Andrew Alden on Hosting

Thank you, Gail and my fellow hosts, for the chance to be here. It’s been a very interesting time, these last few weeks, and having this talk on my mind has been exceptionally stimulating. Since this is National Amputee Awareness Day, I thought I’d share some choice thoughts by Marshall McLuhan, over twenty years older than the Well. He didn’t mention online talking when he wrote “Understanding Media,” but he did leave us these tantalizing clues:

“In the physical stress of superstimulation of various kinds, the central nervous system acts to protect itself by a strategy of amputation or isolation of the offending organ, sense, or function….The principle of self-amputation as an immediate relief of strain on the central nervous system applies very readily to the origin of the media of communication, from speech to computer….Any invention or technology is an extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies…. To behold, use or perceive any extension of ourselves in technological form is necessarily to embrace it….By continuously embracing technologies, we relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms. That is why we must, to use them at all, serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions. An Indian is the servomechanism of his canoe, as the cowboy of his horse or the executive of his clock. Physiologically, man in the normal use of his technology is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds new ways of modifying his technology. Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms. The machine world reciprocates man’s love by expediting his wishes and desires, namely, in providing him with wealth.”

In that greater context, where does a conference host on the Well fit in? Computer-mediated communication is hurtling through evolutionary stages that, before our lifetimes, took centuries. Just within the past year, imagery has taken over the Internet, and already sound and motion are making inroads on the World Wide Web. Just as the old rock-n-roll star has had to pick up the skills needed for MTV, maybe hosting will call upon our talents in ways we never foresaw when we were woodshedding. Maybe we will be transformed by the Millennium.

To start off, let me tell a story on myself. When I was in college, I took a course in television production. Each person was supposed to lead the class in making a two-minute commercial. We had to record it live. All eighteen of us took turns at each job — lights, sound, direction, narration, acting, props, and so on. Because I was first in the alphabet, I had to lead off as the producer. I tried to leave nothing to chance or the untested talents of my classmates. I put the narration on tape with my own voice (that part was easy because I was doing radio); I scripted the camera shots; I built all the props; I laid everything out, second by second, in great detail. It all had to be done in sync with this tape that I had narrated. And when production day came I handed everyone their instructions, then *they* began to make *my* commercial.

The student who was assigned to do the narration could only sit in his booth while my tape rolled. The talent kept dropping my props. The cameras couldn’t line up the shots in time with my script. I ran out on the set again and again to fix things. Finally, when I did that one time too many, the teacher stopped the class and said to me, “You get out of here, go sit up in the control room, and just watch. Everybody has to do their own job now — you’re the producer, and your part ended when you passed out the instructions.”

I learned many things in that frustrating moment, and I’ll share some of them with you tonight. One thing is that one person can’t be the whole show. When you’re starting a new conference, it’s a temptation to try it anyway. The host’s manual lays out so many options, and makes them all so appealing, that you may pull out more stops than you need to. That happened to me, I think, when I started my first conference — that was the oakland conference. It’s a tribute to Gail Williams, for whom I was practically her first host assignment, that she let me loose without suggesting anything to me. And it’s a tribute to David Gans, who was my co-host at the start, that he imposed none of his own preferences, even though it was his city, as much as mine, that we were going to serve.

Before oakland opened for business, I set up about a dozen topics ahead of time. Many were about individual neighborhoods. I set up a “welcome” message and I set up a “bulletin” file and I kept everything upbeat; I made topics on “Hidden Treasures of Oakland” and nice places to show tourists. I threw in the Oakland newspaper, the Oakland baseball team, the Oakland Bay Bridge, and so on. I can look back and see that I had a defensive attitude; I wanted to accentuate the positive side of a good city that gets bad press.

Anyway, when oakland opened up, the posters and lurkers came in, looked around, and did what *they* felt like doing. I could have been more laid back and saved myself work. I could have set up new things bit by bit, when I felt the need, and been just as happy with the result.

