Human-bot relations at ICA 2017 in San Diego

News this week that a panel I contributed to on political bots has been accepted for the annual International Communication Association (ICA) conference in San Diego with Amanda Clarke, Elizabeth Dubois, Jonas Kaiser and Cornelius Puschmann this May. Political bots are automated agents that are deployed on social media platforms like Twitter to perform a variety of functions that are having a significant impact on politics and public life. There is already some great work about the negative impact of bots that are used to “manipulate public opinion by megaphoning or repressing political content in various forms” (see but we were interested in the types of bots these bots are often compared to — the so-called “good” bots that expose the actions of particular types of actors (usually governments) and thereby bring about greater transparency of government activity.

Elizabeth, Cornelius and I worked on a paper about WikiEdits bots for ICA last year in the pre-conference: “Algorithms, Automation, Politics” (“Keeping Ottawa Honest — One Tweet at a Time?” Politicians, Journalists and their Twitter bots, PDF) where we found that the impact of these bots isn’t as simple as bringing about greater transparency. The new work that we will present in May is a deeper investigation of the types of relationships that are catalysed by the existence and ongoing development of transparency bots on Twitter. I’ll be working on the relationship between bots and their creators in both Canada and South Africa, attempting to investigate the relationship between the bots and the transparency that they promise. Cornelius is looking at the relationship between journalists and bots, Elizabeth and Amanda are looking at the relationship between bots and political staff/government employees, and Jonas will be looking more closely at bots and users. The awesome Stuart Geiger who has done some really great work on bots has kindly agreed to be a respondent to the paper.

You can read more about the panel and each of the papers below.

Do people make good bots bad?

Political bots are not necessarily good or bad. We argue the impact of transparency bots (a particular kind of political bot) rests largely on the relationships bots have with their creators, journalists, government and political staff, and the general public. In this panel each of these relationships is highlighted using empirical evidence and a respondent guides wider discussion about how these relationships interact in the wider political and media system.

This panel challenges the notion that political bots are necessarily good or bad by highlighting relationships between political actors and transparency bots. Transparency bots are automated social media accounts which report behaviour of political players/institutions and are normally viewed as a positive force for democracy. In contrast, bot activity such as astroturfing and the creation of fake followers or friends on social media has been examined and critiqued as nefarious in academic and popular literature. We assert that the impact of transparency bots rests largely on the relationships bots have with their creators, journalists, government and political staff, and the general public. Each panelist highlights one of these relationships (noting related interactions with additional actors) in order to answer the question “How do human-bot relationships shape bots’ political impact?”

Through comparative analysis of the Canadian and South African Wikiedits bots, Ford shows that transparency is not a potential affordance of the technology but rather of the conditions in place between actors. Puschmann considers the ways bots are framed and used by journalists in a content analysis of news articles. Dubois and Clarke articulate the ways public servants and political staff respond to the presence of Wikiedits bots revealing that internal institutional policies mediate the relationships these actors can have with bots. Finally, Kaiser asks how users who are not political elite actors frame transparency bots making use of a quantitative and qualitative analysis of Reddit content.

Geiger (respondent) then poses questions which cut across the relationships and themes brought out by panelists. This promotes a holistic view of the bot in their actual communicative system. Cross-cutting questions illustrate that the impact of bots is seen not simply in dyadic relationships but also in the ways various actors interact with each other as well as the bots in question.

This panel is a needed opportunity to critically consider the political role and impact of transparency bots considering the bot in context. Much current literature assumes political bots have significant agency, however, bots need to interact with other political actors in order to have an impact. A nuanced understanding of the different types of relationships among political actors and bots that exists is thus essential. The cohesive conversation presented by panelists allows for a comparison across the different kinds of bot-actor relationships, focusing in detail on particular types of actors and then zooming out to address the wider system inclusive of these relationships.

  1. Bots and their creators
    Heather Ford

Bots – particularly those with public functions such as government transparency – are often created and recreated collaboratively by communities of technologists who share a particular world view of democracy and of technology’s role in politics and social change. This paper will focus on the origins of bots in the motivations and practices of their creators focusing on a particular case of transparency bots. Wikipedia/Twitter bots are built to tweet every time an editor within a particular government IP range edits Wikipedia as a way of notifying others to check possible government attempts to manipulate facts on the platform. The outputs of Wikipedia/Twitter bots have been employed by journalists as sources in stories about governments manipulating information (Ford et al, 2016).

Investigating the relationship between bot creators and their bots in Canada and South Africa by following the bots and their networks using mixed methods, I ask: To what extent is transparency an affordance of the particular technology being employed? Or is transparency rather an affordance of the conditions in place between actors in the network? Building from theories of co-production (Jasanoff, 2004) and comparing the impact of Wikipedia/Twitter bots on the news media in Canada and South Africa, this paper begins to map out the relationships that seem to be required for bots to take on a particular function (such as government transparency). Findings indicate that bots can only become transparency bots through the enrolling of allies (Callon, 1986) and through particular local conditions that ensure success in achieving a particular outcome. This is a stark reminder of the connectedness of human-machine relations and the limitations on technologists to fully create the world they imagine when they build their bots.


