Before getting into the weeds of how to organise an event, I just want to outline that pretty much everything can be considered self-organising at the macro level. All, is made up of everything. So, metaphysical semantics aside - lets zoom in and and discuss this at a level of granularity where there's both an interior and exterior; order and chaos.
Order often arises out of a chaotic primordial soup that has enough stored potential for structure to emerge spontaneously. In living systems this is the formation of a cellular membrane who's metabolism regulates the flow of energy and resources across the boundary. Lets apply this concept to an event.
Those volunteering and provisioning contributions are self-organising - the interior order. Those attending to consume and appropriate from it are not - the exterior chaos. Provisioners are people with a vested interest in the creation of a result. They invest time, attention and resources into creating and holding a space. Sometimes this is topdown (commercial events), other times its bottom up (emergent events).
Like #mechanimals, many of us are conditioned to rely on some form of authority that prods and tells us what to do. When it appears that there's no one to abdicate responsibility to we often implicitly assume that someone else is taking care of things due to the diffusion of responsibility.
The boss is gone, finally I can sit down!
Lack of knowledge or skills is another issue which leads to bottle necks, towers of knowledge and hub and spoke dynamics. Fine for commercial events, but not useful for emergent ones!
Wait, uuuum, whats going on again? what can I do? how can I help?
Luckily, events are pretty easy; anyone with 5 neurons (like me) can organise them. You just need an outline of whats needed. So if you want to participate on the below events and wish to help arrange something then just refer to the list below and start coordinating with other participants!
In the case of a real self-organising event, everyone participating is accountable and responsible for the groups success or failure. It's a highest common potential or lowest common denominator situation. To be explicit; accountability is about keeping track of whats going on, while responsibility is about playing our own particular part and filling in the observable blanks.
So - for those that wish - let's practice organising before we converge in person for CCC. The Fall Equinox last year was a pretty strong effort from those involved - especially as a first attempt. Can we pull it off again at the Spring Equinox; March 20th? Can improvements on the last gathering be made this time round? It's certainly possible if we try.
In the spirit of accountability/responsibility, below is a list of steps for those who wish to know whats involved in producing such a gathering. I'm assuming a generic event so the structure can be used to plan something physical or digital:
Many things will need to be tracked dependent on the format; contributions, workshops, speakers and tasks are good candidates for such. Most of this can be noted in a spreadsheet, but for the things that require articulation in a special format just link to them so they can be easily found by others.
It's perhaps also useful to describe some roles or classes in relation to the event requirements; some will be before the event (copy, propaganda, webdev), others will be during the event (documentation, recording, tech support, facilitation, welcoming committee/representation etc.).
These don't need to be strictly adhered to unless the event is large scale, classes/circles/groups are perhaps more flexible for smaller scales. Ideally people should articulate what they are doing and 'own' the task in some transparent way (spreadsheet/document) so that others can get an overview of whats happening and what they can pickup.
2) Pick a theme & Gather intentions
See if people are interested in the event and invite them to contribute. What do they wish to gather around? This can be pretty much any theme. Technologists gather around CCC, Jugglers around the EJC, and festival goers for Burning man.
Find a strange attractor with some energy that entices contribution. Sometimes it's a shared interest or intention - other times its a narrative or story.
3) Time and Place
This may seem blindly obvious but a time, date and appropriate venue are fundamental before anything can happen. The digital world is forgivingly flexible so a chat server like Discord or Zoom may suffice. Worth noting at this point is that in person events have a higher bandwidth for communication and are more conductive for transformative experience. Regardless, a space to point at and say something's happening is necessary. Formalise an invitation!
Foundations in place, it's time to invite contributions. Those who expressed intentions to help in step 2 are the good people to request commitments from. These can be of all varieties; workshops, talks, games, fishbowl discussions, interactions of any variety really. The more novel, creative and participatory the better! Share the spreadsheet from step 1 and note the contributions people are offering. Ideally theres plenty of slack and notice on the timeline; qualitive contributions need time for both creation and refinement! (*Note the CCC gathering is at year end)
The best contributions encompass both the "self" and "organised" facets of self-organisation. The former is relativly straight foward as most people are happy to talk to a crowd of listeners, while the latter is incredibly hard as few people enjoy "sweeping floors" or picking up mundane organisational duties. 🧹If your a janitor, kudos to you! 🧹
This functions as an instruction manual for the event. It should contain all the things people need to know to onboard. The time/date of the event, the narrative, how to join, rituals and customs, the schedule, how to add a workshop, how the rooms are being organised, how to use a given technology and so on.
