Steve Silberman on Hosting

I host two public conferences, and two private. I think I’ve met a lot of you guys before.

I still feel, in a way, like a relatively young host. A lot of the people in this room have been on the WELL longer than I have, and have been hosting a lot longer. I’ve watched the activities of other hosts fairly closely, and I’d like to talk about the hosts of two different conferences. I won’t name any names, to avoid problems.

One of the conferences is extremely successful. It’s a very high-traffic conference. It makes picohits regularly. It has all of the signs of a really thriving conference. New members post fairly readily. As soon as they get there, they announce their presence, and generally are welcomed with lots of warm, fuzzy comments. Discussions seem to thrive and find their own course, with relatively little interference from the hosts. The conference practically seems to run itself, and there’s a real diversity of voices there.

The conference run by the other host has many of the signs of a conference that’s in trouble at some organic level. The conference seems dominated by the same posters every day. You really only see a few names there, and you see them all the time. The regular posters seem to be grinding the same axes over and over again. There’s very little self-disclosure. Often, a comment that’s posted, that seems fairly revelatory to me in terms of the character and the inner feelings of the person that’s posting it, is followed either by silence or redirection of the conversation. There’s very little validation of self-revelatory posting.

The conference feels tense to me when I go there. A lot of the posts contain what you might call the jargon of conflict, and the jargon of college debate. You know, “I object to that point that you made in response such-and-such…” There’s a lot of what you might call quoting for the sake of ridiculing the original poster, rather than quoting for the sake of reinforcing a point, or admiring a turn of phrase.

The host of that conference is also the subject of quite a bit of discussion, which doesn’t feel like the way it should be. I feel that the host should be fairly invisible. One quality that I really admire you, Gail, for, is that you really don’t post all that much. I know that you post a lot in certain places, but considering how ubiquitous you must be to do your job well…

Gail: Yeah, sometimes I actually make a real effort to not post.

Silberman: Really. Making the effort not to post is sometimes the sign of a good host.

Anyway, to make a long story short – both conferences that I’ve described are, in fact, hosted by me. I would like to talk a little bit about why the conferences might feel different, and certainly how the conferences feel different to me, and hopefully get at some of what hosting is all about for me.

There’s a story about Mahatma Gandhi, that somebody asked him how he found the inspiration to serve these high ideals, and he said, “Everything I do is completely selfish. It’s all for my spiritual growth.” I feel a good host is doing that, too. She may appear to be very generous, but is probably working on her spiritual growth at the same time.

The conference that feels very successful to me is deadlit. I should probably give almost all the credit to my co-host David Gans, but I think I do a decent job there – although it’s almost too easy for me to do a decent job there. I wrote a book about the Deadhead subculture, and that gives me sort of a free space on the bingo board as a host in that conference. For the people who were there already, the old timers, I’m kind of the “local boy makes good.” I actually arose out of the ranks of the deadlit posters, and created a document – my book, “Skeleton Key” – that is very much a product of the kind of dialog and scholarship that go on there. For the people who are newer there, quite a few of them are there because they read about the WELL in my book, so I have some kind of glow about me there. The way that I can host in deadlit is by simply relying on my strengths. I have access to some privileged information about the Dead, and so on.

Deadheads on the WELL are a dream population for an online conference. People are inexhaustibly thirsty for information, for passionate and sincere dialog on what they love so much. There are also what you might call endless fields of scholarly dreaming available to the discussion – interpretations of the lyrics; the history, which goes beyond the history of the band and reaches into the history of the culture into the culture at large, as well as the counterculture; personal experience of shows. People are talking about the highest times of their lives, in many ways.

Whereas the other conference – the Wired Conference – there’s kind of an inherent conflict of interest in my posting there. It started out, I believe, as an outreach from Wired into the online world, and it’s not unusual for the host to work at Wired. I work at HotWired. However, it’s been really a baptism of fire for me to host that conference, and I think I really have not done a very good job of it.

Sometimes when I say things that are complimentary of Wired or HotWired, I’m perceived as a corporate mouthpiece. If I defend Wired or HotWired against criticism, I’m perceived – and I think accurately so – as basically a nervous primadonna who sifts out criticism with a very fine sieve, and then attempts to snuff it out with rational truth. Very bad, very bad. And yet, I think that the Wired Conference has done more for my spiritual growth than the deadlit Conference.

