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MEETING ONLINE WITH MARC WEISS AND BARRY JOSEPH
APRIL 7, 2010
ANNOUNCER: Metanomics is owned and operated by Remedy and Dusan Writer's Metaverse.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Hi. I'm Robert Bloomfield, professor at Cornell University's Johnson
Graduate School of Management. Today we continue exploring Virtual Worlds in the larger
sphere of social media, culture, enterprise and policy. Naturally, our discussion about Virtual
Worlds takes place in a Virtual World. So join us. This is Metanomics.
ANNOUNCER: Metanomics is filmed today in front of a live audience at our studios in Second
Life. We are pleased to broadcast weekly to our event partners and to welcome discussion. We
use ChatBridge technology to allow viewers to comment during the show. Metanomics is
sponsored by the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. Welcome.
This is Metanomics.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Welcome, everyone, to Metanomics. Today we've got a fascinating
show. We have two guests who have worked together before and are still working now on an
HBO documentary. We have Barry Joseph, who is director of Global Kids Online Leadership
Program, and people who have watched Metanomics before know that he was on--last time it
was also doing a co-appearance with someone else he was working with, also through Global
Kids. That time it was to focus on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. This time
Barry's friend and co-guest is Marc Weiss.
Marc Weiss has been an extremely influential filmmaker and journalist. He is the creator of the
Public Television series POV, Point of View, which, as I understand it, has won just about every
award that a documentary series can possibly win. And he's also the founder of Web Lab, which
is an organization that actually has been breaking new ground using the internet as a medium to
integrate with documentaries, and we'll be hearing a lot about that today, naturally, because
integrating forms of broadcasting with online interaction is of great interest to the Metanomics
community. So, Barry, Marc, welcome to Metanomics.
MARC WEISS: Great to be here.
BARRY JOSEPH: Beyers, it's great to be back.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: We're so glad you're here. You guys are working together for a new
documentary for HBO, called Meeting Online. Let's just start with that. Marc, what can viewers
expect to see when Meeting Online airs on HBO next year?
MARC WEISS: Well, I'm not sure. I think part of the idea is to put together something that will
surprise people, so I'm not sure what I can tell you in terms of expectation or not.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Fair enough.
MARC WEISS: Let me give you a quick background on how we're putting it together and what
its roots are. It'll be a one-hour show and will consist entirely of stories that we will film and edit.
My partner on the production is Robert Kenner, who is a veteran documentary filmmaker. Most
recently, last year he made a film called Food, Inc., which was not made for an Oscar, which
played theatrically for many months in a lot of cities, not only in this country, but in Europe as
The stories that are told in the broadcast on HBO are all going to be built out of stories that
we're collecting online through a website, which I will plug now and forever throughout the show.
It's meeting-stories.org, with a hyphen between meeting and stories. And there are sample
stories up there. We're publishing stories, some of those that are coming in, and there's also a
place obviously on the site where people can submit new stories, can be submit it as text, as a
YouTube video. There's a place you can click a button, and you'll get a phone call from Google
Voice, and you'll be able to speak your story in. It'll be recorded, and we'll use the audio or
transcribe it or both.
So the idea is, we're putting out as broad an invitation as possible, and Barry will talk about this
in a minute, for people to tell a personal story about one or more people that they met in an
online environment and how that extended into the real-life environment. And we're particularly
interested in the ways in which the internet is changing relationships, changing not only the way
people meet, but also how they interact afterward.
So there are little samplers, and one of the stories on our YouTube channel, and that story is
about a woman who lives in New Jersey who met a man living in Prague, Czechoslovakia,
online. I don't want to give away the entire story, but it began online, and it developed very
quickly online, and then it led to some really surprising things in the Real World. But it's also not
just about internet dating; it's about people who meet professionally, and we've gotten stories
from people who worked for a particular company and felt they were being exploited and found
each other online, to give each other support, and then that ends up turning into personal
support and friendship for years and years. There are all sorts of permutations. So our
expectation is that the stories that actually make it into the hour show on HBO, each one of
them will have some surprises.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I saw, looking online today at the page at the website called Stories,
you have tags, and the size of the tag indicates how many stories there are at this point. Second
Life is the largest tag or one of the largest. So I guess I'd encourage our viewers to go check
that out and see what stories have already made it on, and certainly they should add. Barry, you
BARRY JOSEPH: And we can certainly share some highlights from that, Beyers, if you like.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Oh, yeah. I'd love to hear some--
BARRY JOSEPH: I'm saying we can certainly share some of the highlights from those.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yeah, let's hear them.
