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Participant Interaction Messaging

improving the conference process

-- / --

The problem
A simple solution: participant messaging
Organizational requirements
Editorial considerations
Practical hints
Problems of misuse
Improving and maturing the process
Additional options and variants
Origin and case studies
Attitudes towards the messaging process
Concluding learnings

Originally version printed in Transnational Associations, 1980, 1, pp. 27-35 [PDF version]. This version contains additional case studies of computer-enhanced messaging in conferences in the 1990s. For current information on the compterized applications, check the site maintained by Robert Pollard -- including examples under the name Dazibao. 

The problem

#S123: 'A summary without a problem is a bore' (Anon, SGSR, 1979). 
#F026: 'What are the questions that we do not dare to ask at this gathering ?' (Anon, Findhorn, 1979) 

Despite the sophistication of conference organization, there is an increasing sense of malaise (1). Even in well-organized events, something seems to be missing.

There are a variety of symptoms of this, including:

Much of the interest of a conference lies in the unforeseen communication between those present. This is necessarily unplannable and independent of the conference programme. The challenge is to find ways of stimulating and facilitating it.  

#U214: 'We are a beautiful metaphor of the problem we claim to be facing' (Anon, UNEP/INFO TERRA, 1979). 

A simple solution: participant messaging

Many conferences make available a 'message board' for the exchange of messages between participants. This is seldom a high priority concern of the organizers and in its usual form it has little impact on the above problems. But with relatively little funds or personnel, participant interaction messaging can acquire a whole new dimension. This is all that is reouired:

1. Explanation: Inform participants of the availability of this new facility This can be done by verbal announcement, preferably reinforced by a single sheet explanation in each participant's folder or in the printed programme.

2. Message cards : Reinforce the point by inserting some blank file cards or half-sheets of paper in the participant's folder.

3. Use: Invite participants to use the cards to indicate any of the following: - additional issues they would like to discuss:

Note that the organizers can themselves insert messages, queries and announcements. The whole process may even be started several months before the conference.

4. Anonymity: Participants are free to:

5. Message boxes: Messages can then be inserted by participants in 'Participant Interaction Boxes' located at any or all of the following:

Placing a stack of blank half-sheets of paper by the box also encourages participants to use them.

6. Collection: One or more conference staff members must be given responsibility to empty the boxes periodically (once or twice a day, or more frequently).

7. Typing: The messages received are then simply typed one after the other on to a full-size sheet of paper suitable for photocopying (or possibly offset reproduction). Stencils could of course be used. Each message should be given a number (which can also be written on to the original message card) to facilitate reference to it in later messages.

8. Reproduction: When the two sides of a full sheet have been filled with messages, this may be treated as an issue of the Participant Interaction Bulletin. Each issue should be visibly identified by a number (from 1 upwards), but the message numbers within them should not start from 1 within each issue - they should continue from issue to issue to avoid confusion.
Obviously, if there were many messages, several sheets could form one issue of the Bulletin. This involves stapling and collating operations which it may be better to avoid.

9. Translation: In international conferences it is desirable to be able to process messages received in any conference language. There are three possibilities:

The approach adopted will depend on the relative importance of communication in the different languages. Obviously translation increases delay and cost, but it may well ensure vital communication (particularly when interpretation is weak).

10. Wall display: The message cards may either be kept (in case of queries) or else stuck on a convenient wall, possibly where coffee is served. It is useful to display all issues of the Bulletin on the same wall in order to familiarise participants with the facility it offers.

Some may argue that it is sufficient to display the individual messages and a waste of resources to type them. Or if it is agreed to type them, it may be argued that oniv a few conies are needed on walls at strategic locations. This may indeed be adequate for some meetings, but much is achieved by giving participants a complete set of all messages to mull over at their convenience, rather than whilst crowding in front of a bulletin board. (See also the 'image' questions, below).

11. Distribution: The Bulletin can be distributed to participants in any of the usual ways: in pigeonholes (if available), to participant seats in meeting rooms (at coffee break), from one or more designated locations (document desk, message box locations, etc.), hand-outs by ushers at meeting room doors, etc.

12. Continuation: The contents of each Bulletin should in part provoke participants to formulate further messages in reply. Other messages will be formulated irrespective of previous comments. In this way new issues of the Bulletin are produced and the process is continued throughout the duration of the conference and even as a post~1 continuation the conference.  

#U079: 'A basic problem is the role of focal points. Should they passively respond to queries, or should they be encouraged to attempt a more active role ?' (Anon, UNEP/INFO TERRA, 1979). 

Organizational requirements

The above procedure is so simple that few special arrangements are required. The decision to implement the process can even be taken on the eve of the meeting. The work is mainly typing (unless there is translation) and may require one person for an hour or two per day at most. Clearly, if the volume of messages is high, much more time could be required. If it is necessary to depend upon a staff person with other commitments, it is important to ensure that this process has adequate priority. This is really a test of the organizer's commitment and if the organizer takes decisions which effectively decrease its priority and importance, this will be sensed by participants.

