IGF London meeting: rushes, worries and lessons

So Nominet held a big meeting in London on Monday covering the new Internet Governance Forum that will meet for the first time at the end of this month in Athens.

Nominet IGF meeting

In some ways, it was a sort-of mini IGF in that it took the same free-ranging panel approach and that it explictly held two panels on two of the four main themes of the IGF – “security” and “openness” (Nitin Desai pointed out that had the meeting been in a developing country, the panels and debate would have been on the other two themes – diversity and access).

It was also similar to the real meeting in the role that I have been asked to play: “chief blogger” – meaning scouring the Internet for interesting comments and reading them out to the room. Actually, this term “chief blogger” has led some to ask whether I’m some of kind of official IGF blogger, which I certainly am not, so I will refer to my role as “blog watcher” from now on.

The general feeling is that the meeting was a success. The room will filled with people who know alot about Internet issues – and for once it wasn’t dominated by the political issue of US control but rather the question of what problems the Net has thrown up and the best way of dealing with them. Moderator Sarah Montague of BBC fame did an excellent job of keeping the discussion moving, not allowing people to get away with platitudes and, crucially, not allowing discussions to slip into jargon.

In fact, the only part of the meeting that fell down was my part. The interaction from online users was pitiful. As such, this post will cover that element of interaction with online users, and I will cover what was actually said at the meeting in a different post. But I want to tackle this issue of interaction because it strikes me that there are serious issues here and it needs some good brains on the problem to figure out how to make it work.

Nitin Desai talks

There was an early success with the wireless router I brought from home (the building staff were unhelpful about such matters apparently) which I had pre-configured at home, plugged in, and managed to supply the room with Net access. Although my decaying laptop failed (yet again) to smoothly link to the network so I had to borrow one from the webcasting company and rebuild all the editorial web connections I needed from scratch.

This was the essence of my role: scour the blogs for any information about the meeting and interject it as and when asked. Since this was only a small and short meeting, there was never going to be blog coverage so an addition was a question tool, used at the Oxford Internet Institute IGF meeting a month ago. The question tool was rapidly deployed at the last minute with the aid of Jonathan Zittrain and enabled people to post questions online, plus vote on posted questions, thereby pushing them up the list, and so registering wider interest in the question being asked (you can see the end result of this here).

I had done a story for The Register in the morning covering the meetings and encouraging bloggers to interact, and this was picked up by one of the biggest blogging sites out there – Boing Boing – so I was fairly confident of some interaction. It was not to be. Some work colleagues look in on the meeting and posted a question or two, and Jon Zittrain also contributed one or two items but apart from that, the whole process attracted only three people.


As a result the feedback I was able to supply to the moderator was minimal at best. And, with some irony, the one time I had an excellent question, supplied by Glyn Wintle, and indicated to Sarah Montague I had something, she couldn’t see me above the lights and ended the panel discussion before I had a chance to jump in. In the break, we worked out a system between me, the webcasters, and the moderator but very little else was forthcoming. Many of the people in the room were only aware of the online element because it was explicitly referred to by the moderator and also it was possible to bring up my laptop screen on the screens either side of the stage and on screen built into the panel’s desk.

Interestingly, some of the questions on the question tool were usefully answered by others within it – i.e. there was a parallel discussion going on online.

So what?

Well, a big element of the IGF is – or is supposed to be – interaction and involvement from people outside the room. After all, we are talking about the Internet Governance Forum. There has been a lot of talk of collaborative software, much of which has been ignored or poo-pooed by governments, but the IGF really is an opportunity to get these new technologies working and show their value.

IGF panel

Of course the great advantage of this type of interaction is that people don’t have to physically travel to the meeting to find out what is going on, plus there is the opportunity to have input into the meeting. This is particularly useful for people from developing countries who simply can’t afford to travel to Athens, even if they had the time and inclination.

Not everyone is happy about the idea of these tools being used to produce input into the meeting. And it is now my considered opinion that at this moment, this year, real-time feedback and input from the Internet is not going to work as a formal interjection. The input is too inconsistent and it requires intelligent filtering. I found in the Nominet meeting that listening to what was going on, plus checking out what people were discussing online, combined with attempting to boil this information down into something that could be interjected into discussions at the appropriate point was frankly too taxing. It is simply impossible for one person to do it by themselves and requires a team of people.