BARRY JOSEPH: Some of the stories we're getting, of course, are positive and people talking
about how they met people who had become very significant in their lives, whether people
they're partnered with now romantically or people who have impacted how they think of
themselves. Some of them are negative, and they're not the happy stories, so we think it's very
important that we make it clear that we're not trying to do one view or the other. We're not trying
to do a piece--I say "we," of course, supporting Marc and Robbie in the process. What they're
creating is not just about talking about the things that people should be afraid of online and, at
the same time, is not about just giving a Pollyanna's view of this wonderful, magical potential,
but reality--kind of cutting between the two and trying to get into the reality, get into the good
stories. And sometimes the stories are happy, and sometimes they're sad.
There's three stories currently featured right now, and, just to be clear, anyone who submits a
story is putting a story in to be considered for the documentary. And the stories that Marc thinks
are the best get featured and go live, and people can see publicly. One of the stories right now
I'll talk about and then, Marc, I'll pass it back to you, and you can mention another. We often use
the phrase, "We're in Kansas anymore." One of my favorite ones that's been featured starts in
World of Warcraft, moves over to Second Life and then, in the Real World, ends up in Kansas,
and it’s a woman talking about her experiences, in many ways, the life around her just
crumbling: her business's, her family's, her relationships.
And yet, World of Warcraft, through one of her children, becomes a place for her, a place of
solace and a place to make connections. And through that she makes an unexpected
connection with somebody that transfers from the online to the offline world. And through that
relationship comes a certain level of stability so that World of Warcraft no longer becomes a
form of kind of self-medication one could say. When she looks for other places online to
connect, Second Life becomes that place, and that becomes a place where she gets more of
healthy relationships that help sustain her. And then that Real World relationship she now has
with a person she met from World of Warcraft becomes her partner, and then together they
move to Kansas, where he's from. So it's a very nice story. Marc, do you want to talk about any
of the other two?
MARC WEISS: I think probably we should use the time here to talk about other things. People
can certainly go and look at the site, so I'll pass on that opportunity but certainly would
encourage people to take a look at the stories that are on the site. You can do searches three or
four different ways. You can certainly just search with the term "Second Life," and you'll get the
three stories that have been published. We've probably had about a dozen submitted that touch
on Second Life in one way or another.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Now, Barry, you're wearing a big button that I understand what
people can just drag a note card over and submit their story that way. Hopefully, Treet can get a
nice capture of what--
BARRY JOSEPH: Thank you for noticing.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: --while you tell us. Yeah. Will you tell us what exactly is Global Kids'
role in this documentary? Because there are no stories about kids. Is that right?
BARRY JOSEPH: Thanks for asking. That's right. And, as your viewers know who have heard
us here in the past, both myself and Rik Panganiban, the majority of our work is working with
young people, using a variety of digital media, including Virtual Worlds like Second Life. But
what we also do is support educators and civic and culture institutions, to bring digital media into
their education, and, as such, a lot of our work is working with adults. We have created and are
part of many networks of educators and other adults who care about what's happening in the
So when Marc and I were having lunch last fall and he told me about this project, that they had
some stories already but they needed a few more, we said, "Well, what about us? We can bring
a lot to the table and using our resources and our knowledge of Web 2.0 spaces and our
networks, to try and bring in some stories." And, again, not just stories about relationships that
are romantic, but all types of relationships and really kind of highlight the ways that the internet
has the potential to deeply impact people's lives through relationships online that can then have
an impact offline.
So we're doing all the kind of things that many viewers can imagine. We're doing stuff in
Facebook, on Twitter. We're doing stuff on YouTube, and, of course, we're doing stuff in Second
Life as well. We've gone to many of the Second Life groups within Facebook. We've gone to
many of the groups, a variety of sorts, within Second Life, in a number of communities, from
people organized around disability issues to people who are going to certain types of clubs.
Because we know that to reach to people in Second Life, you go where people are.
We were really excited when the folks from Linden Lab had contacted us when they heard
about it and said, "What can we do to help? How can we help get out the word so we can get
some of the good stories about what's happening in Second Life?" And we were delighted to get
that response, but, at the same time, I know from my time of almost six years-plus, I think, in
Second Life, the way to get to folks is to go directly to the communities, to go into things like the
SLED List, posting on RezEd.org. Thanks, Fleep, you got it: RezEd.org, the online community
for educators using Virtual Worlds.
And it's been so exciting seeing stories come in. And while we've been delighted by having
certain online dating sites, who also want to help us out and are trying to send folks their way.
The stories we get from folks in Second Life don't feel like they're coming from any company.
Right? They feel like they're coming from individual users who have their stories to tell for better
and for worse, and they're honest, and they're grounded, and they're emotional. And they
include stories, and they include videos, and they really tell very compelling stories about how
Second Life has made a difference in someone's life. Sometimes as individuals.
And most of the stories we tend to get are between two people, but many of the stories we've
gotten that are about groups of people have been Second Life stories. They've been people
who've used them for education, for example, or support groups, and that says a lot, I think,
about how people use Second Life to connect, that isn't just one on one, but it's also many to
many. But small groups. And it says a lot about the power that a small group can have and the
abilities for Second Life to support small groups to find each other and make a difference in their
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: As long as we're talking about people meeting, how did you two
BARRY JOSEPH: Marc, do you want to start or should I?
