Software-enabled community infrastructure

22 April 2020
22 Apr 2020

At time of writing, social media technology of today is about the medium – how we create content digitally, how we distribute it, to whom we make it accessible – and how we fund free-to-access social media sites with virality and network effects. The medium and funding model have been the focus of innovation in the first two decades of the 2000s.

Facebook, for example, puts the content at the center. Each post is substantial, often media-rich, usually at least a few sentences. Users decide who sees each individual post, and Facebook’s opaque algorithm arranges these posts from a spiderweb of friend-relationships into a non-chronological, non-deterministic feed.

Twitter, on the other hand, is more focused on individual users. Users choose who to follow, and get all posts from them. Discourse is fast-changing and the algorithm, although increasingly opaque, is still mostly chronological and serves to curate more than filter, in my experience. The follower-followed relationships are one-directional.

Reddit is unusual among the networks in that the focus is a community. Posts are ephemeral because of the constantly working ranking algorithm, and users are all but emphasized. Instead, users seek out communities and participate in pseudonymous group discussions with not individual users, usually, but the vague they of the “community”.

I could go on enumerating like this all the variety of social media that exist today, but this is all to illustrate that social media so far has mostly explored how we might use technology to organize people and content and conversations differently than the way we do in real life, and this has led to digital communities with very alien dynamics from real-world human communities, especially at the scale of hundreds of millions and billions of users.

Software as infrastructure, not medium

As I continue ruminating on communities, I find myself returning to one theme: the importance of communities that resemble real-world, local communities with human connections. However advanced the social media platforms of today become, they’re not going to replace face-to-face interactions and meaningful conversations and connections in the meatspace. My conviction on this is pretty high, and only increasing with time. But maybe I’m just suffering from generational decay.

Assuming this conviction is true, however, I think more products and social platforms should explore the space of social media technology that doesn’t explore alternative social dynamics, like the platforms I mentioned above, but try to scale and deepen the old, meatspace version of social with new technologies.

The basic building blocks of this idea are emerging. The most obvious and timely example is the meteoric rise of Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic. But I see other trends in smaller situations. I see friends gathering virtually even when they’re in the same neighborhood, for more convenience. I see students pulling together new friend groups in Slack and Discord groups while spread out across the coasts. I see people using existing social media like Twitter to promote real-world meetups. The common thread between these new use cases is that the structure is not the structure or medium of social – these people are gathering and conversing in the same way humans have for centuries – but the fact that they’re enabled by new commodity tools. The platforms are simply the tools, the infrastructure, and they fade into the background, leaving the focus on the humans and their conversations.

Extrapolating into the future, I imagine more tools that rejuvenate the market for how people find real-world connections and communities, enabled by technology. Anonymity and pseudonymity are played out. People want to be with other people. Not just ideas, not just nebulous communities, and this need is a non-negotiable human desire. Software is going to fade into being the infrastructure for communities and relationships, only sometimes also being the medium of communication and dictating which posts and comments we should hear and not hear.

Nonlocal community building

Above is what I believe is going to happen. Below is what I hope will happen as a result.

One personal reason behind my attention on community-building is that I believe next to funding and credibility (like network, signals, reputation), a dependable real community of friends is a necessary component of people whose contributions to the world reach their potential. And although great entrepreneurial and creative communities proliferate cities, at the long tail of human population in less urban areas, specialized, niche communities not based simply on geography are still hard to come by. Especially for students, who can’t easily travel, fixing this is a priority.

I think if we get this right, software-enabled community building in the real world is going to make substantial, impactful, empathetic, human communities nonlocal. You’re going to easily find a community of teenage programmers or retired musicians or veteran entrepreneurs regardless of whether you’re in rural Kenya or New York City or Seoul or Manchester. And whoever builds these platforms are going to be where the innovators move next – the next Silicon Valley, if you will.

Next: Abstractions: writing and coding