Talking fast

Discussion in a room actually moves incredibly quickly so the time that it takes to get feedback from people online, filter it and supply it to the room produces a delay that stilts real discussion. As such, the best method of including web-produced questions and content is to make it a separate cut-off from discussions. The moderator drawing a distinction. In the same way that on some TV shows, they make a point of “going to the phones”. Phone technology and, more importantly, humans’ comfort with phones has increased to such a level that you can now have conference calls, but even so they are not the same as face-to-face interaction. With most people still uncomfortable – or even unaware – of the new Net collaboration tools, perhaps it isn’t surprising that this divide exists.

But all that aside, I was still expecting between 10 and 20 people to be online during the Nominet meeting and they simply weren’t and that raises some important questions now only about why, but also about how you can encourage interaction.

These are my thoughts and ideas and I welcome anyone that has other input. First, reasons why the interaction from online was so low:

  1. Very few people knew the meeting was going ahead (The Reg and Boing Boing stories appeared only hours before the actual meeting started)
  2. Most of those who knew about it before then were in the room
  3. Very few in the room had laptops and so could not interact online (I counted three people)
  4. People couldn’t get the webcast or were not able to watch live (apparently, the controls didn’t work in Firefox so any new entry to the webcast started at the start of the meeting even as it was still going on).
  5. People didn’t know where the interaction was going on – or even if there was any

The more technological and social reasons:

  • The system was not friendly or simple enough – people were put off interacting
  • People couldn’t see the point in interacting (after all, the questions made weren’t actually asked in the room in the end)
  • People don’t want to interact (most people in a conference room don’t ask questions)
  • The system wasn’t made clear – what would happen if you did type something in?
  • The system was confusing or set up in a way that didn’t work – most people are not journalists and/or used to framing precise questions

Now, there are some things that separate the IGF meeting from the Nominet meeting:

  • More people know the IGF meeting is going ahead
  • The IGF is larger, so even if the small interaction is scaled up, there will still be enough people online for it to have value – especially since these people are likely to be more motivated to interact
  • The IGF meeting is worldwide, meaning that there will be more people who know of the meeting that can’t physically attend – making online interaction more attractive
  • More people at the meeting itself will have laptops and/or Net access

But that still leaves a number of hurdles:

  • Making the interaction simple enough
  • Making clear to people the point in interacting
  • Trying to find a way to pull the online interaction into the ongoing real-world discussions
  • Letting people know exactly where and how they can interact online
  • Finding a way to filter and condense information into a form that has real practical use

This job will be made harder by the fact that I’m not sure it will be possible to bring up the online interaction on screens in the IGF conference room (I will have to ask Markus Kummer if this is possible), and by the fact that alot more information makes it more difficult to pick out useful material.

These then are my tentative conclusions from the Nominet blog watching experience into how to make IGF interaction better, wider, and more useful.

  1. Get the interaction areas up online as soon as possible and allow people to start using them so they can get comfortable with the idea
  2. Encourage free and open use of the system by as many people as possible both inside and out of the main meetings
  3. Make the system as simple as possible
  4. Explain how the interaction will work
  5. Have a team of people watching and working with one another to help flag and fasttrack interesting comments
  6. Try to get agreement for screens in the venue that can be switched to the online interactions when appropriate (this still leaves the issue of making whatever content is important fill the laptop screen so it can be viewed by people a distance away)
  7. Expect for most of the useful interaction online to work in parallel to the actual ongoing meeting rather than within it (and find a way of connecting the two without disrupting either)

I’m sure there are others, but those are my thoughts at the moment. I hope they strike a chord with someone out there.

  1. Other potential reasons for such low levels of interaction:

    * Do the search tools you are relying on pick up relevant blog posts quickly enough for a real-time response?

    * Does anyone in the blogsophere think these meetings are anything other than an enormous emission of hot air?

  2. That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, though. The fact that nobody is taking the IGF process seriously – probably because they don’t feel threatened by it, as they do by ICANN – is what will relegate the IGF to the status of a talk shop. It has the potential to be more than that, but only if enough ordinary Internet users (that’s you) participate in it.

