What I learned from Venessa Miemisa

I got on Twitter around November last year and started following the twitterings of a whole bunch of folk. I discovered a woman named Venessa Miemis and her blog www.emergentbydesign.com which was about systems theory, social media, networks, & community. They were very thoughtful posts in the blog that intrigued me quite a bit. And what was really interesting about this blog was that around that time at the end of 2009 there started being a huge amount of comments posted at the end of blog entries. Quite a number of the blog entries had an insane amount comments – well over the 100 mark. Reading through them took a lot longer than just reading the blog itself. And they were a wealth of material. Venessa had helped facilitate a whole community through her blog and tweets.

She then posted this insight she had of building an intelligent version of ChatRoulette, where people could engage in insightful and worldchanging conversation on these multiple video channels all over the world. It was to be called Junto and it would be like the people’s TED talks. The community around her self-organized to get this project off the ground and within a month it was already being prototyped and running in Alpha state on the web and generating a huge amount of interest.

In my own observations many people have great ideas but they never get implemented because they take a lot of work and coordination. In Venessa’s case though she had attracted an amazing community around her -professors, computer geeks, community weavers, futurists, social media, socially conscious folk etc.. and this community was full of resources to pilot and build this project. And there was a culture of listening & thoughtfulness that had been built that helped coordinate the actions. Together these people have helped grow Junto into an amazing open collaborative project that could have quite fruitful effects on how we as a society evolve.

My interests is in open collaboration – emergent, non-hierarchical, collaborative, open, networked, gift economy complex adaptive systems and how to grow these open collaboration projects – projects like Burning Man, Wikipedia, United Religions Initiative, open source software, and the Transition Town movement. And it seemed like here was this extraordinary example of something like that happening. From my studies and own experiments I know that many open collaborations and open source projects fail because people are not able to help facilitate enough of a communal process to make the thing work. For every Linux there are a 1000 failed open source projects. For every transition town movement there are a 1000 failed community sustainability movements. I had been studying theoretically a lot of open collaborations that had succeeded (and even put together a book on this subject – the “Open Collaboration Encyclopedia“) but it was rare for me to stumble upon an actual open collaboration that was in its nascent stages of growing into something big. There are many factors that have to gel to allow a collective intelligence to emerge and produce something. My spidey senses were awakened. How did she do it?

As I watched and then participated in this Junto and emergentbydesign phenomena I began to get a sense of what she was doing. Here are some of my observations :

1. Taking the time to reply to people – Whenever someone tweeted or commented she would reply. This allows the conversation and the relationship to build

2. See things from anothers perspective
– Venessa had a beautiful ability to understand how the other person was thinking. She would see things from another’s perspective and be able to engage whilst holding both hers and the others perspective. This allowed the comment section to have a good flow on her site. People felt heard and were interested in further engagement. Even when she disagreed with the other person, there was a sense that the space could hold differing opinions.

Personally I was used to spending trying and fitting other’s people thoughts into my framework, and then trying to language my own thoughts so that others could understand it. But I spent a lot less time trying to understand how the other was thinking initially. Trying to see things from others perspectives is something I had tried and do more of over the last year, and now inspired by Venessa I focused on it even more. I did find it kind of hard – I had to put aside my thoughts for a moment, and figure out all the assumptions and worldview the other was coming in with and then see how they built their thoughts on top of that. But like many things that are initially hard I seemed to begin to get better at it as I practiced. And emotionally I found more stability in talking to people, I wasn’t so quickly reactive.

3. Invite others to join in – How do you get people to participate in your open collaboration/open source project? The answer lies in issuing the right invitation at the right time.

I had been reading Venessa’s blog and the comments on it for awhile but had never left a comment myself. Perhaps it felt a little disconnected. Whilst Venessa had sent me a friendly tweet once, it still felt like this was simply some strangers blog on the net that I had did not have much connection to. But we exchanged some more tweets, I got a tweet from her inviting me to post a comment to the unfolding Junto project. And so I posted. Having to think about what thoughts I would add to the project and adding them to the comment section I then began to feel more part of the mix. And I was now cross-fertilizing with others in this emergent vortex.

