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A Planetwork Experience: Attending the 2004 Planetwork Conference

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By Michael C. Gilbert and Ali Woolwich

Planetwork was founded in 1998 by Jim Fournier, Erik Davis, Elizabeth Thompson and David Ulansey. The organization’s stated purpose is to “illuminate the critical role that the conscious use of information technologies and the Internet can, and indeed must, play in creating a truly democratic, ecologically sane and socially just future.” On June 5 and 6, 2004, the authors attended the Planetwork Conference as observers and participants.

Jim Fournier’s background as an industrial ecologist came through in the conference design. Just as industrial ecology concerns itself with engineering solutions to environmental challenges, the Planetwork conference concerned itself with software solutions to contemporary human challenges of many kinds.

As a couple of skeptical geeks with strong affiliation with the nonprofit sector, our experience of the conference was bound to be mixed. The technological discussions were fascinating, but their occasional disconnection from the real work of nonprofits was frustrating. It reminded us a bit of the well intentioned invasion of the nonprofit sphere by dotcom entrepreneurs during the nineties. Of course, we chose to attend the conference’s more technical tracks, rather than the ones presented by nonprofits doing online advocacy work, and that choice definitely exaggerated the experience.

A major theme of the conference was identity and social networks, how they can be studied, improved, and utilized for social change. We should note that these terms — “identity” and “social network” — aren’t being given their traditional meaning here, but are referring instead to online tools. The central assumption that drives this unfortunate conflation is that both our identity to others and our personal networks are increasingly being mediated by those tools. We agree with that assumption.

The conference allowed a review of what are good working field models of social networks, as well as drawbacks and future possible infrastructure. The big question: Can we get quantity AND quality in our online contacts? Can a new layer of infrastructure and social norms be added into the online world to match the trust and legitimacy of real world interactions so online interactions can gain in meaning as well as sheer numbers? Also, with the developing realm of the social network, we are as a culture leaving the broadcast media model of one-to-many and growing the still new many-to-many model for online interaction. If we could transfer real-world legitimacy to the online world, then all those “friends” in your inbox would be a lot more valuable for a myriad of social, political, and economic reasons.

Day One:

The conference opened with an overview by Fournier and others of this theme. He presented the Identity Commons, an important and ambitious project meant to keep the control of online identity where it belongs, at the grassroots level. He pointed everyone to a white paper entitled “The Augmented Social Network: Building Identity and Trust into the Next-Generation Internet.”

As we came to understand it, Planetwork was founded to make an explicit connection between identity (an “internal” phenomenon) and environment (an “external” phenomenon), in order to help shift the world towards health and sustainability.

The other major theme established at the opening was more about process than content. It was expressed in a desire for a looser style of conference facilitation and design. In the hope that patterns of meaning would emerge if the structure of conference interaction supported it, the conference designers added elements such as a conference Wiki, ubiquitous WiFi, and special track of facilitated team-game-style interaction. They called this part of the conference Planetwork Interactive.

After the conference, the Wiki was helpful in reconstructing portions of people’s talks and Wifi is a welcome support for the valuable, but often ignored “back channel” of the conference. But the one session that we attended of the facilitated portion of Planetwork Interactive was a disappointment. The facilitators, from Blue Oxen Associates, took their inspiration from the science of complexity, in particular Kevin Kelly’s book on self sustaining systems, Out of Control. Unfortunately, an ability to describe such systems doesn’t equate with an ability to create them. The opening session on “discovery” felt more chaotic than emergent, participants complained about the confusing instructions, and, for some reason, small group notes were taken on large cardboard cubes. We did get to meet Evan Henshaw-Plath of Indymedia, but he didn’t stay through the conference.

Joan Blades of MoveOn delivered a plenary address on the first day of the conference. MoveOn’s key innovation is not any particular technique, but rather dramatically scaling up the innovations of others. Joan Blades did not explore in detail the reasons for that success, but she argued passionately for the idea that “progressive values are American values”. Jay Cross and Eugene Eric Kim both blogged the session in some detail.

The first breakout session that we attended was entitled Social Architecture for the Masses – Let’s Make it Fun! Scott Levkoff and Polly Whittaker described Superstar Avatar, a technologically supported, face to face social game. This was one of the highlights of the conference for us, in part because of the showmanship and energy of the presenters (not to mention their fine hats and tutus) and in part because of the emphasis on the social interactions, rather than on the technology. Their primary focus is hosting parties where a web application provides the tools and the rules for interaction, where through the use of narrative, myth, and story, every participant can be the “star of their own movie”, through the creation and management of “intentional personas” and the use of “distributed accountability”. The SF Weekly had a good introduction to this project.

Greg Wolff then presented on User Models for Social Networking Tools. By letting the audience self define into groups of “end users”, “tool builders”, and “curious onlookers”, he demonstrated how each user group tends to think that all other users of a tool are like them. Using email systems as examples, he showed us how to model different uses, such as managing relationships or tracking our history of communication. He raised an important question about the role of shared values in digital exchanges.

