Friday, July 5, 2013

Tool Spotlight: Points of Unity

Points of Unity is a tool for developing a set of shared values or principles with your group. It allows you to create drafts of points, to vote on them and edit them, and to choose which points to adopt as a group. Having a set of principles that everyone agrees to is an important foundational component of almost any organization, and this tool makes it easier for groups to craft these points.

Use points of unity when you want to identify a short list of things that everyone agrees to. Some examples might include:

  • A bill of rights and responsibilities for members of a group.
  • Ground rules for better communication in meetings.
  • Principles to be included in a group's mission statement.

You can also use Points of Unity for less heavy things, like:

  • Songs to include in the next party's playlist.
  • Strategies for the group to adopt to combat the moth problem in the pantry.

How to use Points of Unity

  • Click "New Board" to create a new set of points.
  • Name the point set with the framing question or idea for the set of points. Some examples might include "Bill of Rights", "Community Agreements", or "Organizing Principles for our group".
  • Add your group as the owner of the set of points. Alternately, you can keep the set of points open to the public by leaving the group blank.
  • Vote for points by clicking the triangle arrow.
  • When the point has enough support (by whatever threshold your group sets), click "adopt" to promote it from the drafts.
  • Anyone can edit a point to change the wording or meaning. When they do so, the point's votes are cleared, so only do this if the change is worth it. You can see the history of edits to the point and its supporters by clicking "history".

Keeping a standing set of principles

A great way to use Points of Unity is to create a set of core principles that guide your group. Whenever a new person joins the group, ask them to visit the set of points, and to vote for all the points they agree with. If the new person doesn't agree to a given point, or has new suggestions for the group to adopt, take the opportunity for the whole group to revisit the set of principles.

Find more info on the wiki, or contact us for support.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Deleting things

InterTwinkles just added support for deleting documents. What took us so long? Well, deletion in the context of group documents is not as obvious as it might seem.  When you collaboratively create something as a group, in a very real sense, the result belongs to the group, not to a single individual within it.  So when one person decides they want to erase something permanently, we want to ask the group if that's what they want.

Most services solve this problem in one of two ways:

  1. Some services never truly delete data. Out of the box, EtherPad works this way - a history is always maintained of every edit, with no way to delete. That way, if someone else objects, they can always restore it from the trash or revision history. Given the importance of online privacy and security, we felt it was critical that you be able to actually permanently remove things from the Internet.
  2. Some services assume that there is only one "real" owner of the data, and that person is allowed to delete it, but other group members are not. This goes against the model we're striving toward which enables groups to be owners of data.

We don't want to enforce any particular decision making policy on groups - we think it's great that some use consensus-based processes, some use modified consensus or various majorities, and we don't want to impose those policies structurally by building them into the deletion mechanism. At the same time, we don't want people to accidentally delete hard work that the group created together. Too much bureaucracy is harmful, but we still want to let groups check themselves when taking irreversible actions.

Here's how deletion now works on InterTwinkles:

  • There is a "trash" where things can be put, without actually deleting them. This is a safe place to put non-sensitive stuff that you just want to get out of your face. Anyone can put anything in the trash at any time, and can restore things from the trash with one click.
  • You can also delete things outright (as in, gone forever). If only one person in the group has worked on the document, they can delete it immediately - this handles the case of accidentally created items which shouldn't waste anyone's time.
  • If more than one person has worked on a document, "delete" starts a 3-day timer, and notifies the rest of the group that you want to delete something. Within those three days, any other group member can "second" the deletion and it will proceed immediately, or they can "cancel" the deletion to rescue the data. If three days go by with no action, the document is deleted permanently.

It only takes one other group member to delete something immediately or to contest deletion. We think this is a good compromise which lets you get sensitive data off the Internet pretty quickly, but still protects you from accidents or over-zealous deletionists. Like many of the other tools in InterTwinkles, it depends on you having a reasonable amount of trust in your group members. But it also doesn't bog you down with the access control mechanisms that you don't need for small groups.

Like this strategy, or have a better idea? Let us know what you think!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Tool Spotlight: Resolve!

This is the first in a series of blog posts highlighting each of InterTwinkles' tools.

Resolve is a tool for making, approving, and rejecting proposals.

When to use resolve

Your group has already discussed an issue, researched options, and developed some ideas. Now it's time to see if there is a proposal that everyone can live with.

What can you do with resolve?

Float a proposal or two out there. Invite others to post proposals, comment on yours, and vote on them. Group members can participate when it's most convenient for them, and members who aren't online can ask other group members to post on their behalf.

