Is the communitarian Internet back in the wake of COVID-19? – A conversation with Howard Rheingold

I have been online since 1992 – hell, I practically lived online most of these 30 years. What drew me to the Internet was not the presence of shiny, easy-to-use, free services – they were not there in the early days. On the contrary, you had to put in time and money if you wanted to, as we said then, “connect to the Internet”.

But the reward was high. Whatever your tribe, you would find it. Whether you cared about particle physics, detective stories or board games, countless like-minded people were waiting for you “out there”. And yes, you would occasionally encounter conflict and rants, but they would be overwhelmed by the sense of being welcome, of belonging. For me – a bookish, weird kid from an Italian small town, who was into weird music, it was a lifeline.

But, of course, it was not about me. The sense of community was pervasive, generalized.

My direct observations of online behaviour around the world over the past ten years have led me to conclude that whenever computer-mediated communications technology becomes available to people anywhere, they inevitably build virtual communities with it, just as microorganisms inevitably create colonies.

These words were written by @howard_rheingold in 1994, in a seminal book called The Virtual Community. In the intervening years, however, some of that sense of community has been lost. Some American computer networks had been offering commercial services since the late 1980s; in 1992, US Congress pass a law that allowed the academic NSFNET, to connect to those commercial networks, and the latter to use NSFNET as their infrastructural backbone. Seven years later, the dotcom boom showed everyone the money-making potential of the Internet. The original “digital settlers” described by Howard’s book were still out there, but increasingly drowned out by corporate types. The idea itself of virtual community gave way to that of social networking service (Facebook and similar), and the communitarian early Internet of the 1990s to the surveillance capitalist one of today.

Then COVID-19 hit.

Suddenly, everyone’s social media feed is full of bottom-up, self-organized initiatives for mutual aid. Everyone is releasing previously paywalled content, offering help, creating resources and directories. Is the communitarian Internet back? The question is important, because Edgeryders considers itself a virtual community, one of the last of the original, early wave virtual communities. We were born as a response to the previous crisis, the 2008 financial collapse. In the wake of COVID-19, we are mobilizing, just like everybody else (example, other example). But: are we doing enough? Are we making the right moves?

The right person to ask is obviously Howard himself. He and @johncoate are old friends, so I asked John to ask Howard if he would agree to a video call between the three of us. He did, and just like that we were conversing across an ocean and eight time zones.

On coordinating and integrating the community’s response

@howard_rheingold:

Have you guys thought of taking on the work of coordinating between large organizations and this patchwork of initiatives that are popping up in response to COVID-19?

@alberto

Yes, but we struggle. Everyone is shouting for attention. And what you call greenspaces (nice name, by the way!) seem mostly hyperlocal, ephemeral – they are out there, but I do not see them connecting. No one is keeping track of the big picture.

@howard_rheingold:

Right now, people are super focused on just doing the job. I would suggest to compile a list of things that are happening, putting it online, and then inviting everyone to meet others. Point to something, and tell people “Look, we can get together and help each other!”

I know it sounds difficult. It is. But look: with COVID-19, this is the first time that everyone on Earth is thinking about the same thing. Additionally, everyone is closer to each other because everyone is online. We now see people organizing Zoom calls with their friends.

And note this: this is all happening two years into a backlash against “big tech”, when people – at least here in America – are starting to regard Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook with suspicion and even fear. There is again some space for doing good online. We can take back the Internet! The start of a network, of an online community is very much like what we are doing here, the three of us having a Zoom call. We look at our computer screen, and see people. Hey, it’s people! I see their faces! We are all doing it anyway because of the pandemic, let’s maintain this greenspace online, these convivial spaces. Note that some of it is not even on the web, but on the indieweb – spaces like Scuttlebutt, that run their own protocols.

On helping folks to bringing work online

Howard thinks the COVID-19 fallout offers an opportunity to rethink the way we collaborate in our daily work.

I have been working for a few years on the idea of remote working. I see the COVID epidemics as a force that could accelerate a societal shift that we should do anyway, for the sake of climate change.

An idée fixe of Howard’s is move conferences online. Just like ourselves, he got interested in it mostly because large international conferences have a large climate impact. Of course, this is not at all easy, and requires effort; but suddenly, from lockdown, we are discovering that it might be possible after all. A similar advance is happening in the world of online learning (again, Howard was one the pioneers of this), as schools and universities bend over backwards to reach out to locked-down students.

