Hey, I’ve got a new space on the web: michellethorne.cc

I’ll be blogging there from now on, but will keep these pages up for a while as I tinker and get the new site right.

WissensWert – Wikimedia Deutschland fördert mutige Ideen!

A fantastic initiative from Wikimedia Germany: an idea competition, “Wissenswert”, calling for projects that further Free Knowledge. Winning submissions can receive up to €5000.

I’d love to see projects in the spirit of the “School of Open“, an idea Jane Park (@janedaily) proposed during the Mozilla Festival. Although just in early scaffolding stages, I think with a combination of P2PU-style learning, simple tools like the Hackasaurus X-ray Goggles, and the outreach programs like Wikipedia Goes to School (“Wikipedia Macht Schule“), this project could be a powerful combination to really teach students and grown-ups alike how easy and fun it can be to edit the web.

Bad user experience and lack of awareness continue to block many potential Wikipedia contributors. But kid-oriented tools and lightweight learning missions, coupled with programs that work with teachers and schools to bring the ideas to the classroom, these barriers will be lowered.

Can we make a Hackasaurus module to learn about Wikipedia?

That’d be my idea, if I had time to send it in.

If you’ve got a great Free Culture project, submit it by Nov. 24: http://wikimedia.de/wiki/WissensWert

Some of the grantees last year:


The Mozilla Festival, which kicks off Nov. 4 – 6 in London, will be a three-ring circus of brainstorming, collaborating and hacking. It brings together 500 journalists, open web developers and media educators to learn and make the web they want.

Following a series of posts by Mozilla’s Mark Surman, I’m inspired to jot down a few thoughts responding to his vision of a web literate planet — and how three days of massive web learning in London helps get closer to that dream.

I believe Mozilla can play a leading role in creating a web literate planet. Concretely, I think Mozilla can — and should — build out a major P2P learning initiative that teaches web skills and web literacy to coders and non-coders alike. We should also take an active role building up the whole ecosystem of orgs emerging around web literacy and innovative, web-like learning.

Compressed to 72 hours, the Mozilla Festival is a testing ground for this emerging learning model:

Take the P2P pedagogy and skill-sharing of learning labs, mix in design challenges where people invent new web tech and apps, and sprinkle in some fun and thoughtful discussions, you not only get one memorable weekend, you also iterate and improve a recipe for collaboration that can be remixed and poured anywhere, anytime.

On a meta-level, my biggest hope for the festival is that people are inspired by this open-ended learning model, and they improve upon it and host hackfests and learning labs in their own cities with communities they care about.

More than any set curriculum or agenda, I’m learning that learning is a mindset. It’s about copping an attitude and seeing everything as an open-ended process, not a product. And I see the Mozilla Festival — in both planning and participating in it — as a process. It’s part of a joyful, infinite game whose goal is to continue play and invite others to join.

[If you haven’t yet, pick up a copy of Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse. This pre-internet book is the best manifesto to open culture I’ve ever read.]

In the lead up to the festival, I’d like to share how different people and parts of the program embody this playful, collaborative web making spirit. And I like to invite you to get involved.

The strength of a truly participatory event is that it is transformed by surprise. Its impact will be measured not by the duplication of its form, but by the originality of participants engaging in response.

What I admire about Mozilla is that it desires to inspire play and learning in others. And it knows that it does this best when it becomes least necessary for the continuation of play.

Prompted by a filmmaker’s uninspiring suggestion to “crowdsource” footage, we had a good round of spontaneous chatter at ODC about: what motivates you to participate?

Given how participation is now the metric driving all Mozilla Foundation projects, the topic of motiviation certainly deserves some reflection. Everyday we’re all bombarded with requests and invitations to “participate, / contribute / help” one initiative or another. Of course we all would like to do more, but there are limits, and there are filters and triggers that help us decide where to dedicate our time.

The great thing about the discussion we had at ODC is that for a group of people that identifies itself as a community of practice, there was such an array of motivations for contributing to that community. And I suppose it’s this heterogeneity within a tribe that makes you feel like you belong, with all your eccentricities, yet also allows you to be pleasantly surprised and interested in the cast of other characters working together.

