WELL Hosts Manual PART II: HOSTING A CONFERENCE
2.0 HOSTING A CONFERENCE
The duties of a host fall within three broad categories: taking care of the technical aspects of the conference, stimulating participation, and dealing with people.
The technical aspects of the conference are the simplest. New conferences need to be set up with their initial messages and topics, while ongoing conferences occasionally need to have topics frozen, retired, or killed. The “Basic Host’s Toolkit” sections of this manual cover all of this, plus a number of additional technical options available to adventurous hosts.
The creative aspects of hosting are the most fun, the most work, and the most difficult to describe. A good host wants his or her conference to be an interesting place to visit. Whether that can best be achieved by active participation in the conference’s topics or by simply staying out of the way is a decision only the host can make, depending on the style and mood of the conference. In most cases, shifting between active participation, and backing off and letting the guests run with a conversation or provide support to one another, is the best ongoing strategy.
Some hosts do considerable research and present thought-provoking materials on a regular basis for participants to discuss. Other hosts let the conference milieu generate discussion material for itself. Some of the most successful low-key hosts keep lists of topic ideas in case their conference goes for a week or so with no new topics. In an older, larger conference, this is easily done by keeping lists of concepts that were discussed in old topics when those topics are retired and killed, and re-starting those conversations with the current participants. Many topics are timeless, and can be discussed again and again by newcomers who’d like to have a chance to describe their experiences. Some conferences are fairly self-sustaining while others need regular infusions of hostly enthusiasm, expertise or control. The nature of a conference will determine the proper role of its host.
Bear in mind that it’s not merely interest in a particular subject or the opportunity to interact that draws people to a conference, but the quality of that interaction, the scope and setting of it, what kinds of topics are available, how they are introduced, and the tone which is set for the conference by its host.
The final broad category concerned with hosting is dealing with people. Over the years, a number of general rules of thumb have been noted which hosts may wish to consider when dealing with the marvelous, and sometimes troublesome, human species online. We’ll take a look at some of them now.
Many hosts like to help people feel more at home in their conferences by welcoming them after their first arrival, either in email or in a topic set aside just for people to introduce themselves. If you’d like to welcome new visitors via email, whether they post anything or not, you can check the participation file for your conference generated by the “conflog” program (see the section, “Tracking Conference Activity” later in this manual), and look for userids you’ve never seen before.
There’s one thing a host can be fairly sure of, however. Nobody likes to go into a conference for the first time, post a response, then have it sit there without ever being acknowledged. Learning to welcome, inspire and incorporate new visitors into the conversation is perhaps the most important talent a host can acquire.
At the very least, as host, you will want to keep an eye out for postings by folks who have never responded in your conference before, and acknowledge their participation. Even a simple “Hello! Could you tell us more about your experiences with…” can mean the difference between someone feeling snubbed, and feeling like a welcomed participant in the conference. If a newcomer posts, “Hi, I’m a published expert on Foo,” he or she may be waiting to be invited to open a topic about Foo, or about how to publish a book on Foo, feeling it is presumptuous to barge in. New users are frequently shy, or polite, and may be waiting for suggestions and cues on how to best participate in your conference.
Paying to use the system doesn’t entitle users to trample on your conference. If a user is disrupting either the content or operation of your conference, don’t be shy about asserting your authority as host. See also sections 1.3 and 1.4 above.
2.4 Special Conference Rules
Some conference designs proceed upon special rules of one sort or another as part of their initial concept. If you have such rules in mind for your conference, think them through very carefully. Then think them through again!
Whatever rule you make, someone will eventually question it — even if it is “no rules at all”. The most casual glance at human history shows that humans love making, and arguing over, rules. Such argumentation can quickly get to the point where the main subject matter of a conference or topic is completely obscured in favor of heated arguments over rules, and it can be very destructive to the spirit of a conference. If the rules of a conference are in dispute, the best places to discuss them are in email, in the Hosts Conference, or in a special topic in your conference devoted to discussing your guidelines.
There are, however, ways to avoid some of the more common rule-pitfalls. If you feel your conference needs a special rule, take care to consider its fairness before implementing it and try to imagine how it might be circumvented. Words are a malleable medium, and they can be made to say things by inference, innuendo, and ambiguity which are very hard to pinpoint. Suppose you had a conference in which you wanted everyone to be nice to each other, and you made a rule saying just that. You might have a difficult time enforcing it because language can be made to imply something unkind even while saying something ostensibly respectful. Excessive niceness, through hyperbole, can even convey an insult.
