Gail Ann Williams Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange

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February 27, 2007

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Gail Ann Williams Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange

  1. 1. Site Search Gail Ann Williams Interview moderated by Paul DiPerna Paul DiPerna: Gail.. Before you began your work with The WELL, you had a wide variety of experiences with alternative arts organizations. What were home your experiences like with the Plutonium Players and the show "Ladies introduction Against Women"? themes Gail Ann Williams: interviews index What an interesting question, Paul. When I got out of college the anti-nuclear subscribe to email updates movement was a rising tide of exciting, decentralized collaborative projects. It was clear that energy policy was driving political, Williams' Bio environmental and survival choices. RSS for interviews However, at that time the greenhouse effect seemed easier to avoid than nuclear disasters. We were opposing rampant nuclear proliferation, dirty bombs and environmental contamination stemming Paul's bio and projects from radioactive waste storage or live nuclear power plant accidents. Paul's email While I'd studied environmental sciences at Berkeley, the challenge which attracted me was creating pointed and informative comedy about energy choices. My plan was that I'd research and help edit comments policy scripts for a little all-volunteer troupe for fun, and support myself with privacy policy bartending, waiting tables and other work. However, I was soon drafted to perform for a crowd of several thousand at a rally to oppose a coastal nuclear power plant being built next to an earthquake fault. The laughter of that crowd was the most addictive substance on the planet. After that, my then-boyfriend and I dropped everything to build the troupe into a viable touring organization and, for about a decade, an arts career. Two years later Reagan was elected, and the neo-cons came into power for the first time. We found that crowd both terrifying and hilarious. It was natural for the women in the company to want to portray anti-feminists such as Nancy Reagan and Phyllis Schlafly, and soon those skits and segments were the most popular thing we did in our shows. During the early 1980s we started to organize "chapters" of Reagan for Shah (a dictator who then was the strongman of Iran) and of Ladies Against Women. These were two of the fictitious organizations our fictional right wing characters belonged to, and people asked us how to "join." I used my first little second-hand Mac to desktop-publish "kits" of instructions for doing ladylike satirical rallies or parades. We snail-mailed those kits around the country to activists who asked for them. Pretty soon we had a vast and peculiar network in place, doing sassy political things in frilly aprons. Our small core of performers toured and got generally great reviews, while thousands of people we didn't know portrayed members of the movement intermittently on street corners, in parades or at other informal events. What were we like? An odd combination created by adding thrift- store costuming to a Firesign Theater-like appreciation for puns, plus a generous dose of political comedy sometimes based on intensive library research, sometimes on off the cuff headline improvization, all topped of with a dash of wannabe early Saturday Night Live silliness. We did not want to actually pass for conservatives, nor to punk or amuse them, frankly. We intentionally had a much broader style than
  2. 2. Stephen Colbert, for example. And, unintentionally, a much smaller non-televised audience. So it goes. It was a hell of a run. Paul DiPerna: How did those experiences influence your later work with online communities? Gail Ann Williams: Oddly enough, when I first saw online conversations on The WELL in 1990, my first reaction was "what a stage for improvisation!" I'd left full time performing, and there was a certain kind of collaborative inspiration that was now missing from my life. Seeing the word-play in the Words conference at The WELL or the mind-play in the Weird conference was like a jolt of an old drug I'd weaned myself off of. Ironically, I found that staying in character as "Virginia Cholesterol" of Ladies Against Women did not work online, perhaps in part because the silly costume and room full of people chuckling because of being in on the joke together was missing. I had to shift into a sort of truth- serum reality to become part of the online social space. That was odd, considering that it was the idea of overt humorous role-playing that first called to me. Of course, people take on roles at unconscious levels too, and sometimes people have no way of telling the truth even if they want to be forthcoming, so it's useful keeping the idea of a constructed persona in mind even when not engaging in political clowning or other performances. In addition, I'd been in that satire collective for years, with messy group process and crypto-hierarchies and all kinds of emergent anarchic qualities. I liked the idea of the free-form social environment online, but I was not naive about how everything would suddenly be democratized due to access. This helped with persepective. I think the management and legal education I had in the course of booking performances and running a theater group was essential too. The combination of a need for quality and reputation (aka brand building, or attention building) to earn our livings and keep touring, and our desire to be decentralized, open and widely distributed was the same kind of conflict that people and companies face around electronic distribution of intellectual property now.  