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Towards Commonality

Why should we care about making communality possible? Not Big D Democracy (though that can certainly be supported by communality), not Commune Living or Communism, or really any kind of 'ism’, though all of those can be supported by communality. Just plain old little ‘c’ communities that exist, support, inform, and provide profoundly human interdependence and connection. I’m going to mostly skip making an argument that thinking about the ways in which people can live together is good, not because it’s not a good argument, but because this is an attention limited format and I’d like to think about how to how to do that rather than should we do that. In short though, I think we should express some interest in “the good life”, distinct from (but not in opposition to) the productive life, because so many people are interested in and laying out in great detail how we might achieve the productive life. The communal life on the other hand, doesn’t seem to get quite as much attention. Study after study after study (to pick 3 from hundreds) shows that a good life is very often a convivial and communal one. I don’t mean in a commune, I mean in a community. There are, of course, some humans who don’t agree with this, who want to be isolated from other humans, but that’s not a majority. Living in satisfyingly communal arrangements is a fantastic predictor of self-reported happiness. Humans will swap communities for food and basic Maslow-ian needs, but once those are met, they want reliable communities. So what if, instead of thinking about ways to nudge productivity, to measure productivity and other sorts of relations or structures, we think about ways to nudge communality a little bit more?

So how, do we move towards this? Well, how do we move towards anything? The first answer in the US seems to always be policy and policy means nudges through money, that is, through taxes or grants of some kind. The other more universal approach is to move towards things through cultural shifts which argue or advocate, essentially, “this is good”, “this is new”, “this is part of our identity”. A third approach, and one that I don’t think gets as much attention as it deserves, is to encode the values in the way that environments and systems work. The first of these is, of course, effective, but available only via direct political action, rather than indirect political action. That makes it hard for anyone to participate in unless they want to, you know, politick. The second engages wider public discourse and creates examples, voices for advocacy, and opportunities to define and solidify identities. You give people ways to say “I’m the kind of person who does X” or “I’m a part of A” and that, in our current formulation of identity, is important. That also means that you participate in the politics of identity and the cultural economy. That’s not always a good use of time nor a good way to nudge change. Moreover, plenty of people or organizations which have meaningful contributions to make simply don’t want to become cultural production. Another strategy is to use the values that are encoded in the tools, systems, and environments that we use. This is very much the third way between the first two paths. We do need to be participating in building things which requires the attendant infrastructure and we do need to formulate and express values, but we don’t need to politick in the rigid definition of the word and we don’t need to formulate a personal identity for folks to adopt as their own. This is an advantageous way to nudge: give people ways to do things without necessarily needing them to acknowledge or even agree with the principles embedded there.

There’s an argument to be made that there might be some universal principles for conviviality. The features that make any sort of space or system conducive to forming and maintaining communal bonds may be universal. There are things which we can learn from building non-digital communality that can help build a healthy digital communality and vice versa. In fact, building these things across both kinds of space would help identify the general principles of communality. We’re not putting the genie back in the bottle as far as communities being attached to places and not attached to places and that has some specific advantages in that it helps to identify some of the fundamental characteristics of healthy and successful communities.

Now comes the part where I advocate for a role in this building of nudges and expressing of values for design. Now, design certainly isn’t a cure-all. You don’t add design thinking and “fix it”. And often, when designers talk about designing for trust or designing for conviviality or community or togetherness, what we’re talking about ways that we can try to replicate the things that people already do with other people in ways that are not always helpful or even good. Something similar to designing for community is “designing for trust”. Example, example, example. But we’ve got an entity resolution problem here: what you’re actually trusting is not the brand, what you’re trusting is the internal mechanisms of the company. You actually trust both the systems that have been put in place to ensure that bad things don’t happen and the people who actually carry that out. Design sometimes pretends that what people trust is a bubbly font or a clever illustration or nicely written copy. But what you actually trust may well be something buried in the employee handbook or in the legal department or in Trusting a brand is inherently trusting the people who are obscured by that brand. Design conversations tend to talk about how to obscure most of the actual functional mechanisms and that’s just not great for actual trust. Design practice often tends to obscure, and that’s not good.

On the other hand though, there are ways in which design is a good mental model. Design is often the careful deployment of affordances, nudges, blocks, instructions, and guardrails. A definition of design, and one that fits especially well with product and industrial design, is that design tends to be a way to codify and standardize a problem solving entity or machine and encode specific values into that system or machine. A programming API helps a programmer use a library or a program. A dashboard helps a driver know how to operate their car. A vacuum helps a a person operate the machine and clean their house. A way of looking at a community is to see it as a problem solving entity. In Cognitive Democracy Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi write about how democratic institutions solve difficult social problems. Those are:

problems which involve the interaction of large numbers of human beings, with different interests, desires, needs and perspectives…as a result, they are complex problems, in the sense that scholars of complexity understand the term. To borrow Scott Page’s (2011, p.25) definition, they involve “diverse entities that interact in a network or contact structure.”

They are argue that there are two features of an entity that can solve complex social problems:

First, they should foster a high degree of direct communication between individuals with diverse viewpoints. This kind of intellectual diversity is crucial to identifying good solutions to complex problems. Second, we argue that they should provide relative equality among affected actors in decision-making processes.

Both of these are values that can be encoded in a problem solving system. Both of them are features that can be foregrounded in a problem solving system. These are things that design-like approaches can do well to foreground and encourage. These are, in essence, the sorts of things that deisgn helps us do: solve problems.

