Peter in his circle of friendsPeter in his circle of friends at the start of Crafting {:} a Life (image by Elmine, CC-BY-NC-SA license

When the first Dutch astronaut Wubbo Ockels, went to space on the D1 mission he had a clear goal. Earlier astronauts upon returning to earth had all responded to the question how it was to see the entire earth from above, our blue ball in the black void, with things like “Great”, “Very moving”, “So very beautiful”. Ockels was determined to find a better description for the experience, by preparing for it, by more consciously observing and reflecting while up there. Yet when he came back he realised all he could say was “So very beautiful” as well. There was no way for him to put the layering, depth and richness of the experience in words that would actually fully convey it.

Experiencing an unconference can be like that. It certainly took me about a week to come back down to earth (and overcome the jet-lag) after spending a handful of days on Prince Edward Island in a somewhat parallel universe, Peter‘s Crafting {:} a Life unconference with around 50 of his friends and connections.

Here too, the description “it was great” “it was beautiful” is true but also empty words. I heard several of the other participants comment it was “life changing” for them, and “the start of something momentous on PEI”. I very well understand that sentiment, but was it really? Can it really be that, life changing?

I have heard the same feedback, ‘life changing’, about our events as well. Particularly the 2014 edition. And I know the ripples of those events have changed the lives of participants in smaller and bigger ways. Business partnerships formed, research undertaken, lasting friendships formed. I recognise the emotions of the natural high a heady mix of deep conversations, minds firing, freedom to explore, all around topics of your own interest can create. I felt very much in flow during an hours long conversation at Crafting {:} a Life for instance.

Reboot had that impact on me in 2005, reinforced by the subsequent editions. Those multiple editions created a journey for me. Bringing students there in 2009, because I was one of the event’s sponsors, was certainly life changing for them. It spoilt them for other types of events, and triggered organising their own events.
In a certain way Crafting {:} a Life brought the Reboot spirit to PEI, was a sort of expression of Reboot as it included half a dozen connections that originated there in 2005. Similarly I feel our own unconferences are attempts at spreading the Reboot spirit forward.

What makes it so? What makes one say ‘life changing’ about an event? Space to freely think, building on each other’s thoughts, accepting the trade-off that if your pet topics get discussed others will do other things you may not be interested in. Meeting patience while you formulate your (half-baked) thoughts. That is something that especially has been important in the experience of teenagers that took part in our events, and I think for Oliver too. That everyone is participating in the same way, that age or background doesn’t somehow disqualify contributions, and being treated as having an equal stake in being there.

How do you get to such a place? I find it’s mixing the informal/human with the depth and content normally associated with formalisation.

What made Peter’s event work for instance was the circle at the start.
The room itself was white and clinical to start in, and people were huddled in the corner seeking the warmth of the coffee served there. The seating arrangement however meant everyone had to walk the circle on the inside to find their seat. Then once seated, after welcoming words, there was music by one of the participants who offered it, first a reflective and then an upbeat song. This in aggregate made the room the group’s room, made it a human room. The post-its on the wall after the intro round led by Elmine increased that sense of it being our room, and the big schedule on the wall we made together completed it. Now it was our own central space for the event.

Splitting the event over two days and marking both days differently (meeting/talking, and doing) worked well too. It meant people weren’t coming back for the same thing as yesterday, but had something new to look forward to with the same measure of anticipating the unknown as the first day. While already having established a shared context, and new connections the day before.

The result was, to paraphrase Ockels, “great”. Clark, one of our fellow participants, found a few more and better words:

Crafting {:} a Life was a breath of fresh air. The unconference dispensed with pretension, titles or faux expertise. Everyone had for the most part a chance to share their story, contribute, and talk. While some asked what I did for a living, it was only after all other avenues of discussion were explored. For the most part one-to-one conversations were much like what I had with Robert Paterson, (“What is Clark’s story” he asked) open ended, personal, and with the ability to discover new things about the other. The activities emphasized small groups and there was no “oh my God my PPT is out of order what will we talk about” that I myself have fallen victim to. There was music, laughter, food and tears. It was genuine, …

I think that goes to the heart of it. It was genuine, the format didn’t deny we are human but embraced it as a key element. And in the space we created there was way more room than usually at events to be heard, to listen. And most of all: space to share the enormous gift of two days worth of your focused attention.

