this post is a contribution i made to Shareable magazine’s new ebook – Share or Die. hope you enjoy my story.
It’s October 2010, and I’m reclined in an all expenses paid seat in business class on a flight to Berlin. I’m going there for two weeks to collaborate on a video project with a couple of artists I met online, then flying to Amsterdam to present the video to a room full of bankers at the largest financial services conference on the planet. I’m not a media producer, nor do I work in the financial industry. All I can think to myself is “How the hell did I get here?”
Rewind about a year and a half, and I’ve just started an MA in Media Studies at the New School in NYC. I have a vague sense that the Web is the future, and I want to understand what that means. I make the commitment to do the program full-time for two years. My husband thinks this might be my way of avoiding “getting a real job” for a while.
The thing is, I had a high paying corporate job. Between salary, benefits, and the free car, it was paying me well over six figures. Though rather soul-deadening, I had no idea what the alternative would be, and I was scared to lose the sense of security the job afforded me. I figured I’d just keep doing it until I had a nervous breakdown or they fired me – whichever came first.
Turns out it was the breakdown, but not the way I imagined.
I got a call from my father one afternoon telling me my mother, a vision of health at the age of 49, was in the hospital because of some stomach pain. Hours later she was diagnosed with stage four terminal ovarian cancer. It was completely out of the blue, and we were shocked. For her own reasons, she chose not to do the surgery or heavy chemo, and instead tried to rely on natural and alternative therapies. She fought bravely, but ultimately passed away shortly after her 50th birthday.
This was a pivotal moment for me, and at 25 years old I was asking myself “What the fuck am I doing with my life?” I realized how quickly everything can change, and I refused to waste any more time doing a job that left me empty. Why bother being unhappy when I could be dead tomorrow?
So I quit.
I was determined to find a calling that brought meaning and purpose to my life, and spent time trying several different things. Finally, after being involved with a web startup and feeling invigorated by the pace of change and innovation in the area, I made the decision to go to grad school.
Though I didn’t have a vision of where my studies would take me, I was constantly inspired by how social media was being used to affect positive change in the world. So I started a blog (Emergent by Design) and observations of what was going on. I got on Twitter too – not to amass followers, but to discover information faster and from curated sources.
Without really paying attention to what was happening, my blog started getting more and more readers, and my network on Twitter continued to grow. My strategy was pretty simple: respond to each and every comment left on the blog in a respectful, well thought out manner. Reply to every tweet and retweet. Invite generative dialogue.
By doing this, I started building actual relationships and trust with people, even if it was only in 140 character bursts or short comment replies. I found that the web can be an effective medium for building community by being honest, expressing authenticity and vulnerability, and leading by example when it comes to the kind of interaction and engagement one expects to receive. Curiosity and playfulness help too.
The more ideas and explorations I put out there in my posts, the more it attracted like minded individuals from around the world to respond, give me feedback on my thoughts, and offer amazingly helpful links and resources I would not have found otherwise. People wanted to help me, and seemed vested in my success and eager to share in my victories. What an amazing feeling.
As energy and momentum gathered, it seemed like people were waiting for us to do something together. But I didn’t know what to suggest. The idea of open distributed collaboration and co-creation sounded great, but how did you go about it?
The first project that manifested itself was Junto, an idea for an open discussion platform. The concept was to combine video conferencing with the intention of being publicly accessible and for the purpose of sharing knowledge and resources. The post I wrote explaining it was well received, and over 100 comments streamed in, offering encouragement and resources. A professor from Parsons reached out and offered to host the prototype on the New School server, a designer from Australia offered to put together a logo and UI mockups, and other collaborators around the world jumped in to experiment with it together. In less than a month, Junto was born.
The next project that came about was a video called The Future of Money. It started with an email I received from the Innovation Leader at SWIFT, a global financial messaging network for banks and financial institutions. He was inspired by some things I had written about the true meaning of wealth and value, and the ideas I’d been laying out about the future of money and currency. He wanted me to come speak at SIBOS, a huge financial services conferences that was to convene in Amsterdam.
Enter panic attack and imposer syndrome.
“You have nothing to offer. Your ideas are silly. What do you know about finance? They’re going to think you’re a joke. You will fail.”
My mind paralyzing me and I almost turned down the offer. But my friends, family and online community said, “Go for it!” So I thought, what better way to express the emerging paradigm of a peer to peer, collaborative economy, than to show how it works by example?
I reached out to a video musician/designer team in Berlin, and asked if they’d be interested in co-creating a video for the conference. They were stoked, and even helped me find a great room to rent in their neighborhood, at a fraction of the price of a hotel room. They told me we could get interviews, editing and post-production done within 2 weeks.
I was both exhilarated and terrified.
Here I was, about to make a huge leap of faith: Traveling to a foreign country to work on a time-sensitive project with people who were essentially strangers.