A preferred arrangement would of course be a specially allocated 'Participant Interaction Office' where typing (and reproduction) could take place, namely a fixed location at which people working on the process could meet. Given such an office, it should be remembered that in some meetings there are participants who are enthusiastic about processes such as this and quite willing to assist.

Other possible organizational requirements are considered in connection with Additional Options (below).  

#S119: 'The SGSR should stop examining itself and get on with examining systems'. (Anon, SGSR, 1979). 


#U302: 'Australia's suggestion - titles and abstracts of publications available from each source- is a valuable one; it bridges the gap between pure referral and supply of substantive data. We should explore this fully' . (Anon, UNEP-INFOTERRA 1979). 

Editorial considerations

The only 'editorial' problems in the process as described above are:

The process can be misused. This, together with other editorial options, is discussed below.  

#F087: 'Many of us would appreciate it if the people with bad coughs would sit in the viewing gallery. And we hope you're better soon" (Anon, Findhorn, 1979).

Practical hints

1. Notepads: If participants are supplied with notepads as part of their folder, they should be encouraged to use them for messages.

2. Message boxes: These can easily be constructed on the spot from cardboard cartons used to transport documents. Cartons for photocopy paper are ideal, particularly if they have removable tops into which a slit can be cut. Otherwise the top can be tied shut with string or ribbon. It is an advantage to cover the boxes with an identifiable coloured paper, and to mark on them something like 'Participant Interaction Box'.

3. Reproduction equipment: Photocopy machines have a tendency to breakdown or to be overloaded due to other conference commitments. Since the value of this process increases with the rapidity of the cycle, alternatives should be examined, including stencil, cyclostyle, etc. An independent operation is preferable, specially if there are red tape delays in the use of the photocopies.

4. Message length: Long messages (e.g. exceeding 4 sentences) reduce the readability of the Bulletin and can be given a lower priority in typing or translation. Or a policy accepting only single sentence messages may be established.

5. Translation: There are various tricks in handling messages for translation. For example, they can be numbered, such that the typed version returned by the translator can be used as a page of the Bulletin. As such they should not slow the handling of messages not requiring translation.

6. Simplicity: Avoid cumbersome procedures. The technique is so simple that there is no reason it should not evolve and adjust to the requirements of the meeting.

7. 'Pump priming':: There is great advantage to be gained from having Issue no 1 of the Bulletin available as early as possible, and preferably in the participant's folder on arrival. The reason is that it constitutes an immediately comprehensible explanation of the process (which otherwise is too easily categorized as an elaboration of the conventional 'suggestion box' ). In order to get the issue out quickly, the 'editor' should:

8. Legitimation: It is very helpful to the success of the process, if on several occasions at the beginning of the conference the chairperson (or other eminent individuals) can strongly recommend its use to participants. Similarly, when good ideas are voiced in informal discussion (at coffee break), organizing committee members present can suggest 'Why not put it in the box ?', as a way of ensuring a wider exposure.

9. Bulletin frequency: As noted above, the more frequent it is, the more significant it appears as an alternative communication vehicle:

The messaging process helps to counteract the sterilising effect of any necessary pre-planning. For whilst careful planning eliminates the risk of disasters, by so doing it eliminates the (risk of) serendipitous breakthroughs whose emergence could be facilitated by skillful interweaving of unforeseen messages. Many conferences claim to be organized and attended in the hopes of such breakthroughs.  

#U198: 'The brochures and pamphlets prepared by INFO TERRA PAC should include sample specific questions on the environment that have been answered or could be answered by INFO TERRA; this would give potential users an idea of the capabilities of INFO TERRA' (L Miravalles, Philippines. UNEP/INFO TERRA, 1979). 


#S203: 'The Society is badly in need of anomalous behaviors, and deviation-amplifying strategies if it is to move to new levels of organization' (Anon, SGSR, 1979). 

Problems of misuse

Misuse of the process will depend on the nature and concerns of participants. Possibilities include:

1. Excessively long messages. Th is question has already been discussed.

2. An excessive number of messages from the same participant on the same point. An editorial decision may be taken to omit most of them or simply to refer to the fact that more messages on the same point have been received from the same source.

3. Deliberately abusive impersonal messages. Again these may be omitted. But if there is a grain of truth in the statement it can make interesting reading, possibly with an 'editorial comment' attached. Some organizers may welcome the opportunity of responding to such messages in an 'appended note'.

4. Abusive personal messages (e.g. criticism of a speaker). Again these may simply be omitted. But the person in question may welcome the opportunity to respond in an appended note. (Some speakers welcome hecklers; this is likely to be even more true with written comments).

5. 'Stacking' the box with messages in support of a factional viewpoint. This could be more difficult to detect, but could be handled as with point 2. Alternatively, a representative of the faction could be invited to summarise the contents of the messages received, perhaps in a 'special supplement " to the Bulletin.