And in the  distribution of mutating memes. Paul DiPerna: What does satire mean to you? Gail Ann Williams: I like analogies, irreverence, reversals as a thought exercise. I'm far less comfortable with ridicule of peers or less powerful people, which is something entirely different, and sometimes deeply painful. So perhaps I have become hypercritical of satire and of mockery over time. My standards for myself have gotten tougher, and I don't do much in that direction these days. I think the intention behind humor is incredibly important, but the way ridicule is received is not an externality, so to speak. In fact, it can bring group and individual emotional repercussions. I've gotten more appreciative of garden variety mercy, and less appreciative of garden variety put-downs of individuals. Funny, since I always expected to become more crotchety and sharp-tongued, not mellower and more empathetic. Of course, there's still plenty of time for my tough old broad era, but it's amusing that I'm probably kinder now than before doing satire. Paul DiPerna:
  3. 3. Paul DiPerna: You've spoken in front of a number of groups on online community management issues. What was one of your more memorable speaking engagements? Gail Ann Williams: The most dramatic had to be at something called VirComm, a trade show for the Virtual Community sector which ran for a few years starting in about 1998. I was booked in tandem with Maria Wilhelm, my boss at the time, to present in the lunch keynote slot at a conference in Florida. We worked on an outline, and on coordinating the presentation so two people could give it. Shortly before the event, Maria's uncle, a former mayor of San Francisco, died. She had to cancel for the funeral, so I went off to do the presentation myself. Should have been easier that way, since so far it was unsettling and sad, but the presentation would be fine. We'd built a powerpoint presentation on an old Mac laptop, and I took it and flew overnight cross country into some massive storm, going over the slides until the battery ran down. I was ready, despite the lack of sleep. At dawn, in driving rain, the pilot announced he could not put the plane down at Orlando, and we'd be going to Miami... where I suspected I'd be calling to say there'd be no way I could get upstate for a lunch speech. However, we flew south for fifteen minutes or so, then turned back and got in through ridiculous turbulence. I got to the event on time, and listened to morning presentations. At lunch I went to set up my presentation and discovered that I didn't have the cable needed to output from that model of Mac to the projector in use. Oh, the pre- USB days! We made an announcement asking to borrow a cord, and nobody had the right one for my laptop. So now I got to stand up and tell people that Maria was not there and I had no slides to keep me on track, but I'd give it a go. It was fine, though I don't have any idea what I talked about. When I got home I hand html-ized the outline for the presentation, which is still up here. It probably has no bearing on what was said. Fortunately the talk was warmly received and I met some interesting people there. But yes, it was memorable! Even longer ago, the chance to talk to some IEEE engineers in 1994 and to listen to some of their papers may have been more inspirational to me, personally. They were talking about video on demand models, I was talking about social dynamics such as the problematic idea of an editor as an online assassin in a universe where you are what you write... I didn't know my audience, but I got a lot out of it, and strangely enough some of them connected with my comments. I'm fond of panels, round tables and some unconference formats. Speaking and exchange and taking questions is like team sport learning for the presenters. I like it. Paul DiPerna: Me too :) Following up on the social dynamics of online communities.. What are some of the behaviors, demonstrated by managers or regular members, that are detrimental to sustaining community? Gail Ann Williams: Intentionally cheating, harming or harassing people is bad, but so rare. More common is implying you are present but not having enough attention to give. This is ironic for community professionals in that it makes it very hard to tour and survey a lot of social sites. Being a tourist downgrades the overall quality since when you divert attention you are likely to dilute other people's social experiences. You're not making an investment in the network, so you're not worthy of an investment. You're diverting attention from making community by