It seems that I was following the metaphor of conference as dramatic production, or setpiece, or amusement park, and I was the guy out front yelling “Hurry, hurry, hurry, step right up!” I think now that this is not the best approach to regional conferences. In fact I’d make that one of three rules of regional conferences that I’ll propound tonight. So the First Rule of Regional Conferences is this: Don’t build Disneyland, by which I mean, don’t be too structured. And the corollary is that you shouldn’t be Mickey Mouse or Tinkerbelle, unless the role comes naturally.

There is another special factor in the case of oakland that’s worth noting. Oakland was created next door to the berkeley conference, which is highly successful — in fact they have a topic there called, “Berkeley Outdraws Sexuality.” And I think that anyone in my position would have felt challenged. Many people in Oakland have their cultural home in Berkeley. The political center of the East Bay is Oakland. People’s lives, like the streets, ignore the border between the two cities. Yet we have a berkeley conference and an oakland conference to cover one geographic entity.

The two conferences have never been enemies. As the host of oakland, I encouraged people to join berkeley. The hosts of berkeley, and , always came to oakland and were always supportive there, and we linked topics together from the start. Those are all things that help. Nevertheless, the two conferences overlap, and neither has a charter to serve the whole East Bay region. It would be a big job, but the time might come some day for berkeley and oakland to do a double-rollover and launch, together, the eastbay conference. It’s a unique situation that stems from Well history, but it underlines the Second Rule of Regional Conferences: Respect geographical reality.

So how should regional conferences grow? By the city metaphor, I suppose. Cities grow themselves as a great many people do many small things. The city’s structure gives each citizen room to make contributions, and it has places for citizens to get together. I still remember how it felt when I was new on the Well and I first got into the regional conference for my area — that was berkeley at the time. I found that it transformed the real Berkeley. I remember sitting in front of my favorite coffee house with the feeling inside that any one of the people I was watching on the street might be another Well person, someone else in *my tribe*. It’s important that we recall those times in our online lives, because on any given day it’s just that way to someone entering your conference for the first time.

If my experience was typical, then that first flush of enthusiasm is a host’s opportunity to enlist new people. And the cement that really works is the face-to-face kind. I’ve had my share of exciting get-togethers: the Well Office Party, of course; the berkeley singthing, the East Bay garden tours, Oakland Coliseum Dead shows, lunches, baseball parties, beerz with M and axon, the chili cookoffs, the host meetings. If we never met each other at all, the Well would be, truly, only a virtual community. Thus the Third Rule of Regional Conferences is this: Nurture real-life contacts.

My experience with the oakland conference, frankly, might illustrate these three rules by counterexample. The Disneyland rule explains why I couldn’t force discussion on serious problems, since I hadn’t really made room for it. The geographic rule explains why the oakland and berkeley conferences feel to me sometimes like two halves of a duplex, with residents who’d rather live together in one place. The face-to-face rule explains why oakland wasn’t as personable as berkeley, since I’m not a great organizer of parties.

Those are some of the reasons that prompted me to turn oakland over to new hands a few months ago. Another reason was that I stopped working at home and took a daytime job in San Rafael, and with that I simply couldn’t be inspired the same way. Finally, I was taken up by the great notion of launching a new kind of general conference. So I gave it all away.

When I did this, I realized that it was a rather rare thing for a host to resign. But any of you might consider it. I think there were two benefits of doing so, one for the Well and one for me. First, someone else can get a turn at the wheel. In that college video class I was speaking of, some of the other students had great ideas, and it was a pleasure to take my turn working for them in one of the smaller roles. In just the same way, a different host might make a conference really blossom in ways you never thought of. The second benefit is that I could get a turn somewhere else, putting my experience to use in a fresh context.

That’s the way I got the hostship of the quake conference back in ’92. Quake was founded by Chuck Charlton, but it came into my hands when Chuck left the Well for a year. It was there that I learned a very different kind of hosting, in a conferecnc centered around information instead of community. Unlike the case in that television class, I think it helps to have a leader who is closely involved. In the quake conference, I have no hesitation about being the house authority.

