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WSF 2005 Debriefing reports
(Date: 7 March 2005)
Grupo de trabajo ’Comunicación’ (GTCom)
Workgroup members: Bettina (Porto Alegre), Germán (Berlin), Laurent (Paris), Luciana (Montevideo), Yan (Paris), and other volunteer ’coordinators’.
Report by: Yan, with contributions from other ’coordinators’ .
1. The idea of a GTCom: preliminary remarks
The work on the WSF-2005 began around May 2004, and at that time, there was no GTCom: everyone contributed information to the Babels forum, there was no separate Communication workgroup. Anyone could participate in the decision-making process (language proposal, budget proposal, etc.) during this early stage of the preparation of the WSF by using the Babels forum, and all the information available was on the forum for all to see and discuss.
It is only in the following months that the idea of a separate GTCom emerged, notably after the November meetings in Porto Alegre. During these meetings, it was agreed that a separate workgroup would try to make sure that the other workgroups kept all the volunteers informed as to what was happening. In other words, the GTCom would ask the selection, travel, housing, welcome, and planning workgroups to feed information to the Babels website and to the volunteers.
We felt that a separate GTCom was necessary to avoid the usual problems:
Before the separate GTCom was created, the following reports/discussions had already been posted on the forum:
April 15 : Babels Proposal + Reports on the IC Meeting
IMPORTANT: This debriefing report on "Communication" will try to explain ONLY what was done AFTER mid-November. Whatever failings attributable to what was done/not done before mid-November can be discussed in a separate report. Before mid-November, there was no separate GTCom, and no clear ’Communication’ methodology.
2. How the GTCom worked
Tasks of the GTCom
On November 27, an email was sent to the volunteers who had shown interest in being part of a Communication workgroup. The email tried to clarify the situation regarding ’Babels communication on the WSF’.
The only ways to communicate information to Babels volunteers is with:
mass emails (using phplist, also known as the ’babels database’, sent to ’lists’, such as ’wsf-fsm 2005’, or ’esf london’, etc.)
We thought that could try sending less information by email, and putting more information on the website. By email we would only send links to, and summaries of, the full versions of the Reports or INFO bulletins on the website. Experience showed that long emails in 4 languages were never read by anyone.
However, we believed it was important that volunteers should still receive something by email to tell them that more information WAS available, that there were important elements that they should be aware of, that they could find more information on the website, and that they could open a discussion using the Babels forum.
We tried to be as transparent as possible, informing, warning, discussing important issues by email and on the website long before the beginning of the WSF. We also tried to be as email-friendly as possible, trying to avoid sending long emails, or avoiding sending emails too frequently.
Our task was not to define the organizational process (i.e. we were not deciding what this process was going to be): our task was to explain what had been decided by the group of volunteers who were ’coordinating’ the organization of Babels at the WSF.
We drew a distinction between ’Reports’ and ’INFO bulletins’. INFO bulletins were sent by email to all those who had subscribed to the ’wsf-fsm 2005’ list on the database (over 2500 people), not only to those who were ’selected’. The Reports were simply posted on the website for reference.
Reports were individual reports with information at a given date, either factual, or more substantial. Some were translated, some were not.
Factual : the number of selected and confirmed interpreters in October, in November, etc., for instance:
Substantial : the result of discussions in official meetings, such as the November IC meetings, or the meetings with the "Program Workgroup" of the Brazilian Organizing Committee late December and early January, for instance:
INFO bulletins were meant to give a better idea of what the WSF-2005 was going to be like.
The first series of INFO Bulletins were related to the "new methodology" adopted by the WSF itself: Thematic spaces, Memory, WSF Territory, Nomad.
The second series of INFO Bulletins dealt with the "new methodology" adopted by Babels for the WSF-2005: Solidarity budget, Experienced/Inexperienced, BaBOO (booth-planning).
All INFO bulletins would be in 4 languages (EN, ES, FR, PT).
Members of the GTCom
The GTCom was comprised of experienced and inexperienced ’coordinators’ from Latin-America and Europe. We endeavoured to make this group representative of Babels as a whole: there were Latin-Americans and Europeans, professional and inexperienced interpreters, people who had been with Babels for a long time, others who were new to Babels. Lastly, the GTCom was able to draft the reports and INFO bulletins in all four languages (EN, ES, FR, PT).
3. The achievements of the GTCom
In December, the GTCom drafted a temporary list of reports and INFO bulletins that should be sent to all volunteers. In the end, the following Reports and INFO bulletins were sent and posted on the website:
December 4: Description of the selection process
Contrary to what happened in previous forums, Babels volunteers for the WSF-2005 received a great deal of information explaining what was being done, how, why, and by whom. For a number of reasons, in previous forums, Babels volunteers were unable to participate as actively in the organization of the event (the discussion forum had never really been used), and they did not receive frequent detailed reports on what was happening (the website was not really used either).
