When the significance of having over 1500 people participate in an online conference sunk in, I needed to explore what brought them there. Of course, individual motivations differ, but by talking to people from different backgrounds, some themes emerged. The bottom line: There are more reasons for you to participate than you imagined.
I’ve already told the story of what went on at Cyberweek 2012 in previous blog posts, here and here. However, trying to figure out the question of ‘What are all of these folks doing here?’ required more legwork.
After talking to quite a few Cyberweekers, I broke down Cyberweek’s participants into three categories: Conference presenters, ODR providers demonstrating their platforms and services, and conference attendees – who make up the bulk of the crowd, of course. Here are some of the responses I received from members of each of these groups to my questions of “Why did you attend?” or ‘What did you get out of Cyberweek?”
Conference presenters got the chance to air their ideas out in front of a huge community, to receive direct feedback on their ideas and to be present as community discussions emerged, taking their ideas into completely new plains. Dr. Pablo Cortes of the University of Leicester, who co-facilitated a discussion on the EU’s ODR initiative, shared the value of this fresh wave of idea-reviewing: “I found that raising a topic for discussion by Cyberweek participants really helped to bring awareness in, and brainstorming on, the fast moving field of ODR –this is indeed one of the main goals for the forthcoming EU’s ODR initiative. I feel that the discussion on the topic of the EU’s ODR initiative helped us to understand that there are many practical issues that they still need to be worked out. In so doing we need to be sensible to the needs of people and markets as well as to the new paradigms that the online environment brings with itself.” Blogging on Cyberweek, Dan Rainey echoed these thoughts, saying “It is always the case that even those of us who think about technology and conflict engagement a lot will find in the Cyberweek interactions something to stretch our thinking or open up new ways of looking at the world.”
Dr. Leah Wing of UMASS Amherst, who facilitated a discussion on the topic of Cyberbullying, shared another benefit of the wave of attention Cyberweek provides issues in ODR: raising the profile of important topics and hastening their ripening for future development. It was exciting to see the seriousness and passion with which the participants engaged this topic”, she says. "The discussion lead to creative suggestions about how technology could be used to educate about and respond to Cyberbullying especially in social media contexts. I am optimistic that these will serve as a stimulus for further developments on this urgent issue."
Yet another aspect was named by Dr. Anita Vestal, who facilitated a discussion on Recognizing and Facilitating Emotions in the online world. She suggested that Cyberweek provides an international, intercultural fishbowl for discussing ideas in. this allows us to receive instant feedback on the cultural veracity of ideas generally accepted as truisms in the ODR world. For example, she says “Participants from all over the world agreed that emotions are integral to conflict resolution, online or face to face. One benefit of a text-based process mentioned by many reminds us that a cooling down period is sometimes needed to allow emotions to settle. Text-based dialog has that "break" built in... we can delay response until we feel emotionally ready.” Given that time and pacing are certainly culturally-affected elements in dispute resolution, this feedback is very helpful.
ODR service providers
ODR service providers have been demonstrating their platforms at Cyberweek since its inception – and no, they are not there just for the advertising.
I’ve already discussed Smartsettle’s Cyberweek participation in a previous blog. Smartsettle has been participating in Cyberweek for many years now, but the roster of service providers participating in the conference is by no means static. Clare Fowler demonstrated Mediate.com’s new case management system. “Participating in Cyberweek helped us reach a new target audience”, she says, “We were able to discuss our innovations in the field with techno-savvy, interested people. I enjoyed having a conversation with leaders in the online dispute resolution field, a conversation that I expect to continue throughout the year. Working with the Cyberweek online platform at ADRHub.com was much easier than I expected. It was a great way to share ideas and information.”
All of the service providers I spoke with returned to this notion of engaging with participants as a method of learning. Nobody claims to have staked out the absolute last word, best practice or best platform for resolving disputes online, and everybody realizes that the next great idea could be out there, waiting to take form in a chance discussion or meeting of the minds at Cyberweek. In that sense, Cyberweek is the crowdsourcing of ODR innovation – and everybody wants to be a part of that. Perhaps Colin Rule put this best when he told me “We at Modria love Cyberweek, as you can see from our extensive participation. If only we could have this kind of high quality dialogue with all the leading ODR minds in the world every week - wouldn't that be heaven!”
The wonderful thing about Cyberweek is that, given the interactive nature of all its activities, the line between ‘presenter’ and ‘participant’ can get blurred (in a positive way!) about ten minutes into each webinar or three posts into a topical discussion forum. Participants come to Cyberweek, speak up, and become part of the creative weave that Cyberweek ultimately is.
I was particularly interested in responses I received from a category of participants whom I believe will be the fastest-growing group of Cyberweek participants in the future: students, recent graduates and starting-out ADR professionals, interested in using technology as a means of jumpstarting their practice and expanding their potential for involvement in conflict engagement.
Mat Beecher participated in Cyberweek first as a student in Creighton University’s graduate program on NDR, and more recently as an alumnus of this program and an ADR practitioner. What brought him back to Cyberweek? “I wanted to gain a deeper appreciation regarding the nuisances of how we share and communicate information online”, he says. Since obtaining his masters degree in dispute resolution, Mat has been developing a website and practice, Sounds Like Resolution, volunteering with Community Mediation Services in Eugene, Oregon and working with his neighborhood’s Facebook group (akin to a virtual neighborhood watch). Mat works with the group’s moderator on issues such as neutrality, attribution, in-groups & out-groups, etc. He also posts articles and other resources related to relevant issues such as flaming and cyber-bullying. “I try to help our neighborly discussions to stay constructive by reframing, providing objective criteria, and trying to focus on people’s interests.” In that context, Mat shares, “I really got a lot from Leah Wing’s discussion on Cyber-bullying, Bill Warter’s learning module Communication Theory & ODR , and Bernie Mayer’s closing webinar on Enduring Conflict and Technology.” One topic Mat posted on throughout the week was that of means for encouraging parties to have more trust in ODR. When asked how this theme relates to his personal experiences, Mat stated, “I’ve recognized that some conflicts in my neighborhood we’ve been able to resolve online, but also that some people seem to have a greater difficulty communicating online and/or trusting ODR. More often than not I find myself scheduling face-to-face sessions with my neighbors.”
Colorado Springs –based practitioner Kerri Schmitt, another graduate of Creighton’s program, also stressed the value of the international, intercultural discussions of trust which have been on Cyberweek’s program, in one form or another, for as long as this writer can remember. “Broken trust is at the heart of conflict”, she says. “The webinar on ‘Building Trust in Online Environments was an excellent discussion of theory and specific interventions I can use to support repair of damaged relationships”. In addition to learning, Kerri noted that she benefitted from her participation in Cyberweek on a motivational level as well as through the opportunity it provided her for networking. “Having the opportunity to speak directly with the online innovators in conflict resolution was exciting and sparked new ideas I can’t wait to implement! I’ve been expanding my own mediation practice to include online mediation and facilitation. Cyberweek was a wonderful opportunity to network with others who are exploring this very exciting tool. I really appreciate all the hard work that goes into Cyberweek. The access to experts and innovators in the field as well as the convenience of tapping in on my schedule was a great help”.
There are probably 1500 other motivations for participating in Cyberweek, based on the number of participants we had this year, but I think these are a good start. Still – just the tip of the iceberg! What brought you to Cyberweek? What are you looking forward to next year? Chip in, and help shape Cyberweek 2013!