MARC WEISS: I'll kick it off. I had been working at POV for about ten years and had been
doing a lot of different kinds of experiments with internet tools in the early '90s, had several
experiments that were just wonderful beyond our dreams, had really incredible impact on the
people who participated in the online environment. This was '95 and '96 so, by '96, I was really
excited about the potential of the internet, but could also see that we needed to carve out some
space for nonprofit, public-interest work because it was already beginning to be apparent that
commercial interests were going to come in and potentially, with the resources they have,
dominate. So I decided to leave POV and start this organization, Web Lab, in late '96, early '97.
Barry, why don't you pick it up from there? What did you see about Web Lab?
BARRY JOSEPH: Well, I think the first piece of press you got was in the New York Times,
although I don't remember if it was the only online version to cover the internet at the time. I
forget when that moved over. I remember Lisa Napoli wrote the piece. And, at that time, I was
working in the commercial web-development world. I had been on track to become a social
worker when, in the summer of '95, internet stuff started in New York City, the whole new media
scene, and I thought it would be something fun to do for a few months before the internet went
away. Well, still here. But during that time, I left to do the commercial work and kind of cut my
teeth in that space, but though I learned a lot and enjoyed a lot about it, the things that made me
interested in social work was also making me feel like the commercial work I was doing, doing
things like producing Car and Driver Magazine online, was kind of soulless.
I was going to go back. I was going to leave New Media. I was going to go back to social work,
and I thought, well, let me take one last stab. If I can find a way to do what interests me around
social work, which was about helping people address issues, social issues, public issues that
impact their lives, that address issues around things like racism and sexism, but use internet as
a way to either talk about those issues or let people personally explore them, that would be
worth sticking around. I didn't know if it was possible. I didn't know if it was even something that
could happen on the internet. And then I read this article about what Marc was doing.
Suzanne Seggerman had just started as well, and the two of them had this idea to, as Marc's
talking about, fund people to do innovative stuff on the internet, around personal and social
issues. Except it was clear to me that they didn't have anyone who knew websites. I didn't know
Marc personally at the time, but I certainly knew POV. I knew things like Tongues Untied that
had created lots of national attention around what it meant to be Black and to be gay. I knew
about Michael Moore, who came up through POV., and the idea of what this man could with the
internet, taking that same kind of passion and commitment, was tremendously exciting.
This is a project we're working on now about people meeting online. I read about what he was
doing online, and I emailed him. He wasn't looking to hire someone. There was no job opening,
but I figured I had nothing to lose. I was going to leave New Media, and I might as well describe
what, for me, would be the perfect job, working with him and just give it a shot. So I wrote this
maybe page, page and a half, "You should hire me and here's why," and I sent it off to him.
Marc, what did you think when you got it?
MARC WEISS: I thought, "Wow! This is amazing." As you said, I wasn't looking to hire another
person at that point, but I thought, "Well, I better check this guy out," and I think I emailed you
back, and I said, "Let's meet for breakfast or something, and--
BARRY JOSEPH: Which became before breakfast.
MARC WEISS: Yes, well, they always do. And I just wanted to find out who you were and how
your mind worked and what your passions were. And the more we talked, the more I realized I
ought to create a position for you. I ought to figure out--it would be an incredible opportunity lost
if I didn't figure out a way to carve out some space for you at Web Lab. And once I said, "What
can this be," you had more ideas than I had about what you could be doing. So this is our little
BARRY JOSEPH: [CROSSTALK] photo in Metanomics you guys put together the two of us. It
looks like we're one of the stories that was submitted.
MARC WEISS: We don't have to beat this story to death. Basically we began to work together,
and Barry brought brilliance. I do take exception to one thing you said, Barry. Actually, I had
been doing websites for two years before that so I knew my way around the web, but--
BARRY JOSEPH: Absolutely.
MARC WEISS: --you brought a lot of other perspectives into it and incredible energy and
imagination. I think Web Lab was really shaped as much by your ideas and your vision as it was
by anybody's. And one of the projects that I know Rob was interested in was the small
group-dialogue technique that we developed together, but that was originally your brainchild. Do
you want to talk about that for a second?
BARRY JOSEPH: Sure. I appreciate your sending it back to me, and I'll give you as much
credit as me. One of the things that we were able to do early on at Web Lab was think about
how can the internet support existing old-media projects, like documentaries on television. And
given Marc's relationship with POV, we had a great opportunity to work with really powerful
documentaries and incredible content and figure out how to support people online to connect
with it. But Marc and I both had similar experience, but in different ways with dialogues online,
and Marc can talk about more the details of his, but we both had experiences where we saw it
was very possible for people to have really substantive, hard-hitting conversations with
strangers on the internet, using text. And, at the same time, we saw many, many of these things
just evolve into absolute nonsense, flame wars and what not.