6. Falsification of identity. This is only likely to arise in special cases and can quickly be corrected by a verbal announcement and a written message. The problem is more serious if the person has already left the conference. A simple solution is discussed under Additional Options (below).  

#U057: 'Two sets of international directory for updating sources please' (NFP India, UNEP-INFOTERRA, 1979). 


#S156: 'The systems movement is characterised mainly by an unquestioned crude positivism which simply assumes that systems are real-world entities. A phenomenological paradigm of learning is preferable to the positive paradigm when the concern is real-world human activity" (Anon, SGSR. 1979). 

7. Tampering with message boxes. Removal of messages from boxes is again only likely to occur in special situations. Boxes can be locked.

8. 'Dating' messages. Again these may simply be omitted, depending on their content. A message such as 'Anyone free for dinner in town after the Wednesday plenary ? " may be acceptable. Qualifications as to desired respondents may not. (This is a problem faced and solved in different ways by newspaper advertisement editors).

9. Embarrassing messages. If there are questions such as 'Who is funding this conference ?' which are sensitive, these may either be omitted or carefully answered.

10. Editorial manipulation. Given the 'pump priming' precedent (see above), participants may wish to ensure that the process as a whole is not subject to editorial manipulation. It is in this connection that the editorial committee option could be valuable (see below). Sticking the original messages onto a wall display also allays fears.

11. Deterioration of messaging style. It seems that if messages do not fulfil the sender's expectations, subsequent messaging may deteriorate. This is a challenge to the editors to mature the messaging process so that messages reinforce each other (see below).

It is important to be aware of the possibility of misuse, but it is unlikely to be significant in most cases. An interesting parallel is the citizens band (CB) radio and the misuse to which it gives rise. The messaging process provides a 'citizens band' at a conference but with more possibilities for weaving the messages into a new pattern of significance. Using potential misuse as an argument against the process may well signal the presence of more fundamental problems.  

#F203: 'How about having speakers available to the small groups ? Many questions are unresolved'. (Helen, David, Peter, and Anna, Findhorn, 1979). 

Improving and maturing the process

It is perhaps too early to generalise, but it would appear that there are some characteristic responses of participants to the freedom offered by this process:

1. One distinct group of messages includes:

These essentially invite participants to subscribe to a point of view which is not integrated into the subject matter of the conference at the level at which it is being discussed. At best they are alternative perspectives, introducing new dimensions which are often challenging, although possibly perceived as unconstructive. But 'motherhood statements' (e.g. Peace is good) may also emerge.

2. Another common group of messages includes:

#U311: 'UK NFP agrees entirely with proposals 41, 42, 43, 44, 45 and 46 in Bulletin 2, which could be adopted in major NFP's linked with library services to benefit users and make for better working', (W Pearson, UNEP/INFO TERRA, 1979).

  Clearly these are part of a dualistic dynamic in which advocates of A or B criticize or appreciate each other's perspectives. At worst, it deteriorates into emotional hostilities or mutual admiration. At best, they energize the whole discussion, define its dimensions, and stimulate its evolution.  

#S107: 'This conference is really about how to admit the existence of god without embarrassing your friends or upsetting your concepts" (Anon, SGSR, 1979). 

  3. As a result of messages of the previous types, a further type may emerge:

Such statements help to weave perspectives together into a meaningful whole, but they may fail to get beyond a superficial placatory level.  

#F068: 'Is there anyone who would be interested in contributing towards an evening of sharing - through music, poetry, song, dance) etc., to create a spontaneous spirit ? If so, please speak to Richard Frost at Cluny' (Findhorn, 1979). 

4. A fourth group includes constructive proposals building on constraints and possibilities recognised in the debate. These will include some which, however constructive they are, fail to take account of how the proposal is to be initiated.

5. A fifth group of messages reflects a willingness of the participant to take responsibility and act concretely in the implementation of a proposal. But again this will include feasible projects of a kind which has been of questionable value in the past, despite the enthusiasm with which they were then carried out.

6. A sixth group of messages reflects a sense of history, of collective learning, and a recognition of recurring patterns of discussion (in relation to previous meetings or other contexts). These may be very helpful in educating newcomers and introducing a sense of strategy. At worst they may be discouragingly sterile, offering little hope for new initiatives - the sterile wisdom of those who have failed in the past.

7. One can perhaps argue that a seventh group of messages reflects a special awareness of the uniqueness and strategic value of the conference. Other groups of messages may.also be usefully distinguished. (This question is explored with an extensive bibliography in ref. 3.)

Whether the above grouping is any more than a crude guideline is not important. The problem is to encourage a sufficient variety of messages to prevent a preponderance of those from Group 1 or 2, and a deterioration into 'conference graffiti'.

This is specially important at the beginning when the tone of the exchange is set.

A Bulletin editor (or editorial group) of participant status can to some extent insert messages to correct for any such preponderance and 'upgrade' the process.