I feel it is that that makes these events stand out. Most other events don’t do that for its participants: Space for focused attention, while embracing your humanity. Reboot did that, it even had a kindergarten on site and people brought their kids e.g. But that approach is very scarce. It needn’t be. It also needn’t be an unconference to create it. A conversation, dinner party, or other occasion might just as well. (I found that video btw on a blog in the rss feeds of one of the participants, which seems apt).

On our way home Elmine suggested doing a second edition of our e-book ‘How to unconference your birthday’ (PDF). I think that is a very good idea, as Peter and us now have experience from both being an organiser and a participant, and we have now several additional events worth of experiences to draw upon. We created the first edition as a gift and memento to all participants of our 2010 edition, the 2nd such event we did and the first we did in our home. A decade on a second edition seems fitting.

Backfeed is an important element in breaking out of silos like Twitter, Facebook, and others. Backfeed means if I post something from my site to e.g. Twitter, that the responses to it (likes, answers) also become visible on my site. So that when those silos inevitably go away and get replaced, my interactions are still available on my own site and available in my own database. Ryan Barrett of the valuable backfeed service Bridgy writes about the difficulties of creating backfeed (with lots of things to figure out for each additional silo), and wonders about making backfeed possible without additional or separate code. Sort of how IFTTT allows you to create your own recipes to let various applications you use talk to each other.

An example of backfeed in action:

I posted this article on ‘slow AI’ on my website, and had Brid.gy automatically post it to my Twitter account.


the tweet, notice the repost and likes.

On Twitter people responded, with a repost and 2 likes.
Which Brid.gy sends back to my site, so I can show it underneath the original article:


the article showing the repost and likes as well

Through this, I can use Twitter to reach people and interact with them, without actually going to Twitter myself. I post on my site, it gets automatically sent to Twitter in the background, where people respond, which I see directly on my own site as incoming reactions. A full conversation on Twitter can be done completely on my own site this way. When Twitter dies, which it will, they will take all their data with them and all conversations will be lost. Yet, my Twitter interactions through my blog will remain available to me. Losing conversations isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I’d rather decide myself which conversations to keep and which to remove, than let some third party or outside event be the judge of that.

Backfeed is an emerging key bit of internet plumbing, much like RSS already is for a long time. Making that plumbing easier will be of tremendous use.

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.

I tried to stick to French when visiting Montréal this week. I have some French, of the basic summer holiday camping variety, but it’s a far cry from what I define as ‘speaking’ it, which is the way I feel about English, German and Dutch. I tried to do it especially as we were in an otherwise English full immersion setting, to break the default as it were. Almost got away with it for basic interactions (coffee, cab driver, lunch), but there’s always an additional question that then throws me off the track.

Ordering coffee for both of us for instance worked fine right until the lady at the counter as a final question looped back to my espresso by asking me about whether I’d want my espresso court ou allongé, short or lengthened. While I was playing back the tape in my head to interpret what she’d said, she concluded I had reached the limits of my French and switched to English. At such moments it isn’t so much the language that throws me, but a question that I didn’t expect as part of the exchange we’re in. Asking about short or longer espresso is a cultural difference to interpret more than a language difference. I don’t get asked that question back home where espresso is always short. I didn’t know it was part of the common pattern here, so I didn’t anticipate hearing it, and thus it was an unexpected turn in the conversation for me, making me stumble “ehhh short” and indicating it with my fingers.

