At the Boundaries of Ethics and Cultures:
Virtual Communities as an Open Ended Process
Carrying the Will for Social Change

(the "MISTICA" experience)

Daniel Pimienta [1], FUNREDES [2], February 2005

Keywords: virtual communities, ethics of process, ethics of information, cultural diversity, participative democracy, Information Society, knowledge sharing, Latin America and the Caribbean, development, ICT4D

ABSTRACT

The paper reports on a research-action carried out in Latin America involving a virtual community of practitioners in the field of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for development (ICT4D) which has conducted experiments in knowledge sharing and collaborative work within a context of participative democracy in a virtual environment. The process oriented project leads to discussions on the intersection and boundaries of ethics and cultures where "ethics" refer to information and process and "culture" refers not only to the traditional meaning but also to culture of networking and culture of information.

AGRADECIMIENTOS

It is impossible to make a citation of all and every single influence at the idea level in a collective process of this size. My thanks go to those who have made this possible, to the coordination and support team, to the transition team and to all person who have participated in the MISTICA virtual community, the most active ones, the active ones and the less active ones, with a special mention for those who organized the ICIE Congress and those from the transition team who have assisted me in the writing.

I owe a very special thanks to Deirdre Williams who has offered hours of her valuable time to try the huge and impossible task to straight up my English guessing what I wanted to express.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

INTRODUCTIÓN
VIRTUAL COMMUNITY MISTICA - Between process and content
General scheme of the Mistica project
Project Objectives
The virtual community
The MISTICA equations
Some collective products of MISTICA
Realistica, the Journal of MISTICA
The information “utopista”
Working the Internet with a social vision
LESSONS LEARNED
Ingredients to consider for the nurturing of virtual communities
Clear Goal
Balance between active and passive participants
Common values
Coherence
Rules of the game clear and consensual
Open Meta communication
Firm and credibly democratic moderation
Active transparency leading to active participation
To transfer empathy from face to face towards the virtual
Preoccupation for cultural diversity
Applications pilots
SYNTHESIS, CONCLUSION AND PERSPECTIVES

INTRODUCTION

Years of unidirectional mass media (broadcast) have changed our perceptions to favor the myth of the spectacular side of events at the expenses of the appreciation of their actual impact in our societies. When we watched the first man on the moon, we were impressed by the extraordinary image of the first human to walk on the surface of another planet. The spectacle concealed the fact that the most impacting element of the image that reached us from the moon:

was not the content of the image itself but the very fact that we were able to watch the event, on our TV screens, as if it was a movie. The technological progress in such areas as telecommunications, signal processing or mathematical algorithmic that made this event possible, was the thing really making an impact and announcing deep changes in our societies; however, this was obscured in the media world as if they would be overshadowed by the interactive event of the first footstep.

The subject of Virtual Communities and how they transform into learning communities where collective phenomena of knowledge sharing happen and innovative ethical and cultural challenges arise, in relation to the concept of participative democracy is an extremely impact producing subject for the future of our societies. Nevertheless, it is not a spectacular subject, because it is not easy to capture significant images of a virtual community. As a general rule, the most spectacular side of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) lies in the interactivity, in spite the fact that asynchronism is the key factor of the societal impact of those technologies.

What is a virtual community (VC)? Before anything else, it is a community, that is to say a group of people who share something socially that unites them and where the link is sufficiently powerful so that a sense of belonging could emerge and in some cases even a feeling of identity. The common interest which gives to a human group its sense of community can be of different types: religious, professional, philosophical, medical, geographic, game oriented, etc. A community is virtual when communication linkages and sharing happens through use of ICT, initially email and groupware tools (electronic conferences, newsgroups, discussion lists, BBS). Nowadays it can exist through a combination of the same tools associated with web services or be based on Web-forums or other tools (like weblogs or wiki). This "virtuality" of the community does not reduce its communitarian identity although it is evident that mediation through ICT of any remote relation between people belonging to the community can confer characteristics very different from traditional communities.

Virtual communities emerged very early in history of networks [3]. : the first program of managing discussion lists, listserv, was created, like Usenet Newsgroups, in network environments different from TCP-IP and, in any case, previous to the convergence of networks under the name of the Internet. It is also important to understand that the essential tool of the Internet in terms of its capacity to build up social networks is that "C" of ICT, the "C" of communication. As the people who have seen the famous presentation about the beauty of networks “Merit Cruise on the Internet”, published in 1992, one year before the birth of the Web, can witness to, all the facilities that the Web offers nowadays existed already, only their use was reserved to persons with capacity to deal with the functions of FTP and TELNET and the bandwidth of that time was not very tolerant with graphics.

So the Internet is not the Web and the tool of major social impact of networks, the possibility of gathering remote people within a common interest, and therefore within a community perspective. is almost as old as the networks and, clearly, previous to the success of the Internet as a convergence network.

“How do people obtain information?”asks the professor. "They go to the library!": answered the student in the before-Internet era; today he/she would say: "They use a search engine"! And the professor used to improve the answer : "Indeed! but it is in the corridor of the library that they meet with another colleague, confess the reason for their presence in the library and most often the colleague would locate the book from his/her office or the name of the person who has the source that they are looking for". Nowadays most of the valuable information is obtained in the corridor of the virtual library... in other words in the functions of communication of the Internet, and in the first place, within virtual communities.

Data bases and search engines exist, but the “natural” path to information continues to be communication between humans... And the Internet does not have to change radically this fact since it has allowed as much progress in the area of communication as in that of access to information. If information access knows a true revolution thanks to search engines, the communication aspect is not going backward thanks to the concept of virtual learning communities where knowledge is shared and created in a collective way. In any case, the evolution of the Internet calls for more creative and closer mixture of information and communication processes [4].

The same professor asks further: “And where is the confidential information about the company obtained? ” and the answer is once again ambivalent, combining information and communication: partly, in the waste-paper basket of the office of the boss's secretary... but more easily, around the coffee machine where gossip is as light as the smell of hot coffee and is spread with its aroma. And is not sharing morning coffee all together around the machine a community matter?

Then would it be enough to create a discussion list, a Web forum or a newsgroup for a feeling of community to emerge among the participants? This is not that easy! The tool does not make the social phenomenon. To go from an electronic tool into a VC, and even harder, for a VC to be characterized as a collaborating and learning community, among other things, some type of "virtual social engineering" is required... a new science not yet well defined at the conceptual level.