2. Bots and Journalists
Cornelius Puschmann

Different social agents — human and non-human — compete for attention, spread information and contribute to political debates online. Journalism is impacted by digital automation in two distinct ways: Through its potentially manipulative influence on reporting and thus public opinion (Woolley & Howard, 2016, Woolley, 2016), and by providing journalists with a set of new tools for providing insight, disseminating information, and connecting with audiences (Graefe, 2016; Lokot & Diakopoulos, 2015). This contribution focuses primarily on the first aspect, but also takes the second into account, because we argue that fears of automation in journalism may fuel reservations among journalists regarding the role of bots more generally.

To address the first aspect, we present the results of a quantitative content analysis of English-language mainstream media discourse on bots. Building on prior research on the reception of Bots (Ford et al, 2016), we focus on the following aspects in particular:

– the context in which bots are discussed,

– the evaluation (“good” for furthering transparency, “bad” because they spread propaganda),

– the implications for public deliberation (if any).

Secondly, we discuss the usage of bots and automation for the news media, using a small set of examples from the context of automated journalism (Johri, Han & Mehta, 2016). Bots are increasingly used to automate particular aspects of journalism, such as the generation of news items and the dissemination of content. Building on these examples we point to the “myriad ways in which news bots are being employed for topical, niche, and local news, as well as for providing higher-order journalistic functions such as commentary, critique, or even accountability” (Lokot & Diakopoulos, 2015, p. 2).


3. Bots and Government/Political Staff
Elizabeth Dubois and Amanda Clarke

Wikiedits bots are thought to promote more transparent, accountable government because they expose the Wikipedia editing practices of public officials, especially important when those edits are part of partisan battles between political staff, or enable the spread of misinformation and propaganda by properly neutral public servants. However, far from bolstering democratic accountability, these bots may have a perverse effect on democratic governance. Early evidence suggests that the Canadian Wikiedits bot (@gccaedits) may be contributing to a chilling effect wherein public servants and political staff are editing Wikipedia less or editing in ways that are harder to track in order to avoid the scrutiny that these bots enable (Ford et al, 2016). The extent to which this chilling effect shapes public officials’ willingness to edit Wikipedia openly (or at all), and the role the bot plays in inducing this chilling effect, remain open questions ripe for investigation. Focusing on the bot tracking activity in the Government of Canada (@gccaedits), this paper reports on the findings of in-depth interviews with public and political officials responsible for Wikipedia edits as well as analysis of internal government documents related to the bot (retrieved through Access to Information requests).

We find that internal institutional policies, constraints of the Westminster system of democracy (which demands public servants remain anonymous, and that all communications be tightly managed in strict hierarchical chains of command), paired with primarily negative media reporting of the @gccaedits bot, have inhibited Wikipedia editing. This poses risks to the quality of democratic governance in Canada. First, many edits revealed by the bot are in fact useful contributions to knowledge, and reflect the elite and early insider insight of public officials. At a larger level, these edits represent novel and significant disruptions to a public sector communications culture that has not kept pace with the networked models of information production and dissemination that characterize the digital age. In this sense, the administrative and journalistic response to the bot’s reporting sets back important efforts to bolster Open Government and digital era public service renewal. Detailing these costs, and analysing the role of the bot and human responses to it, this paper suggests how wikiedit bots shape digital era governance.

4. Bots and Users
Jonas Kaiser

Users interact online with bots on a daily basis. They tweet, upvote or comment, in short: participate in many different communities and are involved in shaping the user’s perceptions. Based on this experience the users’ perspective on bots may differ significantly from journalists, bot creators or political actors. Yet it is being ignored in the literature up to now. As such we are missing an integral perspective on bots that may help us to understand how the societal discourse surrounding bots is structured. To analyze how and in which context users talk about transparency bots specifically a content analysis and topic analysis of Reddit comments from 86 posts in 48 subreddits on the issue of Wikiedits bots will be conducted. This proposal’s research focuses on two major aspects: how Reddit users 1) frame and with what other 2) topics they associate transparency bots.

Framing in this context is understood as “making sense of relevant events, suggesting what is at issue” (Gamson & Modigliani, 1989, p. 3). Even though some studies have shown, for example, how political actors frame bots (Ford, Dubois, & Puschmann, 2016) a closer look at the user’s side is missing. But this perspective is important as non-elite users may have a different view than the more elite political actors that can help us understand in how they interpret bots. This overlooked perspective, then, could have meaningful implications for political actors or bot creators. At the same time it is important to understand the broader context of the user discourse on transparency bots to properly connect the identified frames with overarching topics. Hence an automated topic modeling approach (Blei, Ng & Jordan, 2003) is chosen to identify the underlying themes within the comments. By combining frame analysis with topic modeling this project will highlight the way users talk about transparency bots and in which context they do so and thus emphasize the role of the users within the broader public discourse on bots.