With resolve, you can:

  • Make proposals
  • "Twinkle" options and responses that they like
  • Express your opinion about proposals (including your level of approval, blocking, and abstentions).
  • Revise proposals, and see a history of edits
  • Easily who has not yet participated (e.g. who you need to nag)

Using resolve, you can find which ideas have the most support, and understand the concerns of other members of your group, moving together to something that meets everyone's needs. Throughout, you'll probably continue to use mailing lists or in person conversations like you already have – only now, you'll have a shared space to summarize the result of your discussion, and most importantly, know when you're done.

When not to use resolve

  • Don't use resolve if your group hasn't already built relationships with each other and developed a level of trust.
  • Resolve is for finalizing a proposal, not for brainstorming or discussion. If you find it hard to succinctly state the proposal in a way that lets everyone respond with a simple "approve" or "disapprove", you're probably not ready – you might do a brainstorm with dotstorm, or do some heavy text editing with twinklepad. For general discussion or early-stage ideas, use a mailing list, phone conference, or in-person discussion.

How it works

First, a group member creates a proposal, and then invites others to respond. Members respond with a vote (e.g. "Approve", "Approve with reservations", "Block", etc.), as well as a short statement for why they are voting that way.

When everyone has participated, any member can mark the proposal as "passed" or "failed". Proposals can be reopened if someone disagrees with the outcome. Every proposal has a log of activity, so you can quickly see who has been participating, and who hasn't.

Here's an example proposal: Should we buy a 2-ton replica Moai head for our front yard?

EDIT July 5, 2013: We just posted our introductory video to Resolve.

Friday, April 26, 2013

InterTwinkles Comes to the Millstone Coop: Silliness Ensues!

Last Monday night, Charlie DeTar and I did a workshop introducing the InterTwinkles tools for coops to Millstone Coop.  It started out as we planned, with a general introduction, forming an InterTwinkles group for Millstone, and everyone joining it. Then things got silly, fast!
Before we could even fully explain the purpose of each tool, housemates began using them:

  • Someone used Firestarter to ask what everyone’s favorite dessert was.
  • Using Dotstorm, some ideas for a house retreat were posted.
  • A Twinklepad was used to start a list of our favorite websites.
  • Somebody used Points of Unity to launch principles related to food buying and eating
  • Another used the Resolve tool to propose that we build a house on an island in Maine

As more and more folks jumped in, housemates asked each other what mystical animal they would be, and made proposals to buy cereal, ice cream, a pony and a goat. Proposals were amended to debate flavors of ice cream and alternatives to buying cereal. One housemate pointed out that goats poop a lot, and blocked the proposal to acquire one.  That proposal was then amended to include the statement “We will only buy goats that don't poop. (Do they then explode?)”  The revised proposal garnered even more support.

Housemates enjoyed using the ability to post ideas and proposals on behalf of other group members, intended to bridge the gap among groups with divergent internet access or usage.  Soon it was clear that one housemate was not saying what was posted in her name, and soon everyone was laughing as we tried to keep up with rapid fire posts and silly proposals.

When discussion of the Progressive Clock began, we were more serious for a few moments, discussing the possibilities and limits to this tool that can measure speaking time in meetings of participants by race, gender or other characteristics.  Then someone discovered how easily the categories could be changed, and our house clock was measuring the speaking time of those with glasses, and without, number of toes, animals and Snapple. (Glasses wearers dominated, but it is fair to say we had advantages in speaking over several other categories)

We concluded the workshop thinking together about how Millstone could use InterTwinkles for our household discussions and decision making.  We imagined how previous house topics about our chickens or pest control could have benefited from these tools.  Then some of us made a trip to JP Licks for ice cream and frozen yogurt.

Really pretty good fun for a Monday night!  Wanna try out InterTwinkles at your coop? Let us know; we make house calls!

InterTwinkles the Co-op Startup Fund and clustered decision making

All of us who have ever been part of a group decision know that it can be a big challenge to reach consensus. If the issue is small enough we have lots of tools to help us reach an agreement: short e-mails, quick informal chats, short phone calls, and so on. When it comes to larger or more complicated decisions,  if they require the input of everyone in the group these tools become mostly useless. This makes asynchronous decision making at best strained and at worst impossible.

This is where the Co-op Startup Fund comes in. Last year the Boston Collective House Assembly began trying to come up with the outline for a loan fund that would help to fund the formation of new co-ops. They did most of the discussion  in person, with asynchronous communication delegated to e-mail and wiki editing, and in May of last year that discussion petered out. This isn't surprising to me.