By their nature, VCs liberate themselves of geographic spaces and therefore increase probabilities for intercultural encounters. The essentially textual characteristic that is imposed (although less and less) by ICT and the absence of visual feedback have the consequence that cultural clashes in virtual spaces are expressed mainly in the medium of written communication, language differences and a way each one expresses him/herself by writing [5].

A key aspect of this "virtual social engineering" lies in the rule of coexistence that govern the relations between the people who participate in those spaces, and behind those rules, implicitly, in the ethical concepts which sustain the rules.

When those virtual communities want to experiment with participative democracy then they can act as an open process carrying the desire of social change of people remote from one another. In the best case, obtaining consensual collective expression of the mythical object of this desire, this process carries the very change of society people virtually gathered are looking for. This desire is canalized within this space whose virtuality does not obviate the capacity for influence and incidence, on the contrary. Along the way, it is important to notice that the fractal interface between this so called " virtual world” and the “day to day real world” remains as a matter for study, a source of many surprises if one focuses on the materialization of the flows of influence and incidence in the society. In the collective component, and, at individual level, there is a powerful affective element, susceptible, in one hand, to empower the collective capacity and, on the other hand, to causes schizophrenic situations between virtual and real affective realms.

When liberation from the constraints of distance allows us to forget about the geographic and cultural borders we come into other fractal zones, at the boundaries of ethics and cultures, where action-research is the appropriate method at the same time to discern and to construct.

The phenomena of culture does not belong only to the geographic field, there is also cultural factors of different natures, related to the professional field or the level or the type of education (scientific, literary, sociological...) to give only some examples. Here other type of cultural clash can occur in virtual communities without being explicitly perceived. In the particular case of virtual communities such as MISTICA, whose focus is the study of the social impact of ICT (and then the same concept of VC is recursively the object of the VC) those professional cultural clashes can have more impact than culture clashed induced by geographic or linguistic differences. In fact, the "cultural proximity" (in an integrating sense of all the cultural factors) between two people who shares the same "network culture" although belonging to very remote real spaces could be closer, within the virtual space, than between two people of the same country who do not share this network culture!

Finally, and as a working hypothesis, we understand that for an electronic conference to transform into a virtual community it is necessary to create a proper culture, which would be able to build strong links and to crystallize an identity, beyond other cultural differences. This culture proper of virtual communities is evidently linked to common values with regards to the contents and to agreements as to the processes of the group, both concepts (values and processes) being indirect and strongly corresponding to the shared ethics.

When, in addition, it is understood that those values and agreements can and must evolve in open processes, and that the culture of the virtual community, as any culture, is susceptible to evolution from the participative processes, the complexity of the evaluation and monitoring of the ethical aspects associated with virtual communities becomes apparent.

Those are the questions which this text, without trying to give definitive or precise answers, is going to address, from the singular experience of a particular community, and to offer food for thought on some lines of possible answers that could be replicated, with adaptation, to other virtual contexts:
How and why does a virtual community emerge from an electronic conference?
How are collective constructions made in virtual community?
Why and how do people collaborate in virtual spaces?
How do ethics and culture intervene in the processes of a virtual community?


VIRTUAL COMMUNITY MISTICA - Between process and content



The Methodology of Social Impact of Information and Communication Technologies in America (MISTICA, from its acronym in Spanish– see: http://funredes.org/mistica) has successfully consolidated a human network of researchers and social activists, in the region of Latin America and the Caribbean, who are interested in the social dimension of ICT. This project started in November 1998, under the leadership of an NGO specializing in ICT issues related to development (ICT4D), FUNREDES, with the main funding from IDRC and FPH . MISTICA formally concluded its first stage in a meeting in Santo Domingo, in March 2001. Between 2001 and 2002, within a phase of transition, the project was maintained, without external funding, by the good will of FUNREDES (and the participation of the community). Between 2003 and 2004, a second stage was again funded by IDRC with the aim to update, consolidate and prepare for sustainability. MISTICA enters now a new transition stage which is going to allow the transfer of the facilitation responsibility from the NGO that conceived and coordinated it to the community itself, within new models to be defined for the decentralization of a sustainable management.

MISTICA has experimented with a methodology for virtual communities that articulates and integrates, in an appropriate manner, resources of information and communication, offering solutions to linguistic obstacles, reducing information overload and accommodating remote participation of people to face to face conferences. MISTICA has also experimented with the creation of collective documents on critical thematic issues (social vision of the Internet) or original ones (utopia of an Information Society).

Conscious that in social movements process is as much or more important than content, MISTICA has always tried to maintain a careful balance between the formal objective (methodological approach) and the content objective (social group strengthening). This balance is one of the critical parameters of the management of the project. In this sense, MISTICA is located in the border between social research and fieldwork with the aim to obtain coherent results by mixing research and action. The composition of the membership also reflects this delicate balance between academics, more interested in intellectual reflection, and field activists, more inspired by action.

The macro process of transfer of the management from the organization which created the object towards the creature itself [6] (the community) is at the same time, to pass from being an experimental project of virtual social engineering into being a self-managed community. It is not solely a governance transfer, it is much more, a change in the very nature of MISTICA. MISTICA has crossed the borders from being a project proposal into a funded project, into a coordinated (by Funredes) project, into a hybrid state of project facilitated (by Funredes) with an attempt at decentralization towards the community, into a transitory status of self-managed (by a transition team supported by Funredes) community, with the ultimate goal to become a self-managed community totally independent of its creator. These changes imply new challenges that are beyond the scope of project management and approach the now fashionable issue of the governance in participative democracy environments.


MISTICA was not defined as a research project on participative democracy in virtual environments but, clearly, the process of action-research it has undertaken, with its permanent evaluation of a process conducted by trial and error, represents extraordinary material to feed research reflection on the subject.

General scheme of the Mistica project

The following figure represents the schematic concepts of the MISTICA project. The three pillars represents objectives, ingredients and expected products of the project; the ovoid forms that intersect in the middle represent spheres of responsibility, of both the coordination and the VC. The pillars stand on two bases, one located at coordination side and the other at the VC side. The first one represents the founding principles of the project while the second one represents the VC rules and the subsequent definition of protocols. Above, in the form of an expanding open space, appear the meta-ingredients, the methodological component of the project.

