InfoCamp comes to Berkeley

I’m on the team at the iSchool organizing the upcoming InfoCamp. It all started when we were sitting in a meeting last semester talking about doing an event in the Spring. Someone mentioned InfoCamp. I emailed the organisers and Kristen and the team from InfoCamp Seattle welcomed us with open arms. It’s been a great experience so far – all the richer for having the Seattle team as supporters and collaborators (and providers of great event content that we’ve used as templates). Makes me realise how cool this model is and how we should do it for GeekRetreat – especially the principle of letting local groups decide on the specifics of the meeting but still sticking to some core principles around the unconference format, lack of advertising etc.

Anyway, more on that soon, but in the meantime, check out InfoCamp Berkeley and if you’re in the area, and you’re interested in information design, policy, experience or organisation, you are most welcome – to attend, speak and/or help out.

More below:

Mark your calendar–the first annual InfoCamp Berkeley is taking place Saturday, March 6 at UC Berkeley!

InfoCamp is an unconference for anyone interested in user experience, information architecture, interaction design, user-centered design, information design, librarianship, online search, information management, informatics, and related fields.  InfoCamp features an egalitarian, community-driven format in which you, the participants, create and lead most of the sessions!  The purpose of this format is to encourage collaboration, interaction, discussion, and real-time innovation. And, it’s a lot of fun!

Tickets are just $20 and can be purchased here:

Learn more and keep up-to-date with the latest information about InfoCamp:
InfoCamp blog

WikiWars and the politics of despair

Dror Kamir talks about the war of the wiki at WikiWars in Bangalore

Last week, I was in Bangalore for ‘WikiWars: Critical Point of View‘, a workshop organised by the Centre for Internet and Society (India) and the Institute of Network Cultures (Netherlands). As our invitation letter outlined, ‘WikiWars is not a traditional conference. It has attracted not only people from across disciplines but also people with different kinds of stakes in the Wikipedia knowledge network that we seek to build.’

I was pretty nervous about the event. It was the first time that I spoke publicly against the architecture of  “free and open” organisations and projects, and the first time in a very long time that I’ve presented an academic paper rather than speaking from my experience or with my “free and open” advocate hat on.

I’ve discarded that hat for now. I think I had probably discarded it a long time ago – or at least started to understand that my role as critic will be much more useful. I had started to become disenchanted many years ago, but kept thinking that I just needed to work a bit harder, be a little more convincing, in order to prove that we really could build something better, more globally united, more fair and just than what we had built before.

WikiWars was an eye-opener. Almost everyone came from a similar place. Many of us are (or were) Wikipedians or open-source activists, and this is, I think, what differentiates this kind of critique from most of the mainstream criticism that we hear about Wikipedia. The perspectives of the participants came from a very deep understanding and experience of Wikipedia. It was this experience that made the one perspective from an academic with little (or no) experience of Wikipedia so stark against the background of such rich experience.

There were geographers, political scientists, social scientists, media researchers and artists – a hodgepodge of the people from Israel to Taiwan, the United Kingdom to Australia who shared what is so rare these days: a critical perspective on one of the world’s most powerful information sources.

At the beginning of the event, co-organiser, Geert Lovink talked about the role of the critic. ‘We know what a literary film critic is, but what is an Internet critic?’ he asked. ‘Usually the way we look at critics is that they are losers, but they have an important role that can be very productive – productive because there is a direct relationship between the way we talk about things and about how they are actually represented.’

‘It shows that people from the outside care so much that they will put something like this on,’ said Lovink. ‘It is a desirable state of emancipation that Wikipedia research moves out of the Wikimedia Foundation.’

After I had presented, I talked to Nishant Shah, research director at CIS, who must be one of the cleverest, most eloquent people I have ever met. He talked to me about the ‘politics of despair’ and said that my talk reminded him of this. ‘Despair is not negative,’ he told me. ‘Negative would be if you ignored it.’

I feel like many long, dark days of isolation are over – for a while at least – and that this is a community that I have the utmost respect for. Watch this space. WikiWars will be publishing a reader later this year with the papers from the event series.

My presentation | My draft paper

The power and the peril of self-congratulation

Justin Spratt, Elan Lohmann and Daniel Neville shoot the breeze in true GeekRetreat fashion last Saturday

It’s exactly a week since GeekRetreat Stanford Valley and I’m sitting in my freezing cold Berkeley apartment collecting my thoughts and the countless pages of notes that I wrote on the plane back to the US on Monday night. (Moving around the world at such an alarming rate is such wonderful medicine for perspective.)

After some heart-warming perspectives from participants (Marlon Parker, Snowgoose, Jarred Cinman, Eve Dmochowska have all written insightful, provocative posts – but there are others still emerging) there has been a great deal of debate whether the retreat is a ‘talk fest’ or whether ‘anything changes’ as a result.

I think this debate is fascinating – but for less than obvious reasons.

The first is implied with the horrible ‘circle jerk’ term (which I promise never to use ever again unless it is absolutely necessary). If you don’t know what ‘circle jerk’ means, please look it up, or take my watered-down explanation here. The term refers to a group of young men sitting around in a self-referencing circle pleasuring themselves. Although gross, I think this is a really good analogy for the kind of self-referencing, isolated, homogenous, male-dominated community that often dominates when members of the South African IT community get together.