By the same token, knock-down-drag-out arguments, especially those involving personal insults, are non-productive and can easily get to the point of dominating the interaction in discussions which might otherwise be, though perhaps controversial, potentially fruitful. Hosts can do a lot to keep the tone in their conferences positive by making general ground rules which encourage courteous argumentation, and with reminders, when necessary, to “attack the idea, not the person” and to “take personal disputes to email, please.” Calmly asking people in email to clarify whether an insult was meant is often a useful way to deal with argumentative dissent, and requires no rule-making.
If a rule is inherent in, or indispensable to, the basic design or operation of your conference, be consistent in enforcing it. Avoid like the plague situations in which a rule applies to one person or group, and not to another. If your conference has a hard and fast rule, apply it always, not just when you feel like it. And most of all, abide by the rule yourself.
2.5 Handling Problems
1. Post a response after the posting in question indicating that you would prefer folks to avoid that type of posting, then lead the topic gently back in the right direction with some substantive discussion of the subject matter.
3. Hide the response in question, and send email informing the poster that it has been hidden and why it was hidden. Hidden responses can be unhidden by the host or by the poster, and may be read with the extract, see nof (no-forget) or only commands. They show up as a clickable link in the Engaged interface.
4. Scribble the response in question so that it cannot be read even using the extract, nof or only commands. This is a serious matter. If the poster has not kept a copy, you may be destroying his or her only copy of the words in question, and may be subject to some debate on censorship and freedom of expression. On the other hand, clearly hurtful material, such as stolen passwords or credit card numbers, for example, may be scribbled without concern about causing an uproar. The WELL policy clearly states that such blatantly illegal uses of The WELL are not appropriate. Use your own best judgment, or ask for advice Backstage or in email to confteam.
5. Retire and freeze the entire topic, thereby removing it temporarily from circulation. Since retired topics can be unretired later, this gives you the opportunity to re-evaluate the subject matter and change your mind later, if you wish. (See section 8.2 for more on retiring topics.)
6. Kill the entire topic, thereby removing it permanently from the conference. This is the most severe option a host has in dealing directly with material which is outside the conference guidelines. It permanently removes the writings of all who participated in the topic.
7. If a user is a chronic problem and you cannot reach an understanding in email, you have the power to ban the user from posting in your conference. (You may not ban a member of The WELL from reading a Featured conference). This should be discussed with The WELL conferencing team first, and it should be very clear to the user that he or she is behaving unacceptably and has been formally informed of the terms of continued participation before a banning. Since the guest may feel censored and stifled, the host should be certain that the banning is not undertaken simply to silence dissent with popular views. However, not every argument belongs in every conference, and you may ask that certain subject matter or behavior is taken to a more appropriate area. If you are uncertain about this course of action and wish to discuss it with other hosts, you can bring it up in the Backstage conference (see “The Hosts conference & Backstage” section below).
2.6 Participants as Guests
Now that we have covered all the horrible things you can do to the troublesome individual who would disrupt your conference, it’s worth mentioning that such instances are rare. If you find that you are tempted to hide or scribble every other posting, freeze conversations or kill active topics frequently, or regularly boot people from your conference, you might pause to reconsider whether the source of the problem is the users or your approach to hosting the conference.
Remember, the people in your conference are guests, and a variety of personalities and opinions enriches your conference. Treat them with courtesy, make them feel welcome, and by and large they will respond in kind.
2.7 Moderating Tips
The following are excerpted from the Kerr Report, a report on Moderating Online Conferences produced by Elaine B. Kerr of the Computerized Conferencing and Communications Center at New Jersey Institute of Technology in February 1984. Emphasis added by The WELL staffers:
Imposing too much structure early in the group’s electronic life can be a mistake. Begin with a minimal amount of structure and allow the group process to evolve over time. Sanctioning people for entering items in the wrong conference or introducing topics that do not conform to the structure does not help them become comfortable communicating in this medium.
Although complete control over the process is possible,* it is seldom desirable. While the general rule is to retain control over the meeting, in some conferences the leader is properly only a coordinator.
Don’t let the group lose sight of its objectives. Don’t allow the more verbal members to dominate the group. Encourage the members to talk to each other rather than just to you as the leader, and not to lecture to a vague audience. React to the comments of others and encourage them to do the same. There is a need for explicit agreement and disagreement in this medium, since and non verbal cues (such as smiles and frowns) are absent.
Use private messages (email or sends) as reminders, perhaps pointing to specific items about which you would like feedback, and for positive reinforcement, especially of early entries. Messages should be a regular supplement to the more featured comments.