An animated presentation based on this figure can be consulted at:
http://funredes.org/mistica/castellano/pres/

Project Objectives

  • Strengthen the ICT social actors in the region through collaborative work and the structuring of relevant information.
  • Constitute a human network for ICT research and appropriation, in the perspective of leading and interpreting the societal change with the capacity and the information resource to undertake collaborative action.
  • Elaborate regional diagnosis about ICT social impact and establish an agenda of recommendations and proposals.

Several secondary objectives accompany the three primary objectives, among them:

-  to design, apply and validate a methodology for the articulation of virtual communities and to facilitate face to face meetings for the remote participation;

-  to create a decentralized network of actors, projects and activities meaningful to social impact of ICT in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC);

-  to define the agenda of priorities on the challenges that the LAC region holds for the development of ICT with a vision towards social impact, integrating the perspectives of gender and other discriminated groups;

-  to make preliminary studies and create pilot applications that contributes to the diagnosis of the impact of ICT in the LAC region.

It is worth wondering if during this new transition stage and even more in the future this first definition of MISTICA mission is/will be still relevant. The answer must come from the community itself, within the new mechanisms. It is already possible to indicate that the trends that have been perceived from the stage 2 process call for a evolution towards the creation of two new spaces to articulate with the VC:

-  a regional space of virtual education about ICT and development;

-  a regional expert space with the same theme.

The following new scheme attempts to reflect this evolution and the recursive and fractals aspects that characterize the evolution process in MISTICA

The reproduction of a system in layers constitutes the genetic mark (DNA) of MISTICA:

GOVERNANCE & IMPACTS Impact of MISTICA (incidence, influence...) and the structure of governance that allows for articulation and holistic operation and their transformation into effects.
PRODUCTS Emergent products of MISTICA in all forms: content, applications & methodologies.
INFORMATION Information in all its forms and ways of organization.
COMUNICATION Communication in all its asynchronous and synchronous, virtual and non virtual forms.
PROCESS Consensual rules and the associated mechanisms.
PLATFORM Computerized support in terms of hardware, system and add-ons to the system upon which the contents and applications are maintained.

Each one of the 3 identified areas shares the same structure in layers with the same principles and it is put together in the highest layer (central one) that collect the impacts and governance aspects. At the periphery of each one of these 3 areas, appear the so called "bubbles" that are decentralized areas that reproduce the same structure in layers, although in this case, the highest part is also decentralized. They are called 'bubbles’ because its process is born at the periphery of the "main MISTICA bubble" and responds to the analogy of the bubble dynamics. They can have a evolution towards staying hung with a dynamic interface or to be extracted of the main bubble. They can arrive at an explosion with some relapses from the cloud (learned lessons of failed experiences as there were many in the case of sublists of discussion) or take altitude like bubbles that become independent from the main bubble or, model still to be defined, successful autonomous bubbles that keep a tie with the main bubble (in that case, according to this scheme, they would be transformed into an additional area).

The virtual community

The VC is constituted of all the people who have decided to dedicate part of their time to participate, more or less actively, in the collective adventure of sharing experiences and trying to collaborate remotely. At the beginning of 2005, there is a membership of about 400 people who have exchanged 6500 contributions, shared about 200 documents, interchanged more than 2000 references in the Web and built 4 collective documents.

The subscriber exit rate is unusually low for this kind of electronic conference. The VC simultaneously constitutes the aim and the main resource of the project and is at the same time subject and object of the project, being the motor and the path for several methodological or social experiences and participants in process decisions.
Details in: http://funredes.org/mistica/castellano/emec/produccion/estadisticas.html.

The coordination
To value the human person as center of all activity, and to integrate in a dynamic manner people who participates in the VC in specific actions have been two characteristics of the way this experience has been conducted. In particular, the general coordination has played a strategic role when designing the ingredients after having caught, as faithfully as possible, messages of the VC so as to keep the process permanently updated.

In the new phase that is starting the coordination is decentralized in a transition team composed of 7 persons from the membership, with individual (people which have invested human capital in the experience and who share the particular culture of the space), and global (gender balance, region and profiles) criteria of selection. That team will benefit from FUNREDES contribution during the anticipated year of transition, FUNREDES accepting to support but not to lead the process and to contribute with more systematization and documentation (for example this article) to consolidate the transition and to preserve the essence.

The ingredients of MISTICA
MISTICA is much more than an electronic conference; it is a comprehensive set of services. The project was articulated in active relation with three categories: communication, information and action.

Communication
The MISTICA VC has been characterized since its beginning by a flow of constant inner and outer communication. Faithful to the principle to promote a culture of communication that is respectful, democratic and focused in subjects of general interest, the coordination of the project made a great initial effort to explain with clarity the rules required for an appropriate communication, which has resulted in a VC with a level of discipline and cohesion without precedents. The moderation, in a patient, pedagogical and systematic manner has molded the expression of the contributions within the best model of netiquette in the use of electronic lists.

Conscious in addition that electronic conferences do not replace face to face meetings but that the latter complement the former, the coordination organized four meetings, all held in Dominican Republic.
See http://funredes.org/mistica/castellano/eventos/.

The objective of the first meeting was the establishment of the conditions for a mental attitude towards collaborative work between the people who were to participate in the project. The subsequent meetings have marked the stages of the evolution of the project and each of them had some experimental characteristic. Likewise they could be described as meetings of the new paradigm by including such innovative elements as:

  • absence of a hidden agenda with different objectives than those mentioned publicly;
  • prior and follow-up virtual meetings to the face to face meeting that set the bases for the encounter and give valuable input for the elaboration of the work agendas;
  • selection of participants based on pre-established criteria (based on the degree of participation in the electronic discussion) with special sensitivity to the balance between representation by sex, region and specialized interests;
  • delivery on time, before the meeting, of all the relevant information, with the additional difficulty that the selection criteria, according to this model, imposes a time limit between the preparation process and the actual meeting;
  • a mechanism of facilitation without hierarchy between participants and with defined democratic rules (without privilege towards the participation of those who could take advantage of their power conditions to extend their contributions or preempt others);
  • a process of remote participation (PAD) for the non invited people (see more about PAD below);
  • the publication on the Web of a summary of the discussions the same day of the meeting which results in a capitalization as the information is stored and almost immediately available to the public.