4. Reach out and connect. Build the human connection.
– Having made these initial forays she then suggested we might meet when she came out to the west coast.

I met her at the Caltrain station and then we went to a nearby cafe to chat. She was younger than I thought (somehow when I read really intelligent thinkers I imagine them older than they are) , vibrant, and friendly. She seemed really nice, someone I would hang out with even if she wasn’t doing all these cool worldchanging projects. I am an energy worker/healer and can see and feel energies, and there was a kind of glow around her, and a sparkle to her whole field. On hanging out with her I could also see she had a whole spiritually awake side to her too and that she was growing quite fast as this Junto and emergentbydesign project unfolded.

And now that she and I are friends I am much more likely to contribute and be part of the openly collaborative Junto project.

As Venessa has been reiterating in some of her posts, the point really is about the human connection. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in thinking about social architectures and social design I begin to think that is the endpoint. But really the endpoint is the human connection.

5. Having conversations awakens the collective intelligence of the system to grow itself.

The day I met her at the cafe she also was visiting a number of others in San Francisco that she had met through twitter and her blog. By talking to people in person and online many interesting ideas, concepts, directions emerge. These conversations she was having with everyone helps bring in new resources and paths for the Junto project to grow.

There is an interesting field in complex systems theory called cellular automata. Imagine all these little interconnected cells interacting with their neighbours in rule-based ways. The sum connection of all these interactions can birth really complex phenomena even if the initial local interaction rules are very simple. The local interactions interact in a systems way to birth global patterns.

So it is with conversations, the interaction of all these local conversations can birth complex new patterns at the open collaborative project level.

6. Be vulnerable and allow yourself to be transformed.

One of the most beautiful things about following the Junto/emergentbydesign project is to see Venessa open up, share deeply. To see herself in her humanness. And to watch the transformation in her as she opens her being, and connects on a deep level with others.

And really thats probably the real reason to do open collaboration projects – to transform individually and collectively into higher states of being.


My open collaborative project which is about growing the gift economy through what we call gift circles. In a gift circle people share their needs and their gifts. People can then help each other by gifting each other computer work, massage, car mechanic help, cooking, babysitting etc. Its done without expecting anything in exchange. Its birthed a whole tribe as people care and look out for each other. This tribe/circle is open, emergent, non-hierarchical and a complex adaptive system.

In this gift circle project I decided to start experimenting more with this conversations with people approach. I had been reading all these design theories and thinking about how to design the next iterative stage of the gift circle, but what I hadn’t been doing was engaging with people in conversation as much. I had been having some conversations, and knew in the back of my mind it was important to have more conversations – what this did was refocus me more again to having conversations. There have been two hundred people that have flowed through our gift circle now, and a lot of talent and wisdom in it. So inspired by Venessa I started talking to people more, and also looking more at their talents. For instance I had been thinking about how to come up with the theoretical foundations of a gift economy myself, but I realized one friend also had an interest in economics so invited him to come up with some theories of it. As I talked to someone else, I realized they had the ability to build websites and were also interested in building a website for our gift circles. I talked to my old roommate who was a permaculture designer, and she enlightened me more into how you can use the permaculture design process within the gift circle to help take it forward. I also talked to people outside the circle. In the past I might have simply tried to see what value they could add to my project. But instead this time I begin to try to see the world through their eyes. And as I did a connection between us more organically emerged than if I had just asked for their help in my project.

21 thoughts on “What I learned from Venessa Miemisa

  1. What an inspiring post! And I think it’s so funny that you think you’re learning from me. When I first found you on Twitter, I was like, “Whoa. This guy is onto something. I wonder if he would talk to me.” And so this is part of the learning experience – we learn from each other. We each already have so much knowledge and wisdom and so many gifts and skills, but they’re usually hidden. When we open up to each other, we see how much we really have to offer each other, and it’s amazing!

    We don’t need to convince each other of anything. Just be authentic, be yourself, share your gifts, listen, create a space where you can create shared understanding and shared meaning. The people who care about those values will find you, and then you can make it happen together.


