How To Engage Your Community


Monday, 7.43pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Memes just show that people are engaged about something. A meme is just a little inside joke for a group of people that care about a certain thing. – Anthony Fantano

It’s hard to tell the difference between something that is real and something that just looks real. This time of year we’re reminded of that quite a lot. What’s real and what’s not real about the holiday season – the spirit, the gifts, the sleigh, the beard. And what’s important to remember is that just because you can’t see something that doesn’t mean it’s as real as everything else. If you’re confused about that just remember that feelings (which you can’t see) are just as real as noses and toeses. This is not something I have ever been very good at, which is perhaps why I notice it more now.

In my last post I wrote about the tension between research and really knowing what you’re talking about versus just writing. There’s another source of angst which has to do with whether you should keep going or tear it all up and start again. I mentioned that I was getting fed up of WordPress – or at least, I was fed up with the idea of having a big, bloated resource and was wondering whether I should throw it all away and start again with a simple text file. What do you think? Should I?

Now, the answer to that question is in a book. But before we get to that let’s take a short diversion. I’m planning to start a research degree. I always wanted to do it but it seems like the right time now and it’s in an area that I am interested in so I have to make that happen over the next few months. And if you’re going to do research you have to start doing things properly, keeping track of what you read, the ideas that you come across and what you think of them. That’s what I’ve been doing, more or less, with this blog, but not deliberately, not intentionally. More when I can really, given that the Internet is this huge landscape littered with diamonds hiding in swamps.

So, I have to keep track of where the diamonds are by getting better at tracking references. So, I’m going to maintain references as I go along at this page and refer to them in the blog as you would do with normal parenthetical or Harvard referencing. For stuff that isn’t a straight link anyway.

That’s probably going to slow me down as well. Typically, I keep writing until I run out of time or steam – and that tends to work out at around a thousand words. I also try and work on a concept at a time, trying to cover it in the post. What that probably means is I miss a lot out that I could go through if I slowed down, if I looked deeper and worked through the idea. After all, what’s the rush? Which is where we finally come back to the book – Algorithms to live by – which you will find in the references page and try to answer the question.

The question, in case you’ve forgotten, is should I keep using WordPress or throw it away and start again with an html website? How long do you think I’d keep going with the two methods? Well, Christian et. al. (2017) have an answer. In the absence of any other information I’ll keep going for as long as I’ve gone so far. The WordPress site will still be there in another four years. The html site – well, at present you can expect it to be around for another month. (And I’ve used my first Harvard reference on the blog- intentionally anyway)

Now, the point of this post, a few hundred words back, was to think about engaging a community, a group of people who have something in common. So I suppose you have to start by thinking about what we mean by engaging people. Is it the fact that they are in one space, or does it have to do with the fact that they can say what they want to say. Are social media spaces communities or are they megaphones for some and lonely islands for others? And what does it mean to intentionally engage people – what are you trying to learn and do and change as a result?

At this point I don’t know what the answer is to the question – or for that matter, what the question is in the first place. So we need to start somewhere, anywhere, and see what’s going on.

And the place I’m going to start is with Gaver et. al (2015), in which the authors discuss their “Energy Babble”, an “automated talk-radio” that gets content from many sources and creates a radio show with synthesised speech and music. The problem they’re trying to address is how to get people to use less energy. You might think that the answer is in technology that tells you what you use so that you can use less, but it turns out that such an approach can’t cope with social complexities, whether individuals are ready to change, and different situations that need different solutions.

The way the authors got to the Energy Babble idea was through a design phase – one where they engaged with people in a playful, creative way, something termed “ludic design”. They also used “speculative design” which is a way of experts and designers working together to look at possible futures. The authors are clear that they didn’t go into the project with a plan of what to mae but they wanted this to come out from the interaction and engagement with the community.

So, now we have the thing with “proper” research – once you lift the lid on something you start seeing all kinds of points in every sentence. That’s the point of doing a literature review, I suppose. Anyway, the researchers came up with engagement activities based on the idea of cultural probes, a way of giving people something like a diary or an activity where they record what they’re doing or feeling so that you can understand them better. These included things like creating your own front page for a magazine or newspaper, coming up with annotated timelines and rich picture type activity. What this led to, over time and after analysis, was an appreciation of the kind of approaches people were looking for, for example going and seeing what others were doing, being really activist about the whole thing and sharing knowledge and information. All this eventually turned into the Babble.

The interesting thing, the most interesting thing about this idea, is that it’s not useful. It’s not utilitarian, like a technology. Instead, it’s role is to say something like “You don’t know what you need to know yet.” What all this boils down to, really, is that people keep working out what they think they have to do through the conversations they have and you have different levels of engagement depending on how they communicate.

There’s this idea in there that I should follow up – in DiSalvo, C. (2009). Design and the Construction of Publics. Design Issues, 25(1), 48-63. – that a public forms around an issue. So, maybe if you’re trying to engineer a community, you need to start by asking yourself what issue is there at the centre of whatever it is that you’re trying to create. So, how do you figure out the issue or make it more obvious? Well, you can think about the future, you can think about the past or you can talk about it a lot and see if something comes out of it. Climate change is an example of the first approach, the ongoing impact of slavery is an example of the second and what we’re going to do about anything at all is an example of the third.

We need to carry on with exploring how to engage people then – because that’s really what talking it out is all about. So we’ll carry on with this in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

p.s. I tried an experiment for a bit writing in American English rather than British. Not sure it had much real impact but since I might want to use this content for institutions where I live I think I’ll go back to the local language for a while.

It’s easy enough to write a script to replace all the changes to localise for somewhere else anyway!

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