The Social Web: Building an Open Social Network with XDI was an introduction to the technical underpinning of a grassroots digital identity system. The subject was fascinating, but esoteric and removed from the day to day experience of most nonprofits. In essence, the goal is to prevent there from being a single authority for people’s identity, by building on what we know about implementing systems like domain names or credit cards, networks that build and track trusted relationships. The goal is to make the online world as trustworthy as the face to face world.

On the evening of the first day, we dropped by the conference dance, which was being DJ’ed by Alex Theory. The visual effects were projected on several large screens and were presented by Electric Sheep. Both sights and sounds were digitally produced and presented, with the elegant simplicity of a few iBook laptops. But we retired to a restaurant for several hours of conversation about technology and the nonprofit sector. Whatever else the conference offered, there was plenty of food for thought.

Day Two:

Esther Dyson gave the opening plenary address on the second day of the conference, which was entitled Social Networks – Platform, App or Construct: Q&A(rgument). She presented a realistic vision of the potential of social networks, giving plenty of attention to misguided optimism and disappointments. She advised advocates of online social networks to avoid overpromising and pointed out the obvious limitations of friendship and relationship taxonomies. She shared a key insight from her experience with ICANN: Email is not an effective dispute resolution medium. Her great quote of the morning: “If TV is propaganda, then the Internet is conspiracy”.

Ben Cohen then delivered his stump speech, starting with the well known story of the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company and ending with his work on True Majority and Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. He’s a charming speaker with a funny and polished presentation. Those sensibilities carry through to some of the tactics of True Majority, such as the flatbed truck being driven around the United States with a statue of George Bush with his pants on fire. (For our readers who are unfamiliar with American idiom, this is a way of calling attention to the president’s lies.) It was interesting to compare the efforts of Ben & Jerry’s to get stock in the hands of Vermont residents (one in 100 bought stock) with our own efforts to spread the equity of Social Ecology. One of the best insights of his talk came when he was accused of preaching to the choir: “Yes, and how can we get the choir to sing more?”

In the session on InterActive InterNetworking for Ecological Commons, Gary Grimm described his use of an online bulletin board to create a network of environmentalists who can influence government land management agencies, and digital video that demos the work of volunteer-intensive environmental restoration projects.

Brad deGraf’s talk on Disruptive Media Technologies focused on grassroots media technologies that help level the playing field against media monopolies. His examples were the Anywhere Books Book Mobile, free media warehousing such as Link TV or Guerilla News Network, global magazine distribution through PDFs, and Tivo and similar tools that disrupt the advertising channels. We found the presentation overly optimistic in a typically technocentric way, but still interesting and promising.

The next presentation was on Arno Scharl‘s EcoMonitor project. It uses web data mining to track the importance, coverage, and linkages of various environmental issues in the news and elsewhere through such methods as key word frequency and usage. The methodology was interesting and the potential application for tracking issues is vast.

In her presentation on Spaceship Earth: Play the Game/Save the World, Celia Pearce described the work of the University of California Game Lab to create a platform for online environmental game scenarios. She gave credit to the substantial influence of Buckminster Fuller on her work. She also gave other examples of games that teach, including a flash based game that vividly demonstrated how difficult it is to fight terrorists using warfare without killing innocent people and motivating more terrorists.

In What Works: the Dynamics of Highly Effective Groups, Ron Newman descibed how traditional meeting formats, where everyone just talks, are 40% less efficient at generating new ideas than those that use a Read-Think-Write Cycle, where people both introduce ideas and respond in writing. Of course, this lends itself to technological support, such as web-based bulletin boards and online mind mapping.

In Putting a Pattern Language for Cooperation into Practice, Neil Sieling facilitated a conversation that started with Jon Ramer’s paper on Weaving Our Strategies Together. Together, they explored whether there might be ways to structure coalition building activities to allow them to scale more rapidly. The four step pattern that they explored was: I. Get to Know Each Other. II. Explore Possibilities. III. Develop Opportunities. IV. Make and Fulfill Commitments.

The last presentation we attended prior to the close of the conference was Making a Difference on November 2. It was an open conversation facilitated by Lisa Goettel. We heard short presentations from audience members on Progressive Punch (an online congressional vote scoring tool), Open Secrets (which follows the money in U.S. elections), Party for America (a tool for Get Out the Vote house parties), and America Coming Together (a battleground state Get Out the Vote effort, with rich online tools).


Overall, the conference was both stimulating and frustrating. Stimulating because the technological ideas were interesting and the passion behind them was infectious. Frustrating because of the lack of deep connection to the existing coalitions and movements that probably don’t need to be reinvented, so much as empowered and supported.

Next year’s Planetwork conference will be held on April 1 – 3, 2005 at the Golden Gate Club in the San Francisco Presidio. The PlanetWork Journal and other programs continue the work in the mean time.

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