Networking artifacts:

Awakening.  My first real awakening to networking was upon stumbling into the Free University office at Penn State in 1976.  The Free U was a student organization, though it served the “town and gown” community of Penn State and State College, PA. It was basically an open system, through which anybody could present a course in anything, and anybody could attend.  The role of the Free U organization was to be a neutral clearinghouse.  We solicited courses for four terms a year (coinciding with Penn State’s trimester system) from “course initiators” (the word “teacher” was considered too narrow). We published a catalog of those courses [see example], and scheduled spaces throughout the university and town.  If initiators so desired, we registered students, and collected any materials fees.  We were assertively open and neutral in terms of who could initiate a course and what it could be about.  We had courses ranging from anthropology to arthropod cuisine (eating bugs).  We had pro-choice and pro-life courses.  We held over 100 courses per term (fewer in the summer).  Our most popular course?  Disco dancing, with over 1000 students (this was the 70’s!).  We were also militantly unaccredited, asserting that responsibility for learning was up to the participants.  My time with the Free U represented a life-changing, eye-opening experience.  I saw for the first time that:

  • a community is made up of an unpredictably and astonishingly diverse range of interests, skills and passions
  • People seem to have an inherent desire to connect with one another for an equally diverse range of reasons
  • There were precious few tools and resources that made it easy for people to find one another for self-directed purposes

Working with the Free U felt meaningful in a way that I had not previously known.  Amid the dominant football culture that I didn’t relate to, and the gazillion varied social opportunities that such an immense university offered, the Free U felt like home.

And the Free U at Penn State (which started in 1970) was one of over a hundred Free U’s and “learning networks” across the country, loosely affiliated through the Free University Network (since morphed into LERN).  Ideologically, these entities were spawned by the Port Huron Statement (1962) and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (1964-5).

Intellectual and political context.  After getting settled into the Free U, a couple things happened on the academic side that reinforced this emerging sense that I had tapped into something important and meaningful.  I was offered the opportunity to participate in a year-long Honors Program in the Liberal Arts, in which we were invited to pursue some topic of interest or passion.  Around that time, I stumbled onto Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich (Wikipedia | Amazon | Full Text).  This book completely rocked my world.  It opened up a way of looking at the world that peeled away the veil of institutions (educational and other) that I had always taken for granted as “the way things are”.  Through it I got my first glimpse of a truly radical (in the sense of going to the root) perspective.  It was the intellectual equivalent of dropping acid for the first time.

And, while Deschooling Society, published in 1971, is focused on educational practices, Illich’s critique in this and other books shines a light on institutions in general, and on the ways in which people can and do relate to one another and the world.  His proposed “learning webs” (Reference services to educational objects, Skill Exchanges, Peer-Matching and Reference services to Educators-at-Large) neatly described much of the Free U’s philosophy and operation, and anticipated much of the social networking character of the Internet to come.

The Honors Program offered me the first opportunity I had to delve deeply into a research project that tapped into some  passion.  I read dozens of books, focusing my honors thesis [LINK] on Deschooling Society and two others:  Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire (Wikipedia | Amazon | Full Text) and Instead of Education by John Holt.  I recently re-read my Honors Thesis for the first time in decades.  And, aside from some mind-numbing redundancy, I found it surprisingly fresh and still meaningful.

Other Networks newsletter.  After graduation, I returned to Philly, and tried to share my new found enthusiasm for this networking thing that seemed so, so important to me.  But, with virtually everybody I spoke to, our conversations never progressed beyond, “Well, that sounds interesting”.  Until one day, somebody said, “I know another guy who talks like you”, and introduced me to Stan Pokras.  Stan had been involved in community networking since, as a hippie on South Street in 1970, he opened up a storefront operation called Everything for Everybody.  We instantly bonded, and our main outcome was a newsletter we published in the early ’80’s called Other Networks, which was all about social networking (years before the world wide web).