To some extent the art of improving the process lies in allowing any such preponderance to stimulate participants to respond with corrective perceptions. But unless the interaction process 'feels right a, it will not be used as a vehicle by some whose comments would most help to balance and improve it (e.g. comments in Groups 3 to 7). Note however that each group of messages can provide an important contribution. A preponderance of Group 7 is as unproductive as a preponderance of Group 1.

This is a problem of judgement and intuition. Too much editorial intervention erodes the value of the process. Too little intervention may lead to the proliferation of trivial or purely negative comments and lead to a 'spastic' condition. Participants should be made aware of this problem by 'editorial comments' as the final messages in a Bulletin issue.

There has been so little experience with the process that at this stage it is probably better to minimize editorial intervention. But in the future, with experience an editorial group will probably be able to guide and stimulate participants quickly into mature interaction with a rich variety of comments. Ecologist R Margalef suggests that the 'maturity'of an ecosystem is closely related to its diversity (complexity) and to the information (organization) that can be maintainecl with a definite spending of potential energy. The lower the maturity, the less the energy required to disrupt the ecosystem. Perceiving a conference as an ecosystem which can be evolved or disrupted, offers an interesting chaiienne with many possibilities to be investigated.

This demands a special skill and could give rise to a new conference profession. Perhaps it may then be possible to weave disparate comments into new patterns of significance as suggested elsewhere (1, 4). Possibly real breakthroughs in conference productivity could be achieved by allocating significant attention time and resources to this process.This may also be true of use of the process in a hierarchicai organization inhibited by conventional communication patterns.  

#F122: 'I was a little surprised by the emotional response to Barbara's talk. I saw it as an informative scientific history, entertainingly presented. Our choices and many implications are yet to be discussed. Were we brought to our feet by lights and music ?' (Helen, Findhorn, 1979). 

Additional options and variants

1. Horus wall display: Rather than simply sticking the message cards to a wall in any order, an editorial group could divide the wall up into sectors corresponding to conference themes and insert the cards (possibly typed or cut from the Bulletin) in the appropriate sector. Coloured ribbons could be used to link related cards in different sectors. A circular display could emphasise the integrative role of concentric sectors or the central sector. A detailed descriptor of this approach is given elsewhere (4). (Horus stands for: Holistic Overview and Representation of Underlying Structure).

2. Personal messages: The message collection procedure may also be used for personal messages (not to appear in the Bulletin or be displayed). The editorial 'message processing office' could then make appropriate arrangements for these to be delivered or picked-up. Such messages should not require typing (but a translation service could be offered, if required). If costs are a consideration, see Option 9 (below).  

#F029: 'My feelings thus far about the SynCon process: How can we come up with visions to deal with our planetary problems unfit our problems as a group are dealt with?' (Anon, Findhorn, 1979). 

3. Editorial options: The editorial group can put more effort into sorting the messages (as for Option 1). They could then be grouped within an issue of the Bulletin according to conference agenda item or even by message type (cf. previous section). If appropriate or if the number of messages justifies it, each group of messages could appear in separate Bulletin series (perhaps on differently coloured paper) and only distributed to those involved with the theme in question. The editors could also take a more active role, inviting or generating other texts, so that the Bulletin also has a newsletter function. or is used for texts of draft recommandations, etc.

4. In-session messaging: Some conferences may be well-suited to periodic collection of messages and distribution of Bulletins during each 1-3 hour meeting session. Investigation of this possibility is very worthwhile because of the way it can considerably increase the sessions's productivity. For in conventional practice only one participant at a time can speak to a session, however many are listening (or not). Here there is the possibility of many participants contributing written messages simultaneously to the session discussion, even some participants with obligations in parallel sessions. (This is one of the major arguments made in favour of electronic meetings and computer conferencinq). These contributions can be quickly scanned by participants in Bulletin form, may be cited and linked by speakers (particularly with regard to exact wording), may reduce the time pressure in discussion periods, and provide an immediately available written record of issues raised. Allocating the necessary typing, reproduction and collection/distribution support could even prove to be a better investment, in some instances, than simultaneous interpretation (specially if translations were made).

5. In-session messaging (to podium only): A variant on the previous option, is to restrict distribution of the insession Bulletin to those on the podium (e.g. panel members) who are thus able to select and group the points raised prior to a verbal response (although some written message responses would also be possible if the Bulletin issues were to be available to all participants on leaving the conference room or later). This is an extension of a practice already adopted, when written questions are filtered by the session secretary and then distributed to panelists.  

#U019: 'Users are interested in obtaining information easily and rapidly. Given that a referral system appears to be the only ideal system I believe that NFPs should contact the sources. This will (a) speed up the system and (b) encourage usage' (Penny Marinos, Greece, UNEP/INFO TERRA, 1979). 

