dotActivist conference looks at the future of online campaigning

Helen Lambert, of PoliceStateUK, gives her account of the recent dotActivist conference.
Helen Lambert
20 August 2010

Helen Lambert, of PoliceStateUK, gives her account of the recent dotActivist conference. You can read Helen's talk on "Web activism and the state" here

Appropriately, it was through Twitter that I ended up agreeing to speak at dotActivist, a new online campaigning conference organised by Turnfront. I re-tweeted a call for female speakers on web activism, which said that they had four men and one woman already booked, and they'd like to redress the balance a little. After a couple of days in which no female web activists stepped up, it occurred to me that I arguably fit the bill. I'd never spoken at a political conference before (in fact, I hadn't even attended one) but since I'm the first to kvetch when I read about all-male panels, I thought I should probably put my money where my mouth was.

Six weeks later, I arrived at the Hub in King's Cross on a Saturday morning clutching a bag containing my precious, hastily-written talk, sleep-deprived and jangling with nerves. A couple of weeks earlier I'd attended the vast and ambitious ORGCon, which had given me a slightly distorted sense of what to expect. The mission statement for dotActivist was impressively big - "share tactics, and explore exciting new ways of changing the world " - but to my relief, the reality was somewhat more contained. Thirty or forty people of a range of ages and genders, seated informally in an airy vertical space, contrasted reassuringly with the echoey, intimidating lecture hall of my imaginings.

The first lecture had just started, and Pietro Speroni di Fenizio was talking about potential models for e-voting with the aid of slides projected onto the huge screen behind him. He has published collaborative research with Chris Anderson, the face behind Turnfront, on human-based, participatory consensus decision making. I started getting interested in e-democracy in the run up to the general election this year, during which I worked with Denny de la Haye's Get a Vote campaign, and Pietro's talk expanded the horizons of my thinking. As I arrived he was discussing the value of "open" rather than "closed" questions (the difference between "Should we do x" and "What should we do?"), and the talk covered a huge amount of ground. He discussed the possibilities introduced by cyclic writing and voting in response to a question, allowing the refinement of answers towards a consensus, and the potential structures for facilitating useful discussion. The highlight of the talk was an enlighteningly clear explanation of the Pareto Front, a concept I found myself re-explaining to interested friends a number of times over the next few days. The topic was far too broad to cover straightforwardly in 45 minutes - I would have liked to have heard more about the social consequences of such time-consuming participatory models, or how e-democracy could be scaled up in such a way as to be useful on a national or international scale.

The conference was organised with space for collaborative discussion between each talk in place of traditional Q & A, with participants separating into groups and the speakers circulating to answer any questions people had. I was too busy calming my nerves and greeting friends who had arrived after me to make the most of these discussion spaces; I'm not sure how useful others found them. By the end of the first talk the day was already running behind schedule, which further cut down on the time available between presentations.

The next talk was by Paula Graham of Fossbox, on privacy, social media and tools for activists. I had expected discussion of which social networking tools were best suited to campaigning activities, but instead she focussed on the activist's need for privacy and which networks offer online anonymity. It was a good overall guide to the strengths and weaknesses of software as a service and the opportunities offered by open software; I made a note to investigate GNUPG and Enigmail - easy to install encryption for Thunderbird - when I got home. You can watch a video interview with Paula here, filmed by visionOntv, who were operating on the mezzanine above the presentations throughout the day.

I hadn't originally planned to be interviewed - I figured I was already going to get the chance to say my piece during my talk, and didn't feel the need to seek another platform that day. During the next presentation, however, Sandra from visionOntv quietly dropped a card on my table inviting me up for an interview, saying that they were looking for a better gender balance and needed more female interviewees. Again, I was impressed by their good intentions - but as it worked out, Pete Speller's talk on high-tech digital action was so interesting that I never made it up to the studio. I hope some of the other women in the room took them up on their offer!

Pete Speller is involved with campaigns including Students for a Free Tibet, and has worked with high-tech actions such as Free Tibet TV 2008 and the Great Wall banner. He focussed more than any other speaker (myself included) on tools for direct action. Several of the ideas involved projections - from using a standard projector to beam attention-grabbing messages or images onto the sides of buildings (best done at night; remember to invert the colours so light objects emerge from a dark default background), to using laser pencils with micro stencils at the tip to generate an image, or open source laser-tracking projection software called Laser Tag. He also touched on the role of citizen journalism in successful actions, and the expense of using satellite broadband such as BGAN to stream live video. The presentation went down very well with the crowd, and there was a lot of twitter activity during it as listeners propagated ideas that excited them.

In general, I found myself engaging in more discussion of the topics via the twitter hashtag than in the discussion period after each talk. Others seemed to get more out of the discussion periods, and so I wonder if this was a consequence of my own nerves rather than the format of the sessions. I would have liked to see a live twitterfall displaying the hashtag on, say, a screen or wall throughout the day. This would not only have been thematically appropriate, it would have helped connect the online and offline conversations in real time. I know that some people find this kind of parallel data-stream distracting, but for me the challenge of parallel processing enhances my concentration. I enjoy being able to publically engage with the material through a tweet without disturbing a presentation in the way that a verbal comment would.

I gave my own talk after lunch, on government engagement with online social enterprise, which went better than I'd feared despite temporarily mislaying a page of notes. There was time for a single question before we split up into discussion groups again. 

By this point I'd realised that all the speakers were expected to give a short TV interview to promote the conference, but it was too late for me to do so after my presentation, as Hamish Campbell and Richard Hering from visionOntv were themselves giving the final talk of the day. They gave us a lively introduction to their service, which is essentially an open source, independent video service, aimed at activists and citizen journalists but open for use by anyone wishing to broadcast open content. They aim to help raise the standard of citizen journalism by offering courses in (and easy-to-use templates for) creating news stories rather than video blogs, and provide a platform through which not only can anyone upload a video to one of the channels, but anyone can present those channels through an embedded player on their own site. At the moment visionOnTV is in beta, with several improvements planned for future phases, but a number of grassroots projects are already using it to promote their videos, and it's an exciting work-in-progress.

Several of the participants joined a post-conference pub visit, where many of the discussions were continued. The strongest asset of dotActivist, for me, was as a networking event - I put a number of faces to names I knew online, and connected with many new people besides. In future, I think I would like to see more, shorter presentations, perhaps with less unstructured discussion time between talks, but including an "open contribution" session near the end permitting anyone with a point to make to stand up and speak for 5 minutes. We were running behind for most of the day, which shorter presentations might have helped with - and I would have happily stayed until 5 or 6pm if a longer day would have eased the schedule.

I very much hope that Turnfront will put on another dotActivist conference next year - I'll buy a ticket (and would have happily paid the entry fee to this event had I not got a guest ticket as a speaker, if that's any measure of success). Despite being somewhat pre-occupied by the terrors of my first public speaking experience, I got a lot out of the day as a whole, and came away feeling positive, inspired and better-informed.

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