I am a cohost of Femx, a Featured Limited Access conference. It's like WoW, but with a lot less traffic, a bit more snark, and a more youthful frisson. We're the Skipper to WoW's Barbie, the DynaGirl to WoW's ElectraWoman. (And I've just made everyone in both WoW and Femx want to kill me.)
Since May '94, Femx has been open to all women on the WELL, but especially women in their 20s and 30s. Today there are about 200 women on the ulist, about 50 of whom post regularly. Managing a single-sex, fairly large, closed-ulist conference makes for certain challenges; I hope that discussing some of them will help other hosts. Of course I can't tell you any specific examples, because then I'd have to kill you.
Given the vast size of the conference, Femx feels remarkably safe. (Alas, there is always a size/intimacy tradeoff. Having lots of members means lots of energy and dialogue, but more circumspectness about truly private stuff.) The few breaches that we've had have been truly agonizing. Sometimes people simply forget what's in the public domain and what isn't. Sometimes the human urge to blab is irresistible. And sometimes people convince themselves that Truth is a greater good than confidentiality. It isn't. (Note: If we actually had someone confess to murder or arson or habitual Ally McBeal-watching, we'd have to reconsider this policy.) We've had to find out who the leaker was and take action...without conducting a witch hunt. And sometimes, we don't have enough evidence to confront anyone. When this happens, and other users are sure they know who blabbed, there can be bad feelings and whispers.
But politeness is not entirely fabulous. How do you create a conference that's comfortable without being saccharine? How do you encourage different points of view instead of a numbing chorus of cheerleaderish agreement? In general, I think we have a terrific mix of edginess and jokiness and seriousness and challenging each other. But sometimes I know there's subterranean stuff going on, in sends and email and private-private conferences, and it might be healthier if people dealt with them right up front, flopping them right on the table like a big old Chilean sea bass. "I think you could have handled that better" or "I think you said something extremely insensitive" or even "what the hell were you were thinking?" Still, if we cannot have perfect yin-yang snark-nurturance balance, I'd rather have an excess of politesse than of snottiness. There are many other places on the WELL to find snot.
Fascinating digression: Femx has a similar vibe to predominantly female midsize conferences like plumage. When a user's feelings get hurt, people rush in to soothe rather than to say "Jeez, lighten up." I think this is also true of midsize coed conferences with strong female hosts and many female posters, like obsess.ind. Plumage and obsess are more narrowly focused (with topics devoted to minutiae like scrunchies and durians) and more consistently fluffy than Femx, but they too encourage flights of fancy and many voices. The user who belittles others, who needs to be on the attack to feel truly alive, who enjoys ramming his superior knowledge down lesser users throats will not hang out there. I presume he (it's always a he--send me your hate mail, I'm right) sees such conferences as beneath him. Good. The rest of us know that fancies, finery and compulsions are as important as sex and death. Most of the time, they're about sex and death.
My cohost (jilld) believes that Femx has had a positive effect on the rest of the WELL. Having a home base where younger women can get support and feedback has made a lot of us feel confident enough in our voices and in our backup posse to bust out in other conferences. I hope it's true; I do find the nurturing yet smart-mouthed vibe of Femx inspiring.
Of course, some women aren't up for chick-only spaces; I think they need male attention to feel visible. They see other women as a vast undifferentiated mass of hugging, whining, menstruating second-class citizens. (Many victims end up identifying with their oppressor.) Others enjoy a balance of coed conferences and ovarian havens. Conference founders (jilld) and (marionsd) set a great example for how a Featured Limited-Access conference should work, but ultimately its users who are responsible. They keep the lively conversation flowing like the great fluid moon-river of the feminine life force itself. (I'm kidding. Sort of.)
Michelle: What was it like taking over the Grateful Dead conference from a long-established host?
Jude: At first it felt daunting...David Gans is a legend on the WELL, a huge persona with lots of history...so how could one *not* be somewhat intimidated by that fact? I mean, who was I to step into those shoes?
