Community Essence

Reflecting on why events are work, I realize that the exhaustion comes from doing too much on my own. And in thinking about how to be more collaborative in what I do, I'm starting to notice an issue in my way of thinking: I start from the perspective of "X, Y, and Z are all important to the project's success, and since there doesn't seem to be anyone volunteering, I guess I'll just do it." It might be the case that I'm taking initiative or being proactive, but it seems as if my vision of involving others is to start by completing the work of six people, and then wait until individuals appear to fill particular roles (like promoting, note-taking, audiovisual editing, logistics coordinating, etc…). This is perhaps a bit backwards in this context, creating a failure mode where people would contribute in my way as opposed to theirs, thus not seeing themselves in the collaboration, thus likely not even getting involved to begin with. Rather than having pre-defined slots that someone can conform to, a more vibrant community approach would enable people to create their own possibilities for contribution.

In thriving communities like Precious Plastic or Interintellect, it seems like the leaders activate others to become leaders as opposed to doing everything solo. Compare "doing narrowly-scoped tasks in someone's project" with "starting a recycling centre" or "self-organizing an event for group conversation". What does it take to afford someone maximally radiating their individual expression within a shared purpose? One way I'm exploring this is to have a constant reminder near my to-do lists which encourages me to [somewhat extremely] "avoid doing anything unless it involves another person." I don't recommend that framing for everyone, it certainly has its issues, but I'm ready to try something really different after being in a solo phase for such a long time.

My long-standing unawareness of these dynamics may have something to do with being a digital native or 'very online', as I might be more susceptible to the ways in which technology can mislead. Only now do I understand that the 'forum' or 'chat' is not 'where the community is'. This might be obvious to many readers, but it's tempting for people like me to interpret platform metrics as an indicator of community-ness: a place may seem to have few posts or little public activity, but things might be happening in private channels or offline, and a place with a flurry of interaction risks being superficial or spammy. Content is not community in the same way that the map is not the territory.

To understand where the essence of community is, I found it useful to imagine a more low-tech approach to organizing events, perhaps for an offline in-person gathering. "Let's get together and go into that thing that gets us going." You might reach out to people you know via phone calls, or while running into them somewhere along your way, and ask them to also invite others in the same manner. No announcements, no notifications, no social media posts, no recording, no summary, no place to leave a comment: just whatever happens together. In this scenario, the community exists in interactions with one another, with no digital representations that can imply otherwise. Despite being a very online community, Interintellect exemplifies this well as, the 'substance' of it doesn't really have a digital representation: you need to attend a salon and experience the interactions with other members to understand the essence of it.

Let's contrast this with a high-tech approach like the GitHub platform, where an enormous amount of software is being built collaboratively. Although many projects successfully advance with collective effort, much of the long tail suffers from lack of contributions, or burnout from too many contributions and interface anti-patterns; collaboration begins via "Issues" (reporting a problem) or "Pull Requests" (suggesting changes you made), as opposed to making a personal connection. When everything is a digital representation and it's rare to have moments together, the essence is in the back-and-forth of discussion threads and editing files, which is a bit more abstract than 'getting to know one another' or 'inviting the people who would make it more meaningful'. It has been a struggle for me to model the methods of collaboration incentivized by this platform in my own projects, until I realized that it's better to just ignore all of them and start somewhere more interpersonal, perhaps fill the togetherness void with my own solution. What are good affordances for community in a platform like this? And what is the software encouraging? If the basis of community is relating to one another, I think it happens on GitHub in spite of the software, not because of it. For me, considering more analog approaches helps me interact more meaningfully in this kind of pure digital space.

I don't have a clear conclusion to all this at the moment, but these reflections are giving me a new perspective on community essence.  Letting people come as they are and share what they have to offer allows for them to be better represented in the process. I would avoid paying too much attention to what software wants you to do, think, or feel, and start with personal connection, perhaps considering how it would come about without the Internet. Community is a verb and it exists in doing with others, more-so than in its representations.


Originally published in Ephemerata #020.

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