Our last cab driver, while I was paying him remarked on me doing the exchange in French. He asked me where I was from, and told me his daughter lived in Amsterdam. He was curious how I learned French, so I told him it is standard in secondary school. “So you speak French, English and Dutch?”. And German I said. “And German? Four languages, you guys are so fortunate.” He’s right. We are fortunate, even if it is just a little bit of French. Merci Montréal, one of your cab drivers ensured I left with a smile.

20190610_124208 Montreal

 

Court ou allongé? At Tommy‘s in Montréal.

One of the things I always do after an event is go through the people I met and see if I can connect to them, e.g. on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook. This time around, part of that is adding people to my RSS reader, because they blog. This is an additional pleasure, not just because it extends my network of bloggers that I read, but also because doing so was a key part of my conversations at Crafting {:} a Life in the past days. So I am subscribing to people with which I already have had extended time talking. This immediately puts them at a shorter social distance than normally when exploring new blogs (and they requested me to describe better the importance to me of that, and what/why/how I do that).

Rosie le Faive as a direct consequence of the conversations at Peter’s unconference started a blog press pound. Her first posting is a very good start (definitely not the ‘hello world, is this thing on?’ variety) and I hope to read much more (here’s a bunch of reminders to self that I keep handy when falsely thinking I need to write ‘properly’ before I can press pound to publish). It’s a WordPress blog and it launched with IndieWeb support for Webmention, which is very good. There’s a whole bunch of IndieWeb peeps hanging out on IRC/Slack, Rosie.

Clark McCleod’s Kelake blog in contrast has been around since 2001/2. This too is a WP blog, so I hope to see Clark add Webmention and other IndieWeb features.

Steven Garrity’s blog Acts of Volition goes back to 2000. I’ve been aware of him for a long time, ever since he figured in Peter’s surprise at how well known PEI turned out to be when he first visited Reboot in Copenhagen. Now I’ve met him in person and added him to my reader.

The reason I came up with letterpress made QSL cards, Peter, was of course that you have one. Also Aaron Parecki is interested. Not only is he deeply involved in Webmention as a standard, he also has a ham radio license (W7APK) like me (PE1NOR). So we have at least an audience of 4 😀

Bonus pic: the QSL cards I sent when I didn’t have my license yet (I got it in ’89) and sent out listening reports to both sides of successful connections (QSO). These were often highly appreciated by the stations involved as sometimes the only proof they had that a conversation with some exotic station had taken place was that someone overheard it and sent a report.

These QSL cards were bundled nationally and then sent as packages to the ham radio club of the destination country, where they would be disseminated through the various regional ham radio clubs. I should have a stack somewhere of QSL cards I received from all over the world.

And here’s an example of the logs I kept as a teenager, exactly 34 years ago:

Replied to WebmentionQSL by ruk.ca

While we were waiting for the bus home today, Olle explained to me and Oliver how QSL cards work: two ham radio operators establish a radio connection, the more distant and unlikely the better; during the connection they exchange call signs, which are globally-unique and can be used to look up a pos…

And then the unconference Crafting {:} a Life had ended, and you have to come back to the regular flow of things. Dealing with the aftermath so to speak. Sunday, still on PEI, we spent mostly hanging out on the deck in Peter and Catherine’s back yard. Then we joined some lobsters on the flight to Montréal.

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Monday we had a day to explore Montréal, before our early evening flight to Amsterdam. Now fighting jet lag on the couch, and trying to figure out how to take time this week to reflect and write more on the event.

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Montreal Montreal
Impressions of Montréal

20190610_201524Sunset over Labrador

It is good to see that the event is already causing ripples that move forwards in time. Rosie started a blog with support for IndieWeb standards, and Clark thinks he may permanently reshape his approach to workshops and presentations. I’ve also got a conference call planned with Mark on organising an unconference around the creative hub / makerspace project he is shaping.

