TODAY: She’s Lisa Kimball, but she was known as Lisa Carlson. Without her help, I would never have gotten credentialed to cover the Democratic and Republican Conventions in 1984 — becoming, with Sherwin Levinson and Diane Worthington the first journalists in history to do so interactively, online. Without Lisa’s help, I would never had a Congressman endorsing the book I wrote online as a series of interviews and later published in hard-copy (“CHRONICLE: The Human Side of AIDS”.) More important, without Lisa’s magnetism, charisma, energy and savvy, I — and many others — would surely not have become as immersed so enthusiastically and productively in the creation of “social media” way back when.
SHE helped create today’s communications, as a true “online pioneer.” I’ll always be grateful to her, and I’ll always love her. – Mike
Looking back, I think I was always a networker at heart. I was the kid who wrote the neighborhood newsletter on a manual typewriter with some carbon paper. My friends and I always had little clubs and societies, organized to do something or other in the community.
Later, as I began to work, I created brown bag lunch groups and book discussions and learning communities by various names. I was introduced to the Internet by the late Frank Burns, a visionary who discovered the power of computer conferencing in the late ’70s while supporting a think tank called Delta Force in the US Army.
In 1983 Frank started The Meta Network (tmn.com) and showed it to me on the itty bitty screen of a Kaypro portable computer (in those days, a dead-weight portable like a sewing machine.) I was hooked immediately. I understood intuitively that there were PEOPLE connecting out there in spite of the clunky technology that required command-driven log-ins, acoustic couplers, and noisy (and very expensive) dial-up access.
We made ample use of imaginative metaphors as we pictured ourselves sitting at round dinner tables, in hot tubs, and around campfires talking philosophy … or enacting role-plays … or discovering how things look to folks from other parts of the world.
I was fascinated thinking about how stuff I knew about facilitating conversation and group process – making newcomers feel welcome, encouraging people to share authentically and respectfully — applied in this new universe, too. I’m still learning!
Now that I was introduced to the idea of people networking “virtually” – from their own locations and time zones – I actively began to explore. There was so much I wanted to discover and understand:
* the various contributions of those who happened to be participants
* the structure of particular software programs
* the topics and interests under discussion
* the stated purpose of the hosts
* the established norms, formal or informal facilitation
* and, really, anything else I could identify that seemed to lead to productive and focused dialogue among participants
I traveled among MetaNet and EIES, The Source (Parti), CompuServe, and The Well, and others. Along the way, I collected a network of fellow travelers.
We were like a band of early explorers who recognized each other as sharing a common fascination with a newly opened territory. We sat around what felt like electronic campfires (we joked about the CRT glow) sharing stories.
At one point I got the idea that it would be fun to see if I could weave these different groups into a common conversation. I started a discussion conference on EIES called C555 to talk about group process online. Then I started the same discussion on several other networks.
Ultimately, I started cross-fertilizing the conversations by copying material from one conference and uploading it manually to others … then carrying back responses to the origin. This process became known as “porting.” I guess you could say that, for a while, I was operating as a human Internet. And the conversations got pretty juicy!
At the time, there were organizations bringing people together to talk about the technology, itself – standards and that sort of thing. But nobody was talking about the human and social implications of the medium – like what impact might it have on education? On politics? On law? On communities?
One fellow traveler, Susanna Opper, and I decided it was time to invite some members of our online community together to talk about these things and we cooked up the idea of holding a symposium in New York in 1985. We found a loft in Greenwich Village and personally invited about 50 people from across our networks to spend a couple of days together.
That was the weekend the Electronic Networking Association (ENA) was born with the mission to promote electronic networking in ways that enrich individuals, enhance organizations, and build global communities. ENA created an electronic newsletter we called Netweaver, supported by a self-organized band of porters using the system I’d figured out for our original discussion conference.
We lost track of all the places where our newsletter was published as a result of the porting … on hundreds–maybe even thousands– of networks big and small, local bulletin boards, and major commercial hosts. We held face-to-face conferences in Pennsylvania, Washington, DC, and California.
I like to think that we had a significant influence by bringing the social dimension of the medium to the attention of journalists and developers as well as the online community. Part of the vision of the ENA was to have a kind of sunset clause: so as the industry evolved and other organizations took up different aspects of our mission (the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Association for Community Networking, Distance Education Association, and others), we could declare victory, disband, and follow our individual interests.
One of the things that has amused me in recent years is that the whole online communications medium has gone through an arc of development. In the early days when the technology was crude, the ONLY thing it could be about was connecting people with other people. There were no dancing icons or entertaining videos. You couldn’t do ecommerce and other transactions. You couldn’t share documents and other ‘knowledge’ products easily because the transmission rate (bandwidth) was small.
As the technology got “better,” everyone became entranced with its higher functionality. But the feeling of community got lost on most systems where exchanging Q’s and A’s (in the weird backward sequence that accountants call “LIFO” – “Last In, First Out”) substituted for conversation. That meant newcomers would discover the most recent postings first … without much context to orient them to the already-established conversational thread.
In recent years, everyone has noticed that the highest-value application has something to do with the “social” quality of media. Duh!! I think we knew that in 1983. 🙂
Now … after more than 30 years of networking online, I’m no less enthralled by the possibility of staying connected with friends and colleagues from all over the world just by tapping on my keyboard.
Just today I Skype’d with a friend in South Africa, sent my travel details to a colleague I’m collaborating with in England, and responded to another friend (one of the original ENA’ers) who is coming to stay at my house while visiting from Japan next month. While the technology offers a lot more bandwidth and multimedia these days, the basic capacity to maintain relationships across time and space is still what it’s all about for me.
Frank Burns got me up and running on the internet when I had an IBM PC with a couple of disk drives and no modem. Because no one in DC had a 128-baud modem and more RAM so I could get online, I had to go to New York. Frank took my computer apart and installed it for me.
Delta Force used one of the earliest online platforms called Confer II (developed by Robert Parnes at University of Michigan). Its mission was to scan innovations – from Japanese management techniques to neuro-linguistic programming to new technology. Of all the things they explored, Frank thought that computer conferencing had the greatest potential to empower people to transform the world in positive ways by sharing their ideas and collaborating with other minds.
When Frank retired from the Army, he started Metasystems Design Group (MDG) to make that technology available outside the Army. He launched the Meta Network online community with the mission of “closing the gap between human potential and the human condition.”
In the years since, MetaNet has changed with technology–moving from mainframe hosts to minicomputers to PCs, and from X-25 networks to dial-up modems to the Internet. Even while evolving, MetaNet continued to follow some principles Frank and others of us came to think of as important to creating a positive community culture … one that supports thoughtful conversations like the use of real names, established community norms, and active facilitation to encourage and enable safe and honest sharing of opinions. Today it is part of my consulting firm, Group Jazz.
And it looks as though, for me, I remain compelled to be a networker for life … only now, my “neighborhood” is the world.
Lisa Kimball, Ph.D. is CEO and Founder, Group Jazz. She is an actionary known for her ability to help organizations tackle complex challenges by changing the conversation about problems and potential solutions. Lisa coaches leaders and executives to build their capacity to engage everyone in their organization in productive and creative problem-solving.
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