B2. The Wisdom Salon

Wisdom Salon is an online World Cafe. The World Cafe Protocol is a recipe for organizing "Conversations That Matter" on a large scale. Thousands of people can cooperate in order to bring clarity to complex issues

This is a post-mortem summary for my interrupted Wisdom Salon project. I have all the code in an archive but it requires a complete rewrite to fix the two biggest problems: The switch from Flash (yecch) to HTML5 for video and the cost of video connections. I know how to fix these but I'm busy working on Understanding Machines ATM. I am looking for someone to take this over. I also observe that there is a need for something like this. I see things discussed on Quora that would make good topics for a Wisdom Salon. I happen to believe video and spoken words are an important component for many reasons.


Knowledge and Information can easily be found on the web. But what about Wisdom?

Intelligence is based on gathered knowledge.

Wisdom is based on gathered experience.

To get wiser, seek out more experiences. Engage yourself. Do more stuff. Travel. Talk to people to share their experiences. Conversation with others is the easiest way to gain Wisdom. But not all conversations are equal.

We want Conversations That Matter.

The World Cafe Protocol

The World Cafe Protocol is a recipe for organizing such "Conversations That Matter" on a large scale. Thousands of people can cooperate in order to bring clarity to complex issues. To find out more, buy the book or study the World Cafe Website, but this is how it typically works:

In some conference facility or gymnasium the organizers provide dozens to hundreds of square tables. Each has four chairs, a box of crayons, and a piece of butcher paper as a tablecloth.

Stakeholders from all walks of life get invited and sit down at the tables. This could be a mixture of farmers, teachers, politicians. In corporate environments, sometimes this is everybody in the company.

Organizers now unveil a carefully phrased focusing Question as the topic of the conversations. It is important that The Question is positive and focusing. For education reform, don't ask "What is wrong with our education system". Instead, ask "What could a great school also be".

The four people at each table now start a conversation around The Question. Everyone takes notes on the butcher paper using the crayons.

After twenty minutes, a gong rings. Three people - everyone except "South" in Duplicate Bridge terms - at each table get up and move to other tables at random. Three fresh random people sit down at each table.

"South" now first explains to the newcomers what the notes on the tablecloth mean. This provides a kind of lightweight continuity from the previous conversation at this table. The three newcomers comment on these notes and add fresh comments - the best parts of what was said at their previous tables. These conversations unfold very naturally. Four strangers can easily have a friendly conversation about complex things that matter. They don't even have to introduce themselves. They contribute their wisdom and experiences, not their resumes.

Conversations now continue for another twenty minutes. The gong rings again, and the shuffling repeats.

After 2-3 hours, the session is over and the butcher papers are gathered by the organizers into what is called "The Harvest". They are summarized and some time later – perhaps "after lunch", the results are shared with all the stakeholders.

Why this works so well

Someone pushing a bad idea of theirs at every table can spam at worst 27 people in three hours. A good idea, introduced at the first table and repeated by all participants at subsequent tables, will reach over 100,000 people or the majority of the audience, whichever is smaller. This is the filtering power of the World Cafe Protocol.

Wisdom Salon is an online World Cafe

Sadly, the Wisdom Salon project has been suspended because of changing infrastructure and cost structure for online video transmissions and because of lack of time on my part. It is possible to restart the project using current video technology and with funding and a larger team. If interested in contributing to this, please get in touch.

What follows is the original high level design specification, written in the present tense. 😞

Design Specification

  • The Wisdom Salon is a 24x7 online World Cafe implemented as a video chat site.
  • Conversations have four participants but each conversation can also have a passive and quiet audience of any size.
  • All conversations are always public.
  • All conversation participants are known by their login identities.

Why would anyone want to participate? The main purpose of Wisdom Salon is increased wisdom and improved clarity in complex issues for the participants. This is your main benefit; this is why you would want to participate. You will not get likes, but you might earn a local currency (called "Influons") that you can selectively use to extend your influence.


The goal is specifically NOT to find the best Grains of Wisdom in the Harvest; the grains are there mainly to provide continuity and shorten the time to get to talking about things that matter. The system is there to provide the users a chance to analyze large and complex issues with others in conversation, in an exchange of experiences.

  • Do not underestimate how different an interactive conversation is from a web search or reading a book.
  • Have you ever spent days studying something without "getting it" only to have someone set you straight in two minutes of conversation?
  • Have you ever been in a meeting where the resolution is something none of the participants even understood when the meeting started?

Sample Questions

What kinds of Questions demonstrate the power of The Wisdom Salon? Consider these samples:

  • I am considering a mid-life career change. WHAT MATTERS?
  • Where should I retire, and why there?
  • Should I pursue a career in engineering or medicine?
  • Lifestyle design in interesting times
  • What is the true promise of genetics research and why should I care?
  • What movies should I let my children watch, and why?
  • Musical education for my child - WHAT MATTERS? What instruments, and why?
  • What is it really like to be a soldier in places like Afghanistan and Irak?
  • Should I retire in Costa Rica ?

User Experience

People arrive when they want and leave when they want. They can engage in multiple ways:

  • Upon entering the site, users are presented with the (at the moment) most popular conversation – the one with the largest audience.
  • Below the conversation there will be a list of other popular conversations, headed by conversations on topics the user may have watched or previously participated in.
  • They can browse all ongoing conversations much like watching talk shows on television.
  • They can select from hundreds of Questions to find something that interest them, or add their own.
  • Instead of a butcher paper, they can leave notes on each Question known as "Grains of Wisdom" to provide the lightweight continuity from table to table.
  • They can vote on these Grains of Wisdom so that the better results rise to the top. Results are immediately visible to all.
  • They can observe what other people say and how they behave and modify their own social graph to improve their chances of interaction with the best people.
  • A local currency is earned by passive engagement per hour, more of it is earned by participating in conversations, and the currency is used to pay for the privilege of posting a comment. Because posting costs currency, spamming the Grains of Wisdom will be limited.
  • A topic without currently active conversations still allows you to browse the Grains of Wisdom on the topic, and if you have Influons, you can vote on the Grains (notes) that you like or otherwise agree with, and you can restart the topic by creating a table and hope others will join.

Four Main Uses of Wisdom Salon

The site ENABLES, but doesn't ENFORCE the World Cafe protocol. You can use the site for several different purposes

  • As entertainment and education, passively watching conversations among your peers, much like flipping channels on television.
  • To get both factual information and broad-ranging personalized advice from experts
  • To share your expertise in fields you understand. To do "micro-mentoring"
  • To find an audience for storytelling and sharing personal experiences from your life
  • To gain wisdom and personal clarity in complex issues
  • To debate the major issues of the day in-person in productively selected and well behaved groups
  • To find new interesting and competent friends by observing their behavior and then befriending them, much like other social media

Any active conversation starts a 20 minute "clock bar" moving. You can leave anytime. System provides some incentive to stay the full 20 minutes. On the other hand, you don't have to leave after twenty minutes. If you like, you can continue conversation a long as you want. But we expect a large fraction of people to adhere to the protocol. We believe this maximizes the wisdom gain per session.

Without the right people, the system is worthless.

Do not be discouraged. Facebook would be worthless with only ten people on it. Wisdom Salon really requires at least 50 people to be on the system before you are likely to find a conversation around a question you actually care about anytime you join. So nobody knows if this will work or not, and it may take a while before the system matures enough to attract a sufficent repeat audience to become what I designed it for. If you don't like it at first, please try again; it might well improve, and you might get lucky to get into an amazing conversation when you least expect it.

Welcome to my experiment

– Monica Anderson