Blei, D. M., Ng, A. Y., & Jordan, M. I. (2003). Latent dirichlet allocation. Journal of Machine Learning Research, 3, 993-1022.

Callon, M. (1986). “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St Brieuc Bay”. In John Law (ed.), Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul).

Ford, H., Dubois, E., & Puschmann, C. (2016). Automation, Algorithms, and Politics | Keeping Ottawa Honest—One Tweet at a Time? Politicians, Journalists, Wikipedians and Their Twitter Bots. International Journal of Communication, 10, 24.

Gamson, W. A., & Modigliani, A. (1989). Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power: A Constructionist Approach. American Journal of Sociology, 95(1), 1-37.

Graefe, A. (2016). Guide to automated journalism.

Jasanoff, S. (2004). States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and the Social Order. (London: Routledge Chapman & Hall)

Johri et al. (2016). Domain specific newsbots. Live automated reporting systems involving natural language communication. Paper presented at 2016 Computation + Journalism Symposium.

Lokot, T. & Diakopoulos, N. (2015). News bots: Automating news and information dissemination on Twitter. Digital Journalism. doi: 10.1080/21670811.2015.1081822

Woolley, S. C. (2016). Automating power: Social bot interference in global politics. First Monday. doi: 10.5210/fm.v21i4.6161

Woolley, S. C., & Howard, P. (2016). Bots unite to automate the presidential election. Retrieved Jun. 5, 2016, from

What I’m talking about in 2016

Authority and authoritative sources, critical data studies, digital methods, the travel of facts online, bot politics and social media and politics. These are some of the things I’m talking about in 2016. (Just in case you thought the #sunselfies only indicated fun and aimless loafing).  

15 January Fact factories: How Wikipedia’s logics determine what facts are represented online. Wikipedia 15th birthday event, Oxford Internet Institute. [Webcast, OII event page, OII’s Medium post, The Conversation article]

29 January Wikipedia and me: A story in four acts. TEDx Leeds University. [Video, TEDx Leeds University site]

Abstract: This is a story about how I came to be involved in Wikipedia and how I became a critic. It’s a story about hope and friendship and failure, and what to do afterwards. In many ways this story represents the relationship that many others like me have had with the Internet: a story about enormous hope and enthusiasm followed by disappointment and despair. Although similar, the uniqueness of these stories is in the final act – the act where I tell you what I now think about the future of the Internet after my initial despair. This is my Internet love story in four acts: 1) Seeing the light 2) California rulz 3) Doubting Thomas 4) Critics unite. 

17 February. Add data to methods and stir. Digital Methods Summer School. CCI, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane [QUT Digital Methods Summer School website]

Abstract: Are engagements with real humans necessary to ethnographic research? In this presentation, I argue for methods that connect data traces to the individuals who produce them by exploring examples of experimental methods featured on the site ‘’, such as live fieldnoting, collaborative mapmaking and ‘sensory postcards’.  This presentation will serve as an inspiration for new work that expands beyond disciplinary and methodological boundaries and connects the stories we tell about our things with the humans who create them.  

Continue reading “What I’m talking about in 2016”

WikiSym Redefined

Ward Cunningham, inventor of the wiki, at the first WikiSym in 2005 which was co-located with ACM OOPSLA in San Diego, California. Pic by Peter Kaminski CC BY on Flickr.
Ward Cunningham, inventor of the wiki, at the first WikiSym in 2005 which was co-located with ACM OOPSLA in San Diego, California. Pic by Peter Kaminski CC BY on Flickr.

There has been much reflecting and soul-searching about the future of WikiSym in the past year (and probably before that as well). Many felt that the conference was becoming dominated by Wikipedia research and that it needed to grow to encompass more research in the open source, open data and open content realm. I felt that the conference needed to attract more social scientists and qualitative researchers in order to reach more detailed understanding of Wikipedia is being integrated into everyday life.

Despite the negatives, everyone felt that WikiSym was and still is the best place for people who do research about Wikipedia and other wikis to gather and that there was a lot of promise in broadening our mandate. This is why I feel so excited about co-chairing a new dedicated Wikipedia track at next year’s WikiSym in Hong Kong along with Mark Graham, also at the Oxford Internet Institute. And that’s why I was also happy that Dirk Riehle, veteren of WikiSym, is at the helm again next year, leading an effort to redesign the event around a changing research landscape.

