Evelyn Pine on Hosting

I’m the host of go beat and Peninsula???!!! You’re kidding! Oh, my God! Seriously, when it was announced that I was going to be one of the speakers at this dinner for WELL Hosts, I started getting supportive e-mail from people, saying, “It’s great, they’re finely including people who aren’t hosts as speakers.” {laughter}

But I do want to begin on a serious note, and talk a little theoretically, because what we’re doing on the WELL is going to shape the way people communicate for years to come. So I feel that it’s very important to have a theoretical underpinning for what we call “hosting” and what others call “encouraging on-line interaction or participation.” Often, we need a metaphor to clarify choices, to deepen our practice, to refine our analysis and to coalesce our intentions with our actions.

Now, in the WELL’s long history, it’s really been a test bed for developing these metaphors. The most compelling models for on-line behavior have grown directly from the WELL. I mean, there ARE other metaphors, but they aren’t so interesting to me. For example, “on-line as theater,” “information infrastructure,” “it’s just like TV only with people you know.”

The fact is that the two most compelling metaphors for on-line conferencing were developed by geniuses who are part of the WELL. One is Howard Rheingold’s idea of “virtual communities.” And the other is John Coates’ idea of “the innkeeper in cyberspace.” And for anyone out here who is a new host, or who is just starting to get involved, you should really take a look at Howard’s book, and you should also track down John Coates’ discussions about being “an innkeeper in cyberspace.”

Neither of those metaphors completely satisfy me, however. First of all, the whole “virtual” thing really leaves me cold. You see, I was just at the New Orleans Jazz Fest, and they had a bunch of computers there so that you could be part of a conference about the Jazz Fest. And I said I wanted to log onto the WELL; I wanted to telnet to the WELL. And they got very uptight, and they said, “Well if you just do it for five minutes.” They pointed to some young men at the next computer and they said, “Those young men are talking about the impact of jazz on them, and we have other young people who want to use these computers, so you only have five minutes.” So I sat down and I’m trying to long on and it’s Windows, which I’d never even heard of, and I’m trying to telnet, which I’m not sure what that means, and I look over at those guys and what are they doing? They’re not talking about the Jazz Fest. They’re looking at the Playboy Web page, Centerfolds, all kinds of sites with naked women! And I thought, this is ridiculous. We’re at the New Orleans Jazz Festival. If they walked out of that tent, they would see the most beautiful women in the world with almost no clothes on, and they’re sitting in a tent with a computer. So, for me–virtual–I’m not interested in being in a virtual community.

And the idea of cyberspace is an idea that I just don’t buy into. And not just because the term was popularized by John Perry Barlow, but because I believe that here’s a wall. We’re in San Francisco, and for us to pretend that we’re somewhere else and whoever we’re talking to isn’t where ever they are is to get very confused. We’re not in cyberspace. We’re talking to real people in real places.

So I know what you’re saying: “OK, Evy, you’ve said here are two wonderful guys who’ve come up with profound and important metaphors about encouraging on-line communication, what paradigm (excuse me) are you going to put forth to encourage on-line communication?”

Well, it seems obvious. I’m forty-three years old, and there seems only one over-arching way for us to understand what we’re doing as hosts. And that is, of course, the Fab Four, the Boys, the Beatles.

To host, we must be as charming and as cute as Paul McCartney; as verbal and engaged as John Lennon; as spiritual and kind of goofy as George Harrison; and as non-threatening as Ringo Starr. {Applause}

And, almost more important, we must be willing, when it’s our moment, to be the fifth Beatle. And that means whatever’s needed, we must find within ourselves. For example, we have to have the ability to be a craftsman like Billy Preston, to craft a topic that’s really going to matter to the people in our conference, or the creativity of Stu Sutcliffe, when we find things are really dead and we want new people to be engaged. We need to sometimes, when there’s a controversy in our conference, have the warrior-like focus of Yoko Ono. And sometimes, when we have those face-to-face get-togethers, we need to provide those vegetarian TV dinners like Linda McCartney. And so now that we have a sense of this metaphor, and I can tell that I’ve convinced you that this pretty much sums it up, how do we apply this as we move forward? How are we applying it?

So here are my nine gear guidelines for hosts:

Number one: Think a hard day’s night. And by that I don’t want to emphasize the “working like a dog” but rather the idea of joy. When we think of that film, we think of all the people it inspired. It inspired so many people to say, “What I want to do with my life is going to give me and the people around me profound joy and pleasure.” And so we need to lead by that kind of example. In other words, it’s what we do that is, then, what the people in our conferences do. And sometimes that’s wonderful and sometimes it’s a little frightening. So we need to model behavior, but joyously. And sometimes I know I’ve occasionally gotten e-mail from the confteam or from people in conferences saying, “What the hell is going on there?” And I am able to say, “I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine.”

