This is a long post collecting comments and thoughts from some emails and conversations with Britt Blaser, Doc Searls, and others. Some of this is from external impressions of the Dean campaign (I wasn’t involved, and I haven’t found a good postmortem), but also about my own participation in online communities and the lack of incentive that I often feel to do so.
There is a huge untapped market for community software. There’s a lot of “community software” out there, and it all fails on the same key point – it’s all centered on the software itself (or more specifically, the website experience), and fundamentally, communities don’t happen in discussion groups or impersonal online participation. People come to a community like dailykos or metafilter or whatever, and they “join” the community, but those ties are fragile, and the experience of most participants is that they almost never extend to anything beyond participating in the online community itself. If you suddenly disappear, no one will come looking for you. This is not the same as an actual community.
Reading isn’t participation in a community. Writing to the public isn’t participation in a community, and the fatal flaw of the existing approach is that the underlying assumption is that the collective act of reading and writing is equal to participation. This is especially misleading if the online community is supposed to be mirroring some sort of participation in the real world, like political involvement.
The end result is exactly what we saw with the Dean campaign, as perceived by an outsider. Lots of “participation”, lots of “involvement”, but everybody sat around reading and writing and thinking that they were somehow involved, but when it came down to it, no one got up to vote.
Now, actually, there’s a corollary problem here, which is that the online community itself, while very vocal, was also VERY bad at doing anything to engage anyone outside of the online community, because they spent all of their time reading and writing, and those activities, even as they fail to engage those inside the online community to action, COMPLETELY fail to engage anyone outside the online community.
As I wrote the above, the universe graciously provided a perfect example to illustrate my point:
It’s an article about the futility of discussing things online, which has somehow accumulated an inordinate number of comments.
I’ll pause for a moment while that sinks in.
So, we have some problems to fix. Participation in the online community needs to have the following properties:
1) It should be centered around activity that breaks out of the online community. This needn’t actually be physical meetings, although those are also good, but all actions must be classified as “inward” (aimed towards engaging with others in the online community) or “outward” (aimed towards engaging with other outside the online community). EVERY inward action must have a corresponding outward action. If it doesn’t, there’s already a name for this – it’s called “preaching to the choir”, and it’s the death of activism.
2) It should allow and encourage those inside the online community to engage with each other temporarily to reinforce the commitments of those who are already involved, but all such actions should be considered subsidiary to engaging with others outside the online community. Think of this as the difference between vegetables (outward) and chocolate (inward). A little bit of the latter is very rewarding and tastes good, but if that’s all you eat, you get fat and die.
3) It should allow those in the online community to evolve internally the mechanisms for accomplishing goals outside the online community. This may involve consensus building, electing representatives inside the online community, collaborative letter writing, legislation hashing, and so on.
4) It must have a mechanism for elimination of cruft. Old ideas, bad ideas, unpopular ideas, and irrelevant ideas are all barriers to entry. The online community must be able to decide on what the salient points are, and delete the rest. I’ve had it with relativistic egalitarianism. There is such a thing as a bad idea, and they’re distracting and harmful. We need to create a marketplace where all ideas have an equal opportunity to flourish, but if they don’t, then let’s be done with them. Archive the discussion for posterity, and clear it out of the center of attention.
It’s not enough to talk, communities must be a driver for action.