There are a few key differences to next year’s event:

1. WikiSym 2013 will be held jointly with a new conference called ‘OpenSym’ and the entire event will consist of four tracks dedicated to different research trajectories:

  • Open collaboration (wikis, social media, etc.) research (WikiSym 2013), chaired by Jude Yew of National University of Singapore
  • Wikipedia research (WikiSym 2013), chaired jointly by myself and Mark Graham of the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford
  • Free, libre, and open source software research (OpenSym 2013), chaired jointly by Jesus M. Gonzalez-Barahona and Gregorio Robles of Universidad Rey Juan Carlos
  • Open access, data, and government research (OpenSym 2013), chaired by Anne Fitzgerald of Queensland University of Technology

This means that Mark and I can focus on getting the very best of Wikipedia research to WikiSym and in thinking hard about what is missing and what needs to be encouraged in the years to come. Continue reading “WikiSym Redefined”

Geoff the Greek Geek

An alternative GeekRetreat story

It is a hot, swampy night just minutes before midnight on the outskirts of the small village of Stanford. An eagle howls. The cicadas ring in the ears of a huddle of beasts in the palm of the valley. A small flashlight is bobbing at the top of the hill. Soon other lights follow it as more emerge over the hill. Their bearers come into view. They are dressed in long black and silver cloaks and seem to float across the drought-stricken ground. Behind them are others dressed in deep red cloaks that seem to be dipped in blood. The GeekRetreat Elders have arrived to initiate new retreaters.

The Elders enter what looks like an old stone farmhouse. The wide room is lit by a circle of candles on the stone floor behind which sits the uninitiated geeks, dressed only in swaths of white cloth and their skin painted with white paint. Geoff the Greek is sweating profusely despite the heat. The cloth is prickling him and he is visibly nervous. He has left his CEO mantle behind him. Everyone starts at the lowest rung here. He is reminded of the time that he was the last person picked in break-time cricket in primary school. Will his geek skills be up to scratch? It was a long time since he wrote html. These days he hands his if-when-statement-writing over to his tribes code-monkeys scattered across the Web like pellets of the lonely male springbok.

The GeekRetreat Elders are staring down at the Newbies. A particularly dark looking character is grinning at him and staring into his stricken face. He has the word ‘Naughty’ tattooed across his forehead.

The elders enter the room and shout abuse at the Newbies. They make them do a series of tasks:

1. do their multiplication tables in binary while drinking a sickly brown substance with a snake emblazoned on it
2. doing pc support for grannies wanting to get onto the internets
3. reciting the words of the Tron

Geoff was doing ok. He’d been rehearsing his whole life for this. But Naughty was still grinning at him and when there was silence again, he opened his mouth for the first time:

What is the Wikileaks password? he asked.

Others put up their hands but Naughty waved them away.

I want him to tell me.

Geoff was being tested. For the future task of chief Greek? He didn’t know. All he knew was that he needed to get this right. The sweat dripped from his forehead and he stammered:

There is… no password.

The room errupted. Their new leader had been found. He was shown to have the powers of the Internets behind him. The covenant had been sealed.

Naughty’s grin disappeared and Geoff the Greek Geek hoorayed.

GeekRetreat 2011: What really happened (or did it?)

If you were following the GeekRetreat on Twitter last weekend, you may think that the event took a horrible turn for the worse by turning into a reality tv-type event. The story started on Saturday, where I apparently announced that this wasn’t the GeekRetreat but Geek Factor – a mix of Fear Factor, Big Brother and Survivor, Geek Factor pitted 37 geeks against one another in a battle to control the title of uber geek. After a number of intense challenges including a Treasure Hunt, Swimming Race and staring competition, Argent Brown, CEO and Lifetime President of Argent Rockstar Corporation, apparently emerged victorious, winning R100,000 from the GeekRetreat Foundation.

Although many of the activities were similar (there was, in fact, a treasure hunt at the retreat) the GeekRetreat was far from a competition. A spirit of play, respect and support permeated the event, where geekstars could test out new ideas and practice geekdom in what GR fellow, Elodie Kleynhans referred to as a very ‘safe’ environment.

GR fellows arrived on Thursday evening to a room with a very different setup to traditional conferences. Instead of dozens of chairs facing a podium, the chairs were arranged in a circle and before long geeks were playing a geek version of musical chairs where ‘the wind blew’ others like them to another chair in the room. 36 geeks from Joburg to Cape Town to San Francisco were there. The San Franciscan, Andy Volk, had come to the event last year and couldn’t resist the opportunity to come back again. ‘I got great value out of the retreat. It’s definitely worth traveling half way around the world for.’

Next up, Jarred Cinman and I explained the format of this year’s retreat. We have learned over the years that the most valuable interactions happen during the games and in the corridors – opportunities for us to have fun and collaborate with one another and through that collaboration learn who we want to work with in the future. Instead of just talking and debating, this year was about actually making something – an app, a website, a campaign, a competition or an activity – over the remaining three days.

