Thinking back to the role of design in enabling community

As 2019 begins and the noise of social networks rings in our ears, I can’t but help reflect on the state of communities online. Can anything be salvaged from this current state of noise? What can design bring to the table in enabling communities.

Back in 2013, I was lucky enough in May of that year to speak at Future of Web Design on ‘Beyond the noise of Social Networks‘. The noise and pressure felt intense back then, ironically it’s even more intense now but it feels we’ve all just reluctantly accepted this as the norm. Living in a constant state of reaction to tweets, pokes, dms and interruptions doesn’t get anything productive done, it’s not a natural state for any of us or one we thrive in.

Before moving to my current job, my focus for a long time was on designing and enabling niche communities to grow. I worked on a wide range of projects and each one bolstered my feeling that the connections within those were far closer than any social network. A community like that can be a support system and research resource for someone with a medical condition. They all had real connections in common and a safe space for people coming together.

A community is not a social network

There is this foundational confusion that a social network is a community. It ‘could’ be one but it rarely is. Whilst a community unites for the same reason, to say a social network does based on ‘connecting’ is a little flimsy a baseline to call something a community. In many ways they mask as a community and that’s where a lot of the problems come from.

Social networks won’t foster passion, commitment, or identity on a large scale. For that, you need to form relationships and gradually form the gravitational attraction between them that characterizes community.

Andy Oram ‘Social networks are not communities and other discussions from the Community Leadership Summit

This quote for me whilst a little older, still stands. In a lot of respects communities are about uniting and often social networks are almost the opposite, dividing. History is marked by people grouping together to do more than the single, isolated human can. It could be uniting to take down a large animal, or to overthrow a government. 

Social networks are often about the individual. Their connections, their promotion. Interactions are at a distance, a casual like or thumbs up. Carefully curated plastic profiles tell a story that is often removed from the real person. Any connection is often not a true one, it’s half presences uniting with other unrealities.

The rise of Slack

Slack has risen up as a connector. It’s a step towards a community but I would argue it’s not one in itself. Community comes not just from a platform or application. What it has given is an opportunity for niche communities to form, this is something social networks promised but never delivered.  The addition of apps to Slack also combines to try and take it beyond just communication. They don’t fill the void though and it’s still whilst a powerful tool not the right out of the box option.

Ownership of the community

I still believe strongly one aspect social networks that apps often fail to solve, is owning the content is key. The WordPress mission is ‘democratise publishing’, I feel a similar drive towards community tools. How can people be empowered to create the communities that people need? In this day of privacy concerns and the nature of communities often being sensitive, owning that content is crucial for trust to form.

I don’t feel there is as easy option that exists today. This was missing back in 2013 and I still feel projects like BuddyPress could be that, yet aren’t currently. That isn’t saying they won’t and I sincerely truly hope they do grow to meet that need.

The rise of collaborative communities

The need for a space to create together is a strong drive. Glitch is one shining example of a space that really works well. There are a lot of these collaborative spaces with some interesting, personal takes on what community looks like for their members. This is one area that really shows a path forward and has right now some of the more forward thinking explorations into design thinking being used to enable a community.

Where now?

I don’t claim to have a single solution here. I’ve been thinking again lately about where design fits in providing an alternative to the dysfunctional social networks. Community isn’t something you can simply add design to and say it’s complete. Design thinking can be used to create a space and enable that community.

The future is beyond the noise of social networks. Niche communities to me still are even more so the way forward than they ever were. It’s about meaningful connections where the experience is focused and united. To get there exploration needs to start happening again and this is something I am really interested in doing this year.

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