Library and information world.  Around that time, while living in a communal house with Movement for a New Society, I decided to get a Masters Degree from Drexel’s School of Library and Information Science, because I wanted to learn some nuts and bolts about creating information systems that would support such networking.  At the tail end of that program, I took a part-time job as a reference librarian at the Ridley Township Public Library in the suburbs.  There, with the encouragement of Pat Ryan, the Library Director, I created a “Learning Network” that was integrated into the library.  Any library visitor could fill in a paper form, declaring that they would like to learn, teach or share something — anything.  I then took those interests, cataloged and classified them, and interfiled them into the library’s card catalog.  So, somebody looking up French language in the card catalog would find plenty of books, some cassette tapes and three fellow patrons.  One of these, for instance, was a woman who had recently moved from Montreal, was lonely, and wanted to invite people over for lunch to speak French.  One was a man who had grown up with James Michener and wanted to talk about his experiences with him.  One woman wanted to share vegetarian recipes.  Another wanted to share dress patterns.

After getting my MLS (MLIS?) degree, and an internship with IBM, I took a job with Telebase Systems in 1985, a start-up information services company, where I stayed for 17 years — which is its own saga.  But, the networking point is that by 1996, Telebase’s business model was disintermediated by that pesky Internet, and we were looking for additional lines of business — particularly ones involving proprietary information we could own, thereby avoiding the disintermediation that was eroding our core business.  After some months of effort, I developed a proposal for an “Information Dissemination Gateway“.  Though I thought it was brilliant, nobody “got” it, and it went nowhere.  But, in fact, I knew it was significant, and it is, in fact, the direct precursor to Expressive Commons.  Although the current idea has evolved in a number of ways, the MAJOR difference has to do with the predominant view of knowledge at the time — particularly from a business perspective.  The original “Information Dissemination Gateway” was designed so that most of the “infrastructure” (e.g., list of media) would be created and “owned” by Telebase, since “controlling” knowledge was seen to be a key to success.  The current Expressive Commons is based upon a paradigm of shared, contributed knowledge (a la Wikipedia), which is a more contemporary, sustainable and radically empowering view of knowledge.

CommuniShare.  After having been bought by WinStar, Telebase rode the boom, then bust — and went out of business in 2002.  In the aftermath, I decided to start my own venture.  With very generous startup funding from the Kopelman Foundation, I created CommuniShare, an online service for enhancing the connectedness of defined communities (e.g., religious congregations, neighborhoods, schools, companies).  Although it received enthusiastic responses from initial trial clients (including the PA College of Optometry Alumni, Ikea North America and my local library in Upper Darby, it quickly foundered and failed.  I naively believed “if I build it, they will come”, and I spent almost all my money on the initial development without considering ongoing development, and totally lacked any sort of business plan (is that important?).  You can see screenshots of the original CommuniShare website.

With CommuniShare (and my confidence) on the floor, I needed to find a job.  I was very fortunate to find my way to the American Friends Service Committee in 2005, where I’ve been working — first as a consultant, and then as an employee — ever since.  During this period, I haven’t been working specifically on networking, except

Social Network Analysis and Network Weaving (SNA/NW) with AFSC.  Since starting working with the AFSC in 2005, the vast majority of my time and effort has been focused on information management and the Intranet.  I had made some initial forays into networking projects that didn’t gain traction, and I didn’t pursue.  But, more recently, I introduced the idea of social network analysis and network weaving, which was enthusiastically received.  And I am currently devoting an increasing amount of my attention to developing the capacity to apply these tools in AFSC’s work for peace and social justice.

Expressive Commons.  Chronologically, this idea harkens back over 20 years to when I proposed an Information Dissemination Gateway to Telebase.  While the kernel of the idea is the same, it has evolved in my thinking since that time to both reflect and reinforce contemporary technical and social practices.  Most notable is the change in the concept and role of knowledge.  The original concept relied upon building an in-house information system (of media, attributes, etc.), which would convey upon Telebase an advantage of proprietary knowledge; the current idea, on the other hand, presumes an open, shared, participatory concept of knowledge.  This idea has nonetheless been difficult to express, and I plan to use this website to try to express it more effectively.