As the smells of Cornelie de Villiers’ great cooking wafted over to the conference room, we collaboratively designed the schedule for the next few days. Each day was punctuated by scrum sessions in which the large group would come together to decide what had been done, what needed doing and whether anyone was facing any challenges. In actual fact, the scrum continued throughout the day as teams worked in a small corner of the conference room, in peoples’ rooms and outside, with a constant dialogue running about what was happening, who needed help and how priorities needed to be shifted.

In the next few days, fellows worked hard at their projects – asking folks from other teams to help them with interviews, content, and coding. In between gadget time, we swam in the lake, hugged the calf that is being reared on the farm, did frog dives off the pontoon, visited the local brewery, taught one another how to knit and danced to 80s music. In skill share sessions ,comprised of 10 minute how-to’s and conversations, fellows showed us how to make a box out of a sheet of paper (Pam Sykes), how to fold iphone headphones (Henk Kleynhans), how to program (Paul Furber) and how to keep healthy (Elodie Kleynhans), amongst other geeky and non-geeky tips.

In the end, eight projects were developed and showcased over the course of the weekend. Geek Factor emerged from the GeekRetreat documentation project with the goal of creating a spoof GR campaign. The team wanted to create a series of competing narratives about the GeekRetreat, emphasizing the fact that what people say about the event is often very far from individuals’ experiences and that people often believe what they want to believe on the Internet, not stopping to question or critically analyze what is being ‘reported’. In documenting GeekFactor, the team built spoof websites for GeekFactor and Argent Brown’s Argent Rockstar Corporation, shot video diaries documenting competitors’ feelings about how the competition was going, maintained a series of new Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and used the analogue power of rumor to weave a narrative about the retreat that was very far from the reality of what was really happening.

Said Jarred, ‘The decision to be unreliable narrators on the retreat was an experiment in how information spreads, how reputation informs communication and the fluidity of perspective. Critically the project showed what the weekend was about by showing what it wasn’t. Accused of being elitist, self-aggrandising and an excuse for inebriation, we took those accusations to their logical extreme. The ultimate geek ego was embodied by Argent Brown; the geeks indulged in hacking contests and staring competitions; and reports of self-important dialogue were legion. Retreatants themselves were kept partly in the dark and the stark contrast to the retreat as it was and as it was reflected became more and more pronounced giving everyone a unique and vivid experience of what it’s like to become victims of the new media we both create and live within.’

Henk Kleynhans from Skyrove, who donated the bandwidth and bandwidth management for the event, launched a project to ask DSL subscribers across the country to test their DSL speed in order to elicit real data that shows which service providers provide the fastest network connections. Bootstrap Secrets, a project led by Elan Lohmann, built a website where entrepreneurs can give others advice about running a startup in South Africa. The website’s focus is on anecdotal advice, tips, lessons and __ and contributors are encouraged to be as honest as possible. Speaking to the GR fellows, Elan said, ‘We couldn’t have done it without the fantastic submissions from you guys. In the next few weeks we’ll be inviting specific people who aren’t here to contribute tips and advice through Twitter.’

Solve my fucking problem – inspired by What the fuck is my social media strategy and Writer’s block – was a website developed for people to submit their problems. According to project lead Andy Hadfield, the team was experimenting with a viral campaign that would inspire businesses to solve real world problems.

Geeks @ Play saw fellows creating a play list of things they wanted to play at over the weekend and tagging each activity with their initials once they’d completed it. According to project lead, Leslie Maliepaard, stargazing, ‘hug a calf’, ‘lollipops and cupcakes’, and diving off pontoon were some of the most popular activities, with the least popular being ‘climb’ a tree’ and ‘twitpic a bunny’. Other fellows added onto the Play List by creating a paper progress bar, showing how far each fellow at the retreat had gone in achieving their playful activities. Leslie is keen to explore these ideas even further after the retreat, exploring ways to take these playful ideas online by inspiring people to play with their friends on Facebook. ‘This showed me that it’s easy to play, that everyone wants to have fun and that sometimes it’s important to take time to play,’ said Leslie.

The Reputation group explored the problem of deciding who to follow on Twitter and to dedicate scarce attention resources to. Led by Len Weincier, the team wanted to build a reputation graph that showed reputation levels relative to one another, inspired by the ELO ratings for chess and from X-box Live. After asking GR fellows to rate one another according to whether each was a ‘cool geek’ or an ‘uber geek’, the team used 3 different algorithms to compare the data. By looking at the graphs that resulted from adding up individuals’ ‘scores’, then weighting scores of scorers according to whether they were more positive or negative than others, the team ended up learning a great deal about how complex reputation graphs are and how their concept could be extended to real world situations in which people could offer one another favors with some kind of understanding of how good they were for it.

The Pitch Off team led by Pete Flynn created a Pitch Off competition for fellows to pitch five social entrepreneurial business ideas to judges and then to the audience. The five brave souls pitched their ideas and got valuable feedback from GR fellow judges, Alex Fraser, Brian Pinnock and Elan Lohmann who all have experience having ideas pitched to them in their businesses. Fellows learned a great deal from the pitches and the feedback they received. Said Pete, ‘It was interesting to see how differently judges scored their ideas – just emphasizing how we shouldn’t give up when we receive negative feedback from someone.’ It was a close call between contestants but Sam Christie won the final prize with his idea to use computer labs in low-income schools as call-center hubs.

