In November of 1993, the first "Hosts on Hosting" dinner, featuring WELL hosts as invited speakers for their colleagues, took place at the Hall of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. We feasted on chicken and pasta, while being inspired by articulate hosts. Ov er the years, I've been delighted to repeat this event in Berkeley, Marin County, and again in San Francisco. It's a pleasure to make it much more geographically inclusive this time, with several hundred hosts rather than several dozen. We decided not t o ship you the pasta or chicken along with this first paper edition... but please pour yourself some coffee or tea, and enjoy the enclosed treat with the reflections from (mcdee), (de) and (martyb). Cheers!
-- Gail Williams
Rockies is a conference with a particularly loyal following. In this interview, (de) and (martyb) show some of the reasons why.
Gail: Marty and Doug, you've been hosting the Rockies conference as a team for over a year now. It feels like a living place, with its own distinctive character. In what sense is Rockies a regional conference, and how does it transcend geography? And what hosting choices have you made based on the physical plane?
Doug: When a few Colorado WELL members proposed a Rockies conference, in spring of 1994, we had few aspirations beyond the usual, obvious regional conference ideas, like more local gatherings. What it has become, though, is a "place" unto itself. Topic drift is ferocious in Rockies, and there was never any way things were going to be kept on a strictly regional track, as the hosts soon discovered!
About half of the regulars in Rockies live in one state in the region, (Colorado), but about a third of the regulars post from completely outside the physical Rockies, often because of past associations with the region or people in it. I think the factor which most reinforces the "regional" aspect is our occasional face-to-face gatherings, usually in Boulder or Denver, but sometimes in Las Vegas or the Sierra.
As for geographical hosting choices, Marty and I try to regularly post updates in the various "local issues" topics, even though these aren't the most popular or active topics. Examples are the election and economics topics, the Denver and Boulder topics, and the live music and weather topics. Other choices involve encouraging members with unique local projects to post what they're doing in the region. I also think having (martyb) co-hosting from the other end of the region (Nevada) has added another "local" dimension, as she's kept us up on things out that way, in ways that weren't happening when we just had Colorado hosts. We both try to make folks from all over the region (and outside) feel welcome, but it's harder to nurture topics about places with fewer WELL members, like Montana.
Gail: I had to smile at the range of Rockies topic titles. The "The Unbelievably Obtuse ONE CHARACTER Status Report" reminded me of the True (and Untrue) Status report topics in the Art Com conf, one of my early WELL hang-outs. That status format has mutated! Do you have any advice on finding topic-style inspiration in other conferences?
Marty: By the time I became a cohost last year, the rocky conference had become the community that it is, and had become pretty stable. I think the original cohosts Doug, (dpd) and (lisa) did a great job of laying down the original structure and nurturing the conference.
The one character status topic is one of a series, starting with the regular status reports, then the insanely mundane one line status, and now the incredibly terse one word status. Not everyone likes the third person status form, but I have the feeling that the status topics were an important part of the conference gelling into a community. The various status topics give folks a place to talk about what's going on in their lives and how they are feeling. No matter how dull you may feel your life is at a particular moment, you can probably manage a one word summary - "grumpy" or "undercaffeinated" or even "stayeduptoolatelastnight". The regular status topics are the busiest topics in the conference.
Doug: Marty is right on, about the Status Reports. The first one was started by a user who had enjoyed them in other conferences, mainly gd. I didn't think it would go over in Rockies, but the Status topics have been, as Marty says, the most consistently busy topics in Rockies, and an undeniable part of the community-building glue.
But even the gleeful self-parody is an organic mutation. The silliness feeds on itself, and is highly contagious, even when very serious discussions on politics, or reports of family illness, or whatever, are happening in other topics.
Gail: Another form of community glue at work with the rockies folks is the Rockies Front Page. What an amazing score-card to get to know the participants, with links to personal pages including Brian (nitewalk) Weiss's Las Vegas alternative culture page, Don (dpd) Dulchinos's Route 666 photo journal, and Dave (dave) Hughes' tests of wireless communications for rural populations. But my favorite expression of the conference, is the snapshot collection from the "Cone" outing, in your pages, Marty. I just had to grin!
How have rendezvous and picnics worked for a regional conversation that covers the whole intermountain west?
Marty: I think f2f social activities are important for the community. The rocky conference is a miniature of the whole WELL in that it has a higher density of participants in an area where they can get together and socialize. For the WELL, of course, it's the Bay Area; for rocky, it's the Denver-Boulder-Fort Collins region. In addition to the Denverites, there are those of us who are spread out across the rockies domain and who are unable to attend the Denver activities. Even so, it's fun to read about them, and it may be also fun for them to be able to report back to us.
I think it adds to the sense of community to know that at least part of the group has met f2f. It grounds the online interactions in the real world. And a number of us have chosen to travel to the annual picnics in Boulder -- people from as far away as NY and the Bay Area. When people value the group you are in enough to make that kind of effort, it enriches the whole group.
We've also had get-togethers that aren't in the Denver area. Last March we had a wonderful get-together at (rpiazza)'s Pine Cone Inn in Kernville, CA. In addition to the f2f component of that gathering we talked on the phone to several rocky people who couldn't come, and folks were also logging onto laptops and (rpiazza)'s computer to keep in contact with rest of the conference. This led to some surreal events - two people who normally live a thousand miles away, now in the same building doing sends to each other!
Gail: What's your advice to new hosts? Any hard-won wisdom about getting a conference bubbling away?
Marty: When rocky got started, the contributions of the three hosts were important. It was clear they enjoyed talking to each other. The regular interaction of the hosts plus a few other folks meant there was always something going on, so the conf was worth watching. It didn't go silent.