A sampling of why people in the room participate:

  • Part of a bigger whole. To play a role in shaping a larger effort you believe in.
  • To help others. And to follow your contribution to see how it helped someone succeed.
  • Feel needed. Handcrafted requests seem to hit targets more often. People like to know why *they* in particular are needed, what is it that they are bringing that is unique and essential — rather than feeling like an invitation is a mass-ask.
  • Achieve a shared goal. If you want to see something happen, then you’re primed to pitch in to make it possible. I think there’s lots of value in this also framed as “solve a common problem.”
  • Friends or people you admire are involved. Who doesn’t love hanging out with good people?
  • Curiosity. Some folks said they dig any opportunity to learn something new, or to level up their skills in a topic of interest.
  • Nice graphics. One guy flat out admitted that he’s more likely to chip in when the project has a good design and visual identity. Looks can matter — and show how much the project cares about presentation.
  • Fun. ‘Nuff said.

Not so effective? Some common motivations  we *didn’t* mention at all:

  • Rewards. Interestingly, many calls for participation offer a reward of some sort (Win an iPad! Have dinner with a star! Earn miles!), but interestingly, no one in the room mentioned that as an incentive that gets them going. Certainly there are successful instances of enticement through money & prizes, but that didn’t seem to be a killer factor.
  • Competition & games. Despite much hype about the power of games to get people to do all sorts of stuff, none of us said, “Oh yeah, if I got a 4SQ badge for that, I’d do it.” Not saying those point / badge systems can’t work, but just that its absence from the discussion was interesting.

What motivates you to participate? Anything surprising or missing from the ideas above?

I’m curious to follow this thread at Wikimania 2011 as well, where antischokke will facilitate a session on “Incentivizing Engagement“, sharing experiences from Wikimedia Germany and learning from others what is effective is bringing people on board.

Image: Casual Coder by goopymart / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It’s been one helluva few weeks for Awesome Foundation worldwide. Our fearless founder, Tim Hwang, was awarded $244,000 from the Knight Foundation to:

experiment with a new funding model for local journalism, The Awesome Foundation: News Taskforce will bring together 10 to 15 community leaders and media innovators in Detroit and two other cities to provide $1,000 microgrants to innovative journalism and civic media projects.

This is brilliant and underscores earlier thoughts on how more traditional funding bodies can take advantage of Awesome’s machete-cutting-through-red-tape funding approach. As Knight itself noted, the typical grant application process is lengthy and “inconsistent with the rapid pace of innovation and affects applicants’ ability to respond to market opportunities.” Awesome is fast, and no-strings-attached, which means you can turn around applications like whoa.

Which is what we want to do in Berlin. So, get cracking.

Apply by Sunday, July 10 with your most awesomest idea for a chance at a brown bag stuffed with €1,000 cash to make your project a reality. Make sure to select “Berlin” from the chapter menu.

With our recent €1,000 grant, Agent Scott and the Graffiti Research Lab could purchase a bike and a heap of electronics for their latest adventure, blitzTag + Light Rider.

Thanks to @cyberdees for pointing out this Quora thread. Some really valuable insights from Robert Scoble on what make a great event and food for thought re: Mozilla Festival and other events in the pipeline. We’ll unpack this at OKCon and Wikimania Haifa.