The deadlit Conference is too easy for me to be charming in. All I have to do is do my thing, which is basically a variation of the thing that I’ve been charming people with since I was nine or ten. I do my thing, and people love me. Deadheads love to love people. It’s strictly a rigged game. Whereas in the Wired Conference, I feel like there are some pretty serious big boys there. I wrote a long, very self-revelatory post about kind of the Jungian dynamics of the posters there, which was greeted with embarrassed redirection of the discussion. But I realized that I feel like a little boy among real men in the Wired Conference. It’s been good for me to face up to the fact that I can’t charm everyone.

In fact, the great thing about hosting, is that it forces you to examine what Jung called your inferior functions – the things in yourself that you have not developed.  could probably give a better paraphrase of what Jung was talking about. Do you guys all know what a mandala is? It’s a sacred picture from Eastern art. In a way, certain mandalas are like a picture of the whole universe, in symbolic form.

I once asked a very wonderful, very playful poet and underground filmmaker named James Broughton – who has written many, many books of poetry extolling the joys of making love to men – why, in his mid-30s, he had gotten married and had kids. He said, “To fill out my mandala.”

I think that hosting forces you to fill out your mandala, because if there’s something that you’re not good at, it’s really hard to hide it. People will notice, because you will not be able to host their voices very effectively. A well-hosted conference has the widest possible diversity of voices, in the same way that a satisfying fiction has a very wide range of voices and identities in it.

Keats praised Shakespeare for what he called his “negative capability”. By “negative,” he didn’t mean bad – he meant more like “negative space” in a painting. He said of Shakespeare that “negative capability” was “when a man is capable of being an uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts and reason.” That’s a really heavy thing. It’s one of the most concise definitions of maturity that I have ever come across.

It’s also a very good prescription for a successful relationship. I think a lot of us, when we’re young, expect relationships to be black and white, you know, “Is this *the* person?” As you get older, you realize that, no, it’s not the person in the back of your mind that you’ve been looking for, but it’s *a* person, and, in a way, if you love someone enough, you can love all of humanity through them.

I think hosts need really good negative capability: that ability to remain uncertain, to not make the definitive pronouncement, to allow someone else to make it in the way you never would yourself, to allow people to say things that you completely disagree with, that you even think may be damaging – not damaging to other users – but ways of being that you don’t support yourself, and allow them to speak forth their own truth.

I have a phrase that occurred to me several years ago, in thinking about communities: “The underdog carries the secret.” Often times, the most stigmatized voice in a community carries some truth, that if the community at large was aware of it – and certainly if the host was aware of it – it would make things better, make for a better integration of the collective psyche.

I think that in our conferences, often, the underdogs , the marginal voices – well, not always. I finally did, by the way, bozofilter one user on the WELL. It’s been pretty good – of course, I’ve extracted his posts every now and then, just to make sure that he’s talking about me (laughs). That’s been an interesting experiment. I’m still in the process of that experiment. In that situation, it didn’t seem to be an underdog who carried many secrets. But I do think, often, the voices in the conference that are not loudly heard, or even the ones that are loudly excoriated, often know something that the conference at large would be better off for knowing.

Another slogan that seems to be working for me improving my hosting of the Wired Conference is something that an aikido student told me: “Take the hit as a gift.” That’s something that is not generally thought of in Western approaches to conflicts. You aim for the weakness. But, taking the hit as a gift is another way of honoring the interior function of the situation – being open to the secret the underdog might carry.

I was talking with Gail recently about what she felt made for a really thriving conferencing environment, and she said, basically, a wide range of very vivid and powerful archetypes. I thought that was very interesting. I think that that’s also a metaphor for a good psyche – a healthy psyche – and also a healthy culture.

What if we entertained all the voices in our culture in the same way that a good host on the WELL entertains the diversity of voices in their conference? One thing that’s great about the Net is, it makes it a lot more possible for marginal interests to thrive, and for marginalized people to address one another.

I’d like to close with something that’s completely unrelated. I’m going to be quoting Herb Caen. This is something that struck me as a great metaphor for the WELL. It’s an obituary that ran a couple of weeks ago, of a woman named Blanche Pastorino. I don’t know if any of you knew who she was.

“Another day, another heart-rending death: On Saturday, the gentle, delightful Blanche Pastorino died at 87 in a local convalescent hospital. For two decades, her Blanche’s (now Carmen’s) at 4th and Channel was jammed at lunch with such regulars as Herb Gold, Cap Weinberger, Fletcher Benton and Ruth Asawa, even though her entire menu consisted of crab salad and wine or Anchor Steam. A sign on the wall explained it all: ‘If Food Is Your Main Consideration, This Is Not Your Place.'”

Thank you very much.

Copyright 1996 by Steve Silberman. Used by permission, all rights reserved.