You could be bringing orgs to remote work. In my experience, most people doing it have an approach oriented to deploying tools, typically chosen by some IT department. They miss completely the human and social dimension of working online. Community managers have existed for almost 40 years – actually John, here, was the person who first used the expression “community manager”! They are key to getting humans to work together well online, but they are typically excluded from the corporate world.

Helping people to work online is super powerful, because it increases manifold the efficiency of their organizations. @howard_rheingold:

This is a historical transition. I predict that, at the end, medical/scientific work will be enormously accelerated by this connectivity.

@johncoate:

Howard, do you think that Slack is a complete solution to online collaboration?

@howard_rheingold:

No, I do not. Slack is good at coordination, but not at accumulating/organizing knowledge. For that you need a forum. Also, in general, different people are comfortable with different media. So, a mix of media is needed. Like now we are talking on videoconference, then I suppose someone will do a writeup of it, and so on. That is a good thing.

@alberto:

… though then curation becomes even more important, both human curation (community management) and content curation (wikis, documentation etc.). Very easy to lose the overview of a workstream that happens in many different spaces. In Edgeryders we have found nothing better than a combination of recaps (written, as posts in the forum) and periodic (virtual) team meetings.

(Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HowardRheingoldJI4.jpg)

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Part of the challenge for businesses and organizations who could shift a lot of their work online but are struggling to accomplish it, or aren’t even trying, are “last mile” issues. In other words, what, from this assortment of tools, are the ones you need to accomplish what you need to get done? Forum, live chat, A/V for individual or group, document and file sharing, editing up/downloading, legal online signatures and so forth. And then there are everyone’s ingrained habits to overcome.

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I noticed an uptick in conversations on The WELL including some old-timers returning after long absences explaining that they place higher trust in the quality of the information they will get there.

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Good work, Alberto.

Howard Rheingold


follow on Twitter: @hrheingold

My complete works: rheingold.com

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what it is —> is —>up to us

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Hey @howard_rheingold :slight_smile:
We’ve been running a small scale attempt at what you propose above. Just setting up a flagpole and taking on the role of chorephraphers/djs for whatever comes out of it. It’s a fluid experience - I thought we would need a lot more to get it going…

  1. First this: Do you want to join our Covid19 Community Response? A breakdown of Edgeryders activities, roles, tasks and workflows
  2. Then do a video call: Weekly Covid2019 Community Response Call
  3. Post documentation and ping people: What did we discuss during the Covid19 Community Response Call #1 & What will we do next?

Is this the kind of thing you had in mind?

Nadia, that is what I had in mind. I would add that a good question would be “What can we do to help your organization and to help grow a network of mutual aid efforts?”

(I tried to answer this in the forum, but I got the “answer these two questions” response to my attempt to post, but after I answered the questions, I still wasn’t able to reply, even though I was logged in.)

Howard Rheingold

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Cool! will carry that into the next call out.

Hey @matthias do you have any idea what might have happened when Howard tried to post? See :point_up_2:

This is just to solve a technical issue for Howard:

Howard, I think you ran into an issue with our so-called ethical consent funnel required for our research work. I tried to reproduce the issue under your account, but couldn’t. I don’t want to pester you about more details, so as a quick solution I just completed that consent funnel form for you (since you said you had already answered the questions … means, it’s “ethically ok” :wink: ).

tl;dr Welcome to post on the forum now. You won’t see that issue again.

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Speaking of this, I found out about this interesting project that’s working to create an open-source COVID-19 test kit, work carried out online on this platform Just One Giant Lab (JOGL). I didn’t know it, but it seems legit to me…

I am no biologist, nor a project manager, but I meant to share this opportunity with Edgeryders in case there is someone here that could help and is interested in sparing some time.

Maybe you, @noemi or @MariaEuler could ping the relevant people?

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ping @erik_lonroth, @mattias, @felix.wolfsteller, @ErikBjare, @Emile does this look like an opensource project you or some people you know might be interested in?

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Great that this conversation has taken place. Great to see you here @howard_rheingold ! @johncoate mentioned an uptick in interaction at The Well. Is Brainstorms still around Howard? Do you see an uptick there too (I haven’t been in Brainstorms in ages).

Two observations I made in the past few weeks that touch upon this conversation.