But this is how the new economy works, where trust can be built in a networked environment with peers around the planet. Through blogs, Twitter, and video chats on Skype, we assessed each others’ caliber and decided it was worth a shot to collaborate.
When that business flight landed in Berlin, I was greeted by Gabriel and Pati, an amazing couple and gracious hosts who immediately made me feel at home. Though I had the rented room they arranged for me, I ended up crashing many a night on their living room futon after intensive workdays on the project. We documented our activity for the public to follow those two weeks via videoblogs and tweets.
We launched an online crowdfunding campaign to garner support from the public while we completed a project we had already committed to doing for free. We managed to raise around $6000 in just a few weeks.
The presentation of the video at SIBOS went well, and raised some awareness about how our generation views money and wealth. It even got mentions in the Huffington Post and Fast Company, and has received over 20K views on vimeo to date.
That entire experience was a testament to the potential of this new emerging economy, where we can create new opportunities for ourselves and partnerships with people around the globe.
Finally, a few months ago, I completed my graduate degree. I’ve since teamed up with a group of collaborators on a new video series, The Future of Facebook Project. We’re pushing the distributed collaboration meme further by framing this project under the banner of “Open Foresight.” It’s a methodology mashing up futures studies frameworks with open participation and media creation, with the intention of producing videos to raise awareness, spark dialogue, and move us towards shared understanding and meaning.
We’ve already had a successful crowdfunding campaign for the project on Kickstarter, and also received funding from our first Corporate Patron, Innotribe. We’ve done close to 30 interviews with incredible technologists, authors, futurists, and business leaders. The videos are already set to be presented at three conferences later this year.
And now here I am, in April 2011, with a career that is emerging from a simple blog and the genuine desire to connect communities and amplify the work of change agents and mission-driven organizations. I wouldn’t have believed this was possible a year ago.
Now it seems I’ve built a brand, and can actually build off that foundation to generate an income for myself while also promoting this new paradigm of collaborative work and peer to peer culture. I’ve recently started writing a blog on Forbes.com, and was asked to contribute on CNN.com as well, giving me an outlet to spread the word to the mainstream. Businesses and organizations are starting to reach out to me for assistance with online community building, brand development, and how to communicate a message.
Now I see this life as an Epic Adventure, with each of us in control of being the hero of our own personal mission. Here are three big insights I’ve had these past few years that make me confident in this belief:
Your community already exists, and is waiting for you.
Your vision already exists – it is a shared one.
The tools of empowerment already exist, and are ready to be wielded.
The pieces you need really are there, they’re just often hard to recognize. I went through a long phase of utter despair and hopelessness, and had no idea how to move forward. Only after putting myself out there with authenticity and a beginner’s mind did I see I was surrounded by a community of change agents with the heart, the vision, and the capacity to act.
As we all move forward in building the kind of society we want to see and the lives we want to lead, we realize more and more that everything is interconnected and we can go further by connecting, collaborating, and amplifying each other’s efforts than by stubbornly trying to reinvent the wheel.
We’re all in this together. Find your tribe and go change the world.
rebecca garnett said:
that was such an excellent post Venessa – I was very moved by your story, which as you say, has at its heart the core message of collaboration and community.Thank you for always providing inspiration.
Tjarko Holtjer said:
I think we forgot that money is a way of making it easy to trade… It is not a GOAL!
John Lennon said it right in ‘Imagine’:
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one
Kirstin Falk said:
Rock on Venessa. You are an inspiration.
Ross D. Martin said:
Thanks for this excellent post. I’ve been watching and reading this progression since about the beginning it seems and it has been an inspiration. It makes me think about how I could make a similar leap and what conditions would be necessary or what catalysts would change my world enough to make a change possible.
What you have done for me is the positive opposite of “collateral damage” and I can only imagine the number of others who are being similarly impacted by you and others who are making a similar dive into the mysteries of the unknown as you discover — no, imagine into existence — new territories for others with similar dreams but perhaps stronger tethers to the mainland.
Thank you. I look forward to reporting on what happens from here.
Excellent post. I think Twitter is especially interesting for connecting like-minded people to find one another and therefore allow us to find our tribe. But only if we do the work ourselves to figure out what it is we want, our mission in life and then have the courage to pursue it.
Janet Vanderhoof said:
Love hearing your confidence and trust in the universe. I am glad to see you are following your own path. “If the path before you is clear,” said Joseph Campbell, “you’re probably on someone else’s.”
Sounds very exciting Vanessa, and it takes a lot of courage, but trust that you also to appear to have “helping hands” guide you on your journey. Good luck in Berlin!
