Ming the Mechanic:
A Virtual Community Experience

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 A Virtual Community Experience2002-10-02 19:19
2 comments
pictureby Flemming Funch

By now I have had many experiences of how people come together in useful ways online, and I probably have more experiences of how people didn't succeed in coming together in a useful way. Anyway, it is probably a good thing to learn from some of that, so let me start with one of the stories. This is a story of both failure and success. I'll change the names for now, but if anybody wants to look more closely at it, you can quickly figure them out.

A few years ago an NCN member (let's call him Uriah Rex) had a vision of a company that would be a creative hub. It would facilitate the creative expression of many people. Film, books, art, and whatever new outlets the participants could think up. He wanted to bring together some people to manifest the vision. And the vision was strong and big and compelling.

At the time NCN mainly consisted of a few mailing lists, centered around the main mailings which I would send out to all members once or twice per week, which would contain information about new members, visions people have, invitations to join projects, and stories about what people accomplish. So, it fits in perfectly that somebody has a particular vision and we put the call out to a few thousand people, and those that become inspired will then join. That's what it all was made for.

Uriah and I spoke on the phone almost every day for a couple of weeks. I was sort of coaching him into being more clear about what he wants and what he's asking for, and we were discussing how it might develop.

I personally didn't at first bite on his vision. I thought it was nice, but it sounded very vague, and I was trying to get more clear on what it was really gonna do. I was very encouraging, but trying to make it more tangible what it really was. I didn't personally have to be part of it, or be attracted to it, but it would be of some importance that it was clear enough so that others would know what it is about.

Anyway, after that initial work, Uriah essentially wrote the seed document, meant to tell people what this is, and inviting them to join. And we sent that out to everybody on the NCN Main list.

Quite a few people responded and found the call to action very inspiring. 15-20 people wanted to be part of it. A diverse group with people from Canada, Africa, Europe, Australia, USA.

I considered my role as being to facilitate the communication and provide online facilities for it. So, I set up a mailing list for the discussion, and a while later I set up a simple web chat room, and a simple webpage that showed the names and photos of the participants.

People came together on the discussion mailing list and quickly started brainstorming, adding their ideas into the pie, and inspiring each other more and more. It was at first a very light atmosphere, full of possibilities and creativity. But it wasn't at first very grounded in how actually it would be done, or what resources were needed.

That all changed when it became clear that one of the participants had had a long carreer in international finance and had access to resources and connections that might help getting this thing financed. He had waited a little bit to announce that, to see if the project was worthwhile enough and had the energy to fly.

The avenue he had in mind using was that he was associated with an overseas finance group that had a program that granted $50 million loans. They didn't bother with anything less than $50 million a pop, and the terms were very favorable. It was really intended for underdeveloped areas of the world, but they sort of owed him a few favors, so it seemed to be feasible that they would approve a loan for this purpose.

The loan would be 80/20. Meaning, we'd come up with 20% and they'd finance the rest. And I leaned a few things about finance, and that's not as hard as it sounds. There are banks in, for example, Hong Kong that will give you a $10 million dollar note for $500K. In other words, they give you a guarantee of that amount and you pay them for that. And you can turn around and use that guarantee as the security for the big loan. So, $500K turns into $50 million. OK, it's still a loan, but it certainly opens some possibilities.

So, where would we get the $500K? Well, Uriah said that it wouldn't be any problem - he had somebody who would put that in, and he'll start making the arrangements.

So, boing!, from one day to the next it transformed from a somewhat airy fairy dream of free creative expression into a 50 million dollar media company. Sort of. At least, that's what it felt like, and how the participants responded to it.

The mailing list discussion was lively and inspired from the beginning. But now it went into overdrive. More than 100 messages went out on the mailing list every day, and things were progressing very rapidly. Organizational plans, project plans, buildings, facilities were being planned.

But something else changed the moment the money was introduced. It was subtle at first, but it became stronger and stronger.

Uriah was no longer just an energetic dreamer who speaks and writes well. He was the link to the financing, and he was the CEO of a 50 million dollar media company. Well, he wasn't really yet, but he started acting like it. Instead of all of us dreaming together about the possibilities, there was now somebody who was more inclined to hand out orders, and who always wanted the last word about how things were going to be. And, increasingly, that wasn't a very pleasant thing. We could say his shadow was showing up more and more, fueled by the power trip.