  3. Well, I use Technorati, Google Blog Search and Delicious, expecting people to tag posts with “igf” or “intgovforum”, but also I have the igf2006.info/blog where comments can be posted.

    That should produce pretty good coverage of what’s going on out there, but I’m open to other suggestions.

    I’m not sure I understand this “hot air” idea. It’s not as if there are other bodies even discussing these vital Net matters in any useful way. The IGF is exactly what people have been saying would be really good to have for years. Governments, business and civil society all in one room discussing how to tackle these issues. What more do people actually want?

    I suspect it is just plain old inertia. The Net loves moaning and complaining but its much-heralded collaboration abilities a la Wikipedia and open-source software are very difficult to tap. I’m trying to figure out how best to do it.


  4. To be honest, I wasn’t aware of this meeting (app art from vaguely that it might happen) until the day of it when you posted here. If you’d given some warning a few days before I’d have made a point of being around to “take part”.

    To get this really going you need to encourage people through more than “just another blog”. Start a site dedicated to the IGF, explain why your average Joe cares about the IGF – explain how they can take part. Currently the average user has no idea what the IGF is or how it affects them. You need a “grassroots” website (along the lines of ‘spreadfirefox.com’ perhaps) to encourage people.

    There’s loads of potential, its just the IGF seems so “away” from the real Internet – your average YouTube viewer has no idea about. Perhaps you don’t want them to know about it? Is it relevant to them?

  5. I agree with every word and it’s already in action. Assuming, that is, I have time amid some obscene amount of work I have at the moment.

    Interesting you should mention “spread Firefox” – we’re building on the same system – Drupal – that SpreadFirefox.com uses.

    Will you offer editorial tips Ed? I strongly suspect I know too much about the IGF and these assorted issues to give a proper easy-to-understand entry point for the majority of people out there who have better things to do with their lives.


  6. It would help if you used date/time rather than “There is a big meeting on the future of the Internet in London tomorrow … As such, I need your help.” Your blog doesn’t have a date stamp and this + “tomorrow” doesn’t help much for people not in your time zone/reading as soon as you post, etc.

    Remote access meetings need reminders, they don’t stick in the memory the way knowing you’ve to move from your chair,to a train/bus/bike/plane and to some other physical space. Don’t be scared to hammer likely lists with news and reminders. And Nominet’s 10AM start might be 5PM for me. For Athens think about timeanddate.com

    Athens remote access: Start planning now. Work out what resources you have (governance/net policy lists, members of the IGF advisory group — we’ll help… honest). Start hitting mailing lists now. Work with some of the other bloggers in this space.

    And thanks for doing it — I apologize if this sounds critical, volunteering to do stuff and then taking negative stuff for it is a pain.

  7. I’d certainly be happy to help, Kieren. I think you’re going to have a hard time pushing off the image of the IGF being a “talking shop” that gets nothing done. People are just so unaware that anything goes on behind the internet – its not like people caring how their street is cleaned, or country is run. People are pretty much happy with the status quo.

    Feel free to email me ed (at) opencoding (dot) net.

  8. That’s true re: dates and times. I wasn’t expecting to pick up many people through this blog and stuck the time etc all over The Reg story, but still, yes, good point.

    I’m trying to get people help build the site at http://igf2006.info/cms/. I want to get it a bit more useful before I mass email though. That said, if you could supply a list of URLs/mailing lists etc, that would be very useful. I am still finding new sites covering the issue.

    Nah, I don’t mind criticism. I dish enough of it out. Any help you can give, people you can inform etc etc, gratefully received.


  9. Okay, ta Ed.

    One of my FAQ questions will be: “Isn’t this just a talking shop?”

    Let’s see what I come up with.


  10. So, what is it the IGF is actually setting out to achieve, and how will that affect your average user?

  11. I don’t think blogs are the right way to get input into a short two hours session, even if they are great ways to review things afterwards.

    If you want instant input you need to webcast the meeting (and that means linking the live webcast from the agenda, which should be well publicised) and have a jabber or irc or webchat system for getting comments and questions from remote participants.

    The RIRs have been doing this for their open policy meetings for a couple of years, and it seems fairly successful, with a couple of questions from remote participants in most working group sessions.

Comments are closed.