In early November, I was a guest of the Mozilla Festival “Media, Freedom and the Web” held at Ravensbourne College in East London. I was there because Mozilla is a partner in Hive NYC, a digital media learning project for cultural institutions, education service providers, and community based groups I’m consulting on. But because I am not a technologist, I was a bit nervous about entering a gathering of hackers and media specialists exploring the frontiers of the open web. Would I understand what people were talking about? Would I have anything to contribute to the conversations? After all, I don’t even have a Twitter account.
Mozilla is deeply concerned with helping people understand that the web is not something that need only be passively consumed — that we can all have a hand in shaping the web. One of Mozilla’s guiding questions is “how can the web can make us more creative, collaborative and connected in an age of broadcasters big and small?” This strikes me as fundamentally the same question many of the non-profit arts organizations I work with grapple with — although we sometimes do this via the web and more often do it through programs and events. Aren’t we all looking for ways to help people be more creative, collaborative and connected? So what might we learn from the group that gathered in London?
MozFest (as the event is known) was, without a doubt, the least hierarchical event I have ever attended. The program was predominately organized around rooms in which people came together to talk and do things together. Formal panels, keynote speakers, and other trappings of most conferences were virtually absent from the program. If someone was leading a session, it was merely as a facilitator who gave a series of tasks to small groups who were working together to develop an idea solve a problem, or make something new on the web. In his book “Where Good Ideas Come From: the Natural History of Innovation,” Stephen Johnson talks about the “adjacent possible” in which innovations emerge from conditions in which ideas and things interact with one another and inevitably, something new emerges. MozFest seemed consciously designed to allow for the “adjacent possible.”
Having spent a lifetime teaching in museum programs, designing meeting agendas, and creating convenings, I wondered if the open nature of the program design might lead the assembled to devolve into chaos. Instead, it felt as if we were trusted by our conveners (Mozilla) to make the best use of our time together, and so that is what people did. Encouraged to speak with people we didn’t know (and aided by ample amounts of coffee drinks from the temporary espresso bar) people seemed unusually comfortable striking up conversations and genuinely interested to learn about a new person they had just met. Soon enough, you and your new friend would find some area of common interest. Technical fluency was not the currency traded. Instead, doing something interesting in the world is what seemed to matter most and then we might talk about if technology could assist in making it better.
Many of the arts organizations I work with are looking for ways to create meaningful experiences with their audiences. MozFest demonstrated some useful lessons for program planners. First, create conditions for the adjacent possible. Put people and ideas together in interesting combinations and let them interact. Second, when making and doing are prioritized over being a gatekeeper to information, participants respond by becoming active and engaged learners. And, finally, encouragement from the group fuels the desire to learn and do more. Mozilla passes out buttons emblazoned with the word “Awesome” and at the end, everyone was motivated to take whatever they may have learned back into their everyday world. Arts groups can now harness the power of technology to create experiences in which their audiences feel empowered with new possibilities.