Bookmarked Is the communitarian internet back? A conversation with Howard Rheingold (by

I have been online since 1992 – hell, I practically lived online most of these 30 years. What drew me to the Internet was not the presence of shiny, easy-to-use, free services – they were not there in the early days. On the contrary, you had to put in time and money if you wanted to, as we said then, “connect to the Internet”. But the reward was high. Whatever your tribe, you would find it….

Alberto Cottica

Good to see this conversation between Howard Rheingold and the good people at Edgeryders (yet another place I’m more of a boundary spanner, link to a G translated Dutch posting I wrote last week) happening. Is the communitarian Internet back in the wake of COVID-19? Howard brings the perspective of the late 80’s, early 90’s, as does Edgeryder’s own John Coate. I too see a surge in online conversations and actions that feel more like back then, than what the likes of FB silos have been algorithmically feeding us the last 5 years or so. It has been brewing for a while already, with a slow but steady trickle back to blogging. Even if that trickle was mostly people returning to their earlier online spaces, which they left for FB and Twitter post 2006. The sudden surge now that everyone and their mother, literally, is coming online more or less full time, may expose a much wider population to the type of community based interaction that was prevalent before social media and ad-tech domination.

Exactly 15 years ago today I blogged the participant list of the London Blogwalk that would take place the next day. I started clicking through the URLs to see who’s still using theirs. Some have disappeared, some are still live though inactive, some still active. A few I still am in regular touch with, but two Julian Elvé and Ian Glendinning are still active but weren’t in my feedreader again yet. So I’ve added them. A pleasant surprise that Julian is using IndieAuth and Webmention on his site, and therefore is an active part of the Indieweb.

Every now and then Elmine and I organize (un)conferences for our birthday party, in our home. We did one in 2008, 2010 and 2014 (with a BBQ party of similar effort in 2012). Each one brings 40-50 participants together, and double that for the BBQ the day after. (The whole thing started as a biannual BBQ in 2004, and we added the conference part to make it easier for friends and peers from abroad and clients to join).

We love the events, and we love the way it brings many from our international network together in an atmosphere that creates lasting connections between participants, as well as the inspiration and energy it gives us. (I think of it as invoking the ghost of Reboot)

But as you see several years can pass between two editions.
They involve a lot of work and energy, cost a considerable amount of money. After each one it takes a while before the itch to do it again plays up, and sometimes major life events get in the way.

After the last one in 2014, Paolo suggested doing these events on a yearly, or at least more frequent basis. I replied in similar lines as above. To which Paolo replied “What do you think you are? The Olympics?” As he’s putting on a yearly conference in Italy himself, simply ignoring his remark does not play. He knows the reality of putting on a proper event every year, let alone our smaller scale lower-key ones. Paolo’s question stuck with me, and has been deserving of a proper answer for the past three years.

I know I’m not the Olympics. I also know the ‘lot of work, and oh the costs!’ line of reasoning isn’t fully true. We started doing the events in our home as a way to cut costs after all (the first edition was in the local university’s conference center). And I organized similarly international meet-ups in my spare time every 2 to 3 months with 20-30 participants, which each event taking place in a different European city, all with zero budget, years earlier.

To me the important aspects that create the type of flow, quality of conversations and energy that make the events such fun are:

  • Picking a topic that fits all backgrounds, so it doesn’t put people off and can attract friends, peers, clients and family alike, of all ages
  • Picking a topic that is challenging as well, as that creates the energy
  • Having participants of diverse backgrounds and nationalities, with most (but never all) having a direct connection to either me or Elmine, but less connections to the other participants
  • Doing it in our home, as it creates an informal atmosphere for serious exchanges, and I think the distinctive flavour of it all
  • Providing excellent food and drinks, for all diets, and plenty of it

The reason it takes so much time to organize is mainly that I try to do it all myself. I’m not very skilled at delegating or asking for help (as anyone who’s ever tried to help me out in the kitchen can attest). Finding a topic on a yearly basis that is at the same time broad enough to potentially include anyone and provoking enough for people to start imagining contributing to it, can be challenging
There is also the suspicion that if we’d do it say yearly, it would attract fewer friends from our international peer network (there’s always next year after all), and overall less sense of uniqueness of opportunity or urgency to attend for anyone. Whereas it’s the mix of people that is a key ingredient.

