I remember the giddiness I felt when I first read Venessa Miemis’s (@VenessaMiemis) grand proposal. The basic concept is this: create a platform where people can publicly discuss and experiment with ideas, hash out solutions to all kinds of problems, and learn from one another. With video support, text chat, and a Twitter backchannel, people from all over the world can dive in and out of conversations in a similar way that people pop in and out of Twitter’s constant data stream. Think public “ChatRoulette format + Livestream + Twitter Backchannel” with the purpose of building collective intelligence.
Vanessa builds on an idea initiated by Benjamin Franklin and applies it to our internet-enabled Network Society.
Originally, “The Junto was a club established in 1727 by Benjamin Franklin for mutual improvement. Its purpose was to debate questions of morals, politics, and natural philosophy, and to exchange knowledge of business affairs.” [wikipedia]
A big part of her application is a Chatroulette style video interface. Now before reading Vanessa’s post, I’d never heard of Chatroulette. But Venessa peaked my interest and after reading dana boyd’s perspective on it, I finally decided to give it a whirl. The chance to be randomly paired with strangers from anywhere in the world was definitely exciting. Chatroulette has also sparked some amazing examples of why I love the internet: creative expression and unexpected connections. But while I had some interesting encounters, overall I found the quality of the conversations disappointing. Perhaps that’s because while I was looking to engage in ideas and mindshare, many of the people trolling Chatroulette are looking for sex. In formulating the ideas behind Junto, Vanessa modifies the Chatroulette model asking,
In addition to discussing big ideas, Venessa suggests that we make the process of idea exchange public:
In the last post, I mentioned a few ways we can kickstart our personal thinking process – through building networks, self-reflection, and rewiring the brain.
I think the next step is through dialogue – bouncing ideas off each other, practicing the act of listening to each other’s perspectives, gaining insights from our different viewpoints, and learning how to communicate.
I know that many great ideas and insights come from those one-on-one interactions that often go late into the night, discussing all those things that really make up the stuff of life.
Now, for the sake of all of us moving forward as people – what if we engaged in these types of chats publicly?
The spoken word has a different impact on consciousness than the written word. When we’re reading text from a book or from a screen, it’s one-way information. We can’t ask it to clarify itself, can’t ask it if it could give us an example, and it won’t let us ask it how its view differs from ours. [emphasis hers]
The result? “People talks” (as opposed to TED talks) that have “the potential to spur on an explosion of intelligence and innovation.” I’d also add the potential for robust communities to emerge organized around different kinds of thought exchange.
So potentially, if this thing would take off, there could be interesting public dialogues discussing important ideas that matter for all of us, all over the world, all of the time. 24/7. It could take the mysticism out of TED talks, by just creating People talks.
It would become like a video-based version of Twitter, where you could tap into the thoughtstream of the planet. And the voicestream. [emphasis hers]
Idea Exchange in Action
The announcement of Junto’s birth flew by my tweetstream. I read Venessa’s post, and then gleefully clicked on Junto’s latest prototype http://dave.parsons.edu/junto/. (Venessa humorously refers to it as version “0.01″.) There were two people participating, but one was just leaving. Cole Tucker (@cole_tucker), the lone person remaining, welcomed me in the chat box. With help from Cole and some fiddling around on my part, I finally got video to work (I could see him, but he couldn’t see me). Within about a minute, we learned that we were both passionate about collaboration, technology, innovation, openness, ideas!
We discussed how we each found out about Junto and that lead Cole to tell me about some interesting projects and people. These included:
- Mark Pesce (@mpesce), a virtual reality pioneer and co-creator of VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) who writes and thinks about the future of technology.
- Robert Anton Wilson, an influential American author.
- ShareThisCourse.org, a self described “experiment in creative collaboration” whereby people are “working together to understand how the sharing technologies and culture of the early 21st century can be applied to the specific task of creating a book which talks about this new world of shared culture, knowledge and power, a book titled Share This Book.”
In turn, I told Cole about:
- Social media scholar, dana boyd (@zephoria), who gave the keynote at SXSW this year on privacy and publicity.
- Two media critics, Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) and Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu), both of whom are thought leaders on open source journalism. (Cole already knew about Clay Shirky.)
- Beth Simone Noveck, and her Modest Proposal.
- Marshall Kirkpatrick (@marshallk) co-editor of ReadWriteWeb.com and one of my favorite tech journalists.
At one point Cole asked me what I thought about how Junto could work. (Junto is, of course, in a very nascent stage. And because it’s a collaborative project, users still have the capacity to shape its development). One of my concerns, I told him, was around privacy, and I relayed some ideas that had been percolating since yesterday.
Yesterday, I was lucky enough to attend TEDx Seattle and hear award-winning scifi writer, Greg Bear‘s take on privacy (excellent live blogging coverage of his talk by Kathy Gill here and Sarah Davies here). Bear echoed many of the ideas I’ve had about privacy in the Information Age (I agree with Sarah that privacy is dead). Many of his points centered on what the long-term impacts of judging and being judged will be on our society. As Kathy writes of Bear’s talk:
“All of us are neural nodes” in a massive and “vast social brain.” What does it mean to live in a world where finding a moment of private time — for nefarious or honorable reasons — becomes nearly impossible?
