Monthly Archives: February 2008

Online communities work like parties

Recently, I’ve come across several blog posts using the metaphor of a good party to describe well-functioning online communities. Paraphrasing Matt Mullenweg, founder of the WordPress project, Service Untitled sums up the metaphor thus:

Parties that are successful bring the right number of people together. Those people end up having a good time and having fun. They will hopefully come for whatever their purpose is and achieve that sort of goal (having fun, learning, meeting people, etc.). When people achieve their particular goals and have fun, they leave feeling happy.

Good parties almost always have good hosts. It is their job to keep the size of the space appropriate for the number of guests, plan the party, get people involved, and keep things rolling. The host not only needs to be the organizer of many things, but sometimes the life of the party and cheerleader. Sometimes this is is necessary, but not always.

One or two bad guests can ruin a party and make it miserable for almost everyone. A space that is too large or too small for the number of guests can make for a bad party. A party with a terrible host will likely be bad. Sometimes parties are really great or really bad for no apparent reason.

Now replace every use of the word party with community, every use of the word guest with member, and host with community leader.

Lee LeFever
, who probably first made up the metaphor, lists all the ingredients which a good party and an active online community have in common. Unsuprisingly, his conclusion is simple:

In the end, if you’re truly interested in online communities, the most important ingredient is you. Without people who care about the community and are willing and excited about making it work, it will not succeed.

This sounds misleadingly obvious, but in my experience, it’s true. The open source projects that I’ve taken part in all work hard to maintain a solid focus on what they have in common and how to have fun doing it. Ubuntu uses a Code of Conduct to ensure the good intentions of its participants, while two Subversion developers have made a very successful talk on “How Open Source Projects Survive Poisonous People (And You Can Too).”

Concerns which are very similar to those of discotheque managers and bouncers. And I suppose the tools of kicking and banning aren’t really that dissimilar…

The dark corners of the Internet

My friend Kristian, who really should have a blog, often sends me lovely stories and links which he digs up from the dark and musty corners of the Internet. It’s the sort of things that weblogs originally were meant log: A catalogue of surprises, of the never-ending weirdness, humour and imagination of human-kind. In a good way, mind.

Though there’s no real rhyme or rhythm to the links I receive, they’re always fascinating, and often do they expose surprising traits of modern society through what was once pop culture. Like this 1960s speculation of what USA of would be like if it was the USSA (aka the United Soviet States of America),
a comic book adaption of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment with Batman starring as Raskolnikov, or an archive of the instances of Superman being a dick to his friends:

Jimmy Olsen Kong

I really can’t imagine how any publisher can justify printing something so bizarre. Contrasting this shameless appeal for attention is the work of Henry Darger, which, much like most of Kafka’s oeuvre, was never meant to be published or even shown to anybody. I cannot help but wonder how many people like him now use the Internet to publish their innermost thoughts anonymously, in that way multiplying the dark and wonderful corners of the Internet…

Ethnography and the design of new media

More and more anthropologists are doing research on new media technologies like mobile phones and social networking sites. Some of them are even being hired by companies to do ethnographic studies to gather the sort of “actionable insight” that can help a better understanding of how these technologies are used, and help inform how new products should be designed.

Some of these anthropologists presented their work at the recent LIFT conference in Geneva.

Another one is danah boyd who does research on Social Networking Sites such as Myspace and Facebook. Recently, she posted an interesting interview where she talks about her research findings.

danah also did an interview with Mimi Ito, yet another cosmopolitan anthropologist researching new media. In that interview, the following exchange takes place:

DANAH: Can you tell me more about what how you see anthropology being relevant to design?

MIMI: I think there is a role for anthropology along all of the steps of the design process. But of course I would say that. Anthropology can help inspire new designs by providing profiles of users and stories about contexts of use. Anthropologists can play on design teams as designs get developed to sensitive designers to culturally and context specific issues. And finally, anthropologists can evaluate the effectiveness of designs through studies of actual use in context, either prototype, pilot, or after product roll-out.

DANAH: So what advice would you have to young aspiring anthropologists who want to study socio-technical practice and get involved in designing new technologies?

MIMI: Advice? This one is tough. Be prepared for some blank looks from people in your discipline – but a lively audience of practitioners and technology designers who are eager to hear stories from the field. The challenge is to be multilingual and interdisciplinary while also maintaining commitment to ethnographic perspectives and methods.

As an anthropologist just starting out in this field professionally, that really isn’t much help. Luckily, I’ve accepted that I’ll be finding my own way as I go along.

Design for a sustainable planet

The Story of Stuff

The Story of Stuff is a very clever and well-executed film about our relationship with our planet. You should go watch it now. Come back afterwards and read the rest of this post. It’ll take 20 minutes, but it’ll be worth it. It may come across as a bit preachy at times, but the points it makes are too important to let that you stop you.

Go. Now.

.. so, you’ve seen it? I hope you liked it. What seems to be a long time ago, I posted my review of a book called Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. It was a very worrisome read about the state of the planet. It made the same argument as the Story of Stuff film: That we are too many people on the planet, using too many resources too fast, and that it is ecologically, economically and socially unsustainable. Ishmael suggested the solution was that we should live “as if man belongs to Earth rather than Earth belongs to man.” This basically involved accepting that human life isn’t as precious as we like it to be, and that we should accept plagues and other acts of God in order to stop over-population. It was a very sinister outlook.

Since then, I’ve found that other people have a more positive outlook on these issues. Like the designers Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart who’ve written the intriguing book, “Cradle to Cradle“. They make the point that we’ll never get where we want to go if we only act from our bad conscience. We need a more positive outlook that just having a “sustainable” impact on the planet. Why shouldn’t we go even further, and seek to have a positive impact on the planet?

For a good example of how to do this, McDonough and Braungart suggests ants:

Consider a community of ants. As part of their daily activity, they:

* safely and effectively handle their own material wastes and those of other species
* grow and harvest their own food while nurturing the ecosystem of which they are a part
* construct houses, farms, dumps, cemeteries, living quarters, and food-storage facilities from materials that can be truly recycled
* create disinfectants and medicines that are healthy, safe, and biodegradable
* maintain soil health for the entire planet.

Individually we are much larger than ants, but collectively their biomass exceeds ours. Just as there is almost no corner of the globe untouched by human presence, there is almost no land habitat, from harsh desert to inner city, untouched by some species of ant. They are a good example of a population whose density and productiveness are not a problem for the rest of the world, because everything they make and use returns to the cradle-to-cradle cycles of nature. All their materials, even their most deadly chemical weapons, are biodegradable, and when they return to the soil, they supply nutrients, restoring in the process some of those that were taken to support the colony.

Now, people really don’t like to be compared to ants. Ants are mute, boring, tread-mill workers with no individual identity at all. Nobody wants to be an ant, certainly. But it seems that we have a lot in common with ants when we compare ourselves with them on a community-level. Ants collaborate, they harvest and gather, they build and repair, they live in hives, and they communicate. With huge Internet projects like Wikipedia, we have even begun to collaboratively in a fashion which previously has only been seen among ants and other insects.

So, I figure that the positive challenge to solving many of this world’s problems is to find a way of building communities which take and use the best designs – environmentally, technologically, socially, politically, even aesthetically – from nature and from our own history.

I suppose in saying this, I am framing these problems as wicked design problems to be solved. But that’s not really my idea. I picked it up from Bruce Mau, a Canadian designer and the man behind the Massive Change exhibition, which posed the question:

“Now that we can do anything, what will we do?”

That is a question which is no longer science fiction.