Alan Chamberlain on Hosting

May 29, 1996

Gail was very gracious in asking me to come up here and talk about the experiences that I have had and what I’ve learned from hosting my own conferences, but I don’t want to talk about that. I figure as long as I’ve got everybody here, I’ll talk about what I want to talk about.

What interested me in the WELL initially was an interesting culture. I’m a self-educated man, as you’ve probably figured out, and that education has been spectacularly hit or miss, but the thing that has arrested my curiosity over time has been an interest in the way people come together and the values that they share and the interests that they pursue as a social unit.

About fifteen years ago, I got interested in the Celtic culture. Mostly because I was thrashing around looking for something that I could adopt personally as a cultural standard, and that led me to ancient Celtic, prehistoric, world traditional kind of things: the music, the art, the religion, and naturally the modern politics of the Celtic people. You can’t study Celtic politics without studying English politics, and so one of the things that I did in pursuit of that was I started watching C-Span for the British Parliament sessions that they televise, including the Prime Minister’s questions. Some of you are nodding, going umhum, umhum. Prime Minister’s questions is this really great thing that they do where everybody in the House of Commons gets to get up and take a shot at the Prime Minister, except for most of the people in the House of Commons, well, until fairly recently, were on the Prime Minister’s side, and they’d get up and ask him a question, and he’d get up with his book and he’d answer the question. And they have this wonderful protocol where there’s really quite a few fewer questions to be asked than there are members of the House, but they’re all on television. So everybody gets to get up and ask a question again, and they do this by saying: “Number 42, Madam Speaker.” And then John Major gets up with that big grin and goes, “I refer the Right Honorable Gentleman to the answer I gave some moments ago.” Which is this really elaborate, parliamentary procedure for saying, “What he said.”

There isn’t a whole lot to add to how to host effectively. Candidly, it’s not rocket science. We’ve been having these things for what, a couple of years, give or take? We started off here with David Hawkins, who is like, the high priest of how to host well. And candidly, there hasn’t been a lot of value added since then.

There are six points that get brought up frequently: 1. Encourage the new user through positive feedback. 2. Actively invite new users into your conference. 3. Use creative linking between conferences to essentially expose your conference to a new audience. If you do that, incidentally, Brian, do it when you have something less than fifty responses. Anything over that and it just really pisses people off and they don’t want to come to your conference anymore. 4. Start topics which tend to focus the discussion in the direction you want your conference to move. 5. Use a light touch; easy does it. 6. And finally, get a good co-host.

These are the things that get repeated at every one of these events, and I don’t think there’s anything about these things that’s particularly difficult to learn except that they *must* be learned. These are not intuitive skills. We are not born with this knowledge. Through years of interaction on the WELL we’ve learned these things either through hard experience, through events like this, or from, “Oh, shit, what do I do now?”, and you call your friend, the host of another conference, and he goes, “use a light touch.”

We have these skills. We use these skills every day. We’ve internalized them. We don’t think about it. We host a conference, and we’ve gotten it off the ground, and it’s taken flight, and it’s working, and some of them are less well-traveled than others, but for the most part all the featured conferences have their habituals and we host them using these skills. I think we have an additional opportunity that many of us also indulge in more or less unconsciously because we *have* internalized these skills. We don’t realize that in fact these *are* skills. We think that this is just life online and how you do it. I think we each have an opportunity, not to say an obligation, to employ these skills in helping other hosts host their conferences. This is where having a good co-host comes in handy because then it gives you cycles to work out on this.

About a year ago was I started adopting conferences that were not what we would consider well-established. They have a small group of core users, but they’re kind of out of the mainstream, they’re down a side street and around the corner and they’re in a shadow someplace, where there’s a lot of potential, and where I could use some of the things that I’ve learned from hosting *my* conferences to help them to thrive a little more.

