Community and chat affordances

I’m struggling with a community development phenomenon that’s been going on for a while around me, particularly in tech-centered Slack groups. Something about the affordances of Slack combined with how people like to organize things, ends up making it arranged topically.

There’s a problem here: relationships span topics. It’s not actually a good social schema. There’s clusters of interest broader than that—an #art channel and a #writing channel and a #comics channel all overlap, especially for people who create, not just curate or consume these. If we’re building a space where people want to create, we need to help build relationships within the community that support this. Putting relationships secondary to topic gets in the way.

Even for a simple post, nothing deep, it means that there’s no channel for someone new to pop in and post social relationship building things. An example right now is this silly post about people as types of film— to which I want to post somewhere and say “oh my god, I feel so called out by this, I am totally science fiction and do those thhings”; but in the two communities I’m closest to, that means it’s appropriate in a channel set up for a closed group of friends, or the #scifi channel (which would tend to select for people similar to me, but wouldn’t build much relationship) or … where? Five hundred channels, none appropriate to post in.

That’s something that Mastodon and Twitter excel at to a degree—except that you post it to your followers and your second-degree connections. Relationship building is tied to viral mechanisms. It’s outward-facing, and to get the feedback loop that turns it into community, you have to luck into being boosted a group with enough cohesion to connect back. This happens sometimes, if your followers are cliquish enough. For me, the javascript community works this way; and for talking about social software, Mastodon has lots of people who are interested in that specifically, and who often create things together. It works for that specific interest. A different interest would not gain such traction.

If that connection doesn’t happen, we’re left with watching for boosts and hoping our words were “valuable enough” to an anonymous public. It’s a harmful dynamic to have be the mode, the anonymous posting and being amplified by semi-strangers instead of connection made.

In a social Slack, this goes a very different way, an anxiety-provoking mess. Someone asks “Where should I post this?”:

The answer very often is “I guess #x, #y and #z are good channels,” but that’s not actually the question being asked. The person asking is really trying to figure out “Where will this be received well?” not “where is this on topic?”. And “this” isn’t actually the post, it’s themselves. Where will they be received well? The end result is that everyone is anxious and everything feels like a clique.

I don’t actually think it’s a clique phenomenon. It’s not a preference for existing relationships over new ones with new members, it’s not exclusivity. It’s a problem of social affordances, and actually harming the ability to form new relationships because there is no space that is appropriate for the social grooming and aligning oneself with a group. Topics are too narrow. General chat is too broad unless the whole Slack is narrowly focused and yet active enough to have community, and people’s sense of themself tends to not be aware how contextually they behave. Most people are not aware of most of the code switching they do. If we have to carry a single self-concept everywhere, we keep trying to fit ourselves into social schemas that don’t really fit, and we feel that tension in every interaction.

“If you market to everyone, you market to nobody” is one of those truisms that seems to adapt well to all sorts of social situations because the underlying phenomenon is that marketing is working with a social behavior.

We have to build systems that let us understand group structure and for groups to have space for figuring our our alignment with them. Almost no social software does this, and after the onslaught of spam and then default of hostility on the internet, I suspect none does.

In the early days of the Internet, insularity and homogeneity aside, the wide open access to things by default meant that we had liminal social spaces more easily. You can get close to a crowd, unknown to them, and scope them out. You can observe. They would be be quite public most of the time, having enough psychological safety to exist without self-censoring themselves. A newcomer would be quite anonymous, and you could start participating pseudonymously, if not outright anonymously. You can see how a group reacts to you, you can adjust yourself and join, be accepted, and only then reveal who you are. Now the norm is for personal names, avatars, and outside contact information to be present for a profile to be ‘complete’ enough to participate, which means a fair bit of deciding how to present oneself to a group before being able to observe the norms of the group.

How do we build social spaces that leave more room for get-to-know-you? How can we reduce the prejudgement that comes from presenting a globally consistent face to the world, like individualistic social media does? How can we let people interactively vet the groups they’re joining before they commit? What affordances do we need to understand community from the point of view of a new member?

How do we expose our community values—the real ones, not formally decided official ones—to new and existing members?

You might notice in all of this that there is a tension between safety and functioning as a community. A functioning community means space for vulnerability. This intersects poorly with global hostility, but also with the things we do to avoid this hostility. It means that the walls we put up to keep out hostility are themselves hostile to new people. It puts people in an already vulnerable social position—being new—in the most exposed, vulnerable state in an online community.

These are devilish problems. I don’t have answers yet.