6. Computer conferencing (external): An increasing number of experiments are being made with computer conferencing as a means of linking people not present at a single physical location, such as a conventional conference site (5, 6). The messages typed via terminal to the distant participants in such computer 'conferences', and the messages received from them, can both be incorporated into issues of the Bulletin. In fact, to save typing, the locally-received handwritten messages can be typed directly onto the terminal, edited, combined with incoming messages, and then (a) produced from the terminal as a clean copy of the Bulletin issue for local reproduction and distribution, and (b) released over the terminal to the participants at distant locations, who may also reproduce it (see Case 4, below).  

#F052: 'To Judy (Item 1/23J: MAN as a generic term does not imply MALE. Your arrogance is YOUR problem. I don't want to be a PERSON or a SlBLING or a FOLK' (An unenlightened male person, Findhorn, 1979). 


#S058: 'Our understanding and communication about systems work would benefit from maintaining a clear distinction between technical action (problem solving, value exclusive) and practical action (meaning communicative, value inclusive)' (Anon, SGSR, 1979). 


#U142: 'Will we get the names of participants before Christmas ?' (Anon, UNEP/INFO TERRA, 1979). 

7. Computer conferencing (internal and external): Investigations are already being made into the potential of computer supported messaging/conferencing systems at a conference site (7, 8). Technically it is irrelevant whether the computer is on-site. What is important is the effective number of terminals on-site. When there are few, this option cannot be usefully distinguished from the previous one. When there are more, participant messages can be fed into the Bulletin from strategically located terminals by secretarial staff. When there are many, participants will then be able to do it themselves (e.g. from hotel rooms on rented terminals, etc.). But although the basic messaging concept remains the same, many other options become possible with computer support, or are affected by it: selective distribution of messages, voting, translation and advisory services, precise charging for messaging services, editorial re-ordering and linkage of messages, etc. These have been explored elsewhere (8).

8. Specially requested feedback: When appropriate during a meeting session, one particular question (or more) may be designated (or voted) as worthy of special written feedback from participants. In this way a variety of perspectives on the question may be quickly obtained through an issue of the Bulletin. If there are many such special questions, each could be given a reference number so that in effect this option blurs into that of a questionnaire. Such a set of key questions may in fact be a useful way of launching the process (see 'Pump priming' above).

9. Identity and message regulation: When guarantees are required against falsification of the identity of the author of a message, there is a simple solution. Each participant is supplied with a pre-printed set of 'interaction stamps' on each of which the unique participant number is overprinted. By sticking one stamp to each message card and having the number typed onto the end of the message, misuse becomes difficult. This is not necessary for anonymous messages, but does not protect a pseudonym. If costs are a consideration. participants can be asked to pay for a set of 'interaction stamps' . It may also provide a way of distinguishing between participants permitted to interact (e.g. 'full members') and those who are not (e.g. 'observers' ), or to ensure that their messages go into separate Bulletins. It may also be used to limit the possible number of written messages from different categories of participant.

10. Voting: When voting or opinion assessment is desirable, the message collection and processing service may be used. This may well avoid wastage of session time (e.g. roll-call voting, card voting, hand counting). Use of the 'stamp' procedure discussed above avoids identity problems. When the range of questions is greater, an issue of the Bulletin may contain (or consist of) a questionnaire/vote form to be returned as with normal messages. If necessary a procedure analogous to the 'reader service reply cards' to be found in some magazines could be used (e.g. a card consisting only of lists of numbers to be ringed according to participant interest in the questions to which they relate).  

#F172: 'For Bill Tara: What is your source reference for the sequence of development of the sensory modalities in infants that you presented in your talk ? There is quite a lot of research that indicates infants have a very good vision from birth" (Sally Z. Findhorn, 1979). 

11. Mapping and modelling: Participants may be grouped according to the degree of similarity in their responses to a defined set of comments. These, listed in an issue of a Bulletin serving as a Questionnaire. may be either statements designed by an editorial committee or statements received from participants or a mixture of both. The information is best processed by computer using matrix correlation software. From the results the network of participants may be drawn out manually for reproduction and distribution back to participants. The same data may be used to show how the structure of the network of topics is perceived by participants. One technique for doing this has been described in a previous issue of Transnational Associations (9). Another is outlined as Case 1 (below).

12. Computer graphics assistance: Investigations are being made into the possibility of using computers to draw maps of the networks of concepts or people described in the previous option. Once this is operational such maps may be used as non-textual annexes to the Bulletin. As such they provide the sort of overview sought in Option 1 and constitute a focusing device for comments, possibly leading to more precise maps, or alternative maps. Such maps would of course constitute non-linear agendas.  

#U0112: 'Please correct information on the referral activity of the NFP/Egypt. It is 70 not 30. Thank you' (E M Abdel Megid, Egypt, UNEP/INFO TERRA, 1979). 

Origin and case studies

The messaging process is so simple as a concept that variations of it are likely to have been explored in a number of contexts in the past. Most of the following cases, experienced by the author, are a good illustration of the variety of possibilities currently being explored. Cases 1 to 4 appeared in the original version of this paper. Experiments in the 1990s have been undertaken on the intiative of Nadia McLaren, who developed a manual on the technique (12) and/or Robert Pollard (who has web pages on computerized adaptations of the technique, including portions of the manual, and examples).  