Because of my interest in cultures, I selected three conferences that I thought really could use an additional boost. Where they were either not struggling so much, but were they had sort of plateaued. In one case there really had been kind of a drop-off in interest. The first one, not surprisingly, was Cultures, hosted by and So I went over there, and I put it on my .cflist and I fixseened, and it kept going past my screen: “No new items in Cultures”. “No new items in Cultures”. I thought, What am I going to do here? A user name Heejung An , a young Korean individual who is living in New York City, opened a topic about the difficulties encountered learning and studying your discipline in a foreign country, living in the United States and pursuing his education in New York City. And as it turns out, my wife is a teacher of English as a second language. We, at that time, had a housemate who was from Taiwan. We now have a housemate who’s from Korea. And I could resonate with some of the things that he was saying. And using that first main point about encouraging a newuser, I jumped into that topic and used some anecdotes from my wife to try and encourage the conversation and move things along. This is something that, at the time, I wasn’t even thinking about–actively trying to boost the conference — but it resulted in some traffic. It resulted in some interesting conversation about this. And that’s when I thought, “well, there’s an idea here. Here’s some things that I can do”.

So then I started actively looking around for another conference, and I turned to my friend Michael (maya), and he is hosting the Spanish Conference. This was another conference that, after I put it in my .cflist kept coming up: “No new items. No new items”. So the second point: “Invite new users” is what Michael did to me: “Come on over to Spanish and check it out”. What I tried to do was focus on linked topics; topics that were already linked into other conferences. I tried to start conversations in those topics to keep bringing the Spanish Conference to the eye of individuals who were outside of it. There was, for example, a topic about Spanish Language television, which is linked to TV and I think, also to Media, and I was talking about some of the funny commercials that you see on Spanish language TV and some of the soap operas that they run, and the pop music shows and the variety shows on the weekends and things like that. Well, this was like raw meat to . He immediately was all over this topic, and it got a lot of action and {laughter} Joe is an excitable boy. Joey couldn’t help but notice that the female characters in a lot of these television programs seem to be less completely dressed as on some of the American language programming that he had seen, and that provoked a whole string of conversation. There were also a couple of topics that were linked to the Music Conference. And we got some conversations going there about salsa music, and mariachi music, and so forth. The thought occurred to me that all the people see is “Linked Topic.” They don’t really see where it’s linked to, so I actually started up a redundant topic about Spanish language music in general, and I got my buddy, Rik, my favorite ringer, who’s the host of the Music Conference to link it into Music so it’s explicitly linked from Spanish. The thing about the Music Conference is that it’s a very well-established conference. It’s one of a very short number of favorite subjects that people want to talk about. So when newcomers come to the WELL, hey look through this hundred and twenty conference list. “Oh, Music, that’s cool”, they put that in their .cflist, and so this was a way of exposing people who might have an interest in Spanish language outside of the music context through a link to the Music Conference.

The point is to invite in new contributors. This is nothing new in hosting your *own* conference. You go out, you say, “Hey, come on over. I’ve got this great conference. You should check it out.” But you can also do this on behalf of other hosts–other conferences that you have an interest in.

The third example was a little more problematic. When it was first opened, it took off like a rocket. It was in the top five for a month. Everybody was running over there. The problem was it wasn’t exactly headed in the direction–I don’t think–that the hosts were really hoping that it would go in. This is the Boomers Conference. Now, the Boomers Conference was kind of an interesting situation. I had suggested something along these lines several years ago when the Gen-X Conference first opened up. It took off like a shot. I said, well, gee, why don’t we have a baby-boom conference of some kind and of course I had other things on my mind so I didn’t follow up on it, but the reason the GenX Conference got started and was so successful–and is so successful–is, well, credit where due, Jeffrey and Cynsa do a great job over there.

They’ve done a terrific job of hosting and sparking interest in that conference and it’s really out of control pretty much any day you go over there, and there was a crying need for it because the reason there was no baby-boom conference on the WELL is because the WELL itself is largely a baby-boom conference! {Laughter} I mean, we can be fairly criticized, I think, for being Bay-Area-centric, but not so much as we can be fairly criticized for being baby-boomer-centric. I mean, we boomers really have dominated that conversation. And what the hell, we don’t have anything else to do, we’re getting old. {Laughter} The end result was that there were a lot of new users that came to the WELL that were not of our cohort and did not share our history and who have exciting lives of their own and interesting things that they’re doing, and they didn’t really have a place to go and share that with their cohort so GenX took off and it was remarkably successful.