But still, great plans were being made and most everybody was excited. But as more things became tangible, as contracts were signed, positions assigned, and salaries agreed on, there started to be some growing friction. Why is this guy in charge of so-and-so, and why would he get more money than me, etc.

And, along the way, some people have been very into it and were now the insiders, and others were on the fringe, a few of which were kind of skeptical about the whole thing.

Uriah had certain habits he was sensitive about being challenged on. You know, he had a majestic new age kind of name, and he had a tendency to speak as "We", as if he was channeling or something. And it would often sound like there was some secret inside group that was in charge of things. Uriah took offense about people being "negative" if somebody asked for clarification on their concerns.

And, well, aside from the computer support, I took it as my role to help facilitate clarity. So, I would also gently be asking questions about things that didn't make sense yet.

Things started getting more tense. What was happening with the financing? Uriah was always just about to transfer the money it seemed, but it just didn't happen.

Polarization started happening between the freeflowing brainstorming group on the mailing list and those who were the insiders for the business. Sounded like the online group was just an unpaid creative think tank that would supply ideas to the business.

And then ... the big blowout happened.

I probably contributed a great deal to it, by my own questions, and by sending out a message about how the whole situation looked to me. Uriah really only wanted things his way, he was in charge, and he didn't want to hear any disagreement on anything. Uriah cracked and yelled at everybody. And at the same time, the guy with the financing had little by little gotten around to deciding that this whole thing was not going to work. Uriah was in no way in a shape to run a big corporation, and there was something fishy about the information given. So he withdrew the offer.

At first several people got very mad, particularly at me, for delivering a 'character assasination' of Uriah, and prompting the finances to be lost. A lot of harsh words were said. Tears and anger. Quite a lot of processing.

When the dust cleared, Uriah came clean. He had never had any source for the $500K - he just lied about it and hoped that it would work out. He had felt insecure about the whole thing, and had let his shadow take over, and given in to the power trip. He apologized, we made up ... and he left the group. And the finance man was disillusioned with the whole thing, and he left too.

Everybody sort of made up, got over it all the wiser, and moved on. Except for that Uriah and the finance man never reconciled.

But what happened afterwards is just as interesting.

Here we have a group of people who had gone through something very intense together. None of them had met physically yet. It was all over e-mail, chatroom and over the phone. But we had laughed and cried. We had been passionately involved. We had worked on something big and compelling. We had dreamt and become disillusioned. We had an emotional history with each other.

Notice that all of this happnened in the course of a month and a half, but it was very intense.

The initial project fell apart. The originator of it left. But the relationships remained.

And the interesting thing is that a core of the group stayed together for years.

It turned into something very different. It became sort of a magical gathering of white witches of some sort. The main meeting place became the chatroom I had set up, which we for fun had called "The Mushroom Forest". It became an enchanted place that most of us would pop into every day, for years. And it would be a place where you would always be with loving and supportive people, who would have a magical and fun and empowering time. This community lasted much longer than the shortlived business project.

A number of us traveled and met each other in the flesh on different occasions. From Australia, Africa, North America. One of them stayed a month at my house. Several of them started a business. I've met most of them in person now. One is opening a 200 acre healing center in North Carolina next month. Several of them have organizations of different kinds. We've stayed in touch in various ways. It has stayed with us and certainly we haven't forgotten.

The lady artist who named the Mushroom Forest and supplied the most vibrant life in it, died last year in a car accident, after just having cured herself of throat cancer.

Life moves on.

What does one learn from all this?

The sky's the limit. If you have an idea and you put some energy into it, the participants and the resources can materialize in an instant.

From zero to 50 million in a week, it is all possible, and might come from sources you don't expect.

But that's not enough. You need to be clear on what you're going to do. It needs to become real.

And money and power easily corrupts. People's shadows come out when you turn up the volume.

Seeking clarity and bringing out the truth when things don't make sense - it moves things forward, but it might not be pretty.

No one person is likely to know what a particular group's potential or destiny is.

The purpose of you getting together might turn out to be something different than what it looked like at first.

Ultimately what matters is people and relationships, and living life.


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2 comments

3 Oct 2002 @ 00:11 by jstarrs : Good lessons to learn...
...from this experience. From the necessity of being clear from the beginning, of 'full disclosure' as Kay calls it, of guarding in mind 'no expectations' which leads to no disappointment, to the simple joy & physical manifestation of inter relational contacts.  


3 Oct 2002 @ 00:36 by shawa : Moving story...
...in both senses, Ming. Thanks for sharing it. It made my day.
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