Number two: Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play. Alan (mariposa) talked, I think, really skillfully about encouraging new people and getting them to engage in the conference. And part of that also is dealing with the people who are there. For example, you have to care about what the participants in your conference care about. This, for me, in the Beatles Conference, is a constant challenge, because–and I know it’s going to surprise you–there are a lot of people who show up in the Beatles Conference because they care about music. To me, I had no idea. I care about the way John Lennon’s lips look with the harmonica. But they’re into music, I will discuss Paul McCartney’s greatest guitar solo. I will. Because that’s what they care about.

And then you have to ask people to do what’s comfortable for them. I think you should ask a lot from the participants, but you need to understand that comfort level. You need to be able to say: “Those of you in the cheap seats, applaud. Those of you in the expensive seats, rattle your jewelry.” In other words, you can’t ask a newcomer to behave like an old timer.

And you have to appreciate who’s there. And that is always the problem with on-line communication–that you want to be playing music with Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, and Ginger Baker, but you go into the studio and there’s George, John, and Ringo. But nonetheless, what you have to say is those are the mates I have, I’m going to make it work.

Number three: When in doubt, be Paul’s Grandfather. Be a king mixer. Stir people up. Keep conversation going. I used to work for a public access network — probably the first public access computer network in the country, called Community Memory. And one of the things we learned very quickly — it was in laundromats and in libraries and stuff, and so there was usually a week or two week turnaround. In other words, people weren’t on line all the time. So you’d post something and then you’d be back in a week or two weeks. But what we learned very quickly is what people needed was if they posted so something, they needed you to respond. So you have to constantly be like Paul’s grandfather and be responsive to them and try to mix things up for them. You also need to start topics, keep threads going, and nag people occasionally. But, again, with joy.

Number four: We can work it out. And that’s the issue of diffusing situations. The first one of course, which is the classic Beatles solution to any problem, which is use humor. “What do you call that haircut you’re wearing?” “Arthur.” Second, don’t take it personally. Often people see something on-line and immediately respond personally. I think one of the issues as a host is to just let that go. You want to take all the participants seriously, but not too seriously, and finally, occasionally you have to move out of the Beatles zone and into the Van Morrison zone, and simply tell people to simply shut the fuck up. But unlike the way Van does it, it is best to do that in e-mail.

Number five: Act naturally. You have to go with your strengths. You have to be who you are. You’re Ringo. You’re not Pete Best. Yes, he’s much better looking than you are, and he probably plays the drums better, but you bring something to the party, too. In fact, I remember the first hosts’ dinner I went to. Thaisa spoke, and she spoke about the Writers’ Conference, and she was so charming, and she said, “You know, I get a lot of awards, or publications, and I don’t always post them in the Writers’ Conference.” And I thought, That’s so amazing! And I thought, Gee, maybe I shouldn’t post so much about how people are always telling me I look like Jane Asher, but that’s me! I am not Thaisa. Also, I tease people a lot. It’s my nature. And sometimes, particularly with newcomers, I go too far. But I’ve also learned that I need to balance my fear of going too far with my joy in making the conferences I’m in playful places, because that’s what interests me. Another thing, I’m somebody who, when I’m not hosting, I never read a post that’s longer than a screen-full, so I will read when I’m hosting. No matter what you post, I’ll read it. But I won’t remember more than a screen-full. It’s who I am.

Number six: Be Paul; Be George. Oblah di oblah da, all things must pass. Don’t worry so much about it. Have faith in the participants. And then get a sense of the cycles. I never have a sense of Go Beat dying. I have a sense of people going elsewhere. I know that not everyone is as interested in Pete Best’s world tour as I am. But I know that Anthology 3 will come out, and they’ll be back. And that’s fine because part of the WELL’s strength is not that every conference is hopping all the time, but more that there are a number of environments in which people can thrive.

Number seven: Get by with a little help from your friends. Co-hosting. For example, I’ll agree to link, but I never link. I don’t know how. That’s what co-hosts are for. {Laughter} You have to speak up. If the co-host is doing something you don’t like, you have to hash it out. They’ve done that to me numerous times. But I think co-hosting is best described as Paul described working with John at song writing. He said, “I’ll whistle for a little while, and then he’ll whistle for a little while, and in the end we come up with something.”

Number eight: How do you deal with management? And I was really interested with Maria (the President of the WELL)’s comment that she considered this the job of her lifetime. Because it is. I would say that it’s like John Lennon, the hosts, talking to Brian Epstein (WELL management). And I remember the first time John Lennon was in the studio with Brian Epstein. They were recording Meet the Beatles. And Brian Epstein began to complain about how Paul’s voice sounded in the song, “Til There Was You.” And John Lennon said, “Brian, we’ll keep making the music; you keep counting the percentages.” That’s how we should deal with the owners of the WELL.

Finally, Number Nine: Number nine. Number nine.  Hosting is heart work. It is not virtual. Like anything having to do with the heart, it’s earthbound. It is messy. It is mixed. And it is incredibly rewarding. “And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

Thank you very much. You have a lucky face.


Copyright 1996 by Evelyn Pine. Used by permission, all rights reserved.