We don’t know, Bear asserted. “We must understand that we cannot predict the ultimate social response to technology.” In part, that is because society changes over time.
“Who is watching whom? Do you trust yourself to judge someone else? It’s like Carrie over-and-over again: we all get covered with the pig’s blood of technology.”
Now, Bear wasn’t simply restating the meme that “in the future no one will be able to be president.” In other words, with the advent of the social web, too many skeletons will be unearthed. His point goes much deeper. What does the threat of being constantly judged, of our ever present surveillance of one another do to our to our ability to think? Our ability to really stretch our minds? To risk? To make big mistakes? And to have the courage to keep making mistakes over and over again — publicly? This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. My best guess is that this non-privacy and the social controls that come with it — public humiliation (or simply the fear of it) being one form of social control – may profoundly limit our collective ability to think BIG. And to dream up ideas that make us sound crazy. Yet, it’s precisely the “crazy ideas” that have created scientific and social breakthroughs.
One of my criticisms of Bear’s talk was that it sounded, at least the way I heard it, like he was saying that we shouldn’t have these kinds of privacy-killing technologies. I don’t think that’s possible. We won’t, nay, can’t stop technology’s progress in this area. What we can do is shape the kind of cultural norms around how we use and interact with technology and each other.
So with these thoughts about privacy in mind, I talked with Cole about my specific concerns relating to Junto. That is: a permanent video and text record of conversations coupled with people (hopefully) taking risks, experimenting and pushing their minds to the bleeding edges of where they can think, might lead to unintended consequences. For instance, most definitely it will lead to people making mistakes. That’s a good thing! But how forgiving will the Junto community be of mistake makers? And maybe more importantly, how will others outside the Junto community look at and judge people without the proper context in which the mistake was made? It doesn’t even necessarily need to be a “mistake,” just perceived as one. How will people be judged years into the future?
Cole said that if the mistake wasn’t vicious or intentional, the Junto community would be forgiving. I countered that there are plenty of well-meaning white people who make unintentional, racist mistakes. Ones that, while not done on purpose, end up hurting people of color nonetheless. Lambasting a white person in a situation like this, doesn’t seem like it will move anything forward. Firmly and lovingly interrupting racism will curtail the oppression while affirming the essential humanness of everyone.
I don’t have the answers, and truthfully, I’m much, much, much more excited about the possibilities of Junto than I am worried about it. One idea I did share with Cole was that as a community, we need to make sure there is space for people to make mistakes. That can be easier said than done. Often, when someone mistakes a mistake, we want to distance ourselves from that person. We need to be willing to defend a person’s right to make mistakes and not be judged harshly for them. Obviously, malicious oppressive behavior shouldn’t be tolerated.
In discussing Junto, another issue I bounced off Cole was in how to capture the important insights. Said another way: how do we extract the signal from the noise? I told Cole that it can sometimes take an hour or more when discussing an idea with friends before an AHAH! moment emerges. So how do we make sure we capture these juicy nuggets and not waste our time on the other stuff?
Some folks have thrown out the idea of transcribing conversations, creating mind maps, and other kinds of work that reflects back on the conversations that have already happened. Reflective work is vital. We need a way of tracking, managing, making sense of, and distributing new knowledge. But one of the things that I weighed aloud with Cole was how to balance the reflective work that needs to happen versus engaging in more conversations and thus creating more content that needs to be “reflected upon.” Tricky, but doable.
Cole offered a possible solution that’s been circulating around. Assign meanings to arbitrary key symbols. When something worth capturing gets uttered, type that symbol so it’s easy to search and find later. Brilliant!
Originally Vanessa proposed having only two people engage in a conversation on Junto. Others could listen in and participate in the Twitter backchannel, but it would primarily be a conversation between two people. A number of commenters wanted to have more than two, but I actually agreed with Vanessa. Quality is important in what we’re trying to accomplish and when everyone’s talking at once, not much value is added. Or at least not as much as what’s possible.
After talking with Cole, I changed my mind. I think having more than two conversationalists might work just fine. But there’s a catch. There has to be well understood and agreed upon guidelines on how such a conversation would work in practice. The complexity rises in how to manage the conversation with each additional person, but I no longer think it necessarily has to be “just two.”
When Vanessa first proposed Junto, there was an idea in my mind that there would be two talkers and a great big flock of people listening and contributing to the conversation via the Twitter backchannel. While this kind of exchange could certainly be organized on Twitter with not very much advance notice, my guess is that the great majority of the time, there will be 2-5 people engaging in a conversation. While originally created by humanity-loving, technophiles interested in increasing intelligence, it will attract all kinds of people with divergent interests. From people interested in music, film, cars, cycling to various sports, literature, comic books, political theory — you name it! It will be interesting seeing how it is used and changed from Junto creators’s original vision.
I can’t wait to play with Junto again! Meeting and talking with Cole was a rewarding and fun experience. A user by the name of @notthisbody, popped in just wanting to listen to our conversation. I enjoyed having his “listening” participation.
Where will this lead us? I’m excited to find out!
Thank you, Vanessa, for constantly pushing the limits of your mind. Looking forward to seeing where your latest idea will take us!