  4. 4. virtue of not being involved. It's why watching changes the social scenes in ways the observer can't observe. The Heisenbergs on Vacation principle. The irony is that without these trials and drive-by posts, newcomers can't get hooked, so a community has to deal with that diluted attention as best it can. Paul DiPerna: Have you found offline analogies useful when explaining online community activities to non-technical folks? Gail Ann Williams: Describing new modes of many-to-many interaction requires some kind of mental model. I recently stumbled on an old USENET FAQ that talks about the "rooms" analogy for newsgroups, and has some good historic comment on flaming and trolling too. My grandparents were alive when I started working in this field. They knew about camping with groups and expeditions, so I said it was like sitting around a campfire with interesting people talking in the dark, except that you could hop to different campfires to avoid missing the subject matter or people you cared about. I doubt that helped them, but it cheered me up, sounding so ancient and familiar. Paul DiPerna: You have been deeply involved with The WELL for more than 15 years now. How has this online community evolved over the years? Gail Ann Williams: It was such a novelty, as well as being such a cool group of participants at first. What a jolt of optimism that brought. Then there was a growth period where the WELL was an ISP. After that service was spun off, and we got rid of our modems to become purely a destination on the Web, the overall numbers dropped and private conferences for smaller groups within The WELL got more popular. Now we're seeing more people in their 20s show up, and a new wave of creativity is coming through. It's exciting. The main thing The WELL has going for it is that we are "The main thing not anonymous, we all know The WELL has who we are talking to. And we have a collective style of going for it is that writerly voices. We teach each we are not other how to make posts feel anonymous, like a transcript of talking in a group in a real space. That we all know who local style is a huge part of we are talking what makes a text-based conversation space so rich in to.." connections. The software is very simple, the people get more and more complex. Paul DiPerna: Do you participate in online groups like those offered by Google, MSN, and Yahoo! ? (Google Groups moved out of Beta a few weeks ago.. ) Gail Ann Williams: I'm pretty overcommitted with work plus social time on The WELL, on top of some reading of Salon Table Talk and Salon Letters to the Editors.  For a hobby, I try to limit my deeply satisfying Flickr addiction,  where images add to or anchor rich social dialog. I spend enough time there to note fascinating social dynamics evolving, but it's not work, and I like taking pictures, too. I look at other platforms from time to time, mostly while using them
  5. 5. for short term projects, but definitely while in tourist mode rather than immersed in community context. Paul DiPerna: How do you see the long term prospects for Flickr? I browse the site periodically and view friends' photos on there, but do not have an account. Does Flickr have a significant added value over online photo album "centers" (for lack of a better word) like a Snapfish, York Photo, or Kodak Gallery? Gail Ann Williams: Yes. My interests in a "photo sharing" site are not just in getting a snapshot to someone I already know. That's valuable, but the interesting thing about Flickr is that all kinds of social networking tools and gaming smarts are built in. You can meet people. You make photographers your contacts, and see the thumbnails of their newest images come up. You can set up groups, to make some images private, or to create an open collaboration or a game, based on themes ranging from dogs to protests to abstracts to guess-where riddles, to self-portraits. Some keep a photo diary with comments while others just host images, send them to a blog, and blog there. People can use the API to invent tools and mashups that are the basis of more group interactions or games. They have tagging, and RSS feeds all over to help get your pictures seen. And brilliantly, there are popularity features, but they are somewhat randomized, so that there is seldom much spammy behavior to try to get views and ranking. Oddly enough, I think the interface could be even better for visual networking, but the scene there is so good I no longer care. If the integration with Yahoo!, who owns them now, doesn't scare my closest pals off, then Flickr has me for the foreseeable future, along with a lot of people who use photos in a lot of creative ways. Paul DiPerna: If you could draw up a list of words or phrases as an easy reminder for online community managers and moderators to keep in mind while doing their work, what would they be? Gail Ann Williams: Moderators l Use humor if you can wield it lightly. l Read twice and have a cup of tea before responding to angry posts. l Encourage new voices even when the cosy quality of the old voices seems like the best things going. l Don't let all your interactions become "about" you as moderator. Managers l Cultivate passionate interest in the technical and business sides as well as the social and sociological. l Visit other sites for a short intense immersion rather than just looking at the surface to get a feel for cultures and tool-sets. l Find a corner of your site where you can be a full and enthused participant with your true name, talking about a hobby or interest unrelated to your management role. Paul DiPerna: Have you been on Second Life? If so, what do you see as the positives and negatives for virtual reality sites like SL? Gail Ann Williams: The big negative, from my perspective, is that you need a pretty beefy box to be able to play fluidly there. It's a fascinating collaborative creation!
