5 Questions for Chris Messina

Note: There is a version of this blog post in German on LinkedIn.

This year’s COWORK 2020 will take place on 25 April as a virtual BarCamp. This will be a premiere. We, the volunteers of the German Coworking Federation (GCF), have always organized and carried out the annual “class reunion” of the German-speaking coworking scene as a classic on-site event. Meeting face to face is the most original form of social interaction. It is firmly anchored in the DNA of the coworking scene. But this year it’s not possible.

So I asked the one person who knows precisely what coworking is all about and what a (virtual) BarCamp needs. Chris Messina, who became world-famous as the inventor of the hashtag, is also one of the early coworking pioneers in the USA and one of the co-inventors of the BarCamp format (among others, along with Mozilla’s Web standards lead Tantek Çelik and Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg). One could not wish for a better conversation partner. ?

Tobias Kremkau (TK): Coworking, Hashtag, and BarCamp – the common denominator behind these concepts is you. What role do they still play for you nearly 15 years later? 

Chris Messina (CM): I’ve always been interested in “social technology” — and using the internet to bring people together, physically or virtually. Each of those concepts (BarCamp, coworking, and the hashtag) serve the same purpose — to help people find and connect over shared interests, goals, or lifestyle. 

For me, the stories of BarCamp, coworking, and the hashtag are all important and increasingly relevant reminders that it’s possible to adopt alternative definitions of success that are not restricted by the conventions of capitalism. Each of these ideas was intended to serve the early social web community, as we increasingly found each other online but still wanted to meet IRL. All the way back in 2005, BarCamp was created as a moment in time to meet in person and share our ideas and passions openly. Coworking was meant as a year-round extension of that concept, giving “citizens of the web” a network of places in the real world where we could come together and have a reliable, trustworthy, and friendly place to work and pursue those ideas and passions. And the hashtag was the bridge back from the real world to the digital realm — offering a beacon to light others to those shared interests and ideas. 

Five of the six originators of BarCamp: Tantek Çelik, Andy Smith, Chris Messina, Ryan King, and Matt Mullenweg. (Image: Ryan King, CC BY-SA 2.0)

These ideas were meant to be tended by everyone and owned by none. They were meant as infrastructure for the commons — able to be used without requiring a-priori permission from me or anyone else, so long as the values and principles (and tongue-in-cheek rules!) were followed. And remarkably — amidst the chaos and angst around WeWork and Facebook and the other centrally owned and managed expressions of these ideas — BarCamp, coworking, and the hashtag have largely (from what I can tell) maintained their integrity after all this time, even with minimal participation from the original progenitors.

And that is a narrative that is worth remembering and repeating, especially now. 

TK: Right now, the coworking industry is in a crisis. What drove you in the early days of coworking to persevere and push the issue forward? 

CM: I’m actually not super tuned in to the coworking crisis, but at the very least, I slightly cringe at the concept of a “coworking industry”. I don’t know if your word choice is intentional, but regardless — that there might even be an “industry” for coworking is concerning, because what drove us to persevere and push forward, even in lean times or when the odds were stacked against us, was recognizing the imperative duty to create physical spaces that represented our values, our culture, and the need to build a bridge between the online and offline worlds. We couldn’t trust that anyone else would do it the way that we would, in a way that would express and extend our values and beliefs, and that would celebrate the individual experience in a shared environment.

I remember when the McKinsey consulting group flew me to Paris (my first business class trip, no less!) to talk to their client Regus about coworking… At the time, Regus operated (and probably still do) a large office rental business and presumably, they were concerned about “internet-connected upstarts” eating their business. But I spoke plainly about “what my game was” and that I was interested in building internet-connected communities of people, not merely renting office space. Renting office space was a means to an end, not an end unto itself. They didn’t know what to do with me! They certainly didn’t consider me a risk once they heard about my ideas… but that was because what they wanted to protect, I wasn’t interested in. We weren’t solving the same problem, and we didn’t have the same customers. 

I had nearly the same conversation with Adam Newman (former CEO and founder of WeWork) early on when WeWork was just getting started. He too might have thought that I might be a competitor and wanted to size me up… but I told him what I told the McKinsey people and he too seemed unimpressed, or at least, uninterested. But now look at where things are… 

So — to your question… for me, it was always about staying connected to the core of what we were trying to achieve, and why we were trying to achieve it. We wanted to bring people together in a place that offered a sense of community, of belonging, of safety and shared values. We wanted to strengthen the relationships that many of us had found and built online by creating a space apart for us in the real world. And the decentralized network model made the most sense to achieve that goal… rather than trying to create a centrally-owned franchise that replicated the values and norms of the economic environment we were very much trying to leave behind. 

Starting and running the first coworking spaces was about giving a gift to ourselves and to our community — and doing for ourselves what we didn’t believe anyone else could do better. And if the “industry” is in a crisis, then I’m guessing it has to do with losing sight of what we intended to do from the very beginning.

TK: It irritates me how hashtags are used today, especially in advertising. Does it bother you when you see something strange, or do you not mind it anymore? 

CM: I look at it a bit differently — which is partial, “Well, what’s the alternative?” and also kind of, “if you put something out there for the whole world to use, the whole world just might end up using it! (In ways that maybe you didn’t anticipate or intend!)”. Like, would it even be possible for the hashtag to be so widely used and adopted across social media and for there NOT to be uses which amuse, annoy, antagonize, or pain me? I’ve come to the conclusion that no — if you want something to be widely used — there will be attendant misuses. That’s just part of seeding an idea that takes on a life of its own at scale. 

I also think that it’s good that hashtags are used in advertising… for a couple of reasons. First, since no one should be able to own a hashtag, that means that advertisers and brands need to actually behave in ways that are more respectful and considerate of their audience if they don’t want a hashtag to trend that points out their flaws or embarrasses them. Second, since hashtags can be used everywhere, brands are no longer pointing to just one social network URL or even their own domain… Instead, they’re inviting people to a conversation, on whichever platform those individuals prefer. And that’s actually a good thing for competition on the open, social web.

TK: The COWORK is the annual BarCamp of the German coworking scene. This year it will take place virtually. What does it take to make a BarCamp happen in the virtual as well as in the real world? 

CM: BarCamps thrive and die based on facilitation, organization, and communication. The intention of the event ahead must be set of time and communicated often. Especially with an online or virtual experience, it’s useful to provide ample space and time for hiccups and recoveries to occur (i.e. for folks to be confused about sessions, hopping on video sessions, facilitating conversations, etc). It’d be useful to do some pre-event workshopping and planning so attendees are familiar with the tools and how to use them effectively for their purposes (and to avoid using new toys that might interfere with the substance of a presentation or guided session). It’s also important to think about how to keep people engaged and up to date on what’s happening through a number of synchronous and asynchronous channels and open documentation tools. There’s really so much technology that’s available today to support these kinds of events and yet it still takes a deft hand and vibrant imagination to apply them usefully, appropriately, and in a way, that enhances everyone’s experience. 

And most of all — remember to bring your curiosity and open-mindedness, have fun, and make new connections! 

TK: If you could suggest a session at a(virtual) BarCamp this year, what would you most like to talk about nowadays?

CM: I spent most of last year going around and giving talks about “the technology of better humans”, exploring how the culture of founders and makers have downstream consequences that realized in the impact of the products and services that they produce. I’d love to continue that conversation — and explore how improving the self-awareness, self-knowledge, emotional fitness, and relationship intelligence of coworking space managers, instigators, and participants could support a more vibrant and healthy ecosystem.

TK: Thank you for the interview.

Header Image: Chris Messina