Modes of participation:
Reflecting on a community conversation

John D. Smith

Thinking about participation: When we are in a conversation, we are participating in different groups and in different ways all at the same time. Handling all those differences can be easier if we stop to separate some of the different aspects that are all mixed up in daily life.  The following is a portrayal of a conversation among a group of people who are discussing how to use e-mail lists to increase participation in learning events that they are sponsoring in a medium-sized high-technology company.

Format: The following conversation is presented in a format that is borrowed from a learning history. The right hand column is drawn from the minutes of the meeting, while the left hand column suggests questions for discussion.

November 5th meeting of CoPoCoP:  There were seven people at this meeting of a community of community builders (called CoPoCoP). The main characters are Ruth, who spent a lot of time several months ago creating a public e-mail distribution list for the company's software community, and Kerry, who was thinking of creating a similar one for another community. The meeting notes from that date cover several other topics before and after the conversation about e-mail distribution lists.
What can spark community when you don't run into people in the hallway? Notes: "Ruth brought up the question of how to set up an e-mail distribution list.  She and Kerry had deferred a conversation they had started in a hallway conversation about setting one up [for the community that Kerry is trying to set up] until today's CoPoCoP meeting so that all of us could participate in the discussion."
Kerry is hoping that the article will bring some new ideas into her community.  What factors would make that hope realistic? Notes: "Kerry's original question was 'what do I have to do to send out an electronic copy of an article from Fortune magazine to a bunch of people?'  As we discussed her problem, questions of why, how, when, etc., etc., etc. also began to emerge.  We agreed that an e-mail list may be necessary for a community to stay in touch, but it's not sufficient."
What effect would Ruth's strategy of announcing seminars to "everyone" have on the community's awareness of itself?  Does a community's senes of identity have anything to do with competence? Ruth: "Before I started working on the big e-mail list I use for the software seminar series, everybody assumed that there was no reason to send e-mail to the people who developed and maintained software, who worked with both modern and ancient languages, who worked with software running on our products and on other company's products -- whether the software was given away for free with our products or was sold separately.  I wanted a list so I could send e-mails that would reach everybody who worked on the company's software no matter where they were in the entire company."
If you were trying to identify "lost members" of your community, what knowledge about the world you use? Ruth: "It was a huge clerical job to create the company software list in the first place, involving tracking names and groups down in the e-mail / phone directory, using all kinds of different information sources, and using clues like the names of software products to find groups of people who wrote or maintained software.  (By the way, the corporate policies and procedures manual on the company Intranet is the most reliable and current information about who manages which groups, and figuring that out is important so that the e-mail list could include people who work with software and their bosses.)"

A short discussion about some of the technical details of setting up and using e-mail distribution lists isn't included here. The conversation then turns to some of the social issues surrounding e-mail distribution lists.
It turned out that the software community was unanimous in its disapproval of junk e-mail and was very careful to avoid breaking a code of honor about sending out unwanted e-mail.  Why would adjacent communities have (or appear to have) different norms? Ruth: "Because I was concerned that the list not get a reputation as a junk list, at first I turned the 'monitor' option 'on' in Majordomo.  Only specific people could send directly to the list (requiring  me to approve, i.e., 'monitor' list use).  It has turned out that nobody even tried to send mail to the list except Cheri and me, so I have turned the 'monitor' option off.  Recently the list has been use more frequently, but no abuses have occurred."
How would a community as diverse as this company's software community ever come to  use these artifacts in a consistent or uniform way?  Notes: "We talked about how, in the context of supporting a community of practice, a distribution list can and should work with Web pages that provide instructions for using the list, may record past events, may link to other information resources such as an e-mail archive, etc."
Ruth repeatedly reminded everyone that invitations to learning events like the software seminar series can be light-hearted and entertaining, so that people enjoy being invited, even if they don't have the time to participate. Notes: "We talked about what kinds of guidelines apply to the e-mail that we send out to the communities of practice that we support.  What do we know about how humorous or verbose we should be?"
Over the next several months the topic of e-mail distribution lists came up regularly.  Notes from these conversations were organized into a knowledge base addressing e-mail distribution list software, set-up, maintenance, use, and linkage to text repositories, covering both technical and non-technical issues.

Here are some questions for discussion:

Resources about learning histories

© John D. Smith, 1999.