  6. 6. I think some of us are people of the word, or as someone once said to me, note-passers. Others prefer that marionette-like avatar interaction. Each kind of exchange can transcend the medium and be intensely communicative. I also prefer forum or comment interactions to text chatting, so the asynchronous participation versus real-time back and forth is another factor that keeps me from really becoming a Second Lifer. It's largely a matter of style. To me, the writerly voices of members of The WELL can be vastly more expressive, and SL is a cool rather than a hot medium for that reason, but I know others feel differently. Paul DiPerna: What projects/challenges lay ahead for you in 2007? Gail Ann Williams: We're looking at launching a project to do major software enhancements for The WELL. I can't wait. I long to be in an environment where we can add, improve and fix more fluidly, and I hope we'll soon undertake the significant development project to make that happen. If not, perhaps our more talented users will collaborate on an open source alternative that gives the specific tools WELL people love and let us add others they don't have so far. It's fascinating to watch that initiative to see whether that will bear fruit, too. I have a hunger to be able to be more nimble making simple innovations and trying things. On the marketing and outreach front we are working on some collaborations with fellow businesses and nonprofits who serve people who really should be here. I'm looking at offering membership as a premium gift for those who donate to certain organizations. We're open to suggestions. There will also probably be a general public trial program in April with a few months of either free or $2 set-up time, something we rarely do. (I can make a special link for your readers if you like, once we set it up.) Our regulars will be looking out for interesting new voices and fun people who join the conversation. We'll do some staff-produced face to face events in our local area, and the members of The WELL will do hundreds of little projects and gatherings all over the place, most of which I'll never hear about. While most of the best stuff is on the inside, our world-readable Inkwell author interview and conversation series will continue to present some terrific book writers. Authors and book lovers are invited to let us know if you have any requests for guests there. The WELL's such an enigma in so many ways. All anyone can say for sure is that it is a cherished destination, and it will continue to evolve and surprise. You have to be yourself. Funny what a difference that makes. Thanks for inviting me to take part, and for letting me blab at length, Paul. I appreciate your project. Paul DiPerna: Gail, thank you.. for sharing your time, experiences, and abundant insight. February 27, 2007 Comments (3) Great interview, Paul. Thanks. Dan Bassill | March 11, 2007 at 1:36 PM This is a nice initiative, carry on. Please visit our site http://www.nyakachorphans.org , and may you help us with publicity by puttting these comments on your blog here.
  7. 7. James Omolo | March 12, 2007 at 6:52 AM Dan and James, Thank you both for your comments here. They are definitely appreciated. You are running wonderful initiatives where each of you live. Understanding your local entrepreneurial perspectives are critical to improving the implementation of communications technologies for the good of community. Paul DiPerna | March 15, 2007 at 12:33 PM home | interviews index | Join the email list | RSS for interviews | Paul's email Blau Exchange, est. 2006 | Blau Exchange, All Rights Reserved 2006-2008 site design by gralmy

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