MISTICA has been creating and propagating an alternative model of communication to promote, within the region, the collaborative spirit which integrates ICT as a catalyst.

Information
The Web site can be consulted in 4 different languages (English, French, Portuguese and Spanish) and offers 800MBytes of information available in near 40.000 Web pages, which receive an average of 500.000 visits hits per month. More than a static information repository, MISTICA provides an organized memory of the contributions of the VC (nearly 15% of the total volume of information) in addition to access to a large selection of documents, which, as results of the research and dissemination components of the project, are available in the Web. In the section "cyberlibrary" [7] are also stored all the original documents that membership wants to share on the ICT4D subject (by general rule it is preferred to circulate an external URL to access a document, but if the person does not have a website to keep it or if for some reason that person prefers to place it in the Mistica site then it the document is kept in this section where around one hundred of documents are stored).

The MISTICA clearinghouse is organized in the form of data base and offers a friendly interface of online information relevant to the subject of social impact of ICT in the region. It is a central element in the systematization of the handling of shared knowledge (in principle, each URL which circulates in the list must be registered in the clearinghouse) and could be a resource of international reference (in fact it is the most visited page). Nevertheless, the size of the task of systematizing the collection of URLs has always been beyond the existing resource capacities and the clearinghouse remains very incomplete (400 records) in comparison with the mass of shared resources in the discussion list (about 2000).

The section "documents of the project" comprises the documents which represent the foundation of the project and the documents that have emerged from a collective process of construction, a demonstration of the reality of a learning and collaborating community. It is indeed the most concentrated expression of MISTICA original products although it represents only one part.
See http://funredes.org/mistica/castellano/ciberoteca/tematica/

Action
The action component has been, from the beginning, one of the higher ambitions in the formulation of the MISTICA project. The process of building a human network and the permanent dialogue are, in effect, a powerful form of action to which many people have contributed. Some indications and person to person communications testify the silent but acknowledged contribution of MISTICA in the construction of social capital while strengthening affinity connections in small groups inside and outside the VC. This process has been emerging behind the curtains without the possibility for the coordination to be fully aware of its extent and reaches. The idea to systematize this rich space has stayed as a hope without realization, given the relatively high investment that this task would represent. Nevertheless, informal testimonies, collected while traveling by people of the coordination team, confirm, in a consistent way, the wealth that lies behind MISTICA curtains. Also, a consultation "behind the curtains" displays very interesting results as regards the force of the community feeling and the cohesion of the group. Check http://funredes.org/olistica/documentos/ddt/ in Spanish.

MISTICA gave rise to another form of action called Yanapanako [8] for "pilot applications". This constitutes a novel modality for funding small projects of action-research. The selection process consisted of a call for proposals; then a jury, made up of the coordination of the project plus 3 volunteer members from the VC, who evaluated the proposals together. Initially conceived to fund diagnostic studies or applications of methodologies designed for the evaluation of the social impact of ICT, the criterion for elaboration of proposals extended with the defining of the following thematic areas: (a) to favor the increase of the power share of citizens; (b) to generate interaction and synergy among the actors in the field; (c) to create spaces of interdependence between sectors of the society; (d) to favor the preservation of the identity; (e) to favor the growth of local autonomy; (f) to have a strong social content and articulated to existing social processes; (g) to foster the diversity and the holistic vision of the 3 transverse axes (gender, environment and socially discriminated populations), languages and cultures, opportunities of action, activities and the work lines; (h) to be proactive, that is to say, to be in concrete actions of social appropriation of the ICT; and (i) to elaborate processes of continuous evaluation.

Although MISTICA has not managed yet (nor the associated project of Observatory of Social Impact of ICT in LAC -OLISTICA [9]) to become a collective mechanism of incidence in the governmental agendas and the public policies of the region, the MISTICA community exerts a clear and direct influence in ideas (for that reason appearing as a think-net) and an indirect influence in the public policy. In order to give only one historical example, the critical vision of the concept of "digital divide", which has been popping up in official speeches since 1999, was elaborated in MISTICA before spreading slowly between 2000 and 2003 in the global civil society, especially in relation with the World Summit of Information Society (WSIS) [10], which does not mean, of course, that other people or networks of the world of ICT4D could not have created similar visions at the same time and participated in their diffusion.

Meta ingredients of the Project
The methodological component of the project basically consists in the operation and evaluation of the EMEC and PAD methodologies, which are described next. Other methodological contributions, less formalized or systematized, exists in all the situations of conduction of different face to face or virtual collective processes (working meetings, collective documents...).

Efficient management of multilingual conferences
The EMEC methodology ,  [11], originally conceived by FUNREDES and ENDA-CARIBE in 1997, allows better focus to be given to electronic conferences and hence better management of "information overload"; also it facilitates and develops the communication within virtual communities, in particular allowing multilinguism in the list. That methodology [12] allows each contribution to be synthesized and the synthesis translated by humans in the four languages used in MISTICA. The original contribution is at the same time translated by software and the complete set placed for easy access in the Web. The final result is that the user receives by email a brief and descriptive synthesis of each contribution in the language(s) selected (during the subscription process) and in the same message, the respective links to have access to the original contributions in the favorite language.

Remote Participation
PAD (its Spanish acronym) is a methodology to bring together a traditional face to face meeting with an electronic conference, allowing people of the VC who have not been able to participate in the real life meeting to be able to find out their progress and in asynchronous way, make their contribution. The components of this methodology are the PAD-OUT, which constitutes the interface which takes the information from the face to face meeting and send it to the virtual meeting, and the PAD-IN, that canalizes the contributions from the VC, located remotely, reacting to the messages of the face to face meeting. Different levels from PAD were used in each one of the four meetings although the possibility of continuing to experience and improve the methodology was limited for budgetary reasons.

Evaluation
Since it is a process based on the self-reflection, permanent evaluation has been identified as a central element for the MISTICA success. A combination of questionnaires distributed by electronic mail and published on the web [13] has allowed the coordination to take in consideration the participants' opinions, allowing them therefore to influence the process throughout the course of the project. Also the method of consultations as a form of evaluation has been used as an efficient way to resolve the strongest crisis that MISTICA has suffered, in July 2004, when a conflict situation between a small set of members and the coordination team seriously disturbed the process. On this occasion, the modality allowed the MISTICA culture to strengthen and at the same time to give guidelines for necessary evolutions (the requirement to establish processes of membership management that suggested some mechanisms to resolve potential conflicts).