And I think when Jon and Judy started up the Boomer Conference, they weren’t thinking along the lines of a nostalgia-fest. I think they were thinking–as I had been when I originally suggested it some years ago– that this would be a place where those of us who are getting on in years could discuss some of the challenges we’re facing today. What happened was, everybody came over and started telling “me-and-Joe” stories about all the great dope and all the great sex and all the great rock-and-roll we had. Hey, it was fun!

We were the only ones who really got to have that, but memories are short, the stories run out fast, and it petered out very quickly. And what happened is, while the GenX Conference was about being a young adult in the 1990s, the Boomer Conference very rapidly became about being a young adult in the 1970s. And since the 70s are over, we couldn’t keep adding to that experience after we told the stories, it fell off very rapidly.

I think there was also an other issue of the huge volume of new material every time you came in there was, candidly, intimidating. And I think a lot of people went, “I’ll come back”, and many of them didn’t. But I was still interested in this. I’ve got a father who is living on Social Security. I’ve got a lot of gray hair showing up. I’ve got my future retirement to think about, health care issues to consider, the ever present threat of prostate cancer. These are the concerns that those of us in middle age in the 1990s are facing as challenges. And while the well may have in fact become sort of a defacto boomer clubhouse, we weren’t really talking about those issues in the context of our cohort. We talked about the long-range impact of extended drug abuse in the Drugs Conference. And we talk about health issues here, and we talk about aging issues there, and we talk about parent’s issues and parenting and so forth. But we weren’t really focused on that, so I sort of adopted the Boomer Conference, and started trying to generate some interest there in things beyond just the nostalgia me-‘n’-Joe, gee-what-a-great-time-we- had-when-we-were-young-and-thin kinds of things. And I think it’s gone fairly well.

This would be point number four: starting new topics to focus the discussion in the direction that you want to go. One of the issues that I’ve been confronting is the obligation that is sort of assumed by family, and the country at large, and the larger culture that we are part of. One of the things our generation did that was different was we said, “Hell, no, we won’t go!” We do not have a duty to fight for this country. We do not have a duty to marry before we continue with a love life. We do not have a duty to observe the conventions that have been laid down for us.

And we sort of threw duty over the rail. And to a certain extent that was very liberating, but to another extent, it’s also caused, I think, some problems for us going forward in terms of how we’re going to marshal the resources necessary as a society to sustain what is good about being forty-five in America in 1996.

So I opened that topic, and it got of to a slow start. We used some creative linking and linked it over to the Future Conference, and it took off, and I think it has “re-purposed” the conference. New topics have been opened that have not been about Gee, what a great time we had, or remember the good old days. It’s really about What are we going to do about the problems that are facing us as we moving into that last chapter.

So I consider that a “Win.” I know that there is still a long way to go with all three of those conferences, but it’s been gratifying to see the interest increase and the growth as new topics and new responses appear, and to feel sort of like an adoptive parent in those conferences.

I didn’t actually explicitly ask for permission to do any of this stuff. That’s point number five: Use a light touch. {Laughter} We all have these skills. We all have these techniques at our fingertips, and I think, to a certain extent we do it anyway, but I think that we can also consciously and deliberately and thoughtfully apply these capabilities in conferences where we feel that there is an opportunity to increase interest and increase understanding. And I think that we, as hosts, sort of have an obligation to do that. The many new users that there are on the WELL, the many people who have been there for a long time who are not hosts do not have these skills under their fingers. Like I say, we’re not born with this stuff, and it takes some experience and some learning to develop them. There’s only a few hundred of us that have it, and I think that we have the duty to apply those skills and create some benefit. And finally, like I said, get a good co-host. One of the things that doing this will do, incidentally, is make you a candidate as a good co-host in conferences that you adopt. And I think moving around from one conference to the next, applying on an ad-hoc basis, then perhaps in an official basis, applying to conferences as a co-host is a good way to grow as an individual if you continue to be interested and engaged and involved in the growth of the WELL.

Thank you.


I mean, I hope you didn’t think it was going to be short!

Copyright 1996 Alan Chamberlain. Used by permission, all rights reserved.