#U205: 'In order to facilitate the flow of information, can we have vodka on the tables, instead of water, tomorrow ?' (Anon, UNEP/INFO TERRA, 1979). 

Case 1 (Professional/academic):
At the first international conference of the Society for General Systems Research (London, August 1979) a 'meta-conference' was launched by an eminent ex-president of the Society, Professor Stafford Beer (UK cybernetician and one-time computer systems adviser to Chiliean President Allende). In an opening speech he invited the 200 participants to formulate fundamental statements relating to the theme and sub-topics of the conference (Theme: Improving the human condition, quality and stability of social systems). These were left in a box, then reviewed by an editorial group consisting of himself and two other eminent colleagues (Although not clear, it seemed as though the 'review' consisted of slight editing and the 'rejection' of some comments which were simply stuck up on a special wall). The result was distributed to participants as a numbered list of 70 statements in English. Participants were invited to indicate on the document whether they (a) agreed (b) disagreed, or (c) were indifferent to each statement. The document was then returned via the box with the name of the participant. Further comments were also invited. Using the technique mentioned in Option 11, wall maps were produced over night showing the networks of participants and issues (It is appropriate to record that a serendipitous contact made by chance proved to be the unknown participant whose responses to the questionnaire most closely corresponded to my own, according to the network map). A new document was distributed incorporating a numbered list of the more central issues perceived by participants together with those new comments accepted. The cycle was repeated giving a total of three computer runs.

Comment: The process interested participants greatly, if only in terms of the concentration on questionnaires during coffee breaks. The main delays were due to lack of typing/data input personnel. There was criticism of the statistical methodology, which was accepted and partly modified. The comments reflected the concerns of an academic society in search of relevance. But more skill and experience was required to help the process to converge fruitfully. As it was the preponderance of Group 1 and 2 remarks did not lead to any concrete proposals, even when consensus emerged through the process. An excellent experiment in that it 'failed' in a way which showed the remedies required. SGSR, and its outgoing, President Richard Ericson, should be congratulated on being the first international conference to undertake it.

Case 2 (Intergovernmental): At the second network management meeting of the UN Environment Programme's information referral system, INFOTERRA (Moscow, October 1979), it was agreed on the evening before the opening session to implement a straight forward messaging system, but working in English, French, Spanish and Russian. The chairman of the meeting Dr Ashok Khosla (Indian director of INFOTERRA) drew the attention of the delegates (120 from 100 countries) to the messaging facility on every appropriate occasion. A total of 6 Bulletins were produced (in each language) carrying 98 messages in all. The English version was posted on a wall after typing and before translation.

Comment; Participants were slow in responding to this unexpected facility. The one-sheet explanation was only distributed on the second day. As the person responsible, I solicited messages from colleagues on the first day. A typed first issue was quickly produced and displayed, but despite every assistance in translation, delays of 18 to 24 hours occurred before distribution (because photocopying was done on the other side of Moscow). The mix of messages was much better than in Case 1 since the Bulletins were also used as a vehicle for early proposals. Later formal proposals had to bypass the Bulletins because of typing, translation and photocopying delays. In commenting on the facility one delegate stated he 'would have gone daft without it'. Another said he first thought it was a 'Mickey-Mouse relating process' which turned him off, although he had subsequently changed his mind. The chairman declared that it had 'saved the meeting' . It is interesting that on the final days messages were being received in all 4 languages, despite the early predominance of English. Without the delays the process could have been even more significant to the meeting.  

#U047: 'How can interaction between NFP's in a region be encouraged to share problems and experience in NFP, source and user community development ?' (Zambia/NFP, UNEP/INFOTERRA, 1979). 

Case 3 (Alternative community):
At the 4th Onearth Gathering (Theme: a positive vision for the 1980's)) of the Findhorn Foundation 300-member international community (Scotland, October 1979), it was agreed a day before the opening session that a straight forward messaging system should be implemented in English. A one-sheet explanation was folded into the printed programme distributed at registration time. Message boxes were located both at the conference hall and at the main residence for the 120 guest participants. The first Bulletin issue was available at the end of the morning of the opening day, although it included a number of editorially generated messages to provoke interaction and indicate its possibilities. By the evening of the second day 85 messages had been carried in 4 issues of the Bulletin. By the end of the 6-day meeting, 8 issues had been produced with 185 messages. Messages were posted on a wall after typing. The Bulletins were also dispiayed there.

