Speaker by Various Artists


Community Modelling with DAS

by Emma Hart 2

Back in January, I had plans for the 22nd of February. My partner and I were ditching the kids and heading to the one-dayer to watch the Black Caps spank England. It was cricket: there was bound to be some kind of spanking.

That was before I got an email from Zita Joyce, of the Aotearoa Digital Arts Network and the Audio Foundation, and long-time PA System lurker. And it wasn't a weird joke: she really did want me to join a panel discussion on Tending Networks and Building Communities, to talk about Bardic Web. At the ADA Symposium. On the 22nd of February. And it didn't seem to be the kind of symposium that was going to provide me with a krater of wine and a well-oiled adolescent. Given that it might well provide me with some handy feedback and tips on running online communities, though, I couldn't say no.

I should point out, rather guiltily, that I couldn't make the second day of the Symposium. Family commitments and knackeredness. But I know there are people reading this right now who were there. They should really pull finger and comment before I just start making stuff up. The symposium is excellently live-blogged here for those who are interested. These are my personal impressions, not a comprehensive round-up.

Keynote speaker the first morning was Adam Hyde, currently of Floss Manuals, previously of BFM, Static TV, the Frequency Clock, and countless other collaborative media projects. Once I got over feeling like I'd entirely wasted my life, I was fascinated by what he had to say about the dynamic between open participation and controlling the quality of content. In terms of Floss Manuals, their end users need to be able to trust the product, but I think there's another dimension to it as well. The higher-quality the content, the more cautious new users are about contributing.

He was also interesting on the curly question of paying for your users' work. The idea that paying someone to do something they were doing voluntarily can actually decrease their motivation is a tricky and seemingly-illogical one.

Then it was on to our panel: me, Zita, and Julian Priest of consume.net, expertly chaired by Caro McGraw, a senior lecturer in Communication Design at Otago Polytech. The idea was to draw together people who ran communities with very different dynamics and degrees of on-line and real-world interconnectedness. When I talk about Bardic Web to any kind of audience, I get a gauge of how clued-up they are by how long it takes for someone to ask me about intellectual property and copyright issues. It was the second question I fielded. We talked about issues of participation thresh-holds, lurker to poster ratios, and the nature of Quake as a bonding tool. Julian was particularly fascinating talking about the way people have come to see bandwidth as a physical commodity, like water, that needs to be purchased from a provider.

One thing that really struck me was that, in my talk, I'd mentioned that we hadn't consciously set out to create an environment that was female-friendly at Bardic Web. For the rest of the day, people came up to me wanting to talk about making communities female-friendly. I'm not sure what was more telling: people wanting to phrase the issue in gender terms, or how uncomfortable I was doing it. To me it's a matter of making communities feel safe for people, which I feel is particularly important for shared artistic endeavours. At some point in the conversation I'd say, 'well, you know Public Address System?', and they would. It made a useful shorthand example of a web community that isn't a bear pit, and then you can talk about the how. (Seeding. Mods. Peer Pressure is Your Friend.)

Still, the girl thing makes an interesting, easy branding exercise, and maybe that's something we should be thinking about at work. 'Bardic Web: Good for Girls!' No, wait a minute, I'm sensing 'dodgy'...

After a quick Vegan lunch and an extended play at the Geekosystem (80s Omni magazines have an astonishing number of cigarette ads) the afternoon was given over to short presentations. These were all varying degrees of great. Stand-outs for me were Aaron and Hannah Beehre, whose Winter Rose I'd seen when they were allowed to commit near-sacrilege and display their work on the Cathedral, and Douglas Bagnall. His Te Tuhi game system turns drawings into video games with a satisfying degree of surrealism.

There's no way I can do justice to all of the stuff I was there for, and certainly not the stuff I wasn't there for. That lack of justice goes double for Young Hae Chang Heavy Industries, who were the keynote on the Sunday.

By the time I staggered out of the foyer on Saturday evening, I was already suffering from information overload-induced exhaustion. When my partner arrived to pick me up, I was standing on the footpath talking about setting up communities for women with Lucy from Felt. His preparedness to sit in the car and wait for ten minutes while I did this was explained when I got in. "Ha," he said, "you just missed the last ball."

It rained at the cricket anyway.

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