The website is an invitation for the outside world to initiate themselves into a foreign community. Work these details out, then create something clear and compelling!
Typically this is booking stuff like lights, sound, cameras, screens, chairs, tables and catering. If the event is in the real worls, work these details out based on number of attendees starting with whats needed in each room. You can forget most of this if the event is digital, but some form of scheduling is still needed so people can find what they are looking for.
With an inviting shop front setup, now's a good time to invite guest speakers and friends. These people won't necessarily contribute to the organisation sides of things but will hopefully bring a valued perspective and diversity to the gathering. Who's interesting and might be ready to contribute value? Make a list and contact them. Note any requirements they might also have (see: step 1).
If you want the event to be open to the outside world, its a good idea to make some noise. A Twitter account for the event isn't a bad idea, especially if theres an active community retweeting posts and amplifying eachothers reach. A lot of places use targeted hashtags for this but there are other strategies too like writing blog posts and sharing those in your various channels too (*cough 'scuse the spam*).
9) Production mode
The event itself will probably need some stewardship. If roles were set up in step one, people can now try them on for size. If not any capable human-doing can still infer what's needed and try to improvise! Refer to booked resources at step six if the events not digital.
There should be a spreadsheet of things happening, timings and so forth available by now, so running the event is just about keeping an eye on the plan. Small deviations can bring an element of suprise and novelty, while large deviations can throw the whole space into confusion. Things always go wrong so just communicate and improvise when they do; the show must go on!
Get feedback through a post-event form or get in contact with attendees and take notes on peoples experience. Use this to fine tune the next event and find out any additional information that may be useful. What worked? What didn't work?
11) Packaging artefacts
After the events happened, what can be packaged? Photos, videos, media, discussions, posts, projects, narratives. A lot of energy was just concentrated, you can let it evaporate into the aether or package whatever was shared and sustain momentum. What can be upcycled?
So that's it on the generic front, but there's always more detail which depends on context. As such, heres some more nuanced possibilities for self-organising events.
As mentioned, groups have a membrane effect that regulates a flow between the in-group and the out-group. People that fall into the out-group category tend disappear and move on. This is fine to degrees but not in excess - things can easily become an echo chamber of ideology and if so the lack of novelty will eventually extinguish the group.
A simple solution to incorporate new members is a communal introductory round followed by a more intimate setting, like a 1:1 or small group discussion in a breakout room. Ideally new members get to meet older members who can act as anchors/stewards - from there hopefully people will feel comfortable in the space and the system can self-regulate.
Community arises out of communication, so how skilled a group is at communication determines the cohearence of the room. Most zoom calls are a fuster cluck for this reason. But it doesn't have to be. Some suggestions:
• Mute microphones when not talking. This is pretty standard practice already.
• Codify hand signals and watch for them. Super powerful and non disruptive.
• Change up the discussion style with hotseats, fishbowls, popcorn, breathe first.
• Label breakout rooms and keep renaming them with the current topic.
If you want to get really detailed, the Gameshifting grammar might be for you!
If people feel they have a domain of responsibility, they can assume a mandate to act. For an event, here's a list of potential domains that people may wish to involve themselves with, perhaps taking on more specific roles if the events more complex.
• Event production (operations and organisation)
• Technical production (audio visual)
• Content development (media and website)
• Communications and outreach (propaganda and invites)
• Speakers and workshop facilitators
• Documentation and copy
• Punters and participants
• Help, care and support
🧹Sweeping up 🧹
Thats it for now. This post isn't meant to be all encompassing but if others would like to feedback with thoughts, considerations, missing details and build a more comprehensive manual I'm happy to collaborate on an events gitbook or to recieve feedback. Just ping me on Discord @JoshAFairhead#3602 or via e-mail.