And that is the real way participants can thank Peter for organising Crafting {:} a Life, and how ‘our’ participants, such as Peter did these past days, have thanked and are thanking us for our events: by taking something out of it and run with it. Bring it forward. Not an aftermath therefore, but unconference forwarding.

20190608_084935Walking to the market

I’ve just woken up after a great Day 2 of Peter’s Crafting {:} a Life unconference. Nominally the day was more about doing, where the first day was more about meeting and talking. We started with a walk from Peter Catherine and Oliver’s home to the Charlottetown Farmers Market. There I enjoyed a second breakfast of tasty crab cake, a lovely salmon bagel and good espresso. It was a beautiful sunny morning and we chatted both during the walk and outside the Farmers Market.

20190608_093459Peter, Oliver and Ethan holding court

One of the participants has access to a bus so he drove us back to the ‘campus’ where we all gathered again to build the program for the day together. A fantastic line-up of things ranging from ‘blood memories’ , the history of Peter’s home and surrounding houses (including daguerrotypes), drinking your first ever cup of coffee (and the life changing story behind it), to drawing fantasy maps.
I suggested doing a session on blogging, building on Day 1’s conversations about what happened to blogging, and the future of blogging. It ended up on the schedule for the afternoon.

20190608_110318Olle starting the fantasy cartography session

The rest of the morning I spent with a small group of people at the harbour location of Receiver Coffee, where two of us had their first ever cup of coffee (“I never deliberately put a bitter thing in my mouth with the intention to enjoy it”). Around the coffee we had a fascinating conversation of the seismic consequences of leaving a prescriptive strict organised religious community. The methods, tactics and tools I use in working with groups a lot, in order to create a space for collective change to happen, to build connections and community, essentially can be and are being used to introduce and maintain power differences, isolate groups etc. It’s as if a tool you see as fit for beautiful craftsmanship is deployed to stab someone.

20190608_113054 Garden conversationa first coffee, and back yard conversation

After lunch I sat down with a handful of people in Peter’s back yard for a session on IndieWeb tools and how they can breathe life back into blogging by taking control over your own content and the tools to connect you to others. For lack of laptops and because of bright sunlight, we talked more than we did things. And because of a bit of confusion around the schedule a larger group joined us an hour later under the assumption that was the correct starting time. But those ‘glitches’ worked out fine, as whoever is here are the right people, and whatever we talk about is the right topic. At first we talked about the IndieWeb tools and underlying standards and intentions, and examples of how that works out in practice (or doesn’t). From there we looped through an enormous variety of topics, from filling moments with listening to podcasts, to lifehacks, to getting transcripts of YouTube videos to parenting, reading to elderly people to improve quality of life, to instagram posers, grooming and language, and much much more. The free flow of the conversation with people drifting in and out, went on for some 4 hours effortlessly. People were taking notes but not disengaging on their phones. For me this session was worth the entire trip on its own, I was in flow. There’s much I still need to tease out for myself, to go back into the conversation and pick on a few strands to explore further, but right now it’s enough for me to admire the shape of the ephemeral construct we put together in that back yard. I came out sun burned not having noticed it in the conversational flow.

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Pre-dinner waiting time was filled with terrific oysters. It had been a long time since I had them, and the last time was of the ‘here’s a bit of salty watery snot’ variety. These were fresh, we’re on an island after all, delicate of taste and very meaty. A local chef then served a nice bbq burger meal, after singing an Irish dedication song to us. More music followed.

20190608_184013pre-dinner rush to finish the first draft

Elmine had been working on writing a story during the day, which she plotted together with Rob Paterson, and she read out the first finished draft in front of not just the 50 people who participated in the unconference, but also their partners, families and others who had joined us for dinner. It must be daunting to stand up and read aloud something you created just now, and of which the ink isn’t even dry yet. Leaving half the audience brushing away a tear, it was great. I also felt it completed the circle of our own participation. Elmine led us through the first exercise on Day 1 where we told each other stories, and now she rounded it off with reading us all a story inspired by the family who brought us together in and around their home. When Peter thanked Elmine and they embraced, that was the moment I felt myself release the space I opened up on Day 1 when I helped the group set the schedule. Where the soap bubble we blew collapsed again, no longer able to hold the surface tension. I felt a wave of emotions wash through me, which I recognise from our own events as well. The realisation of the beauty of the collective experience you created, the connections made, the vulnerability allowed, the fun had, the playfulness. We wound down from that rush chatting over drinks in the moon lit back yard.