The MISTICA equations

How to summarize 850KUS$ of investment, 400 people, 4 languages, 6500 contributions, more than 1000 pages of documents and 600 Megabytes of information in 40,000 pages on the Web, that were hit so far 22 million times and that generated a total flow of 125 Gigabytes of information? Mathematics!

Although this does not pretend in any fashion to be a formal representation of MISTICA what follows can be read as an attempt to synthesize, in an extreme way, its complexity.




Some collective products of MISTICA

All the products (in their majority translated from Spanish to English, French and Portuguese) can be consulted in the page:
http://funredes.org/mistica/castellano/ciberoteca/tematica/.

Being by choice public domain, the project and its products have not contributed to the subject of the intellectual property ownership of collective material. It has been taken as the norm to establish the MISTICA VC as the author of collective documents and within the documents to offer details of individuals credits which deserved to be exposed, a position coherent with the ethical concepts of MISTICA.

Realistica, the Journal of MISTICA

This is the most recent collective creation of the VC. At the moment what has been created is just the principle of an agreed scientific journal within the MISTICA culture, that is to say an action-research Journal supported by the VC in the perspective of South-South cooperation. The VC has been experimenting, for the definition of the title, with a form of recursive vote and chose the logo together.
http://funredes.org/mistica/castellano/ciberoteca/tematica/revistica.html
It is now up to the new coordination team to give life to this collective creature.

The information utopista [14]

This was planned as an original contribution of the MISTICA VC to the WSIS with the concept of showing the capacity of civil society to propose and not only criticize. If the idea of an utopian collective reflection of the society that the members of this VC dream about was planned, the result, as always in the case of a virtual community, take an unexpected course. In this case, the process was characterized by a difficulty of some of the members to dream in very hard times and by their capacity to overcome and to articulate a typical product of the Latin American culture where the real and the imaginary are mixed up with poetry. It has been edited with multimedia support to better reflect the complexity and the richness of the product, and was presented at WSIS in a special event.
(See http://cmsi.funredes.org/).

Notice that the MISTICA community choose to use the term "societies of the shared knowledge" instead of "information society" or "knowledge society to put the human and the sharing at the center of the new societies.
The document: http://funredes.org/mistica/castellano/ciberoteca/tematica/utopista/utopistav1/
The multimedia: http://funredes.org/mistica/utomedia/utomedia.zip

Working the Internet with a social vision

This document was conceived and built up collectively to serve as a conceptual base to OLISTICA a project that aimed to collect and present original and alternative contributions about information society indicators. It is a document conceived in a way so that non ICT4D specialists could understand, in simple terms, the collective and alternative vision that this community have build up about the Internet, as a tool of social work. The product, very powerful thanks to its simple and pedagogical expression is having a real and effective influence at both the regional and the global levels and could represent at this moment the most typical product of MISTICA. It have served as the core of a publication by several authors [15], that was also largely distributed, in 4 languages, in the WSIS, with the support of the Agence Internationale de la Francophonie. An illustrated version of this document was also produced.
Text version: http://funredes.org/mistica/castellano/ciberoteca/tematica/esp_doc_olist2.html
Illustrated version: http://funredes.org/mistica/castellano/ciberoteca/tematica/trabajando.pdf
WSIS version: http://redistic.org/index.htm?body=proyectosj

LESSONS LEARNED

Which lessons could be taken from the MISTICA experience for the collective build-up of knowledge in a virtual community? Which guidelines appear for virtual social engineering that could be adapted in a different context? What have we learnt that could serve towards the construction of new form of participative democracy? What role do ethics and culture play in this process?

Ingredients to consider for the nurturing of virtual communities

Clear Goal

Without a clear goal it is very improbable that a group of persons would gather for a long period and invest their time in maintaining the link between them. In the MISTICA example, the project had a set of explicit goals, sufficiently motivating to cause an initial selection of 80 people to respond to the announcement and subscribe to the discussion list [16].

Throughout the course of the project an implicit goal was set that explains why people with low inclination to participate in virtual debates stay in the space and quietly support the process: the systematic watch in the field of interest. Our conviction is that a large majority of the subscribed people find their reason of belonging to this community in the opportunity it provides to stay well informed on the theme of the social impact of ICT in Latin America. Adding the permanent preoccupation for the methodology to keep high the ratio of signal over noise, this could be the main reason for the low exit rate from the discussion list. The investment in time is balanced by the input in knowledge for people who are very busy or with a secondary interest in the topic.

As a collateral effect, many people who initially are reluctant to follow the debates and are only interested in watching, are put, in the long run, under a patient pedagogical effect of sharing values and creating visions. From here comes the education and inward influence factor which can be transformed, with the critical mass of people whom the growth of membership allows, into outward result and, beyond, of impact in the field.

At the same time, as in any human community, over time the culture proper of the place is built and transmitted which allows the feeling of identity of the community to strengthen. Furthermore, critical moments occur when extreme tensions [17] happen and could degenerate in conflicts capable of destroying the harmony of what is a complex and fragile organization. The role of facilitation is then key in knowing how to handle the critical process in such a way that the destructive effect of the forces [18] is not only avoided but, as in judo, the forces themselves are used to advantage so that they the incident serves as a paradoxical opportunity to consolidate and to cement the culture of the virtual community. It is not only about conserving the culture but also about integrating the changes that collective history has made necessary, which requires an acute and lucid perception of that evolution.

Balance between active and passive

This is one of the most difficult balances to manage in these communities: the subset of very active people (who deserve the greatest respect because they are the ones who bring human capital) and the "silent majority" which apparently uses the system without contributing in return (in appearance only, because the reality is more complex and the perceptions behind the curtain deny this simplification and the scorning to the people who behave like "lurkers" [19] and who we called "the silent majority"). [20].