    – venessa

  2. And its interesting to hear that you thought I was really onto something and wondering if I would talk to you. 🙂
    The world is an amusing place sometimes..

    Well I am really glad we meet and hope to develop our friendship.

  3. Beatiful to behold, how friendship develops with the guards down. OC, you said up there, “in the back of my mind” not “head” like most people. I appreciate the differentiation.

    If you need another book (I gather you already have one ;-), Wave Riders by Harrison Owen is all about open space and the power of self-organization.

  4. Hey Cocreatr

    I love the Open Space Technology facilitation techniques of Harrison Owen. In some of my workshops I use that techniques sometimes.

    The interesting thing about running a conference on Open Space Technology is that its almost so simple people cannot believe it.

    For those reading this comment who dont know what Open Space is – its a process where the people at a conference propose topics they would like to have discussions about. And then people break off into groups to have those discussions. Its an emergent, open, non-hierarchical, participatory process. In many ways it is a much easier way to organize a conference, you dont have to find speakers, create a schedule and all that jazz.

    The interesting thing to me is that its so simple, and simple things make for great self-organizing systems. Hmm.. I think I’ll have to write a longer post about this phenomena.

  5. That’s quite the story. I love how you detailed Vanessa’s ability to reach out and draw others into the conversation. When I was reading 2 (“See things from anothers perspective”) I was reminded of the book “The Opposable Mind” by Roger Martin. He talks about (business) leaders who can hold two opposing views in their mind at the same time and come up with a solution that is neither A nor B, but a better combination of A+B. He calls them “integrative thinkers”… and I think that label suits Vanessa just fine. 🙂

    1. Hi Shawn
      Thanks for the link to Roger Martin. I looked up some of his work – looks good.

      Some other models-

      Spiral Dynamics has a model of how people develop. Integrative thinking kicks in at the yellow second tier stage of Spiral dynamics.

      Piaget’s model of cognitive development has been extended by others, and put into a larger system that integrates spirit by Ken Wilber. In that system vision-logic is the stage for integrative thinking. It correlates with the yellow level.


      1. Alpha,

        Thanks for the pointers to the other models – it looks like some interesting stuff to read up on, especially the Ken Wilber one that integrates spirit.

        (BTW, I posted a short review of Opposable Mind on my blog if you were interested…)


      2. Shawn,
        Thats a great summary you posted on your blog. Very helpful.
        I like some of the stances that integrative thinkers take –
        “Believe that whatever models exist today do not represent reality”
        and Roger Martin’s point that “Thinking -> Actions -> Outcomes, and that reflecting on actions is tough, but reflecting on the thinking that led to the action is even tougher.”

        I think Obama is a good example of an integrative, yellow spiral dynamics thinker. When he was at Harvard Law Review because he was able to talk to, understand, relate, and integrate the views of both the conservative and liberal parts of the contentious group that he became its president.

      3. Shawn,
        Another model is Hegel’s model of the dialectic. His idea is that there can co-exist two opposing perspectives/worldviews which he calls thesis and antithesis. Its when you can hold both those perspectives that a transcendence can happen to a whole new framework.

        I haven’t read too much of Marx, but I think he built a whole social theory on this dialectic model. He suggests that in society there will be different segments of society holding opposing worldviews. Society transcends into a whole new way of being as two worldviews comes together. This dialectic tension happens again and again in history, each time birthing new systems.

        This Marxian dialectic model might have a bit to say about Junto, and how different perspectives in the conversation collide, integrate and transcend to birth something new.

  6. A delightful, inspiring post.

    Along with the discoveries you describe, I’ve noted something else relating to @CoCreator’s insights. A web of friendships have emerge among people drawn into the EBD conversations. Venessa playfully (and fearlessly) engages with new people in two way learning and growth. Once they’ve come into the trust circle, others who have been through the experience of growing by this process find themselves co-evolving in the same spirit. And it is happening in an omnicentric, spontaneous way – without need for intermediation or gatekeeping. It’s exciting to imagine what will happen, as the Junto project presages, when the community turns to systems for ideas to move to self-organizing actions.


