Netsquared 2009: Making the Virtual Proximal

What the Netsquared conference really bears out is the essential role that live events still play in weaving the fabric of social networks.
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As someone who organizes nonprofit technology events for a living, I spend a lot of time reflecting on what role live convenings should play in this ever-more virtually networked world. The Netsquared conference in San Jose last week gave me plenty of food for those particular thoughts.

Netsquared, an initiative of TechSoup Global, works to drive adoption of social web tools by nonprofits and activists through several different channels of engagement. The centerpiece of the program is an annual event held in May at Cisco in San Jose, California. NetSquared also fosters monthly face-to-face meetups for social innovators in 33 cities around the globe, and has incubated hundreds of social action projects in various stages of development, including the award of more than $240,000 in financial support through prized-based Challenges.

The NetSquared Challenge is the focal point of the annual event, rolled out with a different theme each year. Social technology innovators are invited to submit projects that meet contest criteria and address the Netsquared vision of social impact through emerging social technologies. This year's contest focused on the role of mobile technology in social change, and the entries reflected the diversity of possibilities that emerging mobile technologies offer to social justice activists. The top vote-getter, FrontlineSMS: Medic, enables community health workers to deliver efficient healthcare to rural areas of the developing world via SMS text messages. The second-highest vote-getter, The Extraordinaries, is a platform that enables citizens to perform "micro-volunteer" tasks on their phones when they find themselves with small amounts of time, such as waiting at a bus stop or in line at the bank. Other projects explored how mobile devices can let citizens hold governments more accountable, support agricultural supply chains in developing countries, and be used to report issues such as potholes and safety concerns to local officials.

The contest is unique in that competition is balanced with collaboration between both the entrants and other interested parties. The process is supported by a platform designed to enhance that collaboration; once contest entries are submitted, they are publicly visible on the web site, and Netsquared community members are encouraged to ask questions, provide critique, and offer suggestions to each project in the time leading up to the voting. That voting is done fully online, and this year 15 entries out of 72 submissions were selected to be "Featured Projects" who would travel to San Jose to pitch their visions in a live format where three conference participants would vote for their favorite projects and the top three vote-getters would be crowned.

The live event in fact weaved to together two convenings of otherwise distributed virtual communities. In addition to the mobile practioners who came to participate, about 15 of the "Net Tuesday" coordinators from around the world attended. These individuals organize meet-ups in their respective cities on a monthly basis, and were quite energized to meet in person and exchange ideas for programming, outreach and community engagement. This layer of interaction juxtaposed with various mobile innovators sharing ideas and scheming new tools created a vivid live landscape, and created momentum to sustain online collaborations after the event.

It's interesting to reflect on how the virtual and distributed nature of Netsquared feeds energy into the live event. More traditional conferences are seeing steep decline in participation; stalwarts like LinuxWorld have had to retrench and re-brand in response to waning registration. But the Netsquared conference saw its highest registration ever this year in a down economy, and it's not hard to connect the dots and see that a well-facilitated virtual community generates a demand for genuine human contact; when online community members are enjoying the experience, they long to see who is behind the email addresses and virtual personas.

That said, as a live event "purist," there is still one unsolved dynamic in this brave new information era. Participants at Netsquared predominantly did the standard information warrior multi-tasking, churning email, surfing the web, tweeting observations and chatting in event "back channels" with their laptops while presenters spoke about their various visions for a mobile-powered better world. I believe the ultimate goal of live events in the era of virtualized camaraderie is to find ways to get participants to put away the laptops and remain fully present in the room. At Netsquared, the project sessions and the interactive "garage" sessions buzzed with interactivity, but plenary keynote speakers addressed a veritable sea of portable technology in play. I'll be interested to see how this conference and others evolve to maximize the types of interactions that can't be rendered through a keyboard.

Looking back on the whirlwind of last week, what the Netsquared conference really bears out is the essential role that live events still play in weaving the fabric of social networks. Having what exists as a virtual community for 51 weeks of the year come together in person brings dimensionality to the program that can't be established electronically. Trust relationships are best established and strengthened in person, and collaborative dialogs and serendipitous friendships take on a whole different hue when adrenalized by physical proximity. Netsquared better than any other structured conference I've been to understands how to meld the virtual interaction with the proximal to get the best of both.

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