If the balance goes towards the active participants (allowing the increase of the noise relatively to the signal) the silent majority exits and the discussion could become "hysterical" or "compulsive" and then only extremely motivated and available persons will continue, as very active contributors, in general, do not control the frequency and size of their contributions... and are not as much affected by noise! In the worst case, all members leave the place in a recursive process (the phenomenon of divergence); in the best case, the VC is transformed into a very closed kernel of specialists and the meaning of the given mission is lost.

If the balance goes towards the passive participants (with an excessive control of the noise and the space of the active ones) the active part of the community exits and with the disappearance of the human capital the community implodes since the energy that maintains it in action has vanished. In the best case the system transforms into a newsletter [21]; in the worst case it is left as a community in hibernation, where there are people subscribed but no communication flow [22]...

In the case of MISTICA another implicit goal exists (in this case, a "meta" goal) that gives an incentive for staying to the active population in spite of their suffering from what they consider the excessive attention given to the passive subscribers: the ability to participate in innovating experiments in terms of participative democracy.

Common values

For a human group to reach common visions in a collective process, whether local or remote, it is required to start from a minimum set of common values. Of course, these values can be in many cases unconscious and in other cases learned in the process. In any case, the role of the people who lead the process (either from the group that facilitates the project or from the group of participants more influential with ideas and principles) is key in specifying those values. Of course, the announcement and the process to look for participants for the electronic conference must focus clearly and precisely people who share those values (without being exclusive). Without a critical mass of people who share the founding values it is hard to obtain consensus in the initial phases.

Coherence

Coherence is an absolutely required criterion so that the values can continues and to allow a centralized management to be respected by the community. Unlike spaces of representative democracy where declarations and the capacity to make them credible represent the decisive factor, in participative democracy, where the importance lies in the processes, the driving force is the coherence between the day to day decisions and the expressed values. The monitoring of the coherence criterion must be absolute because credibility is gained slowly in the time and a single decision where the community can perceive a violation of the claimed values is sufficient to lose all the credibility and hence the sense of community.

Rules of the game clear and consensual

Democracy is the sum of the rules that a group of people have reached agreement on to govern their social relations. Evidently there is no unique model of democracy but different models seated in the culture and history of each group. In the case of MISTICA, to avoid that the work of ratifying the initial rules (meta-communication on the project) take too much time endangering the objectives of the project, the coordination made an especially precise and focused effort so that the phase of debate and agreement would be neither protracted nor controversial. In order to maintain rules of the game which have not been properly socialized and thus appropriated, an always open meta communication is a must. In the new transition and with the constant growth of membership it becomes more necessary to document in all possible detail the rules of the game.

Open Meta communication

Whoever facilitates the process is committed to responding, behind the curtain, to all the questions of participants and must circulate in the discussion list, with the due frequency, the more touchy subjects of rules of the game. Although it is correct that the majority can decide on which options to be adopted, unlike in representative democracies, the minorities, especially when they represent the most active subset, must receive a special hearing and special consideration. In participative democracy, the active people represent the asset of human capital and their share of ownership in the collective construction is larger and must be recognized and respected. The channels for communication on the process are multiple: debate in the list, discussions behind the curtain (including planned or fortuitous face to face encounters), evaluation forms. The number of communications interchanged directly with individual members has been, in the first stages, as high as the contributions in the list. This open channel maintains trust and plays a role in strengthening the culture of the space.

Firm and credibly democratic moderation

From the MISTICA perspective the facilitation of the processes of the virtual community has been identified like the sum of three main functions (independent on the fact that the same person could cover them all simultaneously):

  • moderation, that is in charge to manage the flow of contributions to the list, to apply the rules, to add value and/or explanations (notes from the moderation are appended at the beginning or the end of contributions) and to educate;
  • animation, that circulate information of interest to the community (field watchers) and feeds the debates when it is necessary;
  • conduction, an activity that consists of taking specific debates in an ordered fashion and within fixed schedules.

Moderation is a key function in the success of an electronic conference. It must have sufficient credits as to make firm decisions, supported by the agreed rules. It is a complex and subtle process that cannot be understood to be simply the application of certain rules. At no may the moderator's decisions may appear arbitrary or unfair and there is an obligation of explanation at individual or collective level, according to the case. In all situations, the moderation must allow the person who is feeling mistreated to have an open access for consultation to the community. The profile of the moderation is complex and multi-skilled; it includes a deep knowledge of netiquette together with fluent ability as an expert user, a sense of the psycho-sociology of human groups together with the gift of diplomacy, some kind of mixture between the profiles of librarian and virtual journalist (quite different from the traditional media). Unlike the profile of the face to face meetings facilitator, who does not have to take part in the debates nor need to be expert in the subject to focus the management of the interactions of third parties, the moderation requires a wide knowledge of the theme and is allowed to be a full member of the community, with the right to contribute and the obligation to maintain exemplary behavior. In order to compensate this duality it is extremely important that situations when a person act as moderator to be clearly distinguishable from the situation when he or she acts as a contributor.

In MISTICA, the different functions have been performed by more than one person, when the budget has allowed it, or by a single person filling all the functions, in situations of shortage of resources. When a single person assumes the function he/she should consult colleagues of the coordination in the delicate situations before making decisions.

The moderation of Mistica is guided by a fixed objective. It is characterized by a firm intention to maintain the focus (a contribution that does not relate to the social impact of ICT will not be accepted and setting precedents is scrupulously avoided) and to maintain the exchanges within controlled patterns of size (in principle it is expected that the size of a contribution be one screen in average and should not go beyond three screens). For that reason a very frequent use is made of links instead of quotations and the cyberlibrary can be used to place documents (attachments are not accepted in the list). There is a concept of value added in the MISTICA moderation which consists of checking the links, helping contributors to maintain conciseness, editing long contributions, and adding notes that allow members to better understand the context. All those functions, especially the one of edition, demand a great ethical rigor. The task has begun of documenting the detailed rules that serve as a frame of reference for moderation.
See http://funredes.org/mistica/castellano/emec/metodo/reglas.html (in Spanish)..

The role of facilitation, in the relation with the entropy of this particular system, is to maintain a delicate balance between chaos and order, between the crystal and the smoke to restate the definition of life of the biologist specialist in information theory, Henri Atlan [23]. In this zone occur unforeseeable creative phenomena which can transcend the group...