  1. The quality of the people around me. TED is off the charts on this one. I remember standing in the lobby and getting to talk to Bill Gates while many other interesting geeks, entrepreneurs, movie stars, etc stood nearby.
  2. The quality of the speakers. Panels suck. One or two panels at a conference is OK, more mean the content will be lightweight and that the conference organizer just wanted to get a ton of people onto the program (which works to get a crowd, look at SXSW).
  3. The focus of the content. If I’m trying to learn, say, Ruby on Rails, I might pay to attend a conference on that. But if they start talking about Objective C I will feel that the value is less than it could have been.
  4. The small details. Is there enough coffee? Is the signage clear? Is the room air the right temperature? Is the food great and plentiful? Are seats comfortable? Is there power and good wifi?
  5. The expo hall. Is it packed with interesting vendors, or is it sparse?
  6. Does it nail something about the time it happens? For instance, this year the iPad is taking off, so having an iPad developer conference is going to be way more interesting than attending a Windows developer conference.
  7. Is there a community that it exposes or helps form? Other answers mention this, but do you see people hanging together at evening events, or during lunch, or does everyone just go home?
  8. Was there at least one speech that just inspires? The real key, I’ve found, is to have that speech be the first one. Then the conference will seem magical.
  9. Is there real, significant, news discussed? When I’m at a conference where there is real, significant, news revealed it always is easier to talk about with other people.
  10. Does it start, or expose, a movement? Maker Faire, for instance, gets 70,000 people to a fairgrounds to share their love of making things. That’s one of my favorite events because you are able to learn, hang out with, and share with people your own love of that topic/movement.
  11. Does it get you away from work? The best events make you travel or make you get away from work. TED, for instance, makes it impossible to sit in the front row and use a device. I’ve found that really helps build a common memorable experience.
  12. Does it end with a bang? The best events end with a great speech, or some other event to send you on your way. Research shows that the last experience you have is the most memorable one. That said, I find if you don’t start with a great speaker the whole event won’t go well, so don’t put your best speaker at the end.
  13. Do they do something “beyond?” Most conferences are the same. 18 speeches, two panels, two keynotes, two dinners, etc etc. But TED has music that leads into every session. PopTech does a really cool book. They go beyond the usual.

The most memorable events I’ve had, though, are the ones where I had a small, intimate group of people who had some sort of “event within an event.”

At LeWeb last year Loic had a speaker dinner where he took us to an extraordinary meal. At TED I had dinner with a movie star and an exec from Microsoft. At LIFT we had a speaker weekend with skiing and hotubbing that was extraordinary. At FooCamp I ate apples with my son, the two guys who started Google, and four other people. At SXSW this year I took a bus full of geeks to BBQ for Sunday afternoon.

These are the experiences that make an event magical. Can you scale them to all participants? No, but you can make intimate experiences available to all. LIFT always has a fondue dinner in Geneva for all participants which is quite fun.

Anyway, watch http://plancast.com and ask yourself “why do certain events get popular?” Invariably the popular ones are ones that nailed all the stuff above.

The Open Knowledge Foundation is putting on its annual conference in Berlin at the end of the month. Daniel Dietrich has done a stellar job pulling together some of the most active and inspiring people in the Free/Open space, and I’m really looking forward to geeking out with folks about lsharing, hacking and building a Free Society.

I’ll be holding a pre-workshop on a topic that’s been on my mind since GlobalMelt and joining Mozilla to run event strategy, naming how can we get more out of meeting each other face-to-face?

The workshop is on June 29 from 10:00 – 14:00, and you can sign up here.

Internet-y communities love to meet IRL. Something about online collaboration fuels the need to see each other in person. With years of conferences, meetups, hackdays, barcamps, and all sorts of event formats in between, what have we learned about events as a effective way to embolden contributors, accelerate projects, and make a difference?

I posit that we have to leverage the maker’s mindset, together with some webby wonders, to really grow the community circle and do events right. That means building things together in realtime, physical prototyping, and flexible, participatory agenda. Goodbye, industrial-era conference formats!

How can we do this? What initiatives are in play that we learn from? How can we organize shared action IRL that fits our principles of openness? We’ll examine some of tactics from the maker scene as well as successful (and failed) efforts among open communities to be more effective, more impacting, and more fun when we meet IRL.

Mozilla Festival — Media, Freedom and the Web
London, November 4 – 6, 2011

Mark your calendar for a one-of-a-kind event, Mozilla’s Media, Freedom and the Web Festival: https://festival.mozilla.org

This year’s Mozilla Festival will gather passionate, creative people using the web to bend, hack and reinvent media. We’ll solve real problems and build prototypes with talented designers, world-class journalists, and cutting-edge developers.

Mozilla Festival in Barcelona, 2010

Last year's Mozilla Festival in Barcelona

Help spread the word:

Save the Date! Mozilla Festival on Media, Freedom and the Web. London, Nov. 4 – 6. http://mzl.la/festivaldate #mozfest

We’ll meet in London, a true media capital, for three days fueled by innovation challenges. Drive new ways of making media with design jams, hackfests, learning labs, live demos and parties.

At the Media, Freedom and the Web Festival, you’ll pull the best of modern web technology into the world of media. Collaborate with real-world journalists and daring technologists to build whatever inspired version of the media future you like. Minimum talking, maximum web making.