The Geek Movie team produced a movie from interviews with almost all the fellows at the retreat on their experience of being a geek and what advice they would give to young geeks. The team led by Pam Sykes, Elodie Kleynhans with help from Luisa Mazinter, Larry Claasen and Jon Maliepaard said in their final presentation that the result was totally different from what they expected and that the process where everyone pitched in and where there was very little hierarchy worked really well.

It was an emotional farewell after prizes and thanks to everyone who helped make this year’s GeekRetreat such an incredible success. In final words, fellows emphasized how inspiring it was to find a community with such patience, understanding and tolerance. Tasleem Williams said how inspired he felt about the potential of Africans after seeing the incredible showcase of products. Others noted how lonely it is to always be on the outside and how it was wonderful it was to meet people just like them.

With these words, my job is done. I wish the next team everything of the best as they prepare for the next GeekRetreat. Onwards and upwards.

Tools for coordinating community events

n Sunday morning, I woke up with the germ of an idea. I had been doing a lot of soul searching about what to do for my final project and I realised that a lot of what I was thinking of made sense for other peoples’ ideas of who I am, but not what I find important. I went back to what I loved doing as a kid. I have always loved coordinating communities in creative tasks. In middle school, I created my own version of Dungeons and Dragons, and made drawings of monsters and lands that my friends and I would invade. After that (probably with a sense of guilt when I heard that D&D was actually Satanic (!)) I coordinated a Bible study group (gasp!) with the kids in the neighborhood using little activity booklets that I designed.

I continued the community stuff (also known as ‘lust for power’) by being the ‘Entertainment Representative’ in just about every committee I was a part of – including the Junior City Council in Pietermaritzburg where I was responsible for breaking city by-laws by running a chalkathon where we would ask businesses to donate money to charity in exchange for their name in chalk on the city streets. Nice.

After I graduated from university in 2000 wanting to be a ‘communication designer’ (the forerunner of UX designers, I think) I went on to managing a Johannesburg non-profit’s website and realising that the Web was the reason I was born in 1978, just in time to see the rise and dramatic fall of online business, and the consequent stickiness of the stuff that the Web does well. There is a lot of hype about the Internet as a new geography (the phrase: ‘Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind’ is the now considered to be mindless ‘hippie-talk’ of the 90s) and a lot of it is bullcr%p but I do believe that the Internet can bring people together.

With me as type-cast “Representative of Entertainment” and a penchant for stories of heroism and humanism, I’ve been involved in and run a bunch of F2F (face-to-face) events in the past 10 years – all to (ironically) celebrate what’s great about the Internet(s). (With all that education, sayeth my parents, she is just a glorified event planner!) It’s hard to own up to, but yes, that is what drives this sack of South African-ness to various corners of this large earth.

In celebration of this recent soul searching, I’m thinking of building tools for those who coordinate community-driven events just like the ones that changed my life and are changing the lives of others every day. We’re learning that technology can help open events to enormous possibilities, but that the best events, the life-changing ones, are those that ramp up the flesh-and-bloodness of the F2F.

The thing with community events (like Barcamps, InfoCamps, MiniMakerFaires and their friends) is that people like you and me end up organising the bloody things when we have no idea of what’s involved. We always start from scratch – trying new, fancy technology when a lot of the time we spend more time on making the new fancy technology do what we want it to before actually getting down to the community-building that’s required for the success of such events. So I want to tackle this problem in a way that will enable more and more people organise more and more fabulous events to change the lives of more and more people. F2F is where it’s at, but information can get us more F2F time, I’m sure of it – especially when it enables us to replicate events that are hyper-local and save the crushing effects of travel and jetfuel.

That’s the initial pearl. I have had this idea for almost 36 hours now and I still think it’s a good one. I’ve just spoken to my brilliant digsmate, Thomas, about it and his interest was genuinely piqued. He’s making me think smartly about which part of this experience should be ‘templated’. Interesting ideas. More soon. Now is the time for inspiration, if you have any dashes of it for me 🙂 Thanking you in anticipation!

A vision of the next GeekRetreat

Back in May/June this year, over a few beers at Andy Hadfield’s house, I announced my idea for the next GeekRetreat: Geeks in Action. I’ve always been excited about the idea that the best way to know who you like collaborating with is to test out that collaboration in a small project. Since we want to max the collaborative potential of the event, and possibly create some re-usable knowledge outside of the event, I thought it would be fun to experiment with the ‘sprints’ of the free software world (now showing up in other forms in things like Crisis Camp in the US).

