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I’d like to start a Junto. (pronounced hoonto)

Originally, “The Junto was a club established in 1727 by Benjamin Franklin for mutual improvement. Its purpose was to debate questions of morals, politics, and natural philosophy, and to exchange knowledge of business affairs.” [wikipedia]

This seems rather amazing to me, and something that should always exist for knowledge sharing, information exchange, learning, personal growth, and empowerment. Not only does it make logical sense, a recent research study suggests deep, meaningful conversation actually makes us happier. The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, showed that when two people enter into a deep discussion, they create shared meaning of the world, strengthening their connections and bonds and interdependence, making them happy. (It feels good to relate to others!!! Did we need published research to really know that? Just check out the comments section of this blog, it’s living research.)

It may sound counterintuitive, but people who spend more of their day having deep discussions and less time engaging in small talk seem to be happier, said Matthias Mehl, a psychologist at the University of Arizona who published a study on the subject.

But, he proposed, substantive conversation seemed to hold the key to happiness for two main reasons: both because human beings are driven to find and create meaning in their lives, and because we are social animals who want and need to connect with other people.

“By engaging in meaningful conversations, we manage to impose meaning on an otherwise pretty chaotic world,” Dr. Mehl said. “And interpersonally, as you find this meaning, you bond with your interactive partner, and we know that interpersonal connection and integration is a core fundamental foundation of happiness.”

I’ve been wondering how this can be translated into a digital format that might work for the benefit of all.

Here’s the premise: ChatRoulette format + Livestream + Twitter Backchannel

I’m going to lay out the concept. Maybe you can help build it.

1. ChatRoulette

If you haven’t heard of ChatRoulette yet, here’s a funny youtube video of how it works. Essentially, you log in, and it randomly assigns you a partner from around the world and puts you in a video chat together. You can click to move on at any time, which lines you up with a different partner. Like roulette, but with people.

Unfortunately, it’s being mostly used for entertainment or for flashing people their genitals, but it gave me an idea for something much better.

Imagine the very same setup, two video boxes and a text box.

Now what if instead of the “roulette” format, with two random stranger in a conversation for no good reason, what if we do this as purposeful dialogues between intelligent people to discuss big ideas?

There’s been a lot of energy building here, and I think we’re starting to really resonate on the same frequency. Now people have begun to ask what we can do to start taking all this talk to action.

As I’ve been thinking about our “intentional evolution” and this collaborative learning process that’s going on here, I’ve asked myself what the next step is after this.

In the last post, I mentioned a few ways we can kickstart our personal thinking process – through building networks, self-reflection, and rewiring the brain.

I think the next step is through dialogue – bouncing ideas off each other, practicing the act of listening to each other’s perspectives, gaining insights from our different viewpoints, and learning how to communicate.

I know that many great ideas and insights come from those one-on-one interactions that often go late into the night, discussing all those things that really make up the stuff of life.

Now, for the sake of all of us moving forward as people – what if we engaged in these types of chats publicly?

The spoken word has a different impact on consciousness than the written word. When we’re reading text from a book or from a screen, it’s one-way information. We can’t ask it to clarify itself, can’t ask it if it could give us an example, and it won’t let us ask it how its view differs from ours.

Essentially, text only gives us one perspective.

In addition, it boxes in the mind.

In the way that these letters and words lock in your idea of what they mean through the form itself, it locks in your thinking as well. You know just what I mean, if you’re in any of the communities who argue over the TRUE meaning of “design thinking,” “futures thinking,” “social business,” “social crm,” “social learning,” and so on. As soon as you name it, you box it. You contain it. And then the conversation shifts to the arguing over the meaning over the word instead of discussing the deeper concepts that those words represent.

Our attention gets distracted.

The spoken word is different.

You can’t box it in. My nature, sound is already going out of existence even as it is coming into existence. (By the time you say ‘-tence’ the ‘-exis’ is gone. It’s evanescent.

[See Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong – short excerpt here of what the written word does to consciousness and the brain]

But is the spoken word enough?

There is much learning and insight to be had by watching a TED talk, but like a book, the information is still one way.

What if we could engage in mini TED talks with each other? Practice the art of dialogue. Practice listening to another’s viewpoint without interruption. LISTENING. Asking questions when clarification is needed. Asking why that person thinks what they think. Generating new ideas together.