Sign up now for updates and to get involved; we’ll email when registration is open: https://festival.mozilla.org

Learn more: https://festival.mozilla.org
Last year’s Festival: http://learningfreedomandtheweb.org/
Contact: festival [at] mozilla [dot] org

Hope to see you there!

In the 1980s the Internal Revenue Service underwent a controversial rebirthing. Turning away from its paper-laden, human-eye examiners, it looked to become a more automated, “noncompliance-seeking” (read: for-profit) outfit. The process, termed “the Initiative”, serves as the backdrop of Dave Foster Wallace’s self-described nonfictional memoir, The Pale King[1].

It’s also a fitting case study of why we need data journalists and good data designers.

According to DFW, the system-wide restructuring of the IRS was, obviously, massive. It affected every American and held great repercussions for business and the role of the state. But as Wallace reports, the Initiative was never investigated deeply by journalists.

Why? Despite the Initiative’s far-reaching impact, the actual material recounting the IRS’ changes was never read. But not because an extensive public record wasn’t available (it was). Rather the written proceedings, in their mountains burocratese, were so utterly mind-numbingly boring that no one could bear plowing through them. The public record was solid rock.

…one of the GS-11 Chalk Leaders in our Rote Exam group, a man of no small intuition and sensitivity, proposed an analogy between the public records surrounding the Initiative and the giant solid-gold Buddha statues that flanked certain temples in ancient Khmer. These priceless statues, never guarded or secured, were safe from theft not despite but because of their value—they were too huge and heavy to move.

This is a brilliant insight. As DFW argues, we shouldn’t underestimate government’s reliance on this very strategy, the intentional opacity of the public record to discourage journalistic investigation. Secrecy invites curiosity and scandal — yet monumental dullness will pass unexamined.

It’s striking how relevant this chapter is to the world of open data and journalism today. More and more data is being created and released. More and more journalists are expected to have data literacy. But without tools that support sensemaking and parse databases, the public record will remain unyielding and under-reported.

[1] Footnote HT to DFW.  Mid-book, he slips in an author’s forward that counters the boilerplate disclaimer publishers are legally obliged to include: “all characters and events in this book are fictitious”. Instead, Wallace asserts that nearly all of the book’s content is true, documented from his year in exile at an IRS examination center in the Midwest. You get in a nice tangle trying to sort whether his statements about the book’s authenticity, which occur after the disclaimer, are in fact subject to the blanket disclaimer about everything in the book being fiction. And so on. “Believe nothing, O monks, merely because you have been told it,” says Buddha.

Image: The Buddha King of Angkor Wat by Stuck in Customs / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

There’s a lively thread on the Drumbeat list about local <> global events, started by Alina. I’ve been mulling over some thoughts following the round of Knight-Mozilla News Innovations Jams (see a great post by Dees about the UK events). Here’s a cross-posting about a few insights I’ve had:

With MoJo activities in over 15 cities, inc. four in Latin America and another five outside North America (although granted in English-speaking countries), we’re on to something. Some lessons from those jams:

  • Drive events around design challenges / shared action. This boosts collaboration and gives purpose to the event. Specific, value-add challenges work better than very general ones (i.e. we got more action around the “Beyond Comments” challenge than from the broad “People=Powered News”.
  • Articulate what makes the participant group unique. For MoJo, it was about bringing journalists, techies, and designers together to work on a specific problem set. This is also what we’re trying at the festivals, for example in Barcelona with the educators and web geeks. This gives another sense of purpose and focus.
  • Frame the local event in a broader narrative arc that goes beyond the immediate timeframe. The Knight-Mozilla jams lead up to a longer term fellowship program and global conversation, and they’re a great feeder for the forthcoming festival, which focuses on Media, Freedom, and the Web.
  • Provide assets to make it easier for organizers to plug and play. Evolve those assets when more ideas / improvements come in. We did this for the MoJo jams, for example adding the bingo icebreaker cards from Jennie in New York and slides in Spanish made by Renata in Guatemala.
  • Run an evaluation afterward. That’s in progress now for MoJo, and the results will be shared soon.

There’s much to learn and to discuss together around what types of events, themes, and processes work. Would love to hear from you all what you think about the above and from Mozilla events you’ve attended.