So not all design habits or patterns are good for designing for communality but some are_._ Just like anything else: some of arcs in the direction of good and justice, and some of it arcs in the direction of Facebook Ads.

So then, what does design do? Let’s be clear: design is nothing more than a signpost for way that things are and the way that things should be. Trust, safety, common space, and resolution, are all protocolar elements and there’s no reason to think that design has anything more to do with them than trying to make them and their mechanisms visible. But in making the mechanisms visible, we make things understandable, communicable, and usable. We help people, often referred to as 'users’, tell themselves a story about how a thing helps them do something.

Let’s look at ways of building community: what are the models that we can see?

Community As A Place

This is the predominant paradigm of community: it’s fundamentally organized around infrastructure and location. Saying that a community is what happens in a specific place is easily understood, easily defined, and easily made into an activity. To be communal in a place based understanding of communing is quite simply to be in the place. The vast majority of human history sees community in this way. But it’s not without a lot of difficulty. Could it be that the requirement that it be infrastructure is part of what makes it so difficult to be communal? Making a space into an owned place is hard, contested, and enters a mess of power relations which require serious politicking to navigate. If you want to make a community but need to get political and economic power of some form to do so first, you’re not going to build things for your community, nor will your energy go into community building. ‘If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe’ and all that. Ownership is difficult, maintenance is difficult, and the intersections between things of obvious value like land or buildings and the murky values of being communal are difficult reconcile.

Community As A Service

Maybe a community can be a thing that we access is well understood and well defined way, that takes us from the point where we want to do something to the point where it’s done. Of course, we already have Communities As A Service, they’re just not quite what we wanted or hoped for. The Facebooks and Twitters and LinkedIns of the world tried to be our communities and failed because they wanted to interfere too much in what our community was and what we could do with that community. The Slacks and Discords let us build some sense of the smaller more manageable and less manipulated communities that we wanted but those don’t help with the actual communing. As Robin Berjon points out: “most people — not just the youngest, not just the non-technical — have an experience of computer systems that is almost entirely authoritarian.” These are communities created in the service of doing things other than communing, they’re extracting attention and information and inserting advertising. They are set up to solve problems but those problems unfortunately tend to be problems like “I’m bored right now”. We wanted ways to find other humans but instead we got slot machines. That doesn’t mean that these ways of thinking of community are bad but rather that they’re limited in how far they can serve us.

When we promote a service oriented way of accessing some institution or organization, even if it feels quite communal, we’re using the logic of exchange and performance, not of communing. That sounds hippy-ish but bear with me: a person using the service is not actually not building a community and is not a community member. They’re participating in some form of exchange, and they’re a user. Witness the dismay of Reddit moderators as they realized this in summer of 2023. Their attempts to change the nature of the service that brought them all together had many of the characteristics of a community but what they had been doing up to that point, though many of them might have previously disagree with this, was using a service. They had built things which had many of the characteristics of a community but ultimately they were simply users of a service to which they were contributing unpaid labor.

Thinking of communing as accessing a service of some kind is not inherently a broken or bad model, it’s just not a complete model either. It isn’t sufficient on it’s own and that should be obvious to anyone looking at the sorts of models of community that this approach has built for us.

Community As A Policy

This is where we cross into thinking of or at the very least borrowing from civic design. That is not necessarily to say that we need to think of this as design for governments, in fact, thinking of it as design for governance is probably more helpful. What are the values and mechanisms that a community can have foregrounded that would help it be more legible, more operable, and more effective at doing the thing that it’s meant to do? Is that how a complaint or critique is raised? Is it how discourse is fostered? Literally how do you join a conversation and how do you raise your hand? How do you keep track of what was said? Is it how someone joins or exits? Is it how positions in governance are handled? All of these are things that are within the purview of design and things which are needs of any kind of community.

Designing in policy isn’t necessarily designing the policy itself, it’s more a matter of designing the ways that people learn about and experience the policy. There’s a reason that naming programs, building websites, making call centers, having brochures, and so on, are all important for a policy. Without these things, they are illegible or invisible, and both of these are bad in a participatory democratic systems.

Community as a Practice

What if instead of thinking of community as a thing which is enacted by something else, we thought of it as a verb in its own right? It could be a communing, it could be a sharing, it could be a leaving space and sharing. This asks a lot of time and the compensation for that time is often murky and lacks the neat protections in law and exchange that labor often affords. Freedom Is an Endless Meeting. And we all agree meetings are bad right? They’re a conference room, they’re a calendar event, they’re boring, they’re a waste of time, they’re choked with bureaucratic hand-wavy nonsense. But at the same time, meeting the verb in and of itself, is not especially bad. “I’m meeting a friend” doesn’t sound terrible and in fact one way of thinking of all the communal things that we do digitally and non is that we’re meeting; we’re meeting up, it’s not a bad thing. Performing communality and conviviality is in fact meeting. They need not be a meeting but they require meeting, enacting that coming together. Community actually is a practice, as in, it is an act that needs to be performed by multiple people over long periods of time.

It’s all of the above

Communing is being in a place, using some kind of protocol, having policies for belonging and participating, and the energy of community members to enact that communing. I don’t think that communing always requires all of them. We can commune without a fixed place. We can commune without fixed policy. We can have a community which goes fallow for periods of time. Each of these will have ways that can be augmented, made legible or usable, given clarity, by designing within them and for them. Designing for communality will likely look like all making those nudges, affordances, and interactions for all of these things. In a following article, I’m going to look at what design interventions in each of these practices of communality can look like.

Thoughts? Leave a comment