But that feeling didn't last long. I knew David felt very ready to hand over the reins. I trusted him to know what he was doing when he asked me if I would host. I wasn't about to try and fill any shoes and I was smart enough to know that I didn't need to take that route. So I thought being me was enough. I have been called a den mother sort of person in the past and I think I bring that quality to the space. I never felt there wasn't room to grow into the cohost spot.
But I knew that it would be better to not do it solo. Partially because I am not geeky enough and needed to learn some of the basic skills to keep the conference moving smoothly and also because I am not one of those statistic freak kind of deadheads. I felt the gd conference needed a cohost with a wider range of knowledge. Tony fills that space like a natural. It was critical for me to have the gd conference continue at the same level of excellence that Gans had built into it. The participants deserved nothing less.
Tony: It was definitely a little scary. I mean, David was the guy that really had made the GD conferences on the WELL what they are. And beyond that, in Deadhead circles he is a bit of a celebrity. So here I was, a relatively newer member of the conference, trying to take over for somebody that was basically a "legend" as much as a "host". But I knew that Jude was very well respected by the online community, so that made me feel better about the situation. I was surprised and honored by the offer, but I was also excited by the challenge.
I think it worked out beautifully. David is still a valuable member of the community, and he is still able to offer his knowledge and insights on a frequent basis. But at the same time, the community at the time definitely seemed like it was at a crossroads, and I think that the sudden change sort of forced everybody to step back and reevaluate what exactly they wanted this conference to be all about.
I guess I was most surprised by how easy the transition really was. At first Jude and I really went about things like every little thing would crack some sort of delicate eggshell. But as we went about the business of performing some of the more janitorial chores, it quickly became clear that things were going to be ok.
Jude: It has been a year since we took over cohosting gd...Tony and I are a good fit and we work well together as a team. I have learned to trust our instincts. This has been a real trip and a fun learning experience for which I gratefully Blame Gans.
Michelle: How did you build yourselves into a hosting team?
Tony: One of the very first things that Jude and I did was to create a small private conference where we could talk with each other to organize the work that we needed to do and where we could just talk between the two of us easily and efficiently. So we created gdadmin.pri as a private conference which was only accessible by the two of us. One of the great side benefits of this little conference is that it gave us a place where we could practice some of the host functions, such as changing the banners and modifying the rc file.
It also gave us a place where we were able to put together a to do list for the custodial work required within the conference. We tend to split the work up pretty evenly, one person will post a list of topics they think can be cleaned up, the other will double check the list and post any differences of opinion, and we come to an agreement. Then one of us, either of us, will post the list, depending usually on who it is most convenient for at the time. Both of us have taken turns doing the actually moving of topics, killing, freezing, etc.
Jude and I have gotten to know each other, via the phone conversation, conversations in our private conference, and recently with a long overdue face to face meeting. It makes it easier to function together as a team, because we both have a good feel for where the other one is coming from, how our brains are wired. We trust each other's judgement, right or wrong.
Jude: Well I knew Tony would be a good fit for me...what I didn't know was how good. Tony is an even-tempered sort, pretty likeable with a solid base of knowledge and a lot of heart. I liked his online style from the get go. Tony filled in my gaps and added a real nice balance to the mix.
It was critical for me to call him right away and do a little v2v. I like getting a "feel" for people. I have real good instincts when it comes to that sort of thing, something I developed in my work managing the soup kitchen.
Michelle: How has becoming hosts yourselves changed your appreciation of other hosts?
Tony: We have a saying in our conference that trying to be a host is a bit like "trying to herd cats." It's hard to come up with just the right thing to say when a debate is starting to get heated and personal. When a topic gets way off course, it's hard to get people to steer back on subject or to move a discussion to a more appropriate topic. Just when you think you have everything under control, one of the cats goes darting off in another direction.