Doug: I don't think anybody could have prepared us for hosting Rockies. I had some good mentors, watching people like (tnf) and (phred) as they hosted very busy, sometimes contentious, conferences with considerable grace. You can learn a lot by watching what works in ongoing, successful conferences.
But, nothing could have prepared me for the exact personalities, sheer good-natured cussedness and lightning-fast topic drift tendencies of the Rockies gang. Or, for the depth of real-life friendships that have developed among the regulars. Rockies has totally exceeded our wildest expectations.
A host is the immediate manager of a conference -- what might be called, in another setting, a discussion moderator. One of the reasons that a new term seems justified is that hosts wear many hats. Being a moderator is only the beginning.
("Have you stopped by our conference web page lately? Take a look at our new aardvark topic!").
Recruiting new folks is something that a host can accomplish in many ways, depending on the setting and the host's personality. Artful mentions of your conference in other contexts (we don't like to call it "spamming"), the use of linked topics (assuming they make sense), and soliciting friends and relatives are all good ideas.
The key thing to keep in mind is that you're not trying to recruit just anyone, but to recruit heavy posters, the folks who will write most of the actual content on your conferences. I've managed to recruit one of my old college roommates to hang out on several of my WELL conferences. He's a hell of a nice guy, and smart, and gives me interesting feedback now and then, but he posts 3 lines every six months, so he doesn't really do much for me in terms of building conversation.
I'll offer two observations about this situation. First is that you are absolutely at the mercy of heavy posters. If they show up, you're golden. If they don't, you'll be dead in the water. The second observation is that heavy posters usually have no idea that this is the case. A little courtesy and encouragement is all they'll expect in return for creating content. Which leads me to:
The Conversation Builder
This is really a host's #1 function, and it's a do-or-die proposition. If you've got no conversation, you've got nothing to host. There are a number of tried-and-true ways to build conversation. Starting new topics is probably the most useful, since even high-frequency posters are often oddly shy about this. It's also a good idea to take a look at your topic list now and then and look for dormant topics that might be revived, and do your best to spot the "holes" in your topic list ("What, there's no topic on the rinderpest epidemic of 1890?"). Hmmm, I'm thinking of a few conferences on which I should follow this advice...
Since conversation-boosting has a certain resemblance to spamming, it is important that you do it with a little delicacy. If you find truly interesting topics that have been dropped and revive them, you'll be thought of as a swell fellow or gal. If you indiscriminately post a bunch of obviously self-serving things on randomly selected dormant topics, you'll just be thought of as oafish.
Also (and sure, sometimes we all break this rule), if you're going to post on your conference -- and I think you should -- try to do it fairly consistently, rather than in periodic "hit-and-run" bursts. One of my least favorite hosts (no names will be named) sometimes stays away for months and then sweeps through and posts to 20 or 30 topics at once. And then disappears again. If you're going to be away for long periods, get a back-up host.
("I may not know everything, but I know where to look it up.")
The utility of knowing where to look it up is enormous in a mostly asynchronous medium. I can't tell you how many people think I'm an expert on everything from Unix commands to Napoleon's tactics just because I'm usually logged in within a few steps of my bookshelves. The sage advice of a pal who's carved himself a career as an oddball expert on various topics always rings in my ears when it comes to this subject: "Buy reference books, they make you look like a genius."
This doesn't mean that you have to spend thousands of dollars on expensive books just because you've become a host. Individual reference books are often rather expensive, but in my experience, it will probably be necessary to pay retail only for a critical few "must have" titles. Beyond that, haunt used bookstores and sale tables. And remember, all books come to he who waits.
One last word about expertise: wear it lightly, especially if it's the kind of expertise that comes out of a reference book. It's always better to have answers emerge from your users. Giving people a chance to shine about their particular passion is a great thing. Being a know-it-all is not such a great thing. And if your knowledge is broad but not deep, you can just bet that some crazed buff will show up and show you up.
The Tour Guide
("While you're here, you might also want to look at...")
Talk up other good conferences and features!
The Software Trainer
("I notice you posted the same thing four times in a row in the celebrity aardvark topic. If you take a look at the help file on the 'post' command, you'll notice that...")
When performing this function, it's important to remember that people who can't quite figure out how to use the interface are usually in a fog of confusion, fear, and embarrassment. Be extra gentle. It's sort of like talking to someone who is having a weird acid trip.
("This place is getting dull, time to start a topic that will get people stirred up.")
Clearly, this is a good idea that can be taken a little too far.
The Voice of Reason
("I think what he really meant when he called you a pompous boor was...")
One of the continual quandaries of online life, whether you are wearing your hostly hat or the beanie of an ordinary user, is how to deal with animosity -- yours and everyone else's.
I like to follow an old Texas rule about misbehavior: "If three people tell you you're drunk, maybe you'd better go lie down." Over the last year or so, at least three people have told me that my online style is too caustic for their taste.
Of course, why listen to a bunch of goddamn idiots, right? (grin)
I recently had a conversation with another longtime WELL host about how our respective personas had evolved over the years. We both agreed over time, we have become more combative, perhaps even short-tempered. When I think of some of the users who intimidated and annoyed me when I first logged in, and consider my own present online style.... hmmmm.... I see a lot of similarity.
Of course, some of the users I'm thinking about are certified WELL legends, past & present, so it's certainly not true that you can't be an effective cyber-personality and be a caustic pain in the butt at the same time.
There's no pat answer to this one. At the moment, my best advice comes from Carlos Castaneda, who says that much suffering comes from pursuing the idea of self-importance.
Mark (mcdee) McDonough currently hosts MetaWELL, History, and Education along with cohosts in each.
Edited by Gail (gail) Williams, Michelle (mfox) Fox and Yvette (yvette) Bonaparte Thor.
Masthead designed by Margo (margo) Rusovick.
Contributions (c) by their authors, 1996.