This seems to work well in cases like the Northridge earthquake of last year. The whole experience is preserved in topics 71 and 77. In that fast-moving time, I took my hostly mission to be threefold: see that people get questions answered, see that errors and rumors are swiftly debunked, and see that the discussion stays near the concrete facts. But you know, it didn’t take a lot of work other than vigilance, just showing up. Out of 787 responses in those topics only 51 were mine, over a period of thirteen months. I had a lot of help from the usual gang of stalwarts, including two, and , who are missed today. On the Well, it seems like everyone chips in, especially other hosts. So after the First Amendment of the Well — maximum free speech for all — I’d put this Second Amendment: A well-regulated discussion being necessary for a great conferencing service, the importance of choosing exemplary Wellbeings as hosts should not be forgotten.

I’ve had a good time in the quake conference; in fact, I want to make some more places like it. And as a way to step down a bit from the Mandelian rigor that hosting quake requires, I want them to range more widely in tone. So I started the air conference, hoping to bring together some very disparate threads and also to make use of the atmospheric expertise found at the company where I work. At that point a grand whim took hold of me, and my plan is bearing fruit. In the next few days I will launch the earth conference, which will have a similar elemental scope, and over the next few weeks I’ll fill out the set with the conferences “water” and “fire.” Can this Aldenian conceit be pulled off? I’ll do my best, with the help of some creative cohosts. And I’ll apply some of the lessons I’ve picked up along the way.

The first of those lessons is — just jump in! Don’t be scared to start topics. That’s something that Tom Mandel excelled at. The minute a story came over the wire, he’d start a topic somewhere. That breaks the ice. Sure, not all of them thrive, but some of them do. I find it a little hard to take that risk, myself; you want every topic to be a classic. So I need to work on that one.

The next lesson is the counterpart to the first one — keep on top of the deadwood! This one I’m better at, because I still like to work my way into a conference starting at number 1, and I appreciate a well-pruned topic list. It’s a valuable thing when people take that in-depth approach, and I want to make it easier.

Another lesson is — stir the pot! Browse down your topic list every once in a while and something will always suggest itself. Remember the automatic “fixseen”: a new reader, joining a conference for the first time, faces a blank screen. The next thing that reader does is sample recent posts. Make sure that the new reader will find some old chestnuts in the soup of the day. It’s the history in the Well that makes it special. Make the most of this asset.

A fourth lesson is — circulate! This is one thing that your comp time is for. Check out different conferences. For one thing, there might be a topic worth linking. You may find someone you know from your conference, showing a whole different side. You might see a banner, or a menu, or a way to start a topic that looks fun. The Picospan trick that I recommend is this: go into your .cfonce file and add the line “set noautojoin.” Then when you enter a new conference, you always have the option of “observing” it. This is a read- only mode that leaves no traces in the conference directory or in yours.

I want to end my remarks with a thought about the Net-wide environment for hosting. There are more people everywhere doing online conversation, which tends to dilute the discussion, as we already know from the busiest places on the Well. Thus we must work harder in the rising din to maintain the atmosphere we prefer, whether that be concentrated debate in ‘s politics conference, concentrated advice in and ‘s health conference, concentrated silliness in ‘s bryana, or concentrated community in ‘s Grateful Dead family or in and ‘s genx.

People also have more places to telnet to and the same number of hours in the day to spend out there. They will take note of good hosting, and they will be served by better hosts. And more people out there will be in the hosting business. The stakes will rise. The best hosts will earn more–maybe even real money. For some of us, hosting will someday become an actual job, somewhere on the Net.

A final lesson from that TV class was that while people worked to realize the vision I laid out for them, there were seventeen other visions in there. All of those visions were original, and some were superior to mine. The Well is in the same position, in the business, that I was in in that class: first in line, but knowing that others will get their turns. The Well was a pioneer in online conferencing, and its place in history is secure; but history gets you only up to the present — up to today’s login. What comes after that is up to us.

Copyright 1995 by Andrew Alden. Used by permission, all rights reserved.