Are we not full of interesting insights and ideas too?

2. Livestream

The web is activity streams. It’s always moving, like a river of information. Most of the streams we look at are text-based (Twitter, RSS), but couldn’t we also have video streams as well?

I love TED videos myself, but I don’t always have 30-60 minutes at a time to invest.

What if these Junto dialogues were streamed in real-time, and you could just “dip in” for as long as you wanted?

No commitments.

Just as we casually glance through the tweetstream to see what’s interesting at the moment, what if this live dialogue could also be glanced at for any length of time we found interesting?

Starting to get excited?

3. Twitter Backchannel

Not everyone is ready to discuss ideas publicly, but they might be interested in watching them.

There’s plenty of learning and insights that can happen for the observer, just as it happens for the ones speaking. And they don’t have to be just an observer. They can also be a participant. By using the hashtag #junto (or whatever is decided), anyone can add in their perspective, and build on the experience itself, amplifying its potential for stimulating curiosity and growth.

Why it Just Might Work: Simplicity

Simplicity helps to reveal understanding within complexity. Many of us are having these conversations already. Over and over. Hitting those “a-ha moments” one on one. Or on our own. What if, instead of all of us having to discover each insight alone or one on one, we can start REALLY pushing forward, and generating ideas IN REAL TIME with MANY OF US TOGETHER.

Those are the components. So simple. Yet so potentially powerful.

The Big Picture

Here’s what I think it could look like.

This is just an idea, an experiment. Sure there are many ways this could fail. But didn’t we learn that to be agile and adaptive, we have to be comfortable with uncertainty, willing to take risk? It occurred to me that we talk about “building agile organizations” as if it’s something that happens “out there” that we “implement.” WE ARE the organization!!! We must learn how to be adaptive ourselves if we want the organization to be adaptive.

This is a collective experiment in what it means to learn and think and adapt and become flexible, resilient, and agile.

It could really take off, and I can see this simple model being effective in so many ways, especially the potential to get young people engaged in critical thinking and gaining appreciation for knowledge and wisdom.

So let’s say we try this thing on a given night and time. Say Monday 8-9pm/EST. We try this a couple of times this way for a few reasons:

1. Model the Behavior - I’m learning from Twitter and this community that we’re learning by doing and by watching each other and seeing what works. When something seems to work, we copy. (We’re monkeys!) We have to show each other what intelligent dialogue “looks like.”

2. Set the Expectation – The idea here is to really engage in some high level dialogue, so it would be nice to set the bar high upfront. I don’t know of anywhere on the web you can go to watch two people hashing out ideas in real-time. It could be VERY interesting.

3. Gauge Interest – This could just be a great idea in my head, but doesn’t work in practice. We’d have to experiment and see if it’s sticky.

The nice thing is, I think the risk here is pretty low. This is not a complex idea, it’s simple. The complexity comes from what happens during the dialogue, from the ideas coming from our minds. The technology is just the tool for us to interact. This is how we use “the social Web” intelligently.

The web is not a destination. It is an interface between people.

So at first, we pick 2 people – there are so many of you who are packed with ideas, I can’t even keep up. I can think of many combinations of you that I’d love to stick in a room together and see what happens. (lol)

And they just talk for an hour. Free form. No rules. No expectations. The goal is the spirit of inquiry itself. The content can be whatever inspires you – how to build online communities, why networks are important, how we can start developing an online reputation system linked to a digital currency model, how to fund projects, or any number of the big problems we face that we discuss in our lives every day. And while those two talk, the rest of us watch and listen and learn. They will also have a chat box where they can type in information during their chat (like links to information that comes up during conversation), so that we can also follow the links. And then us, the observers, also have the backchannel, to be participating with each other while they’re talking.

How Does It Scale?

If people find this interesting and it draws attention, it needs to be able to grow to serve a larger audience without getting weighed down. If we want it to be sustainable, it will have to operate like a complex system. Meaning: self-organizing, non-hierarchical, and organic (just like an agile organization, or like our brains).

Not everyone is available from 8-9pm on Monday nights, including the two people having the chat.

What if it gets opened up to anyone, and the chats could be tagged by theme. You go to the site, and you could click on any number of ongoing real-time conversations to watch, or log in with a colleague/friend/fellow thinker to enter into your own Junto.

