Participant Interaction Messaging
improving the conference process
- / -
A simple solution: participant messaging
Problems of misuse
Improving and maturing the process
Additional options and variants
Origin and case studies
Attitudes towards the messaging process
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
|#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:
- participants preferring coffee table exchanges to formal sessions,
- participants simply bored with preplanned sessions and finding excuses to leave the
conference site (whether for business engagements or tourism),
- participants intimidated by the proficiency of those who frequently participate in such
- small group sessions failing to bring together the people who could fruitfully interact,
- participants frustrated in their efforts to present ideas to others, possibly because of
discussion time constraints,
- participants irritated by the formality or informality of the conference process (e.g.
style of chairperson, protocol arrangements, etc.),
- experienced participants 'holding back' from active involvement in
discussion sessions in order to give inexperienced newcomers an opportunity,
- speakers frustrated in their inability to continue a dialogue with participants after
their presentation (and possibly on other topics),
- participant irritation at use of discussion time by some to publicise their interests
and views in order to make useful contacts,
- participants and speakers unable to correct misunderstandings which appear to have
arisen from their interventions,
- pre-planned topics preventing discussion of spontaneously emergent topics or those of
interest to a participant minority,
- participants with several interests unable to communicate ideas to sessions organized in
parallel with the one corresponding to their major interest or obligation,
- ideas distorted by poor simultaneous interpretation,
- participants having difficulty in determining the people with whom discussions would be
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
|#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:
- comments on points made by speakers in plenary (or elsewhere)
- questions, possibly addressed to specific speakers, factions or coalitions
- remarks on statements in the conference documentation, or on the programme as a whole
- initiatives on which they are seeking support from other participants
- invitations to attend spontaneously organized meetings (whether in a conference room, or
at some location such as a coffee room)
- organizational or other queries and complaints
- humorous observations, wisdom, meta-reflections (appropriate or otherwise)
- comments on previous messages
- non-text messages, such as sketches or cartoons, may also be accepted.
- - etc.
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:
- omit their names so that remarks are anonymous
- use a pseudonym, as appropriate
- use their names, possibly with a pigeonhole (or hotel room) number to which replies can
- use a collective name in the case of a remark formulated by a group of participants.
5. Message boxes: Messages can then be inserted by participants in
'Participant Interaction Boxes' located at any or all of the following:
- the conference reception/registration area
- the main conference room (outside)
- the conference room (inside)
- the hotel reception area.
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:
- insert the message as received without translation. This involves the minimum
effort and delay
- pass 'other language' messages to translators, with the object of
including them in the Bulletin in the 'major' conference language after
- translate all messages into each conference language with the object of producing
the Bulletin in different language editions (preferably reproduced on paper of
different colours, to avoid confusion).
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).
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).
The only 'editorial' problems in the process as described above are:
- separation of messages on the same topic, to maintain the sense of variety
- separation of messages from the same person, if someone has enthusiastically inserted
- mixing humorous, serious and other messages
- minimal standardisation of treatment of participant name (e.g. in parentheses at the end
- minimal standardisation of reference to previous messages by their number (e.g. 3/59:
meaning issue 3, message 59; although 59 would be sufficient).
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).
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
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:
- request comments from those available just prior to the conference,
- extract significant comments from pre-conference correspondence,
- generate a few stimulating comments himself. This is unnecessary after the first few
issues have launched the process.
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
9. Bulletin frequency: As noted above, the more frequent it is, the more
significant it appears as an alternative communication vehicle:
- At a frequency of one a day, it may well be out of phase with the speed of development
of the meeting
- Twice a day is perhaps the easiest to manage with minimum organization
- If an issue is available at the end of every session (i.e. at meal and coffee breaks),
it is well integrated into the conference process
- Under certain conditions it may be useful to arrange for collection of messages and
distribution of Bulletin issues during long plenary sessions (see below). This
depends on whether the chair arrangement impedes movement of ushers.
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.
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
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
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
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
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,
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:
- enthusiastic advocacy of some special course of action
- humorous insights (possibly about organizational arrangements)
- wise, philosophical, meta-comments.
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:
- critical comments on plenary statements and conference objectives
- appreciative comments
- messages reacting to the content of other messages.
|#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
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:
- mediatory comments attempting to reconcile extreme positions
- recognition of complementarities and relationships
- evaluative comments comparing several viewpoints.
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'
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
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
|#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
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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).
- Participant messaging can be implemented effectively using post-its, typewriters,
stand-alone word-processors or networked facilities, depending on the resources available
and the quality of presentation desired. The process can be integrated into e-mail and
- Minimizing turn-around time is one of the most vital features of the process, if
participants are to perceive it as a viable medium of exchange. Sacrificing quality of
presentation to lower turn-around time is an appropriate decision.
- Clearly the process works best where the meeting organizers are actively supportive,
rather than indifferent or hostile. It is important for the organizers to encourage
participants to communicate through the medium, rather than to compete for scarce
- It remains clear that at the average conference, participants in general tend to be
reluctant to communicate, even when given the opportunity -- despite assumptions to the
contrary. The messaging system may be used to stimulate passive participants, but this
remains a central concern (as it is on computer conferences). The 'wrong' people
may communicate excessively, whilst the 'right' people may remain silent.
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
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
7. Anthony Judge. Enhancing communication at a large conference/festival (using
computer conferencing). Transnational Associations, 29, 1977, 12, pp.
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]