So we were interested in trying to figure out for POV how to create a space that could guarantee
good conversations for every single one of these documentaries, pretty high bar. What we
started looking at, at the time, was how it wasn't the secret to having a good conversation, it
was in finding the right people. And the secret wasn't having the right topic. The secret was
looking at how the current structure of how conversations were held at the time online played
into certain notions which I think deserves to be criticized, that were inherent in part of what
made the internet so exciting at first. It was that space where you can do whatever you want.
So many of the libertarian values that shaped online communities created spaces for online
dialogue that meant that anyone could say whatever they wanted. There shouldn't be any
restrictions to getting in. And pretty much the bad voices would just shout out the good. If you
went to a New York Times article at the time and you read the comments, and probably if you
do it now as well, you'd see lots of people posting things, and, at best, you have people posting
one good comment and leaving.
And so what we decided to do was see what happens if you change the structure. Right? Let's
say for the sake of argument you have a thousand people who want to talk about a topic. Rather
than having a thousand people in one space to communicate, why don't we break it down to
groups of 50, 20 groups, a number that roughly gives you enough people where even people
who are silent make an impact because you notice them not speaking. And everyone can learn
Rather than having everyone commit to do it for an indefinite period of time that runs into the
future, let's say it's going to be for three weeks. You can really say we're going to start and end
together, rather than being a revolving door for each person. What if you took a line between
anyone can say whatever they wanted and someone coming in as a really heavy-handed
moderator. We called this indirect moderation where we would suggest topics, and we would
kind of move people in certain directions, but, in the end, it was up to the people in the group to
decide if it worked well or if it didn't work at all.
Finally, we just put out values, civil values, civic values about what should happen in that space,
just as everyone does, and most people we figured just would zoom to the bottom and click "I
agree." But what happened because we were empowering people in the conversations is that,
when people did act out--and people would occasionally act out--other people in the group felt
empowered to police it. And so as a result, we ended up with this really powerful technique that
we didn't just use at POV, but put together for my three years when I was at Web Lab and
separately since I went on to Global Kids and what Marc's continued at Web Lab we've done
some really powerful things working with different governmental agencies, nonprofits, work
we've done with MacArthur Foundation, to get people across all sorts of boundaries to really
connect on really hot-button issues and always do it in a very civil way, creating really powerful
conversations for both the people who are in it and for people who want to watch it online or
read the archives.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: You're describing asynchronous text conversations. Right? So
basically comment threads, like you would see on the New York Times. Is that right?
BARRY JOSEPH: That sounds so Web 2.0.
MARC WEISS: Yes and no.
BARRY JOSEPH: Yes. [CROSSTALK] going, Marc.
MARC WEISS: It is text, and there are topics within each group. The way you'd see it
structured, if you went to a typical dialogue is, first you'd go and you'd see a list of the groups,
and there'd be as many groups as there were needed to accommodate the number of people
who wanted to participate. So, as Barry said, if there were a thousand people and we'd put them
in groups of 50, there would be 20 groups. Within each of those 20 groups, there would be an
essentially bulletin-board style discussion. And, within each topic, the people who were most
interested in that topic would be posting. We would create some topics along the way for things
that we were suggesting people could talk about, but people were also free to open their own
topics at will.
We learned, over time, that there were certain topics that emerged in several or many different
groups because that's what people in a lot of different groups were interested in talking about.
We would start sending out a little newsletter once a day or once every two or three days and
say, "Well, people in groups 3, 7 and 14 are talking about these three topics, if any of you want
to pick up on that and run with it." And also people would cross-fertilize, groups who would see
things that were happening in other groups. And we would do something which we called
featured posts or featured discussions, where we would highlight some things that we thought
were particularly interesting in one group for people across all groups to be able to access.
So we try to create this kind of choreography where, as Barry said, or if he didn't say it, a phrase
that we kind of coin: Instead of the bad driving out the good, instead of the people who were
misbehaving kind of making everybody else throw up their hands in disgust and run out of the
run, we created a situation in which the good drove out the bad.
BARRY JOSEPH: That's right.
MARC WEISS: And most often it wasn't driving out the bad in the sense that people actually
left the dialogue; it was that people who were starting to misbehave, there was a kind of social
pressure on them to align with the values of the group and to be more respectful of each other.
And, in one dialogue we did during the course of the Clinton impeachment process in the fall of
1998. We had something like, what was it, 14,000 posts over the course of several months.
BARRY JOSEPH: That sounds right.