No conversation theme is mandated, you decide what you’re talking about. No timeframe is set – you talk for as long as you’re inspired to talk, and then leave when you’re done. The people watching can dip in when they want. The backchannel can dip in when they want. The entire thing is comprised of independent agents who do whatever they want, assemble around ideas for short periods of time, and then disband when they’ve had enough.

So potentially, if this thing would take off, there could be interesting public dialogues discussing important ideas that matter for all of us, all over the world, all of the time. 24/7. It could take the mysticism out of TED talks, by just creating People talks.

It would become like a video-based version of Twitter, where you could tap into the thoughtstream of the planet. And the voicestream.

I think this has the potential to spur on an explosion of intelligence and innovation.

There are so many excellent thinkers out there who could benefit so much from knowing each other and having a chance to share their knowledge. And from what I’ve seen so far, there are enough people out there committed to the notion of the free exchange of ideas and of getting real problems solved, that they would engage in these exchanges publicly. (This is what “open innovation” and “open collaboration” would look like.)

I can see all kinds of Twitter communities embracing this format in order to take their hosted Twitter chats to the next level (#educhat, #innochat, #blogchat, #journchat, #kmers, #socent, etc).

And what happens if parents encouraged it? What if you could get a bright high school kid to start sharing ideas with a senior citizen? And publicly. It might create a transparency that helps us to bridge the generational divide, where we can start to highlight and praise some of the tacit knowledge that is painfully undervalued in our society.

(I recently heard that 7,000 people in the U.S. reach retirement age every day. Imagine if some of those people cared to share some of their life lessons and stories and insights with youth?)

I think we’re already seeing a shift in what “expert” means. We will still value those with deep specialist knowledge or academic backgrounds, of course. But there are other kinds of experts that we don’t acknowledge much – the experts in life – the people with knowledge and wisdom to share. What if we showed them a little appreciation (i.e.”respect” – the acknowledgement of the wisdom of another) and asked them to share their viewpoints?

A little while back I prompted this discussion with What is an expert? There was an overwhelming response, and many great angles to ponder. Here is a response that really resonated with me, left by Jamie Wolf:

I’ve just served on a workgroup charged with establishing the criteria for a Professional Leadership Award in the domain of our interest (Sustainable Energy/Building). I’m pleased with the result and think it informs this discussion.

The people I consider true experts embody an essential quality of humility about their knowledge and experience. As an experienced (and expert) “old world” mason I once worked with explained: “The more I know, the more I know I don’t know.”

In any case, here are the criteria we established for the proposed award – this is good stuff:

The recipient:

  • is regarded as a leader in his/her professional field and has made significant contributions. Their concepts and ideas change how we think about and perform our work.
  • embodies methods of practice, and models aspects of being, that we aspire to ourselves
  • is a whole systems thinker incorporating a multi-disciplinary approach to practice
  • demonstrates the highest integrity and honesty
  • is immensely generous in sharing his/her knowledge, skill, and experience – a person of great heart
  • is a clear thinker and communicator
  • has profound curiosity which extends the boundaries of our shared knowledge
  • is fully engaged with, and embodies the ideals of the community

Makes sense to me. The leaders and experts of tomorrow (i.e. TODAY) are not people who know all the answers – they are, as Umair Haque put it, The Builders.

And if this could really scale globally, these conversations would start taking place in other languages and spanning nations. It could help take those steps towards understanding each other with fresh eyes.

Many of the problems we face between each other as people is due to misunderstanding. We don’t understand one another’s perspectives, and we don’t know how to listen or empathize well. We’re still caught in being right and defending our views instead of seeing that there are a multitude of views, and each is a representation of a time and place and culture and set of life experiences that is unique to that individual. We have SO much to learn from EACH OTHER!

Everything we need to know is NOT in an operations manual.

I’m not suggesting the world will change overnight. Far from it. But getting a little dialogue started is a good place to start.

#

I can see it, but I don’t have the tools to build it! If you know any programmers/designers who could make this a reality, please pass it on. ChatRoulette was thrown together by a 17 year old kid in Russia. I think we can handle this.

____

Thanks to @nejsnave for pointing me to the article from the NY Times, and to @gabrielshalom for the 4 hour video skype chat that helped generate this idea, and to everyone else here and on Twitter that gave me the experiences that led to all of this.

Onward and Upward!