The 2007 Virtual Coffee House vision. Do we have the energy to create one for 2017?

As I explained here, the idea of an RSA Virtual Coffee House – to complement the new £3.7 million ‘real’ Coffee House planned at RSA HQ – was prompted by an original VCH idea and demonstration created by six RSA Fellows in the North East in 2007.

The original VCH vision document was developed by Peter Churchill, and former RSA trustee Don Pinchbeck has provided a commentary on its creation. With their permission, I’ve posted both papers on the OpenRSA wiki , alongside the story of other RSA attempts to create online systems for Fellows.

However, I think it is worth publishing Peter’s vision here too, for ease of reference and commenting.

What strikes me, re-reading the paper after recent discussion, is the way that the vision blends together the different layers of connectivity needed and discussed here: the central RSA hub, the various local and thematic networks, and the role of the individual as a sharing knowledge hub.

You can read Don Pinchbeck’s history here about the development of a first VCH using the Ning system, and how it prompted establishment of a dozen or so similar systems around the RSA, subsequently closed.

Do we have the energy to refresh Peter’s vision for 2017 … or propose that as Fellows we work together with RSA staff to create something that will really fulfil the vision for the 21st Century Enlightenment Coffee House as “an engine room for a global network”.

There’s discussion in the Fellows Forum (login required) and an ideas space on this blog.

Introduction

Peter Churchill September 9 2007

This paper briefly sets out the background and intent behind the Virtual Coffee House initiative.

At the outset our group wondered whether the RSA North East was too geographically widespread and its fellows too busy doing other things to be effective as a force for change. Over a period of some months we looked into whether the internet offered some possibilities for making us all better connected as a community.

Ideally such a “virtual” community would share some of the characteristics of real world communities, offering such experiences as:

  • Bumping into to friends and acquaintances in the street
  • Dropping into the local café/pub/community centre/university union
  • Going to meet people in the privacy of their homes/workplaces
  • Going to parties, for no reason except to see what happens
  • Participating in community events as an organiser/presenter/observer
  • Being introduced to new people at any of the above
  • Finding out about other communities through any of the above
  • Becoming involved in those other communities, which then overlap and might interact
  • Reading/watching/listening to what is going on in the world around
  • Sharing knowledge and experience of events
  • Helping, and being helped by, those you interact with

The following description of a “visit” illustrates how a virtual place (the Virtual Coffee House) might be designed to satisfy some of these together in an integrated and potentially exponentially effective way.

All of the features described are already in use on the internet (including one or two on the RSA web site) but, as far as this group knows, no-one has put together something quite like this, which:

  • Is recognisable as an extension of our normal experience
  • Amounts to more than the sum of its parts
  • Is not purely recreational or commercial
  • Can be used by many disparate groups
  • And can really help to underpin our daily lives.

A Visit to the Virtual Coffee House

I am sitting at my computer. I click onto “The Virtual Coffee House” web site link. It is half an hour before the monthly Education Club Night I am going to.

The home page loads with the message “welcome to the Virtual Coffee House”.

I can see who is around, and what they are doing. I see a couple of new names and click on them to see the details they have chosen to share: their interests and skills, who they know, which groups and projects they are involved in, their reputation in each area they subscribe to, and how they feel about being approached on various subjects.

I see one called Paddy is involved in some of the areas that interest me, and will be at an interactive lecture I hope to see next week, so I make a diary note to contact her in a couple of weeks unless we become acquainted during the discussion.

A new contact of mine called Don is there. Last week I had a message from him asking if I would be willing to have an online chat with him about his project, having seen my posting in the Help Offered area. I have discovered he knows several of my other contacts, has a good reputation, and might have the skills to help with my own current project. I click on his instant message icon, exchange a couple of brief hellos and then go straight into a video call.

He is quite new to the VCH and doesn’t know about del.icio.us (a bookmarking service). As it will be a great tool for his project I take over his desktop and guide him through it using the VCH’s own del.iciou.us, adding a couple of new links myself while I am at it. I take the opportunity to record the session and post it on the VCH Videopedia for others to refer to in future. I intend to use it as part of a video conference I have organised for a group around the country in a couple of weeks.

At the end we arrange to meet at the VCH a little later.

I then go to the Projects Labs section: this is a window into all of the projects being undertaken through the VCH. I browse the categories and find a new project in the “sustainability” category that looks interesting: I decide to subscribe as an observer and get daily alerts as it has already attracted some reputable contributors: if it proves of real interest to me I may apply to become a participant. I see there is a live discussion going on and take a quick look: there is no-one I know there so I carry on.

I go back to the main Project Labs list and find the “society” category I have subscribed to. I had my weekly alert about new postings last night and go straight to the project I set up: I respond to a couple of comments on the discussion forum, review some changes to the documents we are working on, and add a link to the programme I have drawn up. I also edit a comment I made last night.

Next week there is an on-line project meeting so everyone needs to have seen it in advance. I then go back to the home page.

Club Night

On the home page is a window displaying formal and impromptu events in and around the VCH community: preplanned events are listed in the calendar (including tonight’s, for which I received an automatic reminder this morning); events currently happening are shown on a scrolling display that links to each event discussion and resources.

Some events are open to all comers, some require “joining”, some (such as project meetings) are private to invited participants only.

Some I can simply observe, some you can interact with. At the click of a mouse I can join in, register interest, or post an event of my own.

In 20 minutes time two events I am interested in will start. One is 300 miles away in London: I can listen in to it live, or come back later and hear it whenever suits me.

The other event is part of the Education club night. I am going to that one because I want to take part in the discussion afterwards. There will be speakers in Cape Town, Boston and Dubai.

The Café

I click on the Café icon. Inside the Club Night participants are gathering in one corner with, as usual, a number of other tables of people around the café doing other things (a mix of text chats and voice/video discussions), and a number of people including Justin who I know wondering around seeing what is going on. I approach him and we exchange a few words. We then move to a table where Philip, another of my acquaintances, is in an interesting discussion. I decide to leave them there and catch up on it later, and move over to the Club Night area. I exchange a few words with a number of people before I receive a five minute alert about the event.

Library

I have a quick look in the library to check the VCH deli.cio.us video I made earlier has arrived and is working. I also see a new file on networking and bookmark it for a later look.

The function rooms

The event is being held in one of a number of bookable areas. I click on the event link and a window opens displaying the dozen or so participants, a text chat, and a presentation screen where I can see Claire who is chairing the event. She then welcomes each of us by name and location, and the presentations begin. At the end a number of questions are raised and responded to. I briefly return to the main club night area, leaving the last few participants starting a video chat: something else to catch up on later.

Conclusion

The RSA Regional video conference event on 23rd March 2007 showcased some of the tools and web sites that inspired and informed this Virtual Coffee House idea. Since then Matthew Taylor has set out an agenda for change that seems perfectly aligned to the aim of the VCH group. ([more here](rsanhistory) on Matthew Taylor’s vision and developments that followed)

The next stage will be one of two options:

  • To add the is idea to the RSA’s deliberations about how to use Web2 with a view to this or something similar being developed by them
  • To develop it as far as we can as a self-funded NE Region project.

In an ideal world the project would benefit from leading edge design and development skills to produce an exemplar tool that could be deployed by other legitimate and worthy organisations.

The Virtual Coffee House Team.

  • Claire Maxwell
  • Paddy Deans
  • Don Pinchbeck
  • Justin Souter
  • Philip Aranzulla
  • Peter Churchill
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