It takes a lot of patience, a lot of understanding, and sometimes some severe biting of your tongue. Having done that, it definitely makes you appreciate the work other hosts are doing in their conferences. Everybody has their own style, and you become more aware of how other people are handling similar situations. You can learn from what you see happen when other hosts try specific approaches to problems. Also, when other hosts come up with some new ideas for the "just for fun" type topics, or new tools for their members to use, it definitely catches your eye. You become a bit of an idea parasite.
Jude: I'm laughing about the "idea parasite" since I am an unrepentant "borrower of things"...why reinvent the wheel when there are perfectly good ones out there?
(de), cohost of the Rockies conf, has been a pretty good model and I learned a great deal by paying attention to the online styles of both (reet) and (jnfr). I don't venture out into the wider WELL much but those hosts are ones that I think are doing a good job.
Tony: Some other hosts that I think do a wonderful job are (mrw) and (jrc) over in the sports conference. Sports debates are notorious in all walks of life for easily leading to heated exchanges. It's not easy to get fans of rival teams to coexist peacefully in a conference, but I think they do an excellent job of keeping the mood of the conference light and fun.
I agree with Jude about the hosts of Rockies. It's such a diverse, friendly, and active conference. We have co-opted a number of ideas from them for useful tools.
Michelle: When you see a conflict or a thrash start to crop up in your conference, how do you decide how to deal with it?
Jude: Thrashes and conflict are not necessarily bad things...sometimes itıs good to clear the air. I'll step in and say something if someone is taking personal potshots. I like the three warnings system...gentle prods to take it elsewhere. Especially if I am hearing feedback in email from other participants. I think if I hit the third and final warning, then I am not afraid to take direct appropriate action. Making decisions and living with them are part of my ethic. I think Tony and I are on the same page when it comes to that and we have pretty good senses of humor which helps.
I've only had to say "Simmer down, kids...don't make me stop this bus," once.
Tony: If either one of us has any question at all, we will check with the other first, but both of us tend to take initiative when we see something come up. There's no reason to let a fire continue to burn if you think you have an opportunity to extinguish it. We both have taken time to give each other a heads up as well, when one of us sees a topic that looks like it could flare up. At the end of the day, when I'm logging off, I'll send a note to Jude that says, "Keep an eye on topic such-and-such, it looks like it's starting to heat up." Or I'll login and find a message that Jude has given a severe finger shaking in a particular topic. We work as a team, and we support each other's decisions. A gentle request, a little bit of humor is usually all that is required with most people. Having a feel for the members of your conference helps a lot.
The hard part is dealing with a newer member, somebody you don't have a good reading on. I prefer to just be direct and honest, but I also try to be gentle with their feelings as well. It doesn't always work out. We did lose one new member recently due to what I feel was a fairly minor misunderstanding. I feel bad about that, and having reviewed my own responses to the problem, I think I have learned something from it.
Other than that, we've received occasional questions relating to policies regarding gd.old, or relating to WELL policies, or specific decisions about topics we are cleaning up. In all cases we have handled these the same way. Directly and honestly. Answer the question, explain your reasoning for a specific decision, take the person seriously. It seems to work out pretty well.
Michelle: Any closing comments about hosting?
Jude: Maintaining a healthy sense of humor is key for me. I embrace the fact that I am a fallible human being and I recognize that in others. We are bound to make some mistakes. I strive to learn from them. I think it's important to be flexible and not take yourself too seriously. Try to have fun at it. I really like, enjoy and respect the participants in the gd conference and that makes cohosting easy.
Tony: I think it's important to have a vision for your conference -- a model in your head for what your conference is all about, what its values are, why it exists. It can't be just a simple personal vision either. A great conference is made up of a diverse cross section of people. Jude and I both believe very much in the conference as a community. You strive to make the conference the very best it can be for everybody. Other than the basic hosts toolkit, the most important tool is your mind.
Contributions (c) by their authors, 1998.