MARC WEISS: I think it was about 800 or 900 participants. We never had to kick anybody out
of that dialogue. That was one of the most polarized topics probably of the decade. People were
shouting at each other about it in all sorts of environments, people who wanted to string Clinton
up and tar and feather him. There were others who felt that he was being victimized by rightwing
But, within the dialogue that we did, which was called Reality Check, there actually were people
who disagreed, but disagreed respectfully. And we coined the term "dialogues across
differences," and it was really transformative for the people who participated. They had the
option, if they wanted to, to extend their discussion, and we started off with a three-week or
four-week, and, if they wanted to keep going, they were able to. And, in many cases, those
discussions went on for months.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I want to ask whether you see a role for synchronous voice
conversations. Would you see that being beneficial to add in so that people could, for example,
come into a Virtual World, a Second Life, with a headset and carry on a conversation perhaps
during that three-week period?
BARRY JOSEPH: It's interesting to think about ten, thirteen years later now, what does it mean
to think about trying to make the internet more personal and bring it down to size so that people
in groups can connect with each other and make a difference, now that we have all these
Web 2.0 tools, these very powerful ways. And, of course, just more powerful technology, like a
Second Life, like audio. In many ways, back in that Web 1.0 world, what you were dealing with
was getting strangers to talk to each other. And now in our Web 2.0 space, it's more like it's the
people you know, who are also online that you're connecting with.
So part of the value of what made those conversations so powerful is that you didn't know who
the other people were, and you would never know who they were. They weren't about
connecting with them in your life. At the same time, part of what we were pushing up against
was the thing that makes people want to say things that are really extreme, to get heard, the
things that make you respond from your gut, and partially slowing down the process that
allowed that to work, forcing someone who wanted to be in their own group to have to actually
wait a few hours, maybe even a few days before their group was ready to launch, forcing it to be
an environment where you were typing asynchronously. It wasn't a live chat. And when live chat
came around, we avoided including it because it forced people to have to slow down.
So I think there's something very, very useful about voice. It's great for classroom environments
to connect with each other. It’s great for this environment right here where you can simulate a
talk show within Second Life. But, to get that same kind of deep impact where people are
thinking seriously about what they're doing, thinking about the impact on the people who they're
talking to, if you're going to try and build a relationship over time, there's just something more
deliberative about text that makes me think that you don't start with voice. That's something
you'd want to bring in once those relationships are in place.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Marc, after this single HBO shows airs, what will you be doing as
follow-up? Do you see a series of small-group dialogues following that episode? And do you see
more episodes following that episode?
MARC WEISS: Well, I guess I should step back a second and describe a little bit about where
this project--what it came out of. The idea that Robby and I have been pursuing for a while was
actually to create a series, a broadcast television series, each episode of which would be
compiled based on first-person stories submitted to us online. Last year we did a little sampler
where we actually collected stories on this topic as an example of one of the topics that we
might cover in a series, kind of the way in which contemporary life is being transformed, not just
by new technologies, but also by public issues of various kinds and just the rhythm of life.
The working title for the series is Think Again, and the idea was to collect stories from across
the political spectrum, first-person stories about how somebody's attitudes or beliefs about a
particular issue, whether personal or political, whether it be about parenthood or about
unwanted pregnancies and abortion, but that we would look for first-person personal stories
about how somebody's attitudes were shaped by that experience. We would collect these
stories. We would do a selection of stories that reflected a variety of perspectives on that issue,
and then a given episode would treat that one topic.
So Robby and I, as I said, we started gathering stories last year for this topic and one other
topic, and we decided to produce a sampler on meeting-online stories because it was a little bit
more accessible. We took the sampler, which was about a 25-minute piece with three
segments, out to broadcast networks and cable networks to pitch the series idea. And what
happened was, when we brought the sampler to HBO, they said HBO doesn't actually
commission nonfiction series from outside producers. They commission fiction series, but not
nonfiction series. But they said, "We love this, and, if you wanted to expand this one thing to an
hour, we'd love to put it on." And we said, "That's great."
And our experience is, once we put it on, people who see it are going to want to tell their own
stories. And there'll be some people who are going to want to talk about it for sure. So we will try
and create opportunities, after the broadcast, for people to--obviously the site will continue to
remain open for people to submit new stories. It's easy to imagine that we'll get a whole new
rush of stories and that we could even do a follow-up show six months or a year down the road.
But, yes, if we have the resources, we also would love to do small-group dialogues for people to
be able to explore some of the issues.
The stories that we choose are going to have an emotional impact. They're going to be about
both funny, exhilarating, as well as sometimes dramatic and wrenching stories. And, yes, there
will be an opportunity for some kind of dialogue afterward. It might be a very short-term thing. It
might be just a week. It may not be topics that sustain a long-term discussion.
But, if we were able to do a follow-up show for HBO on a different topic, on unwanted
pregnancies, gays in the military or anything that's more of a polarized issue, you could imagine
a follow-up discussion that could go on for quite a long time. And, again, a dialogue across
differences, a dialogue with people who start off from very different places, but who are willing to
listen to the perspective of somebody who they wouldn't encounter in everyday life. Not just
willing to, but actually who welcome the opportunity.
