All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. – George Orwell, Animal Farm
What would a world look like where a few people can shout, their voices amplified with a megaphone, while the rest of us can only whisper? We don’t need to imagine that kind of world, it’s the one we have now. But is that fair or is it just the way thing are and always have been? Do we just need to accept the world as it is or is there something we can do about it, or do we just need to get better at engaging with the world on the terms we are offered rather than the terms we might prefer?
There are options but I think you have to decide what kind of approach you are going to take when thinking about them and it takes time to get to grips with the complexity of it all. It will always be easier to do the easy thing and, as long as you go for that option, the what’s possible will stay invisible.
As I work on the content for this Community book project I have to say it’s quite hard. It takes longer to think through what’s going on and write words than if I took a faster and less involved approach.
For example, if I look at my social media feeds, the business related ones anyway, there’s a lot of stuff out there. Is it worth trying to think about what it is, whether there are categories of material or do you just take what’s there as it is. Why would you engage with a piece of content? Well, because it interests you, it’s newsworthy or useful. Or you were sucked into clicking on it because it seemed interesting but when you looked at the detail it was simply clickbait. Or its content that you want to share with others who you think might find it interesting.
Do we think that there are real communities building on social media or are we seeing something artificial, something that looks like the real thing but that is in fact carefully manipulated to give us an impression of togetherness? For example, I hadn’t quite realized that the main social media platforms regularly refresh the content you see on your feed. You could argue that this means you get more content put in front of you. At the same time it makes you feel like the platform is active and new content is being put out there all the time so if you aren’t checking it you’re missing out.
I’ve recently joined an alternative social media platform called Fosstodon, my handle is @email@example.com if you want to connect. This article is an introduction to how it works and it’s the one that pointed out the value of just having stuff ordered chronologically. This means you can look at what’s new and then get on with whatever you’re doing rather than constantly refreshing your screen to see if anything new has turned up when in fact it’s just the algorithm faking it to make it seem that way.
What this seems to lead into is the concept of socialization. You aren’t born knowing what a community is and how to function in there. Your community teaches you what normal looks like and you accept it. In fact, you never really ask questions about it because you don’t have to, it’s like fish wondering about water. We take it for granted that there’s a way to be, a way to search the Internet, a way be social and we take the easy routes, the ones that pop up. So most people will use Google to search and Facebook to keep track of their friends, and Twitter for whatever Twitter does and WhatsApp for private group discussions and YouTube for media and that’s that. That’s what we’ve been socialized into doing just by dint of the fact that these are the biggest, wealthiest, noisiest platforms around and if we’re not on there we feel like we’re missing out and when we get in there we find that there isn’t much space left for us.
Of course, that isn’t the case. There’s always room for you as long as you have resources or a plan and really want to get famous. For example Derek Sivers came up with a set of directives and one of them had to do with getting rich, because it’s much easier to become famous when you’re already rich. His argument is that people only value stuff that they pay for and so you might as well make money because if you’re making money] then that’s proof that you’re being useful.
Now, there’s a lot packed into those statements and I need to unpick some elements. If you’re doing something useful then people will be willing to pay for it. Enough people at least to make it viable. You might have a whole lot of users and only a small percentage may find what you’re doing useful enough to sponsor your work but ideally your project should at least break even. If it doesn’t, if you’re losing money on the idea then it’s destroying value and that’s a bad thing. Your time is worth something and if you’re spending all of it for free reading other people’s marketing material then you should be getting paid or getting value of some kind.
Ideally, whatever you’re doing should make a lot of money. I recently read that the Raspberry PI Foundation, which has just come up with a brilliant Christmas present, is the fastest growing computer company in the UK. It’s also a charity. Red Hat Linux was bought by IBM for 34 billion. The privacy focused search engine DuckDuckGo has gone from nothing to 2 billion searches a month, nothing compared to the big competitor that does over 100 million searches. And then when the money you’ve made exceeds what you need to run the business and pay people well you’d use the rest to make things better. And that’s what some of these businesses do.
All this is of course very marginal, really on the edges of the huge business that is business. What you see are ultra-wealthy individuals on social media, the new billionaires with hundreds of millions of followers who promote products and get paid for doing so – they are the ones with the megaphones. That’s business all right but when it comes down to it what exactly are you looking at when you see products being promoted in an entertaining way? It’s marketing, it’s entertainment. Is it community?
What differentiates marketing content that aims to build a community from any other kind of community? Are you not being brought together by your shared love for the thing that’s being promoted? If you had an actor or a singer who had a wide fan base because of their work, then wouldn’t you call that group a community? How different is that kind of system where you have one person who is the figurehead, the center of attention, from a religions community?
It’s hard to tell a “real” community from a “fake” one by just looking at what they look like. From the outside they share the root elements, the thing in common, the shared passion. So perhaps we have to look at outcomes. Social media platforms can be seen as spaces for communities to form, not as moderators or supporters of one community over any other. Of course, their rules help communities live or die, grow or vanish because they control visibility, the algorithms control what is seen and visibility is oxygen for communities. That’s no different from the responsibilities of a government, that has to decide what kind of rules its citizens want to live with. The platforms are not neutral even though they would like to be and that means they will increasingly be forced to behave in ways where they use their power to set rules responsibly. And they may need to balance the need to be fair with what is popular. If the last few years have taught us anything it is that if you allow people to lie without challenge then people will believe them and the world will be a worse place for it.
We can perhaps only tell what a good community is by the things that it does. Network marketing businesses, for example, are really in the business of growing members not selling products. That model is a sham, a few people make all the money, not from what they sell but from all the membership sales they make to new members who will never see the kinds of returns that are being promised. And there are other models branded as “community” that are based on coercion and control – many political movements among them.
So where are we with this so far?
I have to admit that I’m a little daunted taking on this project. Sivers writes about his experiment with daily writing and found he didn’t like it. It meant he was publishing stuff that wasn’t ready to be read. He felt he had promised to only put material out there that was worth reading. On the other hand I have been writing daily (apart from holidays) for 915 days and much of this material is not worth you reading all the way through, it’s work in progress, research notes, the kind of material that I can draw on to eventually make sense of something.
I don’t think the community point is as easy as saying do X, Y and Z on these platforms and you will end up rich and famous. It’s more complex than that, more nuanced. And I don’t think it’s going to be in a form where I have clear conclusions in each post. In fact, each post may be a confused mix of angst and second guessing as I work out what I think about this topic. Somewhere in all this material may be a nugget of something that is useful
Fair warning then, these posts may not be worth your time. I’m still going to keep writing them, however, because they’re worth mine.