* The WELL staffers smile and shake their heads in disagreement with the idea that complete control of anything is possible, especially online where users have access to email to carry on a private subtext to the conference dialog. The point that the degree of control will vary depending on the purpose of the gathering is an important one, however.
2.8 To Solo-Host Or Co-Host?
Solo hosting gives the host relative freedom over the specifics of a small conference without ongoing need of regular consultation and agreement for one’s actions. Conferences hosted by a single individual sometimes, though not always, have a more coherent sense of direction or guidelines. And the potential for disagreements as to how the conference should be run is obviated.
Co-hosting can leverage and jump-start a conversation, in addition to being a good way to get a small or lackluster conference going again, since the hosts can post interesting material and discuss it with one another. The experienced host can also pass along what he or she has learned to a newer host, or two new hosts can offer one another support and feedback while learning. It’s a way to team an expert in a subject matter with an expert in using this medium. And it can be a rewarding and entertaining experience, especially if you and your co-host share a common vision of what you’d like the conference to be, if you communicate well, and if both of you are willing to put equal effort into the undertaking or come to an agreement about who will take major responsibility.
It can come in very handy when one of you needs to be absent from The WELL for a vacation or due to some other circumstance, or if the conference requires more work than one person can handle and you need to split up the material you want to “forget.” If you are setting up a new conference with a cohost, this is the time to decide which hosting acts (linking, freezing, retiring, etc.) you need to discuss with each other before taking action, and which you can do autonomously. If you are careful to be clear on when you may act without checking in with one another and when a hostly huddle to figure out the next move is required, a good co-hosting team should be a genuine pleasure.
The amount of time it takes to host a conference depends largely on how many postings the conference gets. A large, busy conference can take an hour or more each day simply to keep abreast of, and more to maintain. A small, relaxed conference with just a few new posts a day is hardly any work at all. The type of conference makes a difference, as well. Some conferences, by nature, need nearly constant supervision or stimulation, while others can sail along for days at a time without need of any hostly attention beyond simple reading of topics. Your style as host has a big effect on the time you put into it, also. A very active and involved host may spend hours not only online, but offline, as well, preparing materials for the conference. If you want to focus on one subject area, and lighten your hosting load in a high volume conference, you may be able to split specific hosting duties with your co-host.
Conferences which lend themselves to heated argumentation take much more time to host than relatively placid, happy conferences. Conferences which offer software libraries can require considerable time in organizing, virus-checking and maintaining those programs.
Potentially excellent hosts with great ideas for new conferences are sometimes scared away from the endeavor because they think that hosting a conference is technically difficult, that they must know all kinds of fancy Unix commands in order to function, or that they should be able to answer any question in the book to a puzzled new user. Thankfully, none of that is accurate.
Technically, there are only seven new and exciting commands a host needs to learn in order to host, and none of them are any more difficult than the standard commands with which any acclimated member is already familiar. We’ll be covering these commands in section 4 below.
Hosts may occasionally get a technical question from a guest, but any questions the host cannot answer can be referred to The WELL support staff. Hosts, too, can mail (support) for technical user help. Don’t worry about who to ask, if it’s a hosting-related technical question, support may pass it back to (confteam).
Two conferences which are of specific interest to hosts are the Hosts Conference and the Backstage Conference. All hosts of Featured conferences are asked to add them to their personal conference lists. This can be done via the menu you see when you type custom at an OK prompt or by the tools available to Engaged users.
The Hosts conference is a Featured conference for open discussions between hosts of any kind of conference, our members and The WELL management. It keeps hosts abreast of new tools, and provides an open forum for discussing the various mundanities of hostship.
The Backstage Conference is a private conference where hosts of Featured conferences can discuss between themselves and The WELL staff any issues that are felt to be better left out of the public arena. Any Featured conference host can gain access to Backstage by typing: g back at an OK prompt. If you get a “permission denied” message, it simply means that you have not yet been added to the userlist for Backstage. Email confteam and ask to be admitted.
2.12 What You Should Know Before You Begin
Can you change your online bio, and edit other files online? You’ll need to learn basic online editing if you don’t edit files online already. For one thing, you’ll want to promote your new conference in your bio, or .plan file.
We will not be explaining again, here, how to create or respond to a topic, how to see the new responses in each conference on your list, nor will we explain how to create a file. If you are not familiar with these basics, you’ll want to refer to The WELL User’s Manual and get comfortable with them first before proceeding with the rest of this manual.