Overhead

Menick urged me to blog quickly; by my standards, six days later is pretty quick, unfortunately.  I’ve been swamped at the $dayjob, which has thrown together a conference for the two days before I depart for Albany and NCFL Nats.  Wondrous timing, but it’s coming together.   And I just now in my post-Mother’s Day-feast induced lethargy worked through much of the backlog related to running NCFLs.  So now, this issue.

The question is how to foster online communication among coaches who may or may not be terribly inclined to communicate online.  But that question touches a lot of other things.  One of the core flaws of forensics, I’ve long felt — one that isn’t immediately apparent, but causes many other apparent problems — is that we lack generalized effort.  There are rather few people who are paid to coach and manage forensics teams as a gig.  There are plenty of people who are not paid at all despite being actively involved.  And there are surpassingly few who are paid to manage and look out for forensics as a whole, or even any given league within it, instead of one individual team.  There’s not enough overhead, in a word.

Overhead is important; there are so many projects that must take place in overhead, not around an individual team or cabal,  but without resources to drive these projects along, substantial change and reform cannot happen.  We’ve managed quite a bit in the Northeast through the efforts of just a few folks who care enough about this activity to administer tournaments for the sake of having it done properly.  We’ve also embarked on a few interesting changes and experiments, such as normalizing the college tournaments along recognizable guidelines, and launching the use of the Modest Novice LD resolution.  It has only taken is a small knot of coaches who have critical mass in the region, and who spend enough downtime together talking about the Way Things Are and the Way they Should Be.

We’re used to providing a little overhead to our activity in this cabal, so we do it naturally.  But our own time is limited, and there are a quite a lot of coaches who don’t, or can’t, contribute much in this manner.  So the first requirement for an online platform must be a real lack of friction.  If it requires a lot of time and effort to post or contribute, folks won’t.  There’s only so many hours even I can give each week to the Wider World of Forensics, and if I have to choose between contributing to a nascent forum or programming a new feature into tabroom that’ll get me to Ibiza a half hour earlier at the Yale tournament, you can guess which I’ll put my time towards.

The second requirement that every forum so far has lacked is importance.  I think this is the one that keeps most people away.  Coaches know full well they can post all they want to an online forum and it won’t affect any real change.  One of the Achilles heels of too many forensics leagues, in fact, is the sense that real change can only happen if it comes from An Insider, whether or not the reality is so. If that belief is widespread, people don’t bother speaking up, and the perception reinforces itself because nothing changes.  It takes some determined effort to re-establish transparency under those conditions.

So, for a forum to succeed and bring us together nationally, change has to result.  It can’t just be an online stitch and bitch; that’ll turn too many people off.  It has to be a place that a responsible coach must pay attention to, or be out of the loop.  You get that by having a critical mass of tournament directors, league officials, and others with a high profile actively invited, engaged and plugged into the process.   So someone has to go out and recruit these folks, directing their attention to the forum when their bailiwick is being discussed, and prod them into active engagement with the community.  And then close the loop, and let the community know when it has been heard.

The third requirement is activity, right from the start.  A forum online can only work if it captures a sense of discussion and byplay, not just single shots in the dark.  Menick and I post into the ether usually, but when we argue with each other, then folks really notice.  You need that back-and-forth to draw interest.  The conversation needs to eventually turn into action, but the debate itself is inherently entertaining — and so, essential.  So someone needs to be the editor and the prompt, to talk when no one else is talking.  That would draw interest from more folks, and engage them when they do stop by.

The fourth requirement is that the forum must be adult.  There are plenty of places in the online community for students to participate and contend with coaches, but the inevitable effect is that the students overwhelm the discussion with their concerns and most coaches turn away.  For this project to be unique, it needs to be free of that effect; there are things I won’t suggest or say if I know students are kicking around en masse.  As part of the adulthood requirement, the forum needs to be totally non anonymous.  For some reason, when you combine normal people with the Internet and anonymity, some substantial percentage of them turn into frothing asshats.  Frothing, ungrammatical asshats.  The coaching community is small enough and personal enough that simply stripping people of the veil of anonymity should be enough to keep an online arena civil and respectful.  Or at least civil and respectful unless someone really meant it.  Having an adult tone is crucial to keeping the discussion meaningful and effective. So that means having someone sift the entries for frothing unproductive nonsense, and act as a guardian at the gate: this person must approve new posting accounts rapidly enough that new members can join easily, but verify them as adults who have a presence in the forensics community, and who are using their real names.   Which in turn makes it all the harder to gather critical mass needed in Point 3.

Notice something?  Each of these requirements ends in “someone has to.”  The trouble here isn’t technical, and casting around for the perfect bulletin board software isn’t going to solve it; though choosing the wrong web forum software could certainly kill the idea.  This project can’t be done without the thing we most lack; overhead.  An editor.  Someone passionate enough to making it work that s/he’ll tend the garden constantly, every day.  The thing that made Victory Briefs Daily take off wasn’t their software platform — I kind of hate the new look & shuffling-story interface, it hasn’t grown on me at all — but the fact that Cruz was there every day making things happen.  That’s what you need to have an effective coacherly forum: a champion who dedicates their focus to it, and makes it happen.  At least for a year or two until it takes off on its own momentum.

And no, that person is not me.  I’ve taken off a few hats this year, for fear my head would collapse beneath them.  I no longer run my local FL, and my overhead time is divided between making software to make forensics better, and making the college tournaments better with more direct intervention.  Find a champion and this can work.  I hope someone does volunteer.