Thank you Peter for bringing us all to PEI for a few days of, as you wrote earlier, the simple act of spending time together talking about life for a while. Crafting a life is in part about crafting shared experiences. This most definitely was one.

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Today was day 1 of the Crafting {:} a Life unconference that our friend Peter is organising on Prince Edward Island. It was a fun and wonderful day.
It was a novel experience, doing an unconference party like this as a participant. Elmine and I have always been on the other side, the persons convening a group of our friends and connections in our home for the event. Then you know all of those there, although most participants won’t know each other. Today it was like the latter for me, half a dozen familiars, and 40 or more people you never met. Peter said when he picked us up at the airport “you are the only two people in the world who know in what position I am right now.” The flip side of that is I’ve learned what all of you who participated in our events knew all along, how it is to participate.

20190607_084854Before the start, the circle of chairs waiting for us

Both Elmine and I did take some role in today’s events. In the run-up we chatted with Peter to provide feedback and share some of our previous experiences. And today, we helped set the scene. After Peter’s welcoming words and intro, some songs by Michael, and a welcome from Oliver, Elmine took the group through an introductory exercise. It was a version of the ‘anecdote circle lite‘ we did ourselves last summer. Groups of 5 or 6 would talk about “something you crafted or created that you’re most proud of, gave you most pleasure or was the most fun to do.” It is a good way to get to know some of the other participants while doing away with the usual ‘I’m John, and I’m the X at Y company”, of which nothing ever gets remembered when 40 people do that one after another. Now I’ve learned about veterinarian training on PEI, who created the most recent official PEI atlas (and whose name because of that will be remembered centuries from now because those official atlases are kept and cared about), and the pleasure you feel making something with your hands when your regular work is coding. While one was telling their story the others would write down what stood out for them. All those notes served as a source of reference and inspiration for the rest of the day.

Crafting {;} a Life Crafting {;} a Life

Next Peter and I guided the group through building the program. I opened the space and invited people to propose topics or sessions, and when enough others showed interest it would go on the schedule. After the first sessions and lunch, and later in the afternoon we returned to the schedule so people could add things, and use their earlier experiences in the day to suggest new additions to the schedule. With the instruction to be curious, follow your energy and your feet to where you feel engaged, and have fun the participants were off.

20190607_173005the schedule as it emerged during the day

I attended sessions on constructive approaches to local climate adaptation efforts, the role of arts in social movements, a conversation on what happened to blogging, burn-out avoidance strategies, the future we see / want to see for blogging, and how to start and not to start a creative hub and maker space. I would have loved to also join a session on ‘phone nerding’ and the ‘death café’ but you can only be in one spot at any given time. I feel that the fact that this is all taking place on an island with a tight-knit community, gives a special flavor to the event. The sea is a natural boundary to the community and who counts as part of it, and there’s a strong sense of all being into it together. That also showed yesterday evening when Elmine and I found ourselves discussing the impact of AirBnb and other pressures on the local housing market, with some people at a bar, one of whom turned out to be the city counsellor responsible for that subject.

20190607_161502envisioning the future of blogging in Peter and Catherine’s back yard

We ended with pizza and some drinks. Tomorrow we will return for day 2, which will be focused on doing, where today was more about meeting and talking. Some ideas for what to do already emerged during this day. I will likely do something around the indieweb with the others interested in having a personal site away from the silos. But first sleep, and breakfast on the Charlottetown Farmers Market tomorrow.