BARRY JOSEPH: And even though Marc's been doing this for over 15 years now, the same
questions that he was asking when he started and I think what I was asking and got to join him
in thinking about it, about do you connect people online for civic discussion around hard-hitting
issues, we still don't have a lot of examples to look at online. We see more people who are
online, and we see ways that people are finding to connect with each other, but we still see a
lack of places for people to go to when something really hard-hitting hits the news and you want
to be able to join a space so you can connect with folks who don't just sound like you and aren't
just saying the same thing as you're saying and be able to engage in a conversation. In fact, it
might even be worse today than it was back when Marc and I started working together.
So in some ways, I'm excited we have this opportunity to share what we were doing before,
excited to talk about the project that Marc is leading right now, to show how people are
connecting online, but, at the same time, it's a little bit disheartening to think about how we
haven't moved that piece forward. We've moved people online. We've moved the potential and
the affordances of digital media and the impact it can have on civic society. We have lots of
examples of social change and people organizing. But that piece, the piece about the dialogue,
it still feels like we haven't moved that ball as forward as much as we should have.
Marc, I know how much those people were asking questions, but I'm wondering if you agree or
disagree with that.
MARC WEISS: I agree totally. And I think it would be great actually--Rob, you may have more
questions--but if there is anybody who's in the audience, who might have questions, this might
be a good time, but I'm not going to take over the host's role. I'll leave you to that, Rob.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Actually, I have one that just came in, that I think is a great one. It's
from Fleep Tuque, and she asks, "Sometimes those with the most powerful stories to tell are
hesitant to do so. How do you encourage people to tell difficult stories? Are there good
techniques to bring out stories from the shy?"
MARC WEISS: That is a terrific question. That's a great question. In the context of the website,
one of the things that we do is, we try and model a range of the kinds of stories we're looking for
so, if we can get the first or a second story from somebody who, from the way they talk about it,
you can see that they are hesitant to tell their story, but kind of tentatively stepping forward. And
if we publish that, that's one way that other people can be encouraged.
On the site, you're able to create a screen name. You don't have to be identified by your real
name. You don't have to submit pictures of yourself. So we have that anonymity that protects
people. It becomes more complicated if we want to go ahead and do something on HBO. If we
want to film you, it's conceivable we could protect your identity and film you in a way that people
couldn't see your face, and change your voice. Obviously, you can't do that too much on
television because it becomes a little bit visually monotonous. Mostly people want to see
people's expressions when they're talking.
But anyway, in the dialogue space, it's much, much more interesting. Barry mentioned before
when people are silent, they're visible, in the small-group dialogues at least. And often people
will lurk for three, four, five days, a week and then post just one tentative comment. When the
dialogue is really cooking and when people are really engaged by it, the other participants will
welcome that person into the group. That's one of the beauties of creating a structure that
people take ownership of themselves. They become the hosts. People step into that role, and
they encourage people to speak more, and they ask questions. It's a great process to see some
of the lookers come out of the shadows. Does that answer the question?
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Sorry, I had my mute button on.
BARRY JOSEPH: You got to hate that, right?
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yes, yes, I thought that was excellent. I'm not used to doing this from
a hotel room. I have a very different setup here. I'm on the 27th floor of a hotel in Chicago and
totally surrounded by fog, by the way. I can see about 30 feet out my window.
But I wanted to ask kind of a flip side of the question that Fleep asked, which is: It seems like, in
the wrong hands, this episode or a series based on this idea could turn into the worst of reality
television or one of those daytime talk shows where people end up throwing things at one
another. So I'm wondering, Marc, how do you create the right sensibility to do what you have
done and get a reputation as treating the issues with respect and not just being a sensationalist
while still engaging people?
MARC WEISS: Well, maybe I could give you an example from way back deep in history,
actually the one experience I had that really propelled me and compelled me to start Web Lab.
This is a little bit of a story, but I'll try and tell it quickly.
BARRY JOSEPH: It's a good one.
MARC WEISS: Thanks, Barry. In the summer of '96, POV was going to be broadcasting a film
about Maya Lin, who's the woman who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in
Washington. And anybody who's visited that knows that it's a very powerful experience to stand
in front of that wall. But the experience is different for each person, and it's different based on
what their relationship to the people whose names are on the wall and their relationship to the
Vietnam War. So we decided to create a website in conjunction with that broadcast that--and
this is really one of the antecedents to what we're doing right now--would be an opportunity for
people--there were two parts to the site. One was, we invited people to tell a first-person story
about how experiences during the Vietnam era shaped who they became, shaped their values,
their relationships, their career choices, whether they fought in the war and came back and felt
they had to be silent about their experiences, whether they protested the war, whether they lost
a loved one. In some cases, they were the children of people who had fought in the [AUDIO
Long before the site went public, we had a couple of people who we asked to go out and collect
starter stories for the site, which we actually solicited stories from 20, 30 different people, from a
Gold Star mother, woman who had lost a son during the war, from a decorated Vietnam vet;
from a prominent anti-war activist; from an anti-war activist whose name would not be
recognizable by anybody, just a kind of rank and file. So the idea, as you can see, is to really
get the diversity of voices and have those represented on the site.