  1. Yes there is a long list of unconnected initiatives out there currently. Looking at a range of them here in the Netherlands, while some seem to have some substance, many others seem more a coping strategy that keeps one busy but has no impact or meaning on the originator’s scope of action or anyone else’s agency. Kind of like the way I keep a spreadsheet with case numbers in NL, providing a sense of control or something, but then announcing it to the world as yet another Covid dashboard for coders and designers to contribute to.
    At the same time initiatives that might have a real impact are invisible and never mentioned online unless they become visible once creating such impact. (e.g. my brother in law’s 3d printer company has approached all businesses and factories that use their printers to donate printing capacity, creating a global networked printing facility, and now discussing with manufacturers (like Phillips) and health ministries how to deploy that network to print respirator parts and masks where needed. It won’t be publicly announced as a bottom-up initiative, and it may not be publicly mentioned at all ever.) How do we filter wheat and chaff on a list of initiatives, or do we have a role in guiding others to potentially more meaningful activities and away from the coping projects like my spreadsheet/ other’s shiny dashboards?

  2. On working from home en masse. Most of my work is with government entities. A common tactic for people is to wait with doing something and ignore emails etc until the requester shows up at your desk asking about it . That escalation path is no longer available, showing up at one’s desk. As a result I see some civil servants withdraw on an island of clearly defined tasks, simply not responding to mails,calls etc about any other topic. A withdrawal. This means that all kinds of activities that depend on weaving together different acts by different parts of an organisation have more trouble building the connections and getting things done. This impacts precisely the type projects (around digital transformation, deploying new remote working tools, running experiments etc.) that would be of more interest now than before the current situation. Something to find a way of dealing with.

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Great point. Anecdotally, I too am seeing people reaching out through personal networks. A lot is going on behind the curtains. In my case, it’s mostly systemic reflections in view of what comes next, but more practical people like your brother-in-law seems to be be will be taking action. Another example of action, which I would like to document next week, is @RobvanKranenburg’s initiative of spawning a disposable identity scheme to keep track of your susceptible-infected-recovered state.

Also a great point. I wonder if anyone has any evidence in support or to the contrary of it?

Btw, here’s a group of people, started by some friends of mine, collecting/pooling resources / experience on doing facilitation for groups/teams now coming online due to lockdowns https://groups.io/g/f4c-response/

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Hey Ton, how are you + fam doing?

this is super interesting @ton, do you think you could put us in touch? Would be nice to have a quick video chat to see how we can support their efforts ahead of this going public (still needs a bit of work on copy, broken links etc ): https://work.edgeryders.eu/

Doing ok (see https://www.zylstra.org/blog/2020/03/lock-down-seeking-new-normal-yet-still-tempus-fugit/ )

Sure, I can put you in touch with Nancy White (although she’s on US west coast time) and Beverly Trayner (who I think is currently in Portugal, so more or less on local time :slight_smile: ) Sent you an intro e-mail.

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This civil servants point seems like scenario where there is not a sense of purpose that connects people and gives agency. I do not have evidence of the contrary in government situations. Yet as my reply implies, it is clear how to avoid these scenario’s. I’m sure you know this too. Do you see groups working on that in parallel to their everyday work? Wouldn’t it take time to see the effects?

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In the examples I observed it wasn’t so much lack of purpose but a withdrawal to one’s own defined tasks only. In part this is ok, given the situation. In part this will become an obstacle, because for a lot things / changes in an organisation depend on small amounts of time outside of those primary tasks of any given role. Remotely it is easier to simply shrug that off, which was harder to do in a f2f setting. There are scenario’s around it and as time passes new balances/patterns are sure to emerge anyway. But there is not much of a path around people just not responding.

My brother works in a business that interacts between state government and big project construction contractors. Up to this point it has all been paper contracts, lots of phone calls and face-to-face meetings.

Now they do tons of Zoom meetings. That’s fine. But the contracts portion brings up an interesting point. Whereas many industries already use DocuSign or SignRequest to legally sign documents (we do for example with the EC) or take it a step further a la Estonia and their Virtual Resident program (we also do), they not only do not have any history of doing that, they are prevented by statute to have anything other than “wet” signatures on documents. To change legally, the law itself has to change.

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Yes, that is always a problem. The EU also had to change the law, and then member states had to incorporate that change into national laws.

As food for thought, here’s an article from MIT Technology Review about the topic we have here. They don’t have an answer if the communitarian Internet is back … but they give interesting examples of what’s going on right now on the Net that is communitarian:

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