosion of it. Long form writing evaporated, more exchanges turned into ’empty calories’. RSS as an easy way of following what was going on eroded the too. Many sites ‘forgot’ what RSS was, and that accelerated when the most visible reader by Google fell by the wayside. Although we also felt that blaming Google Reader solely isn’t right, it was a development that fit in a larger change already underway.
We also discussed how some of that original blog interaction in the early ’00s has been channeled into other modes of communications, like newsletters. Peter Bihr for instance mentioned how it felt like newsletters are a more direct form of communication, with a clear audience in mind, and responses to it are of much higher quality. We missed the kick of the interaction between blogs, as well as having the time and attention to reflect and write more deeply.

What happened to blogging?What happened to blogging?
Part of the blogging circle

The future of blogging
Having looked back in the morning, some of us felt we wanted to not just be melancholic but also look at what a constructive future of blogging looks like. So Peter suggested to do another conversation in the afternoon. Part of the reason for this was in our immediate circle we saw several people who ‘returned’ to blogging, like myself. Part of it is the appearance of new web standards, the IndieWeb that intends to take the useful traits of social media platforms and apply them to your own websites. Opting to enjoy the weather we had this conversation in Peter’s back yard. We talked about a variety of things connected to blogging. The technology that can assist in getting more interaction between blogs, in helping to make publishing easy. And the behaviours that help to blog more, doing away with expectations of what ‘proper’ blogging is and giving oneself permission to just do what you want.

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The future of blogging taking shape in Peter’s back yard

Doing blogging
The second day of the unconference was positioned as a ‘doing’ day. As the ‘future of blogging’ conversation surfaced a lot of ‘how-to’ questions, I suggested we could do a more practice oriented session. On what is currently technically possible, and how that looks in practice for instance in my blog. The weather was great again, so we opted for the back yard like the day before. Bright sunlight and a scarcity of laptops meant we didn’t ‘do’ much. We did talk about the practical steps one can take, and the purpose and working of the various IndieWeb standards. This developed in a wider ranging conversation on our various information routines and the tools we use. Participants were eagerly taking notes to learn from each other’s tool use. From tools and routines we went to life hacks, and a much wider scope of topics. That was a great experience, although it meant that the original topic of conversation moved out of sight. I felt in flow in this conversation, and it went on literally for hours without effort and without energy levels dropping away.

Garden conversation
The ‘doing blogging’ circle of participants

Direct consequence is that one of the participants launched her own blog, with IndieWeb support from the start. Another that questions about how I read along lines of ‘social distance’ led to me explaining that in detail today. Important to me is that I also could add a number of bloggers to my ‘global village’ of people whose postings I read, adding more voices to the mix I take in. I also plan to write a number of postings starting from the issues raised in the conversations to introduce and explain the IndieWeb standards. The current documentation mostly starts with tech, and that means a too high threshold for adoption for large groups.