I can't count the number of times I've had similar experiences, where the medium for discussion makes it impossible to come communicate effectively.

As soon as a topic gets too big to put in the first paragraph of an e-mail, or as soon as the discussion gets heated enough, I find myself staring at my inbox with dread as the little number next to the reply count continues to tick up and up. From how often these sorts of things get resolved, I'm sure I'm not the only one who does this. Most of the time discussion gets pushed off to the next in person meeting, or delegated to a single person to take charge of, but these solutions aren't always feasible. Some co-ops meet less than once a month, and sometimes there's no one with the time to take full responsibility for a big decision.

As Charlie mentioned in his previous blog post, there are many reasons why he's interested in decision making tools, especially when it comes to coordinating a single group. But the bigger and more disparate the group the more useful the tools become.

So here's where InterTwinkles comes in, and how it grows from a group decision making platform to a clustered one. We're hoping to get lots of co-ops involved in using and perfecting the tools on their own in their regular meetings and decisions. Some of these tools are new, and still quite rough around the edges, and we need people to give us good feedback on how well they work.

Thus empowered with these tools we aim to re-ignite the conversation about the Co-op Startup Fund. The participating groups should now be familiar with how the tools work and should be able to jump right in to making and adapting proposals. Our hope is that not only will we learn a lot about how these tools can help facilitate group decision making, but we'll provide the platform that the Co-op Startup Fund needs to get out of the discussion phase and become a reality.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

InterTwinkles and Democratic Decision-Making

In my experience living in cooperatives and working with community groups, democratic decision making seems to include:
  • informed constituents 
  • accessible and respectful participation of all stakeholders
  • full discussion by constituents in which all can speak and all can be heard 
  • equal input among constituents in the decision-making process
  • trust in the process and in participants

Points of Unity
Points of Unity

InterTwinkles tools can help help groups in democratic decision-making by:
  • enabling constituents to share information and ideas (Firestarter & Dotstorm)
  • facilitate participation by constituents, even when they are not in the same geographic place
  • promote discussion by providing a platform for each participant to share their ideas in words, drawings, photos etc. (Dotstorm & Twinklepad)
  • allows participants to help one another in achieving equal participation and power in decision-making
  • Clarify proposals and vote on them (Resolve)
  • Develop shared statements of principles or values (Points of Unity)
This spring and summer we will be trying these tools out with cooperative homes in the Boston area.  We hope to learn what works, what doesn’t and how to improve the tools to more fully address the needs of small democratic groups.

What InterTwinkles probably can't do is create trust among participants, but if participants work together to build relationships and trust, than hopefully InterTwinkles can become part of the processes that groups use to make democratic decisions.  The tests and try-outs of this spring and summer will help us determine the possibilities and limits of these tools in democratic decision-making. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Why Should Housing Co-ops Try Intertwinkles' Toolkit?

Over the past two years I have worked with several local political organizing groups in Boston. During this time, have witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly as far as the failures and triumphs of cooperative democracy or consensus building are concerned.

For part of the past two years I organized with Occupy Boston and other political groups in the Boston area with mixed results. The broad scope of the participants of OB from early on led to shifting priorities around the role and function of the decision-making process. Our general assemblies went from very large and long-winded events with side show qualities to the smaller groups that continue to meet, and arguably function, to this day.

Throughout the process or building consensus, one thing has become apparent. People will work towards a goal only if they feel a sympathy, trust and a measure of respect for the people who they are organizing with. The broad and often vague message of the 99% left open much room for debate as to the credibility of the revolving door of organizers. Many questions about the legitimacy of the stalwarts of the group remain, and any loyalty to the cause for good or bad has ultimately been met with a large degree of mistrust and suspicion. Still, the problem of the large amount of time that making sound decisions involved was never adequately addressed when establishing priorities and goals. I witnessed organizers originate great ideas with often weak priorities, poor planning, blunt tools and shabby execution. 

Nonetheless the crazy experiment of OB has allowed me to develop patience and to apply the wisdom gained from both triumphant and disappointing experiences to an experimental collaborative democracy project like Interwinkles. Intertwinkles takes the useful pieces from the broken shards of an impromptu movement like Occupy and attempts to empower groups that are actually invested and committed to working together towards common goals.  The toolkit of software actually gives organizers the needed opportunity to organize effectively before executing major projects.  At the same time, smaller and less extensive decisions can be accomplished more quickly and managed more effectively through employing these tools.