The idea is simple: we still focus on our community – all the great people who come to the retreat – but this time, instead of only sharing tips and tricks and experiences as ‘talks’, we come to Stanford Valley under a broad theme, form teams, and work on producing something experimental, fun and engaging during our time there.

In the past few months, I opened up the discussion on the GeekRetreat Fellows list about what people were interested in creating that was a) able to be easily achieved in 3 days b) something related to our broad objective to ‘make the South African Internet better’ by enriching it as a public space in South Africa and c) should be openly licensed under a Creative Commons license so that numerous platforms could host the material.

The Fellows responded with some awesome, some off-the-wall and some great-but-unachievable-in-3-days projects. We started to see a common theme running throughout. Started by Barbs Mallinson’s great idea to produce short videos that teach a specific skill to kids on the Obami network, as well as Tim Lunn’s idea to produce a ‘Bootstrap Secrets’ text on best practices and best services for South African startups, the theme was on building small learning objects, based solidly in the experience and expertise of the GeekRetreat community. Then there was a great, empassioned note from the awesome Paul Furber about his wish to teach kids in South Africa how to code (he has already done a lot of this but wants to make it his full time gig soon) and a fascinating conversation about the value of different learning strategies.

GeekRetreat co-founder, Eve Dmochowska and I met online at 3am in the morning my time about a week ago to talk about our progress and we talked excitedly about the “instructables” theme that ran through many of the projects. I said that perhaps we needed to focus on teams creating learning objects along the instructables line – that way we could easily bring in expertise, equipment, training that supported the framework and let fellows go off and create amazing things from that common framework. Wikipedia is successful in many ways because editors come at the project with a common understanding of what an encyclopaedia page looks like, what it should contain. We’re no Wikipedia, but I think it would be interesting to see how much we can gain from starting out with a core understanding of what the basic frame of this should be.

So, where are we right now?

We have only 40 spaces for the next retreat and it looks like half of those spaces will be filled with fellows, another four or five will be student volunteers, and the rest will be filled by other awesome people throughout South Africa who have shown an interest in contributing and who have incredible experience and skills to bring to this community. We have a few people who are skilled animators and videographers, others who have a keen understanding of learning and student communities, and still others who are great at putting ideas into practice.

Registration will open up in the next few weeks. We’re extending the retreat to three nights instead of two in order to get the most out of our time together, and there will still be the requisite focus on fun, festivities and frivolity.

My ideal agenda would look something like this:

Fellows arrive Thursday evening to the start of a treasure hunt. We gobble down some dinner, hear from team leads on their project ideas, form teams and head to bed.

The next day, we get up bright and early for breakfast, salute to the sun and spend the first part of the morning working out our agenda and hearing from some of the experts on what the best instructables look like, how to use the tech, and how to tell a story. Teams get going on their own steam for the rest of the weekend, interspersed by outings, Survivor-type contests and eating the good food that Cornelli de Villiers always provides for us. We end the weekend with a show-and-tell, and prizes for the weird and wonderful stuff we’ve produced.

I’m not saying it’ll all be there. But again, like we say at the GeekRetreat: it’s only as fun and awesome as you make it.

Read more about the GeekRetreat on the FAQ page.

TEDx: use our brand but make sure people know it’s not us

In my networks class today we were talking about co-creation: what it means to co-create, when it makes sense to do it, how it relates to the two-sided market model, and the state of Steven’s iPad. Now, with soy latte in hand and my first seat at Free Speech Cafe (!), I’m thinking about how this all relates to networking events like TED and their latest offshoot, TEDx.

Organised by potentially ‘anyone in the world’, TEDx events are independently organised events with a distinct TED flavor. TED determines the platform (events share the same format, documentation and purpose) while organisers ‘curate’ the content on the platform.

This is an example of a two-sided market model because TED must court both speakers and participants in order to develop a successful product. Much of the value in bringing both together is in the value of the brand and the extent to which the brand’s promise is fulfilled by both parties. Having one’s brand dependent on external parties who aren’t formally contracted with one another is a new and fascinating phenomenon. In the past, you knew that the company selling you a conference ticket was responsible for your experience. When TED informally contracts out this service to people who aren’t responsible to TED, they must trust that the resulting product will fulfill the brand’s promise.

TED has done something pretty clever here in order to gain maximum value out of connecting with people who want to co-create the brand with them, while still attempting to mitigate some of the risks. TED makes sure they select the people who will organise the events (‘no one can host a TEDx event unless he or she has been granted a license to do so by TED’) and they have clear guidelines about the use of the logo and the TED format. Instead of asking organisers to use the TED logo, they use the logo marker (‘TED’) as a way to signal to users that this is the TED platform but that content is independently curated (‘x’). It’s almost as if they’re saying: ‘This is TED but it’s also not TED. We are the platform, but we are not the content on that platform’.

I’m not sure how analogous this is to video game platform producers who have video game developers producing video games on the platform, but it’s definitely new, and it’s definitely something that people who produce events must think about – especially those like TED whose brand is global and who are then under pressure to find a way to scale up the event in the most efficient way.

