A Community of Possibilities
I've been thinking a lot about communities and the web, about what we do well and what we can do better. Where there were once communities and neighborhoods, now stand social networks that value your content and your attention, instead of you. This environment has produced a few unfortunate side effects.
- Oversharing, as we voluntarily, sometimes automatically, share every song we listen to, article we read, place we visit, and photo we take. The lack of curation mixes the meaningful and significant with the reflexive and mundane, devaluing everyone's content, .
- “Feeds” that push this fire hose of content to you, not because there is value in what is being shared, but because there is value in the volume of content being shared, and the addictive fear of missing out that it feeds.
- The reasonable response to the fire hose is filtering it by hiding and muting specific people and sources, subsequently reducing your exposure to different voices and ideas.
- The use of various tricks like incessant notifications and incomplete updates (“Click here to view the comment…”) and dopamine hits of social validation to tether you and your time to a site.
- The focus on adding your existing friends instead of making new ones.
- Making it difficult, sometimes impossible, to keep the content you're sharing for yourself.
- Free services that only succeed through massive scale and/or advertising, the majority of which shut down and take your content with them.
The pendulum has swung so far to one side that I no longer feel like there's a place for the rest of us. Something is missing.
Jack Cheng wrote an essay this month that is the most important piece I've read in a long time. It's called “The Slow Web” and I hope you read it.
The essay compares the Fast Web and Slow Web, through the lens of the Slow Food movement's response to fast food.
Timely not real-time. Rhythm not random. Moderation not excess. Knowledge not information. These are a few of the many characteristics of the Slow Web. It’s not so much a checklist as a feeling, one of being at greater ease with the web-enabled products and services in our lives.
Cheng's essay helped me realize that there are others who are equal parts frustrated and hopeful. Others who want more from the time they invest on the web, and want the web to demand less of them. Others who wonder if it's possible to create a new online community to fill that void, a slow web community. I think so. I've spent the past few months imagining what that community could be and talking about it with some smart, patient friends.
A Slow Web Community
The heart of the idea is a new online community of possibilities called Uncommon in Common, a group of creative, interesting, people sharing their favorite things and being introduced to new people. A front porch for friendly conversations.
Here's a quick sketch of the idea.
It starts with something fairly simple: choosing your 10 favorite things in the world. These could be things (from the general, “music” or “jazz”, to a specific artist, album, or song), places, or things you love to do. With each one, you'd include a short description of why it matters to you. What would you choose if you could only pick 10 things? And what if there was beautiful, original art representing the most popular and interesting favorites? Think of your collection of buttons on your backpack or stickers on your laptop.
As more people add their favorites, a few things happen. First, you can view any favorite and see everyone who included it on their own list and why. Second, you can be introduced to people who you have a lot in common with. If you and I share 3-4 favorite things in the whole world, we should know each other. Finally, you can discover many new interesting things. If we share a few favorites, I want to know about the rest of the items on your list.
The Best of Everything Else
Uncommon in Common would be a place to see and share the best parts of our world each week. What is the best thing you've read this week? What is the best thing you've tasted, or watched? The best place you went? You can add your answer any time during the week, but everyone's responses would be collected and shared together on a specific day for the whole community to share. The rhythm is a crucial element. Here's an example:
Imagine that one question is “What is the best thing you heard this week?” People could answer this in any number of ways: a specific song, the voice of a loved on the phone, “Yes,” the garage door going up, an album, etc…
One day during the week, the homepage would show all of the answers. These would surely be fun to browse and would often lead you to interesting people and interesting things. But the homepage might also feature an original work connected to that day's theme, contributed by someone in the community. In the case of something as broad as hearing or sound, it might be an album or concert review, a short story about hearing someone say “I do,” or an illustration of an amp and a guitar.
There would be conversations around all of this and a way to highlight your favorites, plus other prompts and questions. The hope is that you'd find really great stuff and really great people on the site, but the goal isn't to create a new addiction that beckons you throughout the day. The site would be there for you on your terms, lightweight and simple. “Timely not real-time. Rhythm not random. Moderation not excess. Knowledge not information.”
A Community Email
A regular community email (weekly to start, possibly daily at some point) that is like a small town newsletter that focuses on the people in the community instead of things we're “excited” to announce. A few favorites and other great things from the week may be highlighted, but also introducing new people, birthdays, new jobs, products released and book drafts finished, creative works in progress. It should feel like one community.
In what other ways would this be unique? As we've seen often in the past few years, sometimes limitations are features.
- A cost to join to help create something that is sustainable and also free from ads, upsells, affiliates, and selling your data. Most likely a one-time charge at the beginning, similar to Pinboard or Metafilter.
- Complete openness about what it costs to run the site and how long it will be online based on current income.
- Limiting the number of people who can join each day and week so that community grows slowly and carefully.
- A place free from companies and brands.
- A charity or cause that the community can work towards.
- Easy access to retrieving and storing your content from the start.
- Real-world elements, such as invites through lovely, original postcards, and specifically encouraging time away from our devices.
The dream is to create something that makes things better in a small way, that is different and long-lasting. The goal would be quality, not size; an escape from the overhyped world of social media. No ads, gamification, or endless share buttons, just high quality people sharing things that stand the test of time, things you are likely to return to again and again. A small town of curious and kind people.
There as so many unanswered questions, so many missing pieces. Are there forums to hang out, debate and discuss? How do you prevent the problems that seem inevitable with online communities? If the community is small and close, how many new people will you actually be introduced to?
Plus, there are many questions that haven't occurred to me. That's okay, though. An idea has to start somewhere, and it can't survive without the help and refinement and momentum that others bring.
This one starts here, now, with you.
The Next Step
This idea is ambitious, unfinished, messy and confusing, just like me and you and life. I don't know whether it's possible, but I do know that it has value.
Just like me and you and life.
Would you like to be part of a new community? Does the slow web resonate with you? Do you want to create something where there once was nothing?
If your answer is yes, please take about a few minutes and fill out this short form (since closed). It's designed to help estimate interest, but also to act as a small proof of concept.
If there is a lot of enthusiasm for the idea over the next two weeks, then we've stumbled on something worth trying. If not, that's okay, too. Ideas should never be limited to what's possible.
Feel free to drop me a note or say hello on Twitter, I'm @bb. Thanks so much for your time.
Update: The answer to the question was a resounding yes. Thanks to everyone who responded with so much curiosity and enthusiasm. Read more here, then follow @uncommon on Twitter and signup for the newsletter. There is a lot of fun ahead. I hope you're part of it.
- “Community: The Structure of Belonging” by Peter Block
- “Fish” by Robin Sloan
- “The Slow Web” by Jack Cheng
- “Pixie Dust & The Mountain of Mediocrity” and “Your Customer Won't Take a Bullet for You” by Kathy Sierra
- “The Social Web is Neither” by Maciej Ceglowski
- “Local Communities in Practice and By Design” by Victorio Miliano
- “A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy” by Clay Shirky
- “The Slow Web Movement” by Walter Chen
Special thanks to @loribailey, @bennett, @etherbrian, @bjheinley, @nickd, @philcrissman, @jancavan, @dianakimball, @samsoffes, @stellargirl, @joelbush, and @rascouet for their curiosity, ideas and confused looks over the past few months.