 Many of the tools including the Twinklepad are familiar and useful for helping people work together remotely while very thoroughly retaining the integrity shared information. The Twinklepad offers real time text editing by numerous writers from remote locations. Resolve is an on-line tool that allows group members an opportunity to draft resolutions, amend them and vote on them without committing to regular face-to-face meetings. The potential for saving energy, travel time, while including busy participants with conflicting schedules makes the Twinklepad and Resolve both great options for members of housing cooperatives who might not otherwise find time to regularly meet to arrive at decisions and determine common goals.

As the Intertwinkles project progresses, time will decide if housing cooperatives are able to find common ground through employing consensus building software that aims to make life less confusing.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Why InterTwinkles

I've been working on online tools for consensus for the last 2 years. Here's what motivates me to work on this.

1. The water heater

For my first five years in Boston, I lived in a housing co-op in Dorchester.  It's a classic Boston triple-decker, which the 13 residents own collectively. That means that we didn't have a landlord, but we were in charge of the mortgage, maintenance, utilities, and everything else. The house operated by consensus, and all decisions happened at weekly house meetings.

At one point, one of the three water heaters that serviced the house died, which left our main kitchen without any hot water. One of the residents (a well meaning, competent, and all around good person) took on the task of fixing this, and called up a plumber for an emergency job.  The plumber charged us the emergency rate; almost $2000 to install a new water heater, very similar to this model here, which rings in at $358 at Home Depot:

In retrospect, we needn't have payed the emergency rate. We could have gotten by with only two-thirds of our water heaters for a week or two. We could have gotten a more energy efficient water heater that would have kept long term costs down, and we could have done all of that for less than half the cost. But the consensus process that could've allowed the house members to express their opinions was too slow, and we had no process in place to make decisions between meetings. Could we have had an effective consensus process that could respond to an urgent need like this?

2. Anti-war protests, 2002-2003

In 2002 and 2003, protests against the Iraq war erupted all around the world – some of the largest protests ever. Over a million people turned out in Rome, half a million each in London and New York, and over 200,000 people in San Francisco.

These protests, and direct actions that followed, were led by small affinity groups of 10 to 20 people who organized into clusters to coordinate their actions. My experience of participating in these protests demonstrated the power of small consensus-oriented groups to organize, motivate and mobilize people. This same style of small-group organizing formed the seed for Occupy Wall Street a decade later.

These clusters have tended to be short-lived, even as the issues they organized to tackle have continued to impact people. Is there a way to facilitate cluster organizing that is lower cost to the participants, so that the same power of coordinated autonomous groups can work even in times of peace?

3. Apex organizations

For the last 2 years, I've served on the board of an NASCO, an organization that supports housing cooperatives across the US and Canada. This professional non-profit draws its board members from four time zones, and with a miniscule budget, runs a conference, a land trust, an education and training network for tens of thousands of people, and a development consultancy that helps new co-ops to get started.

The board operates by consensus, and holds only a few in-person meetings and conference calls throughout the year. But when staff turns over or crises strike, it can become very difficult to maintain effective communication between meetings, especially when we lack the budget to fly everyone across the continent to meet. Could geographically distribute organizations find better ways to get work done between meetings, while still maintaining the values of inclusion, participation and consensus?

Consensus decision making processes have shown themselves to be extremely effective in encouraging full participation and equality in groups that practice them. But they're less functional in times of urgency, at larger scales, and in geographically distributed contexts. Can we meet some of those needs while staying true to the values of participation, democracy and understanding?

InterTwinkles is the culmination of my work on so far on these questions. It is a collection of light-weight tools that groups can use for brainstorming and decision making, and inspired by the effective in-person tools that already exist. I hope you'll consider trying it out, and joining us to help build a resource for all types of co-ops and democratic groups.

Cross-posted at

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Mary wants to come to coop houses near you!

Hi, I’m Mary Regan. 
I’m excited to become a member of the Intertwinkles team! 

I have been a community organizer all of my adult life and a member of cooperative houses for a large part of my life, as well. What unites these aspects of my life is the strong belief that we humans are communal people whose lives are improved when we work and live together, sharing ideas, responsibilities, strategies, food, and resources.

Intertwinkles is working to develop online tools to help coop houses and activist groups communicate and democratically make decisions together, overcoming obstacles often imposed by our mobile lives and power imbalances.  I am especially enthused that these tools could help strengthen the coop house movement and possibly enable the development of new coop houses.

If you live in a coop, we’d love to show you our tools, let you try them out, and get your feedback to make them better suited to your needs! I’m interviewing coop housemates about their current decision making processes and scheduling workshops at several coops in the Boston area.  
Please feel free to contact me at to bring Intertwinkles to your coop house!