I’m left with a lot of questions. How do you extract the platform from the content in an event? What role does the brand play in an event like this? And will TED try to control the brand in new ways if and when there are any risks to it by this move towards ‘co-creation’?

Learning entrepreneurship by being an entrepreneur

Tina Seelig just gave a wonderful talk at the iSchool titled: ‘Entrepreneurship is an extreme sport’. She talked about how important it is to teach entrepreneurship by doing. The video above was made by a team of her students at Stanford where she teaches a class on entrepreneurship. The students were given a pack of post-its and told to create as much value as possible out of the resource in a limited period of time.

The success of the course led to the Global Entrepreneurship Week. According to the website, Global Entrepreneurship Week ‘connected young people everywhere through local, national and global activities designed to help them explore their potential as self-starters and innovators’. I’m interested to see what happened in South Africa. I had a look at the site, but can’t see similar activities to Seelig’s entrepreneurship-by-doing philosophy. Looks like there was a lot of talking and networking – all great and valuable but I think that the real value of Seelig’s approach is what’s missing in SA.

By actively practicing entrepreneurship, said Seelig, students learn about: identifying opportunities, challenging assumptions, leveraging resources, creating value, learning about teamwork, taking risks, and learning from failure.

Failure is an important part of learning to be an entrepreneur, said Seelig. A colleague of hers has a philosophy of punishing inaction but never failure.

Her advice to people in places that look down on failure? ‘Try to create a hub where you actively promote a culture that doesn’t punish failure,’ she said.

Seelig noticed that students do much better in the course when it is linked to extra-curricula activities rather than linking it to a grade.

‘At the start of the class, I tell my students to: never miss an opportunity to be fabulous,’ she said.

SA could take a leaf out of Seelig’s book: ‘What I wish I knew when I was 20: A crash course in making your place in the world‘. In a way, I guess we’re the national equivalent of 20 🙂

Can a conference get too big?

In my final hour of sxsw, I realise that my.sxsw2010 is a story about queues (a.k.a. ‘lines’).

There was the line/queue to the Mozilla party that snaked around the back of the building and out onto the street. I had been in the VIP queue/line, but when I realised that, despite all my efforts to be one, I was not, in fact, a VIP but rather a JAP (just-another-(one-of-7091)-persons) I stomped unhappily down the street. Just then, my (Mozilla) friend, Aza, hung out the window of the party inside and handed me an orange bracelet.

‘Aha! I have the esteemed orange bracelet!’ I thought, as I marched stealthily toward the blonde bouncers at the front of the line/queue with a smirk and a silent: ‘You thought that I was a JAP. How do you feel knowing that I am, in fact, a VIP! Huh?! Huh?!!’

I now know that orange bracelets don’t get you places. Orange bracelets are just… well… orange bracelets. They are not the key to transforming one from a JAP to VIP. They are not the key to the pearly gates.

Luckily for me, Mark, the god of the Mozilla Happy Hour looked down at us and gave the universal signal for: ‘Open the pearly gates for this woman!’ I was in! And with that, came all the heavenly gifts that a sxsw Mozilla Happy Hour must bestow upon us (including a mob of smart heathens and greasy delights to sop up the free-flowing beverages). I saw old friends and made a few new friends. I was happy. I felt secure. All because I was connected to the god of the Mozilla Happy Hour.

Other lines/queues were not so accommodating – mostly because my sxsw pass didn’t come with a similar god of the Mozilla Happy Hour. There was the line/queue to the bathroom, the queue/line to purchase an overpriced soy latte, and the line/queue to get into a movie called ‘Tiny Furniture’. Apparently the queue/line was so long that the volunteers had calculated it to be too long for me to, indeed, see the film. So I went to the shorter line to watch a worse movie. I fell asleep in the first 5 minutes. I’m sure the movie was fine. I was just exhausted.

I was last here in 2003. The interactive event was just getting started then. I remember feeling exhausted then, but not overwhelmed. And now I realise that there’s a pretty big difference between the two.

Me, Andy, Jack, Ivo, Gaby, Allan, Spratt - pic by Gareth Knight

sxsw is an amazing event. I’ve been inspired and I’ve learned some really practical things that I will actually use after this. But I’m left feeling like I need to lie by myself in Child’s Pose in a dark room for at least a week. Last night I couldn’t do it anymore. I went for a swim, looked up at the skyscrapers around me and marveled at how lucky it is to have guides in this world.

I think sxsw needs to find a way to enable us to guide one another – first-timers with old-timers; locals with out-of-towners.

But even guides won’t change the length of the lines/queues. When some sessions are so big that people feel they can walk out because they won’t be noticed, or even if they’re noticed, no one knows who they are anyway, the conference is probably too big.

At 17,000+, sxsw might just have gotten too big. At least for me.