Reflections on a Biblio-Social Experiment

On our last Net Tuesday (December 1), we held the Philly Net Tuesday Book UNclub at Robin’s Bookstore.  The idea was pretty straightforward… We would discuss books in Net Tuesday’s scope of interest: social networking/media, nonprofit technology and social change.  (That’s the “biblio” part.)  And we would use the style of an unconference, in which participants set their own agenda.  (That’s the “social” part.)  As far as any of us knew, this wasn’t really done before.  (And that’s the “experiment” part.)

We were fortunate that Lindsay Tabas video recorded parts of the evening (and also led one of the book discussions).  She put together a really great, short piece that nicely captures the spirit of the evening.  Thank you, Lindsay!

A Biblio Social Experiment from Lindsay Tabas on Vimeo.

We had about 16 people show up, exhibiting our typical mix of techies and nonprofit/activist types.  And, thankfully, people were open-minded about taking part in an experiment.  We started with 3×5 cards with names of the 25 books that people had submitted to the Google spreadsheet over the previous month.  Then we added additional books suggested by the folks who showed up.  We eliminated those books from the spreadsheet that nobody present had read, or felt comfortable enough to generate a discussion, and came away with the following 9 ititles.

  1. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software by Steven Johnson
  2. Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder by David Weinberger
  3. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky
  4. Our Choice:  A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis by Al Gore
  5. Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide by Mark Warschauer
  6. The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas by G. Richard Shell and Mario Moussa
  7. The New Community Rules: Marketing on the Social Web by Tamar Weinberg
  8. The New Rules of Marketing and PR: How to Use News Releases, Blogs, Podcasting, Viral Marketing and Online Media to Reach Buyers Directly by David Meerman Scott
  9. Twitterville: How Business Can Thrive in the New Global Neighborhoods by Shel Israel

We arranged the cards into a 3 by 3 matrix for 9 breakout groups  (a 15-minute round of 3 breakout groups, followed by a second round, and a third).  Inevitably there was some chaos, especially during switching times, but discussions seemed quite engaged.  In fact, one of the most obvious problems was that 15 minutes was just too short for a discussion on almost all of these books.

So, this was our biblio-social experiment.  And, I believe it went fairly well.  We did some whole-group debriefing at the end, and the following constructive suggestions were made:

  • Have more time to talk about each book, which might be accomplished in a couple of ways:
    • Talk about fewer books (i.e., fewer, but longer rounds)
    • Pre-select the books before the event, since the selection process at the beginning of the evening was too heavy and time-consuming.  This could be done with the group (crowd) still making the selection, as opposed to any individual.
  • Narrow the subject focus more.
  • Try this format with media other than books, like blogs, articles.
  • Circulate information about the items to be discussed before the meeting, so people could do some prep if they wanted.

I think these are all great suggestions.  As an experiment, I think it was successful, and certainly worth trying again, incorporating some of these ideas.  But Philly Net Tuesday probably won’t return to this format before later next year at the earliest.  And, maybe this format could work elsewhere.  Anybody have the phone number for the Free Library of Philadelphia?

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