On the other hand, I’m struck by the liberal use of this term for every event initiated by this community.

Self-congratulation, where not warranted, is no good (although I can think of much worse things). But I find it incredible how hard we South Africans are on ourselves, and how seldom we are able to congratulate ourselves and one another. I always remember an old mentor telling me how we Africans grow up with a very large burden. Everything we do has to save the world, or the continent at least – and it robs us of the kind of play and enjoyment that enables innovation to thrive. Being in the US I understand the value of congratulation, and I also understand the value of play – both of which need to be nurtured in order for us to build anything worthwhile.

I also think that the circle-jerk term is probably a symptom of the dissatisfaction that many feel with the self-referencing, smallness of the ‘IT crowd’ in SA. There are, however, some incredible people on the outside (and even the inside in some cases) who are optimistic about breaking up the circle and looking for some deeper meaning for the community.

This is the last that I’m going to say about it personally because I’d rather spend my time on more important debates, especially ones where the critique is more well-informed. Don’t get me wrong – I’m thrilled that there has been critique – it shows that people care, and that is our greatest battle overcome. I only wish people would be critical about important things like why a particular strategy for mentoring young geeks was chosen, why the culture of the retreat is dominated by particular world views, or why IT pros find it impossible to have a constructive discussion about race and solutions towards diversity.

I, for one, will continue to sing the praises of those who came and shared at the GeekRetreat – and especially those who will continue the conversation after the event. I’m only certain of one thing these days and that is that ‘change’ comes in different forms and that deep, meaningful change happens slowly, gently, without the kind of fanfare that we’re used to.

As Elaine Rumboll said in one of the sessions, ‘It’s questions that change the world; not answers.’

For me, and for most (if not all) of the people who attended the GeekRetreat, so many questions were fired inside of me to say that that, for now, is enough.


GeekRetreat scholarships available!

We’re gearing up for the next GeekRetreat from 15-17 January in Stanford, Western Cape. I can’t wait! It’s going to be awesome 🙂 And, best thing is that we have 11/12 scholarships for people from non-profits/social entrepreneurship ventures related to education and the Internet! More below:

If you’re working on or have an idea for an education project that uses the Internet to improve quality/access/diversity of education in South Africa, please fill out the form here by 7 December at the latest. If selected, you’ll join 50 social entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, tech journalists, and PR people making the Internet better for South Africa one byte at a time.

Scholarships are sponsored by Old Mutual and Sentient Communications, and will go to candidates who will get the most out of connecting with some of South Africa’s most important digital entrepreneurs.

The retreat will be held from 15-17 January 2010 in the beautiful village of Stanford in the Western Cape. Scholarships will cover participant fees + airfare (if necessary).

Find out more about the GeekRetreat by visiting the FAQ. is live!

geekretreat websiteAs part of the new GeekRetreat at Stanford in the Western Cape, the fabulously talented Jackie Scala (Scala Designs) volunteered her time to develop a new shiny home for the GeekRetreat. Guy Taylor (Telamenta) took Jackie’s design and built a Drupal implementation around it (helped by Noto Modungwa and Skip). We’re slowly starting to find jobs for ourselves as the GeekRetreat community matures. We have a small team working on ‘public relations’ and there are individuals working on sponsorship, nominations and helping out to develop themes and content areas on the wiki.

After working on this kind of self-organising community work for so many years, I still feel that it’s a process with very few rules, and that each time I do this, I feel like I have to start from scratch. So this time, I’m trying to build a process that someone else could follow. It’s not easy, because it seems like every new event will be different, but I’m really determined to at least get some of the way by building templates for invitations, processes, and communication.

It’s been fascinating watching the DrumBeat community at Mozilla go through a similar process. I feel like there is so much great research to do on analyzing these communities and finding easier ways of getting things done in decentralized groups. Maybe *that* would be a good follow-up for GTD in the brave new world of online communities 🙂

How (and how not) to teach blogging

Dominick Chen and Lawrence Lessig by Joi Ito on Flickr CC BY

Photo by Joi Ito on Flickr licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license

I just wrote this post for Rising Voices and thought I’d share it here too.

In Paulo Coelho’s latest book, ‘The Witch of Portobello‘, the character Nabil Alaihi says: “What is a teacher? I’ll tell you: it isn’t someone who teaches something, but someone who inspires the student to give of her best in order to discover what she already knows.”

I love this quote. It really expresses the goal that I have in my teaching – not to see learners as empty vessels that the teacher will pour their knowledge into, but rather as people who only need to be inspired in order to find how to apply what they already know to a new subject.

I know that I’m not there yet – and that I have a lot to learn in order to become a better teacher. The three-hour session that I had to teach blogging to an NGO in Durban, is a case in point. I thought I’d tell you what I learned.

1. Who is learning and who is teaching?

The best teaching that you can do starts with learners who actually want to learn. A good way of weeding out those who don’t want to learn is by getting people to come to you (rather than the other way round).