These improvements were possible because:
The single most important problem is the greatest irony of all: putting information online or sending information by email does not mean that people read it. What is more: the more information you put online, the less people read it. An overwhelming majority of questions and complaints originated from an inadequate (if any) reading of the information that was already available on the Babels website. Many volunteers never really read the emails that were sent to them, even when the emails explicitly asked them to read the information with care.
The WSF’s lack of organization and transparency made it sometimes difficult to give proper information to the volunteers: for weeks, Babels coordinators battled with the Organizing Committee to agree on a budget, and this had a direct impact on the number of volunteers needed. At one point, the OC had agreed on 22 rooms with translation (down from 50), but a few weeks later, the same OC finally decided to having 40 rooms. This explains the fact that figures in the different reports varied from one report to the next. Each report stated the latest official figure. The same is true for the travel tickets. Finally, many Babels volunteers were to blame for faulty reports, as it turned out that only half of the people who had confirmed by email that they were available for the WSF were actually available. Consequently, many reports detailing the number of volunteers who had been ’confirmed’ were continually revised and updated. See report on Travel and Selection for more details.
The numerous regional email addresses for the WSF (fsm-colombia, fsm-peru, fsm-usa, fsm-africa, etc.) were being handled by too few volunteers. These email addresses were invariably swamped with spam, and nobody really had time, or the desire, to answer the mail on a regular basis.
It may have been confusing for many people who were not (yet) selected to continue receiving INFO bulletins through the database. Those who register on the database and who subscribe to mailing lists do not understand that they will receive information sent to these lists, regardless of any selection process. The distinction between a mailing list and ’selection’ may have been lost on many, but because the selection process was never really over until late January, nobody could be forcefully removed from a list they had voluntarily subscribed to in the first place, and from which they could remove themselves at any moment. In addition, it is not because one is not selected that one does not want to be kept informed: coordinators could not remove non-selected volunteers from this list. Those who were selected by Babels coordinators also received the INFO bulletins, as well as additional, concrete, personal information concerning their participation in the forum. In the future, the distinctions outlined above should be made more explicit.
Many very active local coordinations in Latin America never put information on what they were doing online: everything they did was "invisible" for all the other Babels volunteers around the world. This sometimes isolated certain coordinations and did not help create a virtual community of Babels volunteers before the event itself. An agenda section was created on the website, but local coordinations almost never put the information on the website when they were organizing an event.
As a rule, the GTCom dealt with Reports and INFO bulletins, not with the personal emails that were sent to volunteers during the various stages of selection and confirmation (see Report on the selection process for a detail of these stages). This may have been a strategic mistake, as many emails which had been drafted months before the GTCom was created were sometimes misleading, written in broken English, etc. And because these messages served as templates for various workgroups (selection, travel, housing...), they kept on being sent, however misleading they could have been, to new volunteers. This may help understand why the confirmation rate was so low: only one of two people who said they were ’available’ really were available.
We were never able to send out an INFO on "room coordinators" because the workgroup in charge of organizing this in POA did not communicate the methodology it was going to adopt. The GTCom could not create this methodology out of the blue (the GTCom was not responsible for creating anything, it was there to explain things, see preliminary remarks.)
5. Temporary conclusion
Ironically, this is the first Forum for Babels in which so much information is available to all the volunteers. However, despite repeated requests that all the volunteers read the INFO bulletins and the online Reports, many did not do this. Consequently, many people still do not understand that Babels is not an NGO, that it has no formal structure, no budget of its own, that the choice of language booths for the WSF-2005 did not necessarily correspond to the immediate ’needs’ of a conference (see INFO 5: Memory), etc.
Of course, many things need to improve in terms of "Communication", as was detailed above, but this requires everyone’s participation.
In a collaborative project like Babels and the Social Forums, "Communication" is another word for "finding a way to interact with others to bring to fruition a specific project". Finding a way to interact may involve tools (forum, website, mailing lists, wiki), or meetings (electronic: chat, or live), but there is no ideal solution and no magical tool.
Babels volunteers are not full-time political bureaucrats who can decide what the rest of the volunteers are going to do during a forum: Babels is a virtual network of volunteers from around the world who all have a say on what a project should or could look like. Babels is not a service provider that seeks cheap (qualified) labour, it is a collaborative project that contributes to the political process of the Social Forums.
In short: keeping oneself and the others informed is the first and necessary stage for anyone wishing to participate in a collaborative project like Babels. This applies to interpreters, translators, non-professional volunteers, and ’coordinators’ alike. One cannot complain of not being informed if one does not read what is readily available.
For the first time in Babels’ history, there was an independent GTCom to try to keep everyone informed of what was important to know about a project. The GTCom tried to keep this flow of information steady and controlled: not too much, not too often, and always in a comprehensible language. But the GTCom was not a propaganda outfit that was going to feed political soundbites to the volunteers : we did not wish to dumb down the information and send out mini-emails with trivial news, we wanted to send out information which showed how the experimental process of the WSF-2005 was developing, all the while systematically calling upon all the volunteers to voice their opinion using the online forum.
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