Comment: The community is avowedly anti-intellectual and perceives itself (with Marshall McLuhan) as cc post-Gutenberg, and thus, except for inspirational writings, disapproves of use of linear text whenever it can be avoided by using other media, or none at all. Thus although guest speeches were available for purchase on cassettes the following day, aside from the programme leaflet, the Bulletin was the only conference document distributed. The number of messages was therefore very encouraging and the Bulletin clearly met a need of many (nonmember) participants. A few made extensive use of it. What proportion perceived it as valuable or approved of it is not known, although a feedback session proposed that a post-conference Bulletin issue be produced for 'afterthoughts' . One of the convertors wrote that the process <` seems to have substantially 'taken off' into what become the equivalent of a participant-produced newspaper. Which, in view of the virtually zero time available to people, was nothing short of amazing' . As claimed, it operated in parallel with the formal conference, but it did not seem to generate direct inputs into it. One participant suggested that for such an essentially expressive environment, the Chinese 'dazibao' wallposter approach would have been better. Both could well be used. Irrespective of what the nonmember participants felt, more important is how the community felt about the effect of this form of expression within their highly pre-planned conference format. The test will be whether they use the facility for their 1980 gathering and whether a means can be found to facilitate the progressive 'maturation' of messaging style and to ensure that messages build on each other rather than react to each other.  

#F013: 'I am interested by the phenomenon that when someone asks about a particular speaker, I can barely remember a word that was said. Verbal overload, the essence cannot be experienced in words... or what ?' (David G. Findhorn, 1979)

Case 4 (Academic workshop):
At the first workshop on networks of the UN University's project on Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development (Brussels, May 1979), summaries of the discussions of the 13 participants were typed (and edited) via terminals into the EIES computer conferencing network based in North America (Option 6/7, above). External messages received were incorporated with the summaries into a Bulletin distributed to the participants in Brussels.

Comment: This was just an experiment but it demonstrated the ease with which such a process could be organized and carried out. The summaries were only prepared infrequently but is was clearly possible to have them prepared (with any messages) by continuous input into terminals and much more frequent reproduction for the group. The final report was also drafted via the terminal for discussion.

The alternative community gathering (Case 3) raises the important question of the preferred communication mode of conference participants. Conventional conferences are primarily aural events, although there is occasionally 'audio-visual' assistance for the communication process. There is always the temptation to 'read' papers to the audience. Not to go to the trouble of preparing one is perhaps a guarantee of spontaneity. It certainly ensures that participants must 'listen >, to their totality if they are to 'hear' the message, whereas documents may be quickly scanned to determine what is worth' hearing. What happens to the productivity of a non-aural person in an aural conference process, or to that of an aural person confronted by documents? Do individuals switch between modes and when ? When is which mode appropriate and what constraints does each impose or conceal ? Is the real potential for non-linearity achieved in audio-visual settings, or is this argument used to disguise weaknesses ? What are the inter-cultural implications ? It is probable that a clearer perspective on these questions would show the valuable intermediary role of a participant messaging process.  

'#F207: If we do not understand how we are part of the problem, then we cannot understand the nature of the solution required' (Anon, Findhorn, 1979). 

Case 5 (NGO Conference): In Paris in December 1991 a conference of some 300 NGO representatives (Roots of the Future) was held in preparation for NGO participation at the Earth Summit in July 1992. Robert Pollard coordinated a team of people, including Anthony Judge, processing messages on computers in English and French using software he had developed to improve the formatting of the output messages and the integration with the database on conference participants.

Case 6 (Professional/Grass roots):  In Adelaide in May 1992 the Second International EcoCities Conference was held. Nadia McLaren operated a messaging system for 150 participants using Robert Pollard's software but without integrating the participant database.

Case 7 (Inter-sectoral): At Rio de Janeiro, in preparation for the Earth Summit in July 1992, a messaging process was operated for a 100-person Inter-Sectoral Dialogue by Nadia McLaren, assisted by Anthony Judge, who had drawn up a proposal (12) relating to both that dialogue at the global forum which immediately followed.

Case 8 (NGO Gathering): At Rio de Janeiro, on the occasion of the Earth Summit in July 1992, a messaging system was coordinated by Robert Pollard, assisted by Nadia McLaren, for the Global Forum involving some 12,000 participants. This was the most ambitious exercise, using 7 networked computers, a team of translators and a large number of volunteers. Messages were received and distributed in four languages (English, French, Spanish and Portuguese).

Case 9 (Professional): In Turku in 1995, on the occasion of the World Futures Studies Federation conference, involving some 350 people, a messaging system was operated by Nadia McLaren and John Jenkins. This made use of laptops which were not networked.

Case 10 (Inter-faith dialogue): On the occasion of the 1995 Parliament of the Worlds Religions in Chicago, Nadia McLaren coordinated a messaging system, assisted by Robert Pollard, Anthony Judge and John Jenkins. There were some 6,000 participants. The organizers were actively hostile to the process initially but were able to make use of its ability to hold the recommendations emerging from participants for the concluding sessions. The process made use of laptops which were not networked.

Attitudes towards the messaging process

It is a fact that organizers have had little or no interest in promoting contact between participants outside the framework of the planned programme, receptions and tours. The low status of any 'message board' is an example of this. The sterility of the conventional 'suggestion box " is another.

A special effort is therefore required to distinguish this process from such 'low status, insignificant' initiatives. Some participants will immediately recognise the opportunity it offers. Others will respond to encouragement from the chairperson in a formal announcement. Others will wait to see the extent to which their colleagues make use of it.