The lesson? When NGOs design interventions and funders fund those interventions, make sure there is some hurdle that learners have to jump over to indicate their willingness to learn. Sometimes that means paying a fee (however small) to attend the training, or asking people to write a motivation as to why they would be a good person to attend the training. Whatever you do, make sure you don’t produce a situation where people are sending learners who have no interest just to make up numbers and check the ‘outcomes achieved’ box.

2. Focus on measurable outcomes

There’s a very important difference between a goal of ‘training 10 students how to blog’ and a goal of ‘seeing 10 bloggers who are actively blogging 6 months after the initial training’. The first goal will necessarily have a pretty low success rate, even although this kind of training is much easier to do, and probably can be done lots of people. But achieving the goal of seeing active bloggers still blogging after their training will force you to think more about how you want to do the training, what you want to cover, and how long the new bloggers need to be supported for. For example, after an initial session outlining blogging tools, you could go onto teaching interviewing skills and digital camera skills, as well as goal-setting and editorial management – all this if you want to see an actual increase in the amount of meaningful content being covered by a specific group.

On this note, I found some great resources on the site ‘’ on ‘How to grow a blog‘. This covers a lot of great material focusing on how to set long and short-term goals for your blog and how to match those goals with the kinds of habits that will enable you to find success in achieving your goals. Volunteers from the Rising Voices team are also currently working on capturing different curricula and materials for teaching blogging, and they’ll definitely be well-used since there isn’t a lot out there at the moment.

3. Listen to your learners

Another great lesson that I learned in teaching blogging last month was to listen very, very carefully to your learners, and to do as much preparation before your teaching to find out about who the students are. The best teaching starts from where the learners are at, rather than where you’re at. For the Durban workshop, I had planned to spend most of my three-hour session talking about how to maintain a blog, but when I realised that the learners had lost their usernames and passwords from the original training and we had to start at the beginning, I had to ditch my plans and focus on what would help the learners right then and there. I’d have been in a better position if I had known this during the planning stages. The lesson is to ask lots and lots of questions as you are planning what to teach – especially when you only have a limited time with your students.

4. Ask the right questions

The final lesson that I learned was to learn how to ask the right questions from your students. I thought that it would be a good idea to ask the students why they wanted to learn how to blog, but when I told Rising Voices director David Sasaki about this, he offered some wise words:

Sometimes I think people get intimidated when you ask “why do you want to blog” because many people still equate it with having something “so important” to say as to warrant publishing. One of the tough things to convey – even to experienced bloggers – is that when it’s true that they are potentially writing to the whole world, it’s also true that they probably have a very small group of readers that are interested in a very particular topic. To get the conversation going sometimes I ask, how do you explain your job to others? Or, what assumptions do people make about your work that aren’t correct?

If I knew everything I know now about my students, I think I would have done things a lot differently in those three hours that I had with them. I also realise that a lot of the session was out of my control. But the good thing is that it made me think very deeply about how we teach people how to blog and how development interventions need to be designed in order to have the most impact and to get that training to the people who most want to use it.

That’s the funny thing about teaching – you end up learning a whole lot more than you probably teach.

Training on digital copyright and access for the heritage industry


We had such great interest from our iHeritage seminar attendees on a digital copyright course, that we’ve decided to hold an intensive full-day course in Joburg, Durban and Cape Town. The course is aimed at: “Information professionals working in museums, archives, libraries; web developers, designers and creators working in the heritage sector, historians interested in online community-building, educators and curriculum developers who self-publish, funders who fund the heritage sector, as well as anyone interested in the impact of the Internet on peoples’ access to heritage, and how to use digital copyright tools to their advantage.”

Provisional dates are: Durban Friday, 3 April, Johannesburg Friday, 8 May, Cape Town Friday, 15 May and the course costs R1,500

Let me know if you’re interested in attending!

The Joburg

Gil Hockman has started a rad project called ‘the joburg‘ – an open calendar for events happening in Johannesburg. It’s a total community-driven, non-commercial project – factors which I think will make it grow exponentially in the future.

According to Gil,

The way it works is a follows:
Google have a very cunning online setup called Google Calender (you can link to it very easily with or without a Gmail account). One of the features of Google Calender is that you can create a calender and share it with a whole bunch of people. Any of these people can then add events to the calender.
So we have created a Google Calender for events that are happening in Joburg and then linked it to this page, which is visible to anyone on the internet. Now, whenever anyone adds and event (a gig, exhibition, show, etc) to the calender, this site is automatically updated.
Easy peasy.
This is a free project. No one is paid and no one makes any money. There is one guy who has registered the Domain name but it only costs about R150 year and he’s cool to pay it.
How to add events:
Step 1) Email to say that you want to add an event
Step 2) You will be linked to The Joburg’s Google Calender (if you do not have a Google Calender account you will need to sign up for one, This it is very easy. All that is required in an email address – and it doesn’t even have to be on Gmail)
Step 3) Login to your Google Calender account
Step 4) Click on the appropriate date on the calender and add your event
If you need any help with this or have any comments or suggestions, email
(ps, this is not a Google project in any way but they do have loads of useful free stuff)