Jeff Mowatt said:
There’s a similar message given in a a paper for the opening plenary of the Economics for Ecology conference a couple of years ago:
“Now there are, honestly, no answers. It is all just guesswork, and not more than that. What is not guesswork is that the broken – again – capitalist system, be it traditional economics theories in the West or hybrid communism/capitalism in China, is sitting in a world where the existence of human beings is at grave risk, and it’s no longer alarmist to say so.
The question at hand is what to do next, and how to do it. We all get to invent whatever new economics system that comes next, because we must.”
It was followed by the author’s treatise for an alternate economic paradigm, the core argument, as delivered to the White House in 1996.
The synopsis he published online ends with these words:
‘Massive greed and consequent massive human misery and suffering do not have to be accepted as a givens, unavoidable, intractable, irresolvable. Just changing the way business is done, if only by a few companies, can change the flow of wealth, ease and eliminate poverty, and leave us all with something better to worry about. Basic human needs such as food and shelter are fundamental human rights; there are more than enough resources available to go around–if we can just figure out how to share. It cannot be “Me first, mine first”; rather, “Me, too” is more the order of the day.’
After his sourcing a localisation initiative in Russia I joined him to set up as an operational model of the profit-for-purpose business in 2004 and two years later we found ourselves going toe to toe with organised crime over childcare neglect in Eastern Europe.
With disabled and discarded children as its central focus, a strategy plan was published and called on US government for support in propagating a business approach where traditional capitalism was replaced by this ‘for purpose’ business approach.
Unfortunately, the children who were the primary focus didn’t attract as much attention as other aspects of this work.
grady mcgonagill said:
Thanks for satisfying my curiosity about your story, Venessa. It’s an inspiring one, and a great illustration of what’s possible in this new Web-enabled world.
Jeff Mowatt said:
Vennesa, I’d like to pick up the theme of Facebook in that Forbes blog. This or any form of social media as a liberator. As you may see, it’s been part of our own advocacy in the context of dealing with poverty.
In the same way that social media can be used to drive activism, it can also be used to undermine is as I’m about to illustrate. I referred to a situation above involving children abandoned to state care. Behind the story there are malevolent forces in action and there’s been considerable effort to undermine this activism by means of defamation. What we’ve described is a ‘market’ with a value of around $250 million from state benefit and profit maximisation which results in many dying through the effects of malnutrition.. It’s Rupert Murdoch’s media in this case that do the right thing in publishing the story 5 years later.
As an illustration of how damaging this can be, I offer the recent example of it leading to removal of my own article yesterday. when a smear comment was added to it. This is no theoretical academic exercise it is about a life and death situation where thousands of the most vulnerable are being brushed under the carpet. I need help urgently in raising awareness of what is going on.
John Tropea said:
Just brilliant Venessa…what a great story about passion, technology and purpose. The web has made some traditional constraints in following your dreams fade away, this is the perfect example. Congratulations on chasing the rabbit (I don’t really know what that last bit even means, but to me it describes curiosity, going for it, not looking back too much)
Nicole Rushin said:
I will gladly share this post. The world is changing so fast and we need people who are top of the change. We need people who can understand the changes and help to lead others into it instead of leaving them behind. Integrity, authenticity and transparency are emerging into the new world.
I am a fan of your work and your blog as probably you noticed! 😉 I want to thank you for this inspirational post! I want as well to share with you some thoughts as my experience is somehow similar. I had until recently a corporative job (and I am involved with big corporations worldwide) and have been doing a lot of things in the past. But what has been exciting me is as you put it very well is understanding that “Your community already exists, and is waiting for you. / Your vision already exists – it is a shared one. /The tools of empowerment already exist, and are ready to be wielded.”. Once I started doing that I have been more and more excited with what is possible to do and how we have actually the capacity to change and connect like minded people and communities, amplifying the work of change agents and mission-driven organizations. I am starting to do that with the two projects I am starting: http://www.timizzer.com/ and http://www.timizzer.com/ and want to do it further! (Please feel free to suggest your input!) we are starting the same way you did!
Thanks for sharing your passion, enthusiasm and your unique vision and research. While I am writing and working in activities similar to the ones you are, I feel more and more that we can indeed do a lot and change if we focus in our vision and hear and engage our like minded peers! And of course when we make sure we go for it! I found out that one can get a balance by sharing the sum of our Emotional intelligence and passion with a self developing daily exercise that we can manage with collaborative and social media tools. We can indeed do a lot by finding everyday a synthesis of all inspirational inner forces and letting free the will that turns into balance and intelligence the old understanding of the tension between reason and feeling.
Finish with your words: “everything is interconnected and we can go further by connecting, collaborating, and amplifying each other’s efforts than by stubbornly trying to reinvent the wheel.”! I will do it! Aiming towards an emergence of better ideas to change the design of things and inspire people!
All best wishes
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ppc and website design said:
Hmm is anyone else having problems with the images on this blog loading?
I’m trying to figure out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.
Any responses would be greatly appreciated.