So the moment the broadcast went on the air and the moment there was a notice at the end,
"Come and visit this website. Read the stories. Tell your story," when people went to the site,
there already were, I don't know how many, ten, fifteen, twenty stories that represented this
range and where people could see that we were genuinely interested in representing all points
of view and doing it in a way that was respectful of those points of view. And then we began the
There was also a dialogue area on the site that began in the context of two things. One was the
broadcast of the film, which was a very powerful, really moving film, not just about the building
of the wall, but about the impact that it's had on people who visit it. And then the other part of
the website, which was the stories. So the dialogue that began there, which we hoped would be
a discussion. This was I should say before the small-group dialogue technique and this was
really an open-posting bulletin board. And we had very little to say about how it unfolded.
But the dialogue on that website was so deep and so powerful, in particular for the Vietnam vets
who said that they were forced by conversations with people who they disagreed with on the
website, they were forced to rethink their own attitudes about themselves and about who had
been opposed to the war. They learned things about themselves that they had never imagined
they would ever go there. They then fed back into the dialogues, created a very rich
environment, and the online dialogue on that site, which is, by the way, still public--you can still
go back and see that website and all the dialogues are archived--14 years later. If you want to
go, the shortcut there is stories.org. The formal name of the site is Regarding Vietnam Stories
Since the War. That experience was one, a very positive one, that really kind of gave me a
glimpse into the power and the potential of the web as a place to convene people to talk about
difficult issues in a new way, in some cases, in ways that you couldn't even do in an offline
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Very interesting. Thank you. Definitely a great story to have on
Metanomics. Let's see. I see we don't have a huge amount of time left. I'd also like to get your
thoughts, Marc, on where you see I'd say "the" industry going, but you told me a little while back
you said, if you had three legs, you would have each one in a different industry. So can I ask
you first: How do you see the business that you're in? What businesses are you in?
MARC WEISS: Well, I'm involved in not so much as a business, Web Lab is a not-for-profit that
is focused on internet tools and digital life, but also how those interact with traditional media, in
particular with television and with film. Now those other two things, I've got the TV background
with POV and the new series that Robby and I are trying to launch. In the film world, I've been
an independent documentary producer for some years and producing actually two shows for
HBO now, the Meeting Online and another show that I can't talk about here right now. And then
I also executive-produced a film that was just recently finished, that's a feature film that will be
opening at a film festival in Washington, D.C. in May. That's a behind-the-scenes look at the
confirmation process for Bush's three Supreme Court nominees: Roberts, Meyers and Alito. So
I'm involved in those three areas.
And I guess what I would say about broadcasting is that it's in disarray. A lot of the major
decision-makers in broadcasting can feel that their grasp of what's going on in their medium is
slipping away. They're losing audience. Audiences are fragmenting, and they have very little
imagination about how to take advantage of new media tools to re-engage their audience in new
ways. So as Robby and I took this series idea around, which is very much a hybrid in which
we're using both new media and old media and kind of handing off between the two, we got a
lot of very puzzled looks from people who really, at this day and age, should know that this is
potentially an idea that could save their butts, pull their bacon out of the fire.
This is not to say that the conversations haven't continued. We're still talking with a couple of
those folks, and they haven't said no yet, but they haven't quite figured out how they could make
these ideas work in their broadcast environment because the news departments are cutting
back. If you watch any over-the-air broadcasts, a lot of news things are crime stories. They're
not even about public issues anymore. So that industry is in real flight, and, in particular, I think
a failure of imagination about how they could take advantage of the tools that are out there.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: So if I could follow up on that, Marc, as I say, one of what appears to
me to be one of your big innovations is the idea of creating small groups, actually almost like
fragmenting your own audience so it's almost like what you've been doing seems the opposite
of what broadcasters have traditionally tried to do, which is bring more and more people
together in a single big event, the Super Bowl or something like that. How is it that you see that
the direction you're going would be scalable and would somehow provide, ultimately, revenue
for the broadcasters or filmmakers?
MARC WEISS: Very good question. Actually, I didn't describe the model very well. Let me tell
you what the model for the series is. It's really using each of the media in ways that are most
appropriate for them. It's not trying to smoosh them together and create one thing. It's to use
broadcasting as a storytelling medium as a "one to many" medium, where you have really
crafted work that goes out, that's made by a producing team and aggregates potentially a very
large mass audience because the stories you're telling are amazing stories that you couldn't get
any other way. And everybody has a chance to tell their story, and everybody has the
possibility, in theory at least, of having their story make it onto the series.
