BlogWalk Amsterdam: on facilitation and structure
Ton wrote long and thoughtful post on BlogWalk facilitation, and, while I agree with most of it, there is part that I think is missing.
When we started, BlogWalks were a way to amplify conversations we had online. Most of the participants would know each other from their weblogs, not only personally, but, which is more important for this post, topic-wise.
Now things are different – the people coming are more diverse and less connected then before. Also, some of them are not bloggers, but even for bloggers things changed – how many of you moved from reading a few weblogs in depth to scanning many? So, weblog-mediated familiarity with other participants that we are started with is not there.
It's not bad (diversity is always a plus), it's different. And I believe it needs to be reflected in the way BlogWalks are structured and facilitated.
What I missed this time was topical awareness of others – who are the people to talk about topics I'm interested. Days before BlogWalk I went to check links behind each name, but there was a limited picture I could get from it: some people linked to their companies (so how do I know what interests them?), but even for bloggers you can get only that much by browsing a weblog that you see for the first time (before I'd read weblogs of other participants for months prior to the event). We couldn't make it to the dinner (this is how having a baby restricts your mobility :), but given my experiences from other dinners I doubt that this would give enough of the coverage.
In fact, there was something that gave an overview of topics that people wanted to talk about – post-its on the windows wiki. However, there wasn't an easy way to figure out who wrote those I was interested in (I still wonder who wrote the one about the ethics of oil-fuelled travelling). Taking my responsibility for my own needs I tried to take the initiative and to propose a round of a group-wide time where people could announce the topics they wanted to discuss, but Ton suggested that it wasn't necessary and moved on*.
So, what is my take of facilitating BlogWalk – more structure or less? I'd say as much as needed. If we can create conditions (e.g. as Ton proposes) for awareness of each others interests and taking responsibility prior to the event, as well as structure the space to facilitate conversations, then "no structure" and "no facilitation" is perfect. If not, then there is something else to do.
Specific things that we could do better this time:
- A couple of rounds of a group-wide time (e.g. one in the beginning to announce "I would like to talk about X,Y,Z" and shorter one in the afternoon – to get on the same page before breaking into free-floating discussions again). We could think of alternative ways to create an opportunity for 1-to-all communication moments (e.g. ask people for a keyword intro to put on a wall and scheduling 5 silent minutes to look at it). Also, emphasising a bit more that signing your post-it makes it possible for others to discover you. Actually I believe that creating a space/time for a group-wide communication is something for a facilitator to be responsible, since it's difficult for a participant to take initiative in that respect (it's much easier to start one-to-one conversation in the corner then get attention of everyone).
- Name tags. Or printed intro of people with photos. Anything that helps to connect a face to a name during the event.
Even if there are reasons not to create a group-wide time slot, we could do something like printing out the list of participants (+making sure the photos are big enough to recognise people), hanging it somewhere on the wall and asking people to add their initial "I'm interested to talk about X" post-its next to their names. (I could even think about it before the event, but it's easy to get your expectations formed by previous events, where something like that wasn't needed :)
Another thing we could do is to facilitate awareness and communication prior to the event (and a follow-up of course). Ton suggest some ideas, but I guess we'll need a bit of discussions and experimentation to see what really works - getting a diverse group of people on the same page in a technology-mediated way without much facilitation is a nice challenge to work on.
*Ton did a lion share of work organising this BlogWalk and I value his input a lot. But in this case I felt that he acted as a facilitator who makes decisions about (no) structure rather than as a participant (as he suggests in his post).
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