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"Deconstructed" Virtual World Cafe on Thriving Resilient Communities

I have been experimenting over the past six months or so with a "deconstructed" form of virtual World Cafe, in which the rounds take place over a series of separate MaestroConference calls tied together by the use of the online platform "hackpad, which provides a "home base."

The latest iteration of this process included four live ninety-minute conversations from April 7-April 17, plus an additional period for some final posting online and a harvest/report that was completed on 4/24. The record for the whole conversation can be accessed here, including background information and context, notes from each call, harvests in four categories and the overall harvest/report. There's also a nifty soundtrack!

The conversation, dubbed the "Big Story/Big Money Cafe," was convened on behalf of the core circle of the "Thriving Resilient Communities Collaboratory," as a way of seeding conversation for our upcoming in-person retreat from 4/27-29. It was small by World Cafe standards--thirteen people participated to varying degrees, some joining all four calls, others only one or two. One person participated solely online.

The format allowed us to organize the entire conversation with only about ten days notice and to accommodate diverse schedules. It also provided time for design reflections in between "rounds" (i.e. calls) so that the process could be adapted as we went along. This led to continued refinement of our context setting throughout the process, a reframing of our core questions after the first round, the addition of a brief "Big Story" offering from a selected participant in each of rounds 2, 3 and 4, and the introduction of a "dissent" conversation into rounds 3 and 4.

Overall, I believe this approach offers a way for a group that is truly committed to an outcome to go quite deep, reflecting between rounds and reading through one another's notes. On the other hand, it doesn't provide the super-high-energy experience of either an in-person Cafe or a virtual one that follows the traditional format of three rounds done in immediate succession followed by a harvest. It asks a bit more of the host as well, in terms of maintaining the online space, sending out regular emails to keep people connected, and doing some harvesting/synthesis work on behalf of the group.

This is the third time I've done a "deconstructed" Cafe along these lines. As others have said before, virtual dialogue is not a substitute for in-person. And it has its own rhythms and opportunities. In this case, the weaving together of online and live virtual spaces is a key part of the exploration, and, while I feel that we succeeded in creating a flow between those two realms, I also think that we have barely scratched the surface of what is possible.

It was also the first time I incorporated a music playlist into the process. I compiled a set of YouTube videos and embedded them into an "Inspiration" hackpad. In addition, I offered one of the tunes as a way of opening the space for each online section of the Cafe. This was based on a vision that if we were all listening to the same tunes for the duration of the Cafe, that would create some energetic alignment. I have no idea if that actually happened or not, but I had a lot of fun grooving to the tunes I chose, and imagining others doing the same!


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Thanks for sharing this Ben! Appreciate the experimentation of the cafe experience both online and over a distributed period of time. And love the "inspiration hackpad" concept!


You're welcome, Amanda! I imagine there is much more one could do with the "inspiration" piece. Funky music was what was called to me this time, to create a sense of forward-driving energy. and I can also imagine using poetry, or images of various kinds. Or jokes. and of course, having it be participatory is always a nice thing, as opposed to something only the host(s) offer to the group.

I love your creativity and drive, Ben! Thanks for sharing your results and process here with everyone.


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