Active transparency leading to active participation

Active transparency is a concept created by Funredes at the beginning of 90s that offers a counterpoint to the over-used not to say worn away subject of "transparency". In active transparency, the information reached the interested parties in a timely manner and through modalities that make it really pertinent and useful. It is a proactive element to foster participation. Using the example of a face to face meeting, active transparency consists of sending to the people invited, with enough notice before the meeting, so that they can know and use them:
- the list of participants with their respective web pages and email addresses,
- all the documents of the meeting,
- the agenda of the meeting.

The theme of participation in a virtual community (and especially in Mistica) is a subject which provokes much discussion and many different points of view. Simplifying the position, some think that "participation" must be visible and as a kind of "obligation" for the members and then relates this to the visible space, mainly the contributions to the list and the answers to surveys [24]. . Some people (in general within the very active participants) think that the facilitation must use energetic methods in order to impose it [25]. Some type of resentment may exist against whoever uses the space and does not pay back, which is comprehensible from the people who have offer the most in terms of human capital.

FUNREDES had a quite different approach, derived from its experience of daily management and as the results of the direct random interviews of dozens of participants during traveling, and the discovering that behind the curtain participation, although invisible to the community, is in general remarkable (circulation of contributions in other surroundings, activities triggered directly between members, use of material to design university courses, local incidence, professional changes as a result of membership ...).

It is not surprising that the virtual world behaves the same as the real world: few people really become involved in the communitarian life, locally, in organizations or in cities. Participative democracy is a building which is hard to construct. In all case, this construction must come into being from the bottom up, first with credible processes and then with strategies of motivation for the participation (but not with coercion or with hidden agendas).

The dynamic flows in virtual spaces, for deep reasons that have to do with the size of the attention span, time management and the nature of the digital communications are closer to stochastic phenomena (like in the thermodynamics) than linear (like in dynamics). The statistical behavior determines the global perception, the Poisson and Pareto laws give better explanatory schemes than cause effect reasoning. And it is lucky that this is so... Try to imagine the virtual hell if half of the 400 subscribed people would suddenly and systematically send an answer to all the contributions! If the average flow stays at a figure between 0 and 5 contributions per day it is because this is the result of behavior that is better described by statistics, as it happens in the world of the telecommunications. When an extraordinary event occurs the telephone systems, which usually take advantage of the law of independence between events to save on expensive resources, cannot deal with the demand anymore. The same happens in virtual communities when a situation of flame is triggered.

Indeed, it is necessary to understand what is understood by "participation" in a virtual community and how this is measured. Let us have a look to different situations where participation is perceived:

-  With contributions in the list? More than 50% of the subscribers have sent at least one contribution in MISTICA; this is a very high number in comparison with other electronic conferences (numbers of the order of 20% are the norm). But it would be necessary to measure the quality of the contributions so that to make real sense. How to measure the quality? Another very delicate subject... In a professional moderated list, and in Mistica particularly, the average quality is high because the moderation fixes a pattern and tries to maintain it. The level is maintained by a natural form of auto censorship (the fear to appear puerile to one's peers) and with a very delicate work of dialog with people who contribute below the level set as a standard.

-  With the capacity of the list to contribute answers to questions asked by members? In the case of Mistica it is extremely high and it approaches the 100%, if one includes the indirect answers (outside the list) which make this one of the success factors of this VC. Solidarity is expressed but even if this is known by the questioner, the members are not necessarily aware since most of the answers occur behind the curtain.

-  With the participation in collective discussions? On average there is about a 10%-15% of people (not always the same ones) who have participated in the different collective exercises. Is it acceptable then to call a document "collective"? There is one implicit basic rule in virtual spaces: who does not express an opinion is considered in agreement with the discussed position. This is the way to build rough consensus. On the other hand, the methodology of construction of collective documents start in general from a first draft that has tried to synthesize the opinions already stated in the discussion list

-  With the participation in the evaluations? The number is a little lower (8%-12%). But again analysis shows a great diversity in the participation. Is there a statistical value in the result? The methodology of consultations always tries to include several crossed questions that allow passage beyond the first simple impressions and always contain open answers.

Moderation is an art of permanent balance to maintain the flows between dissimilar populations with different expectations. Moderation has the advantage of being the owner of the time and the chronology (although an basic ethical rule is to respect scrupulously the order of arrival of the messages and not to take advantage of the privileged situation of moderator to intervene out of sequence).

VCs are complex, fragile and wonderful bodies: like skeletons of seas urchins, it is possible to handle them gently but not to press them because they would break and once broken it is not possible to reconstruct them, except from scratch.

To transfer empathy from face to face towards the virtual

Within the Latin American culture emotional response is an essential element and serve to cement human relations whether personal or professional. At the level of the group the empathy concept transcends. Although the community is virtual it is useful and sometimes necessary to organize face to face encounters to allow that affective current to have a natural means of transmission. PAD methodology, that tried to organize the remote participation of the virtual community in face to face meetings, in spite of not reaching a sufficient level of quality to insure good functioning, has contributed to sensitize the people who did participate in face to face meetings to transfer this empathy to the VC. The report of the first meeting, made in the form of a novella, has been a founding document for the process and its affective aspects. See "Letter to Emilio or the dream tale of the meeting of Samaná": (in Spanish).
See http://funredes.org/mistica/castellano/ciberoteca/tematica/esp_doc_sam2_1.html<.


Preoccupation for cultural diversity

One aspect of participative democracy which is often forgotten is respect for cultural diversity. The selection of a common language to facilitate dialog is argued to be justified for pragmatic reasons, however it is perceived by many people as an unfair imposition and a constraint on their freedom of expression. In the virtual environment, we prefer the rule that allows every one to decide on the language that he/she wants to use, and, of course, to take along with that the risk that fewer people will be able to understand him/her. Latin America and the Caribbean has Spanish as main language, but English, French and Portuguese are also used... and also several indigenous languages, some of enormous reach. The Web site is in 4 languages and the contributions are processed by programs of automatic translation to facilitate mutual understanding. The concern for indigenous languages has not yet been able to find concrete applications although the will exists.

Applications pilots

To be able to drive the potential of collaboration between the members of the community into concrete actions, the best pedagogy is to develop actions in full coherence with principles. The first budget of MISTICA allowed the VC to carry out an experiment with this criterion. It was a valuable experience, opening very promising tracks. The concept which allows to switch from various statements (collaboration, open process, learning by doing, field incidence) into real actions is probably adaptable to many different contexts.
See http://funredes.org/mistica/castellano/aplicaciones_pilotos/ (in Spanish).

