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