The Gentrification of #w2p

Friday, August 21, 2015

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Earlier this week Ryan Androsoff stood up a post on Storify entitled "Wither #w2p?" where he reflected on the origins of the '#w2p community' and its (not so recent) decline. Yesterday Kent circled back to Ryan's post in his piece Tricksters, Hackers and Schemers and in so doing linked to an article entitled The Hacker Hacked: How yuppies hacked the original hacker ethos. The article is long but essential reading for anyone looking to understand – as Ryan is – what happened to the #w2p community.

First, what is #w2p?

#w2p - standing for Web 2.0 Practitioners - was one of the first widespread online communities of public servants in the social media era, first launching in 2009. It used the #w2p hashtag on Twitter combined with regular in-person happy hour type events to build a community of Canadian federal public servants (and some non-governmental folks as well) interested in online technology, innovation, and public sector reform. Unique for government, it was a completely grassroots and organic network. Members organized a number of Collaborative Culture Camp "un-conferences" starting in 2010 and the work of the #w2p network was featured in the Clerk of the Privy Council's 2012 report to the Prime Minister. - Ryan Androsoff, Wither #w2p
Essentially, #w2p is the hipster hashtag of yesteryear. It was #gc2020 before #gc2020 was a thing, before the mainstreaming of hashtags into popular culture and public service culture, back when being on Twitter (et al) was a still 'risky' proposition. We traded tactics, strategies, documents and shit stories about the use of social media and collaboration technologies in government over drinks once a month. No single person was in charge and we rotated hosts and venues, there was only one rule: we are open to anyone, but there's no selling.

It didn't spontaneously spring into existence from nowhere; there's whole rich history full of different players who are likely to remember events differently. Amanda Clarke – a long time friend – from Carleton University has studied the rise and fall (evolution?) of the Government of Canada's unofficial online communities and has pulled together a rough timeline based on her work:
  • 2007 Public opinion research on social media for communications
  • 2007 GCPedia developed
  • 2007 Clerk: information revolution
  • 2007 NRCan wiki starts
  • 2008 Bar Camp (social media and technology in government)
  • 2008 Gcpedia launch at GTEC
  • 2008 Clerk: wikis for internal collaboration/engagement
  • 2008 Guideline to Acceptable Use of Internal Wikis and Blogs Within the Government of Canada
  • 2008 CPSrenewal blog starts
  • 2009 Communications Community Office (CCO) develops Considerations for the Government of Canada's Use of Social Media to Communicate with and Engage the Public 
  • 2009 Clerk: wiki and collaboration
  • 2009 #w2p starts
  • 2009 Collaborative Culture Camp (C3)
  • 2010 2010/11 PSR action plan demands collaboration and experiments with web 2.0
  • 2010 Clerk: wikis, Gcpedia, veterans affairs Facebook page
  • 2010 Change Camp Ottawa
  • 2010 Gov Camp 
  • 2010 Policy Ignite
  • 2011 TBS policy on social media and external engagement
  • 2011 Signed onto Open Government Partnership
  • 2011 Open Government Action Plan announced by Clement (three streams)
  • 2011 Open Data Pilot under Day at TBS
  • 2011 Clerk: wikis, social media for policy development
  • 2011 Policy Horizons report on Governing by Wiki
  • 2012 Open Government Action Plan commitments announced 
  • 2012 Clerk: SM for external engagement, mentions PD and SD
  • 2012 Clement's Twitter townhall
  • 2013 DMSMPD
  • 2013 Blueprint 2020 launched
  • 2014 DMSMPD becomes DMCPI
Understanding all the moving pieces is too complex an undertaking, and quite frankly I'm not sure they all matter. For what it's worth, I was personally involved in:
  • GCPedia (advisor)
  • NRCan wiki (observer)
  • Barcamp (participant) 
  • Guideline for Acceptable Use (advisor)
  • CPSrenewal Blog (founder)
  • Collaborative Culture Camp (organizer)
  • Change Camp Ottawa (organizer, and coincidentally, how I met Amanda Clarke)
  • GovCamps in Ottawa, Toronto, Edmonton and Victoria (speaker/organizer/participant)
I also hosted many #w2p meetups, the highlight of which was the one were I worked quietly behind the scenes to get Wayne Wouters, then Clerk of the Privy Council, to attend one of the meet-ups. I mention it not to show my '#w2p cred' but rather to disclose my own involvement in the community itself.

Second, what happened to #w2p?

Well, there's a few theses floating out there:

1. Unique Circumstances /  Natural Evolution: 

#w2p was the result of a unique combination time, place, circumstances and actors. When those unique elements were no longer in place, the community simply dispersed. That's just the natural evolution of a community.