    Mark Frazier

    1. Hi Mark,
      I think its funny we have these avatar names of openworld, opencollaboration, and cocreatr 🙂

      Yeah there is a web of friendships that are forming with people communicating to each other as they get swung into this EBD vortex, kind of like we are doing now 🙂

      And we are all modeling for each other how its done. Each friendship that forms has ripple effects for the way friendships are formed throughout the system.

      I like your word omnicentric – I take it to mean that everyone is at the center of some circle, with all these circles overlapping.

  7. Well said, openworld, opencollaboration, guess we chose our screen names for a reason.

    What happens between the early connectors and adopters of the open space tribe has an analogy in physics. Each could be modeled as a source of an “elementary wave”. Look it up for context, you might be “mused”. 🙂

  8. thanks for sharing your thoughts on the experience as it’s continually unfolding. we are collectively synced and growing.

    venessa, truly is great.

    the tipping point into this experiential immersion with us all, started/still is happening so quickly. it’s a great ride.

    i look forward to pulling myself into it more and seeing where it takes me, and us all.

    i do notice myself being mindful of the physical distance from being in australia, but at the same time this fuels my passion to go further and experience what is naturally emerging.


  9. This is the power of fearless acceptance of authentic diversity…

    Bernd @cocreatr was kind enough to share this link, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, including the comments. I have the distinct pleasure of meeting (even seeing) some of them on #junto :))

    I remember Venessa tweeting about a BIG IDEA (sometime in March, just after I had opened a twitter account). She followed it up with a statement about the purpose of Intelligence being Prediction, and within a couple of days, she unleashed #junto.

    I was blown away by the speed and quality of the progression. It was incredible how a diverse set of brilliant minds, and generous souls coalesced around the concept.

    Anything I say will be a gross understatement of Venessa’s thoughtful brilliance. All I can say is that folks like her continue to inspire me, and remind me of the power of authenticity, and open collaboration.


    1. Hi Prince,
      I like your poetic words “fearless acceptance of authentic diversity”. There’s definitely something powerful about that. Its about being bold enough to open up to a world bigger than you may be used to.

  10. Alpha,

    I like your blog and I think you might be interested in the non-profit web start-up I am a part of.

    You can check us out at http://www.GiftFlow.org The site is not yet fully functional, but we are getting closer every day.
    GiftFlow is a social website for building local gift economies. On your profile, you post everything you need and everything you have to give away; such as an hour of volunteer time or a winter jacket. Its a simple system that reduces waste and helps meet a communities needs.

    I would love to hear what you think about our project and answer any of your questions. We are based in New Haven CT and are hoping to launch soon.


  11. I just discovered your blog and I’m liking it already. I also like how you engage with your readers here Alpha, that’s refreshing after following Mashable and TechCrunch for so long.

    I think it comes down to leadership because without someone putting up their hand and leading a project then it doesn’t matter how many people are available to collaborate because nothing will happen. The gears need to get turning and then from there others feel more safe to jump in and contribute their skills and talent to the project.

    Collaboration has been around for many years but it’s good to see it happening outside of corporate circles. I believe that the best open collaboration is yet to come as we enter into the world of “loose” self organization and aggregation that’s more global in nature.

    1. Hi jeremy
      in regards to your comment that someone needs to put their hand up and leading a project nothing will happen – yeah often someone needs to step up initially to get things moving, they have to take more of a leadership position. At some point though it may be quite helpful to transition out of a leadership based structure and allow the system to truly self-organize. The transition town methodology has in one of its steps to convene a steering committee that has built into it a mechanism for its own demise. After the transition town process becomes self-organizing there is no longer a need for a steering committe to keep everything in order.

      Its interesting to hear you say that you are glad collaboration is happening outside the corporate sectors nowadays. I actually think collaboration happens more often in community organizing and social activism and its more that the corporate world has begun to awaken a little more to the power of collaboration these days.

  12. a good intro to your blog
    thanks 🙂

    and i wanted to go through the comments
    and hit the like button more than once 🙂
    fearless acceptance of authentic diversity

    be well!

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