SYNTHESIS, CONCLUSION AND PERSPECTIVES

If one considers virtual communities as microcosmic laboratories of participative democracy a concept presents itself from the experience: the ethic of process, which includes a component of respect for cultural diversity.

What is the ethic of process? Like the "culture of networking" or the "culture of information", this is an underlying concept to those virtual spaces which deserves an effort of definition and analysis from the world of research.

There are values that has been identified and discussed in this paper:

-  community spirit,

-  active transparency,

-  collaboration,

-  participation

-  respect to the differences (of opinion, gender, cultures and languages, etc.),

-  respect to the historical process,

-  sharing and the collective creation of knowledge,

-  perspective of social justice,

-  will of social change emerging from dialog;
however, the process is not written [26] and it is always necessary to ask the questions and to accept to respond without prejudice.

In the willingness to ask ourselves the questions lies the horizon of the "ethics of process". Sometimes the answers are immediate, other times the answers are very difficult and the result of an intense debate. Sometimes there is no answer and one is left in doubt... Within a process vision, to ask oneself the right (and all) the questions is more important that to have the answers.

As those values universal? Those values are strongly marked by their cultural substrate; in the case of experiment MISTICA, the Latin American culture. Nevertheless, as far as can be discerned, behind the ethic of process, the emergent values of cyberspace which are identified by "culture of the information" and "network culture", those values of convergence for the ethics of process will be well able to serve, in the future as a basis for the ethical foundations of participative democracy and/or ethics of information.

Is democracy a universal value? A solid argument of the limits of this statement is in the text of the Colombian José Bernardo Toro, "Education for democracy" [27]: "the cosmovision of the democracy is a single one and the principles are such, but they acquire specific forms in Peru, or Colombia, or Bolivia...".

Does it make sense to consider information ethics within an intercultural perspective? The last congress of the International Center for the Ethics of Information (ICIE) [28] with the theme: "Localizing the Internet: Ethical issues in Intercultural perspective" leads to an enthusiastic positive answer and the belief that Latin American and Caribbean cultures has its contributions to the subject, both theoretical and experimental.

¡En proyectos orientados al proceso como deben ser las comunidades virtuales de aprendizaje y colaboración no hay conclusión! Es un proceso recursivo que merece evaluaciones frecuentes y el proceso se concluye sólo cuando, por una o otra razón, la comunidad se disuelve en el espacio-tiempo virtual, dejando solamente sus rasgos en las mentes de quienes participaron y en las obras colectivas que ha podido facilitar.

Thus to conclude we can say with Constantin Cavafy, (1863-1933), the Alexandrian poet who would seem to complement Machado for our enlightenment: "Traveler pray to the Gods that your trip be long, because the important thing about the trip to Ithaca is not to arrive at Ithaca but the trip itself." [29]


Notas:

[1] pimienta@funredes.org

[2] Foundation Networks and Development - http://funredes.org

[3] The fact that virtual communities emerged at the phase of the development of networks when the research world was the principal user explains why the culture of virtual communities hold principles fundamentally coherent with the culture of science.

[4]  http://wikipedia.org is a good example of it.

[5] There is an appropriate style for electronic communication, at the boundary of the written and oral expression, where efficiency hence conciseness is a virtue and lack of formalism the norm. However, the fact that expressions could be stored and retrieved for ever has cultural and ethical implications which deserve to be considered.

[6] Is that the case of a Virtual Golem and until what point the analogy offers a predictive reference to worry about? :-) The analogy probably fails with the very fact that this virtual Golem is not a single creation made by a single person but rather a collective endeavor.

[7]  http://funredes.org/mistica/english/cyberlibrary/

[8] Yanapanako means “helping each other” in Quechua language, representing the idea of mutual support between MISTICA pilot applications. http://funredes.org/mistica/castellano/aplicaciones_pilotos/.

[9] See http://funredes.org/olistica

[10] See http://itu.int/wsis

[11]  http://funredes.org/emec

[12] The following link explains the EMEC methodology, as have been implemented in MISTICA VC (http://funredes.org/mistica/castellano/emec/documentacion/)

[13] The questionnaires and the evaluations result could be reached in: http://funredes.org/mistica/castellano/evaluaciones/.

[14] The name in Spanish "Utopista" is playing words with "Utopia" and "Autopista" which means Highway. This is obviously not translatable into English.

[15] Other side of the divide: Latin-American and Caribbean Perspectives on the WSIS", coordinated by Luis Germán Rodriguez.

[16] Such en effort requires a serious work of identification and convene of persons and groups potentially interested.

[17] The infamous flames in electronic conference which have diverging and contagious capable to weaken and even destroy apparently strong groups.

[18] The most perverse destructing force which must be detected timely is the effect of the increase of the noise which is provoked by flames and which drive the "silent majority" to unsubscribe since the invested time and the gain benefits from selective attention get lost with the difficulty to sort the signal from the noise which has suddenly exploded.

[19] "Eyes with no talk" has been an expression used by some active persons.

[20] And anyway, as Deirdre Williams pointed out in a private conversation, referencing Victor Turner: "You can’t have a performance without an audience!".

[21] When a single source broadcast thematical news, a valuable service indeed but which is out of the scope of what is a VC.

[22] Statistics of number of active mailing lists lie permanently counting units which are empty and where the subscribers remain only because silence is not a nuisance.

[23] "Entre le cristal et la fumée. Essai sur l’organisation du vivant", Edition du Seuil, 1979

[24] Although the right to hide identity of responder is always protected in surveys, unlike the contributions to the list where the anonymity is not allowed.

[25] Like unsubscribing persons who does not answer some feedback mechanism.

[26] Therefore the reference to Sevillian poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939) which has been constant in the project: "Caminante, no hay camino, el camino se hace al andar" translated into: Traveler, there is no way, the way is made walking.

[27]  http://funredes.org/funredes/html/castellano/publicaciones/educdemo.html. In Spanish.

[28]  http://http://icie.zkm.de/congress2004

[29] Mentioned in this context by Miguel Angel Perez Alvarez..