2. Evaporative Cooling
[Evaporative cooling] occurs when the most high value contributors to a community realize that the community is no longer serving their needs any more and so therefore, leave. When that happens, it drops the general quality of the community down such that the next most high value contributors now find the community underwhelming. Each layer of disappearances slowly reduces the average quality of the group until such a point that you reach the people who are so unskilled-and-unaware of it that they’re unable to tell that they’re part of a mediocre group. (Thanks to Meghan Hellstern for putting this on my radar.)
When I first saw evaporative cooling put forward as a possible theory, I pushed back against it. However, I've since re-evaluated my position, especially in light of a second, closer reading. First, one of the community's core tenets was openness. Open communities are more susceptible to the effects of evaporative cooling than closed ones. Second, there was also a considerable amount of social gating (mechanisms that allowed people to self-select out of the group). If you weren't on Twitter your weren't really #w2p (recall this was earlier days for Twitter, before mass market adoption). Moreover, few executives participated because it was a place where influence came from being online rather than traditional organizational/hierarchical authority. Third, when the community was small, recognition and reputation was actively managed through the social layer. As it started to scale up it took on new members (and/or attracted 'tourists') these social controls broke down. Cooling accelerates when people don't understand/value the established social hierarchy of community. (Caveat: yes, despite all the collaboration rhetoric, social hierarchies, loyalties and even factions did exist; the retrospective memory of a homogeneous community is a myth). Fourth, there was some complex interplay between what happened on Twitter (the community's plaza) and what happened at the meet-ups (the community's warrens) that was complex and impactful beyond any explanation; again see my caveat above.

3. Gentrification
[I]n subcultures ... we find a rebel spirit succumbing to perhaps the only force that could destroy it: gentrification.
Gentrification is the process by which nebulous threats are pacified and alchemised into money. A raw form – a rough neighbourhood, indigenous ritual or edgy behaviour such as parkour (or free running) – gets stripped of its otherness and repackaged to suit mainstream sensibilities. The process is repetitive. Desirable, unthreatening elements of the source culture are isolated, formalised and emphasised, while the unsettling elements are scrubbed away.
Key to any gentrification process are successive waves of pioneers who gradually reduce the perceived risk of the form in question. In property gentrification, this starts with the artists and disenchanted dropouts from mainstream society who are drawn to marginalised areas. Despite their countercultural impulses, they always carry with them traces of the dominant culture, whether it be their skin colour or their desire for good coffee. This, in turn, creates the seeds for certain markets to take root. A WiFi coffeeshop appears next to the Somalian community centre. And that, in turn, sends signals back into the mainstream that the area is slightly less alien than it used to be. 
If you repeat this cycle enough times, the perceived dangers that keep the property developers and yuppies away gradually erode. Suddenly, the tipping point arrives. Through a myriad of individual actions under no one person’s control, the exotic other suddenly appears within a safe frame: interesting, exciting and cool, but not threatening.

Much like the article about the hacker subculture quoted above, what I think we are witnessing is the gentrification of the #w2p subculture. Having reaching the tipping point, its original tricksters are being pressed into the service of more traditional authorities. There has been a significant de-risking of the online environment and the ethos of widespread collaboration in the wake of the formation of the Deputy Minister's Committee on Social Media and Policy Development (now the Deputy Minister's Committee on Policy Innovation) and Blueprint 2020.

In short: #w2p went mainstream. Or, more correctly, its subversive elements went mainstream. Accordingly, those who managed to build influence outside the system have since traded it for a more mainstream form of influence. This is precisely what Kent was getting at when he wrote:
So you believe in change and doing things right. But do you do things less than right for the opportunity to do things right in the future? Or dogmatically stick to your guns, but end up alienated from the organizations and people that can facilitate progress? Do you stay as a garage hacker, or join an organization that limits your freedom but expands your impact? 
Ryan Androsoff was recently musing about whether the W2P (web 2.0 practitioners) community in the Government of Canada had withered, and he captured the discussion. It seems I'm not alone in viewing the people in that community as innovators and schemers, but that they've moved on to "operationalizing" their goals or simply "doing."
Or as Brett Scott puts it in The Hacker Hacked:
Any gentrification process inevitably presents two options. Do you abandon the form, leave it to the yuppies and head to the next wild frontier? Or do you attempt to break the cycle, deface the estate-agent signs, and picket outside the wine bar with placards reading ‘Yuppies Go Home’?
To be clear, there's nothing sinister about this mainstreaming. It's a perfectly legitimate career move if you are willing to accept the inherent trade-offs.

Third, my take

My own personal view is that its actually a combination of all three of these things. First, there were some unique circumstances coupled with some natural ebb and flow. Second, there was some evaporative cooling. It was an open community. It had some unique social gates, but eventually grew too large for social controls and a disconnect between the online and real life components accelerated the gentrification of the community. People took on operational roles precisely as the issues they championed mainstreamed.

Fourth, the Elephant in the Room

All of that said, what hasn't been addressed is the underlying notion of of competition among the gentrified. Opportunity to mainstream is limited. The competition is fierce and the stakes are high because careers rooted in tricksterism are hard to sustain. Surely one of the contributing factors to the fall of the community was the undercurrent of the competition among an otherwise collaborative community. It's something we don't ever talk about - but its real, omnipresent and important.