The internet component of it and the new media component of it is the way in which you can
give each person the opportunity to have a customized experience at the level they're
interested. Some may want to just look at one of the segments streaming online. Others may
want to get into a dialogue. Others may want to submit their own story. I mean there are all sorts
of opportunities for people to do in the online environment much, much more participatory and
much, much more particular to their interests, their time and so forth.
And then, presumably that rich experience that people can have in the online environment
makes them more interested in what the next broadcast is going to be, gives them the
opportunity, for example, to suggest topics for a broadcast. So there are ways in which we could
bring people in, in a much more participatory way and create something that has an impact on
the culture, something when the broadcast goes on, on a weekly basis, we could potentially
have a lot of excitement about what stories are going to be told, what are the next topics going
to be. When people see the broadcast and we promise that two months later we’re going to do a
follow-up broadcast with the stories that come in, it's kind of taking what already happens. Right
now you can go on American Idol. You can text, and you can vote for one of the contestants;
that's just a little, teensy taste of what it could be in enriched media environment, the one that
we're trying to describe and trying to create.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. Great. Thank you. That was a very helpful clarification. I think I
understand the model a lot better now. I see we're basically at the top of the hour, and I'm sure
there are many things that we haven't touched on. What I'd like to do is ask each of you what
point you most wish we could have talked about more and that you'd like to make in closing. So,
Barry, do you want to?
BARRY JOSEPH: I would just say that so much of what we're about is not about us speaking,
but giving spaces and opportunities for others to. So clearly that's not what the format of the
show is, but I would love to be hearing more from folks about what their stories are. Part of
what's been going on during the back channel having people inspired by what Marc's been
saying, trying to figure out how we can create some kind of project where people share their
stories about what it's meant for them being in Second Life. And it's those kinds of ways that
people can be inspired by projects like this that I think is most interesting and hearing those
voices and seeing where they could go.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: And, Marc?
MARC WEISS: I really want to echo what Barry just said. The thing that's most exciting and
most interesting about this project, for me, is the voices that we hear, not our own voices, but
the voices of many people who come to the site--I'm using the word "voice" broadly here--text or
whatever it may be. And the diversity of the stories and the richness of the stories and how
deeply felt many of them are. That, to me, is the essence of what makes this project work or not
work is the ways in which people bring themselves into this project.
What I would love to be able to do is to figure out ways that there could be some collaborative
process behind the scenes so that it could be much richer for everybody. We haven't quite
gotten there yet because we're focusing on the near term, which is collecting the stories and
going out and filming them. We've got some deadlines that we've got to meet. But I think the
possibility of collaboration down the road is very exciting.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Do you have an air date set yet for this HBO show?
MARC WEISS: The tentative air date is Valentine's Day, 2011.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Oh, okay.
MARC WEISS: That could change.
BARRY JOSEPH: But I want to remind folks that, even though it's going to be a while before it
airs, stories that are featured will still be available, as of now. They already are on the website at
meeting-stories.org. You don't have to wait to see some of the amazing stories that are coming
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: And I'd like to chime in along those lines that I know, once you get the
story, there's a lot of work involved in actually having it either get into the show itself or simply
even influence the perspective that the show takes. Viewers may remember we had
Douglas Rushkoff on the show right before Virtual Nation aired, and, of course, it was too late
for us to influence that message at all, and I have to admit, even on the air, I didn't particularly
care for it, but I already said that a long time ago.
Anyway, I would like to thank you both so much for coming on the show, Barry Joseph and
Marc Weiss. Good luck to both of you as you work together to pull off this very fascinating
project. And, who knows? Maybe HBO viewers would love to hear the story of an accountant
who found Second Life and a community and became a talk-show host. I don't know. Ehh!
Probably not that riveting. But thanks so much.
I want to tell everyone, all our viewers, that this is our 99th show of Metanomics, which means
next week is our one hundredth.
BARRY JOSEPH: Congratulations!
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Thank you. Thank you. And so we're going to have a party to
celebrate and especially to thank the many, many people who have made this happen over the
last whatever it is, a little over two and a half years. We've had so many people who have been
volunteers, who have been staff members, who have been guests and supporters in other ways
and, of course, the audience and chiming in on chat, as you've done today. It couldn't happen
without you. So I hope you'll join us for our post-one-hundredth show party. It'll start about half
an hour after the show ends. And, as I think I saw someone say in chat, I actually am going to
have a jazz band and sing some standards, some songs where I change the words a little to
make them more Second Life relevant and also wrote some of my own songs.
So I hope you'll join us. See you next week. Our guest is the cofounder of--
BARRY JOSEPH: From accountant to talk-show host to singer.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: --OkCupid, Sam Yagan. Ah, well, you know you got to do something
to fill the void in an accountant's life. Thanks, everyone, for coming. And see you next week.
Transcribed by: http://www.hiredhand.com