What Kind of Community Do We Want to Create?

In his opening keynote at the Information Architecture Summit 2009, cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch, of Kansas State University, asked the room of user experience designers: “How can we create an environment that creates the kind of community and the kind of people we want?” It’s arguably self-aggrandizing to think we are engineering types of people, however Wesch, and later Jesse James Garrett, reminded us of McLuhan’s observation: “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”

While the Facebook timesink is beloved for the community and connections it helps us maintain, the constant vacuous quizzes are a vexing reminder of its lack of avenues for creativity. Wesch noted that “We are most creative when we let go of identity.” Demonstrating identity is one of the strongest intrinsic values of most social networking sites (SNSs). In creativity-focused sites (deviantArt, Flickr, MySpace) pseudonyms (an alternate persona or ‘alt’) are more common than on sites where real identity is the main focus (e.g. LinkedIn, Facebook). Social networking sites also must negotiate a balance between enforcing social norms and supporting individual freedom.

creativity and identity spectrumLooking at SNSs on a spectrum of creativity and identity crossed with a spectrum of individual freedom and social norms makes me optimistic that creativity-related features are possible in communities that have room for social norms. Facebook has many users who have work posted on deviantArt, Flickr, Slideshare, YouTube and other creativity-focused SNSs. Many of these users have joined the artistic communities for the feedback and inspiration they get there, not necessarily because of a desire for anonymity. Younger users tend to be less inhibited about sharing their creative work. We need (good) apps that make it possible to bring our content in from disparate sites. Gavin Bell, in Disintegration of Persistence of Identity at the online HEAD conference, said we need to create ways to see the “larger picture of identity, not just the last 15 things about a person.” We need to create mechanisms for coherence rather than chaos and fragmentation.

So aside from fostering creativity, what are other characteristics of communities we want to create? Priority must be given to the values that meet the goals of the intended users. Here are some characteristics for consideration:

  • Diverse
  • Welcoming
  • Democratic. Striving for balance between individual freedom and social norms.
  • Creativity fostering
  • Encouraging
  • Balance between collaboration and competition
  • Balance between open and closed—Some communities derive their value from shared memory and the intimacy of small numbers. In other cases this is only a value for selected communication instances.
  • Safe—safe for debate, sharing opinions, safe to be snarky (varies by community)
  • Fun
  • Respectful
  • Successful communication
  • A place and role for everyone
  • Accountability
  • Connection
  • Data-rich, informed
  • Self-organizing
  • Humorous, playful
  • Learning opportunities
  • Inspiring

What features can we include in our SNSs that encourage particular values?

An SNS that values learning, successful communication, and being a safe zone might offer a social cue feature (a space bubble warning, per my 10-year-old) that community members can use to indicate why a comment or post might need rethinking. The intention would be for the recipient to learn why what they posted made someone else uncomfortable. Such cues should be anonymous: an expression of someone’s feelings and not a source for the debate that can arise if the source is known. (If someone repeatedly gives space bubble warnings to another person, they should get a friendly suggestion to consider limiting their exposure to the person who so frequently offends them.) Space bubble warnings should be private, meaning only visible to the recipient. They are not intended as crowd-sourcing feedback where momentum is built. In this case there would be greater value in multiple responses that were generated independently. Space Bubble Warnings might include options like:

  • TMI (too much information)
  • TLI (too little information)
  • Harsh
  • A tad creepy
  • In someone else’s space
  • Not so appropriate here
  • Interpretation too literal

And, sure, it would be good to put in place a mechanism for sussing out trolls offering disingenuous social cues, perhaps based on frequency, along with a mechanism for people to turn off visibility of cues they receive. However, turning off visibility should not prevent others from offering the cue. The ability to offer a never-to-be-seen cue still may offer a satisfying experience for the person who wanted to indicate they didn’t like something.

The feature could go further and implement selective invisibility, making comments with many social cues become invisible to people other than the author. According to Wired magazine, Disqus does this with comments that get many negative ratings, but they don’t tell the author. In their case, the goal is not education, but to give someone less attention in the hopes that they will go away. In the case here, where the goal is education and improved communication, the author would be told that their comment is being made invisible because it made too many people uncomfortable.

How about a self-regulated impulsivity setting? This might be a good feature for SNSs that strive to be welcoming safe zones that foster successful communication. If I know I tend to post responses quickly and regret them later, I might benefit from a delay-post option that always delays posting for an amount of time I choose, or allows a per-post option of delayed posting to allow for retraction before publication. (This is a bit like Google Labs’ “mail goggles” that require a successful solution to a math problem before sending emails written after 11:00 pm.)

There is no single kind of community we need to identify. We need to ensure that our experience design process incorporates assessing the kinds of community values a client wants to sustain.

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