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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Very few people knew the meeting was going ahead (The Reg and Boing Boing stories appeared only hours before the actual meeting started)
- Most of those who knew about it before then were in the room
- Very few in the room had laptops and so could not interact online (I counted three people)
- 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).
- 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.
- 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
- Encourage free and open use of the system by as many people as possible both inside and out of the main meetings
- Make the system as simple as possible
- Explain how the interaction will work
- Have a team of people watching and working with one another to help flag and fasttrack interesting comments
- 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)
- 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.