I have been running an experimental meta community for six months now, the experiment is succeeding, and here are my learnings.
In February 2020, in what seems like a different universe, I decided to embark on an experiment. After years of running dinners, salons, and a few Slack groups, I wanted to develop an intentional community. A place where people don’t brush off each other, but engage. A meta-space where people can show up with a seed of an idea and know that it will be respected and given a space, not put on a shipping line. A place where value is generated, and not only passed around, where members can show up as a process and not a product.
Having run gatherings, salons, and more recently dinners, I grew to appreciate the transformational value of light facilitation (credit due to Priya Parker for opening my eyes to that space).
Out of all these formats, the smaller dinners were the most semantic. People showed up open and vulnerable, with an idea of how they thought, navigated different backgrounds and opinions around the table in a way that resulted in value, new thinking, new tools, and new concepts.
Those took place for a year, but I realized they didn’t have accumulative value, and that there was onboarding that needed to happen every time. There was little overlap in guests, but by large people were new to each dinner.
It made me think about starting a closer-knit circle, a group that commits to creating a space to act on their creative surplus, and looking for people who do the same.
By design, I came up with the idea of setting a core principle. A paid membership in exchange for 2.5 hours of work per week. That work is either on themselves or someone else.
The logic was more than creating accountability, as is the case in writing groups. It was to develop what Shafir and Mullainathan call slack in a system. The idea that when systems are packed tightly, they become less adaptive.
Think of traffic of road leading to traffic jams;
“Roadways operate best below 70 percent capacity; traffic jams are caused by lack of slack. In principle, if a road is 85 percent full and everybody goes at the same speed, all cars can easily fit with some room between them. But if one driver speeds up just a bit and then needs to brake, those behind her must brake as well. Now they’ve slowed down too much, and, as it turns out, it’s easier to reduce a car’s speed than to increase it again. This small shock — someone lightly deviating from the right speed and then touching her brakes — has caused the traffic to slow substantially. A few more shocks, and traffic grinds to a halt. At 85 percent there is enough road but not enough slack to absorb the small shocks.”
–Sendhil Mullainathan & Eldar Shafir. “Scarcity.”
Similarly, I was trying to get people to commit to having slack in their calendar and their practice. Open the walls of their practice, and show up as a process and not a product.
I am pleased and honored to say that the experiment has succeeded. Throughout COVID and global unrest, the space has grown and developed. People left, and more people joined. We had international experts, philosophers, marketers, and academics join to discuss law, tech, future of work, and social justice.
The weekly meetings are where new people are introduced, and where we reflect on weekly prompts, examples to follow.
Prompt 3: Maintenance and Transformation. We all have to negotiate our commitment in the world with the things we end up doing. The first might be thought of as maintenance, and the latter as transformation. By a simple reply to this thread, what percentage would you say you spend on maintenance, and what on transformation? (40% - 60% would mean you spend 40% on maintenance for example)
Prompt 4: Creative Surplus. Keep a list–a simple bullet point, or more elaborate doc–of all of the ideas, thoughts, and creativity left after you have attended to your duties: job, teaching, clients etc. It might be handy to set reminders (you can Slack’s by typing /remind ) If you remember, please note the time of day and what you were doing when this idea came to you. It would be great if everyone can have at least three items.
Prompt 8: Box. We all need to fit in a box :package: to explain ourselves and our work to new people we meet. That box has a label, of course – but like any box, it has six planes. What is your primary label for yourself? And what are an additional five labels for your practice?
The community invites a weekly guest to join in the conversation. The share-outs could be a traditional talk-present a topic take q&a–a question–working through an idea and airing it out for feedback–or a mix of the two. We had philosophers, marketing executives, legal scholars, community organizers, authors, scientists, and developmental designers during the last six months. There is a special kind of magic that happens once the community understands the space is created, and a new person is invited into it.
To develop more “diagonal connections” (1:1 as opposed to a circular bonfire), I used a bot which assigns people to grab “coffee” every week. It has been successful in letting the electrons bounce, sort of speak, without putting any structure on it.
Principles and Learnings
Process before Product
A culture of (false) cybernetic connectivity is more conducive to passing objects around instead of reflecting on them. In my work on meta medium, I explore the difference between the persona we occupy and the person we are. This community is a space to practice that tension without studying it.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that those who did not feel vulnerable enough to share their process ended up not fitting in.
Is it better to deliver a 25% value to 10,000 people or 99% value to 100 people? It depends on your goals. If you’re thinking in artifacts, then scaling is a good outcome, the transaction of products. But system thinking looks at second and third-order consequences, in this context it means being generative instead of editorial, and pedagogical.
Through my work in AI and systems, it became clear that shallow value is abundant and cheap. But vertical scaling: more context, rather than more people, is incredibly difficult.
This community was thriving in generating such scale, through thirdness.
In psychoanalysis, the analytic third is the idea when two people have a relationship, they create something new. There is one person, the other person, and in their exchange, openness, ideas, and feelings, they create a new entity, which is specific to their relationship. They grow and can use that developmental value for the rest of their lives. In many ways, I see the community as a collection of ‘thirdness.’ We meet regularly as a group, but a lot of creation of thirdness happens in the ‘diagonal connections.’ Intellectual discourse, mutual support, sharing of work, asking for help between people in the group.
The community is formed by its members. It is not a product looking for a fit, and marketed to its segment. It is ambiguous, and open-ended — and can’t be explained in as a territory. I refer to the community as a bonfire, where people show up with their creative surplus and throw it in the fire. The value and learning that is created can then be taken back into our respective spaces. All members of the community had to sign up to walk into a half-lit room, as part of its design. In other words, if you need full understanding, this might not be for you.
A Space for Small Actions
The community is a place for small actions and not one single project to deliver. It is not about writing your book, or getting a new job: even though members did work on their books, and found employment. The difference is that there is no sense of meeting at the starting line and checking each other’s progress. As part of owning the space of ambiguity, there was little in the way of setting goals, checking on those goals, or helping with to–do’s.
Around the main bonfire, there were smaller, themed groups. In the writing group, for example, people could join weekly with nothing written, or with no intention of writing. And use that space to learn, reflect, develop a desire to write or not.
The design is that finding space for ambiguity is good for creativity.
Rehearsal Room for Thinking
The goal is to write and rewrite, to practice and rehearse,
to move from knowledge to wisdom,
to get to know one’s context
This should feel like a rehearsal room for people who speak publicly about their opinions and interests.
The community is not a band, but a rehearsal room for solo artists. It is a place where we all travel from our day to day work into the meta, engage with others, and use those learnings and processes back in our context.
Read more the full piece: Building a Meta Community and the follow up: Communities to Circles.