The time since the last edition 2014, really was a matter of life events getting in the way (2015 a year of multiple losses, 2016 of welcoming a new life, this year of moving to a new city). Now the dust has started to settle, and in the coming month we can look forward to spending a few weeks camping and being away from it all. I am also trying to grow roots in our new city and having conversations with people to better understand the events, spaces and things the city has to offer. Maybe the time has come to use this as an opportunity to solve the “You’re not the Olympics” conundrum.

Asking for help, the location, the scale of it, maybe a bit of funding, setting topics, are all dimensions to play with and to reflect on.

I’d like to do a new event in 2018, I’ve already been imagining it in our new home since we started unpacking boxes (or rather from the moment we were viewing the house already). What will it take to have the one after that not in 2022 but in 2019? Especially if you’ve attended in 2008, 2010 or 2014, what would entice you to join the event in 2018 as well as 2019, what would make you come back?

We have decided to formally end the BlogWalk series.

After 11 sessions, bringing over 250 people interested in social media from all kinds of academic and business backgrounds together across three continents, we look back on a series of very inspiring meetings, that generated all kinds of spin-off and combinations of people collaborating.

When we, Lilia Efimova, Sebastian Fiedler, and Ton Zijlstra, started this in March 2004 it was a different environment. We felt the need to create a space for free format conversations between professionals around shared interest relating to social media. Then that type of space was scarce. Most conferences gave wall to wall death by powerpoint, leaving next to no room for real exchanges between participants. Informal meetings were just that, informal, leaving no room for any real exchanges around professional themes. We also felt the need to be able to meet those that we interacted with intensively on-line in a face to face setting.

The BlogWalk sessions served that purpose well. Our connections to eachother strengthened a lot. There are many BlogWalk participants I am in regular contact with, and there are a good number of them that I regard as colleagues and close professional peers.

The need we felt in 2004 however has been addressed, and the environment nowadays is different from back then. It seems that creating your own event, your own un-conference, has become more normal, and more accepted as a viable format for professional exchange and learning. I find, in fact, that a majority of the events I go to these days follow that free flowing format. Not quite a BlogWalk format though, as we aimed to really open the space up completely, with next to no structuring and programming beforehand. Free enough however to feel our needs from 2004 addressed. And it already showed in the frequency of the BlogWalk sessions in these past years. In 2006 and 2007 we only did one session. That is different from the 5 we did per year before that.

It was fun, it was inspiring, it was extremely valuable. I am glad we three had the chance of doing this in Enschede, Nuremberg, Vienna, London, Umea, Chicago, Mechelen, Sydney, Innsbruck, Seattle, Bonn and Amsterdam. (See a list of all BlogWalk salons) Now it’s time to let BlogWalk as an event go. I’m pretty sure we will keep meeting like this from now on, there is however no need to call it BlogWalk anymore. Even if we may do so every now and then.

Thanks to all of you who participated!

Taking Bohemianism to be a mindset more than a (forced or chosen) lifestyle, as described in the previous BlogWalk posting, I’ll now have a look at the things I took out of the meeting.
Speed, Space and Scale were the three words that sum BlogWalk up for me.

Space is about physical, temporal and psychological space.
In the physical sense it is interesting to see the ways in which traditional offices are left behind as working places. To be not only replaced by parks, coffee bars, and homes, but also by new office concepts. Such as the Queen Street Commons on Prince Edward Island, or the WorkSpace in Vancouver, and the idea Thomas kicked around of having a coffee bar with a few meeting spaces and office materials. People working in these spaces are not looking for permanent places, but for spots with the right infrastructure.
In the same way they create their own infrastructure such as FON in stead of office LANs, and Plazes, IM and YASNs in stead of water coolers.
A second aspect to physical space is the felt need to travel. Social networks span the globe, not as a replacement but as a widening of more local networks. Travel becomes a must, because more social contacts generate more face to face meetings. Going abroad for meet-ups, be them Reboot(s), BlogWalks, BlogTalks, BarCamps or the odd day off or other, is less luxury than necessity, and a natural side-effect of the ever widening virtual networks. This brings new priorities to budgets and leads to new evaluations of decisions.
In the temporal sense space is about creating the time to focus in the midst of the constant and immense stream of (presence) information that is so easy to get absorbed by. (This relates to speed as well: space is created by slowing down at the right moments)
Psychological space to me is about balancing inside out and outside in perspectives, your social networks, periods of divergence and convergence, and being able to not worry about things that require attention but may have slipped your mind. Creating new information strategies befitting the new world of information abundance fall in this category, as well as things like Getting Things Done, and 43 Things.
In all these three areas we see new routines and tools popping up.