Some participants, often the more eminent, consider it beneath their dignity to be seen to be examining scraps of paper on a message board. Some will not even be seen to examine typed Bulletins on a wall display. Hence the value of personal copies in some way related to the formal conference documentation. The presence of amusing comments mayensure that the Bulletin are read during boring moments in plenary sessions- but they may also reinforce the disdain with which such 'unsanctioned" perceptions are viewed by 'serious' participants. Participants may recognize that they can use 'doodling-time' moments fruitfully in order to formulate additional comments of their own.

There is however a tremendous problem of passivity which traditional procedures have instilled into participants and which has been reinforced by the conventional attitude of organizers. It would be interesting to explore the possibility that conventional speaker-oriented conferences, dominated by masculine influences, require and engender a feminine passivity on the part of the audience. In this sense, participant interaction messaging may be seen as a feminine (networking) communication process to counterbalance the masculine (hierarchically structured) use of microphone/amplifier systems. It could also be argued that the latter provides a channel for collective conscious expression whereas the former may provide a channel for a less visible, and more sensitive, form of awareness (Insight from Tatjana Globokar).

Many participants expect to experience a conference like a set of television programmes amongst which they can choose by 'changing channel'. They are quite content that organizers should provide few occasions for unplanned interchanges and are thus unsure how to behave when such occasions occur. It is not clear what proportion of participants perceive themselves as contributors to the exercise, as opposed to consumers of what is offered. Unfortunately there are many conferences where such passivity is a guarantee of the unproductivity of the event. The condition is often appreciated by organizers who count the obedience with which participants follow the programme as an indication of the success of the event. Participant initiatives are perceived as threatening.

But worse than passivity is the unquestionable, all-pervading acceptance of the programme and organization as established months beforehand. This turns participants into actors in a play whose script and direction are governed by the creativity of the past. Until participants recover the ability to take un-preplanned initiative in the present, it is unlikely that the conference as a whole will (a) be able to take any collective initiative of consequence, or (b) fulfil the potential for fruitfulness of the human resources assembled, or (c) match the hopes and expectations of newcomers to such events and of the outside world.

Note Chesterton's effort 'to overcome the mental inertia of human beings, which mental inertia is constantly landing them in the strange predicament of both seeing a thing and not seeing it. When people's perceptions are in this condition, they must, in the strictest sense of the words, be made to renew their acquaintance with things. They must be made to see them anew, as if for the first time'. (Hugh Kenner, Paradox in Chesterton, London, 1948, p. 43). Also Edward de Bono's advocacy of 'Po'.

Change does not result from planning but from action in response to plans. If planning monopolizes creativity and inhibits the ability or desire to act and innovate together, then plans become empty formulas, however successful they may be made to appear on paper. This is the tragedy of many conferences quickly forgotten, and of the United Nations vain efforts to engender 'the necessary political will to change' (2).

Concluding learnings


1. Anthony Judge. Meeting failure and participant frustration. Transtional Associations, 28 1, 1978, pp. 34-37.

2. Anthony Judge. Mobilization of public opinion; yesterday's response to today's problems. Transnational Associations, 31, 1979, 1/2 pp. 8-14. [text]

3. Anthony Judge. Representation, comprehension and communication of sets; the role of number. International Classification, 5, 1978, 3, pp. 126-133; 6, 1979,1' pp. 15-25 6. 1979. 2. pp. 92-103 [text]

4. Anthony Judge. Interrelating viewpoints in complex meetings; the Horus wall-display technique. Transnational Associations, 30, 1978, 12, pp. 542-548. [text]

5. Karl L Zinn, CONFER at the ISTA Congress. Transnational Associations, 29. 1977, 10, pp. 412-417.

6. World Symposium on Humanity (April 1979, Los Angeles, Toronto, London; linked by computer conference).

7. Anthony Judge. Enhancing communication at a large conference/festival (using computer conferencing). Transnational Associations, 29, 1977, 12, pp. 532-540. [text]

8. Anthony Judge. A Computer-enhanced Communication Environment for an International Conference Centre. Brussels, Union of International Associations, 1979 (under contract to International Congress Centre, Berlin). [text]

9. Peter Johnson-Lenz and Trudy Johnson-Lenz. Conference facilitation by computer-aided sharing. Transnational Associations 29, 1977, 10, pp. 440-445.

10. Anthony Judge. Groupware configurations of challenge and harmony. Transnational Associations, 31, 1979, 10, on. 467-475. [text]

11. Anthony Judge. Participant Interaction Messaging: proposal for a low-cost, on-site conference communication medium (Presented to the International Facilitating Committee of the Independent Sectors for UNCED '92 in response to the communication challenges). Brussels, Union of International Associations, 1991

12. Nadia McLaren. Participant Interaction Messaging: Manual and Guidelines. Brussels, Union of International Associations, 1992 [text]

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