Speed refers to both slow and fast. I enjoyed the book Tyranny of the Moment by Eriksen a lot, and Digital Bohemiens seem to be experimenting their way to routines in dealing with the effects of speed.
The fact that life is speeding up is to me the unavoidable side-effect of the increase in the number of connections between people, as made possible by the internet. Roman roads, railroads, global shipping, telegraph, they all had the same effect: speeding up life, by the additional dynamics and transactions these new connections caused. The internet does this on an unprecedented level, as it potentially connects each human with each other human at the speed of light.
For a Digital Bohemien this slow and fast phases are highly pronounced. All the communication and social interaction is at high speed. The e-mail, the IM, the YASNs, the Twitterin, blogging and continuous sharing of micro-formatted information. If you aren’t careful your whole day is consumed by this constant stream of unlimited interaction. So again the challenge is to balance this with enough slow time to create results and be productive outside of your communicative tasks. Slow time to focus, to reflect, to prioritize, to write, to create. Mind you, focussing is not a solitary task by definition.
Scale actually impacts both Space and Speed. The term came up in the afternoon discussion. Because scaling ultimately never is only a question of increasing quantity. At a certain level the quantity creates a qualitative shift. Information when scaled to the level of abundance as it is now, requires not just more of the same information processes we are used to, but new information strategies that take this scale into acount. A qualitative shift.
For the Digital Bohemiens this is true for their infrastructure (building new ones with different design principles like modularity, openness, interexchangeability.), travel (from incidental travel to a travelling existence with a city as local anchor point), social networks (global span, 24/7), and the balance between dynamics and more slow time (where dynamics isn’t the incident but the norm, and focussed prioritized time requires switching of). All these signify qualitative shifts that have quantitative origins, where Digital Bohemiens are experimenting and groping towards new rhythms and routines. This is the way the change of self leads to societal change.

Right from the very first BlogWalk in 2004, I have always been amazed about the effort in time, travel and money people are willing to make to attend a BlogWalk session. It was no different for me at BlogWalk Eleven, in Amsterdam last Friday.
With people coming in this time from such diverse directions as Ireland, Paris, Brussels, London, Copenhagen, Estonia and Bucharest, as well as from all over the Netherlands, mostly just for the one day, I cannot but feel humbled.

Johnnie Moore and Thomas Madsen-Mygdal in conversation (photo: Elmine, CC BY NC SA)

Not that I think all these people are making that effort just for Sebastian, Lilia and me. They are making that effort because they trust themselves to be able to turn meeting 25 interesting people into a day full of worthwile conversations. That we three can be host to those conversations is already enough to feel humbled.

group conversation (photo: Elmine, license CC BY NC SA)

So my thanks go out to those that attended the dinner on Thursday, the day long session and/or the dinner on Friday night. Of course the first impressions can be found on-line already. Both Gabriela Avram, as well as Riina Vuorikari have published their impressions of BlogWalk. Bernie DeKoven created an interesting posting based on the Twitter-messages his colleague Gerrit Visser sent from the venue. And then there are the numerous pictures on Flickr. I could not take any pictures myself due to a problem with my camera (no, it wasn’t the batteries).

Bicyclemark (with cap) giving a guided tour. (photo: Elmine, license CC BY NC SA)

I also want to publicly thank again Peter Kaptein for providing us with the space in his building at Instant Interfaces, and Mark, better known as Bicyclemark, for the guided walk through the back streets of Amsterdam.
This morning I transcribed the text of all the post-its that were created from the discussion and conversations. They can be found in the BlogWalk wiki. I hope they can be triggers for further interaction.

Filling the windows with post-its (aka the WindowsWiki) (photo copyright Sebastian Fiedler)

In the coming two posts I will add some thoughts on the way the format of the session worked this time, and of course talk about my own take-aways from last Friday.

Mark Wubben, Alper Cugun, Carla Hoekstra and Riina Vuorikari walking in conversation (photo: Elmine, license CC BY NC SA)