Signal, Space, Structure: Designing for Communities of Interest

Last week, Gary Chou, Leland Rechis and I wrapped up our Entrepreneurial Design class, in which we asked our students to work on a 10 week project to build communities of their own. It was my first time trying to teach other people the messy art of community-building after a decade of knitting communities of interest together — including ROFLCon, Awesome Foundation, and an online forum for ex-inmates. It felt a lot like teaching them how to draw an owl, and that gave me a chance to reflect on these odd owls I’ve drawn.

The nuances of building and maintaining communities can really only be learned through extensive practice, both as a participant of other groups and as an active designer of your own. There is no better way to learn this art than by taking a critical look inside as many communities, both successful and crumbling, as possible. For those getting started, I offer this basic framework to make sense of the amoebic chaos of communities.

Signal

Whether it’s an invitation to an event, a call to action, a piece of art, or a literal flare, the signal is how you get the attention of the people you are trying to gather. Sometimes, it can also be a shibboleth to filter out who you don’t want, a way to indicate who the community is safe for and from.

The art of crafting a good signal is difficult and valuable enough that it sustains several industries: marketing, communications, SEO, media. Most professional efforts, however, are focused on fine-tuning the signal rather than on considering who it may be received by. The best signals are the ones that find people who actually want to connect on their own terms.

Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre, St. Catherine, Jamaica.

The most effective signal I’ve ever sent happened entirely by accident. In 2007, I wrote a profile of the women’s prison where I had volunteered for the summer, working with an inmate-run rehabilitation program. The post, published on my Wordpress blog with little fanfare, became the top search result for the name of the prison, and the comments section of the post turned into an impromptu forum for former inmates as well as family members of current inmates looking for information. In the last 8 years, they have posted almost 160 comments in which they’ve share their stories, traded information, and reunited with long-lost friends. I hold no illusion of responsibility for this remarkable phenomenon: my post is just the umbrella held up to gather the tour group.

This minimum viable community is a humbling lesson on the limits of intentionality. Whispering on an unoccupied but sought-out radio frequency can be much more effective than screaming at the top of your lungs on an occupied one.

Space

Sometimes, a flash of the signal is enough — a quick validation that there are others out there, and that they are reachable if necessary. Signals that are sufficiently compelling, however, can sometimes pull people into a bounded space where a community can start to grow.

A space defined in this way is a meeting point where people can find others, gather information, and organize themselves. It can be either physical (a community center, a conference) or digital (a Twitter hashtag, an online chatroom). The selection and design of this space — its boundaries, constraints, and properties — is what most documentation around community-building explains, but I believe that the most important part to pay attention to is actually the negative space. A space is a permeable container for people, and overdesigning it may actually lead to less interesting interactions.

The closing keynote panel at ROFLCon 2008. Photo credit: John Dill.

In spring of 2008, a few friends and I organized the inaugural ROFLCon, a conference / convention that celebrated and discussed internet culture. The team consisted entirely of volunteers, mostly college students who had never organized a conference before. Right before registration was supposed to open for the 600+ attendees on the first morning of the event, we realized we had forgotten to make signs. Lacking immediate access to a printer, someone scribbled “Press”, “A-L”, etc. onto pieces of cardboard ripped from the boxes we had carried the conference badges in and stuck them up with masking tape. Good enough!

Many conference organizers spend time and money making their events feel polished, but polish wasn’t the point for us: a sense of adventure, the promise of lulz, and the massive social experiment of putting part of the internet into a room together were. We spent countless planning meetings working out the programming for the event and debating how to moderate our online backchannels so that our guests wouldn’t feel harassed. We spent no time at all worrying about how to transform the appearance of the MIT classrooms we had occupied.

Photo credit: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid.

A vibrant community, once formed, learns to adapt to the shortcomings of its space or finds a new one. After the event, we found this gorgeous photo of the sign for our invited guests. The masking tape had held enough.

Structure

With just a signal and a space, the particles colliding randomly can start to turn into a community. If the organizer wants to shape these interactions, they need to do so by setting setting the initial boundaries and modeling behavior early.

The beauty and tragedy of all communities is that they are defined by their boundaries, but these lines are not always made explicit to their participants. Boundaries seem limiting for community instigators: why wouldn’t you want more creativity, more people, more freedom? But pre-existing constraints and dynamics shape the community, explicitly and intentionally or not. Without clear constraints, your participants don’t have a sense of the full space of possibilities and may be less likely to experiment with new behaviors or flirt with transgression.

Awesome Foundation is a global network of guerilla philanthropists started in Boston in 2009 by my friend Tim Hwang. From the beginning, the template was clear: each Awesome Foundation chapter has 10 members, each of whom donates $100 monthly. Together, they decide where the $1000 grant should go towards that month. It was an easy format to pass around, get excited by, and fulfill — the network now counts over 100 chapters, covering every continent except Antarctica.

AwesomeFoundation.org’s homepage on May 5th, 2015

But the truth is that all of our rules are broken all the time. The vast majority of our chapters have more than 10 members, our non-US members give out amounts of money that make sense in their own currencies, and plenty of chapters give out grants with more or less frequency than a month. Setting these strict boundaries and practices makes the organization accessible and intelligible; being permissive with enforcement allows for the natural variation and experimentation necessary for sustained growth. It’s better to give people boundaries to transcend than to ask them to avoid invisible walls.

Epilogue: Scatter

The fact is, every single community assembles for different reasons, has different properties and needs, operates in different contexts, and evolves differently over time. We can wax poetic about network theory and strategies and tactics all day long, but in the end, community building and maintenance will always come down to strenuous, emotionally draining labor that’s often underappreciated and misunderstood. Burnout, as an organizer, is almost an inevitability.

Healthy communities exist at the intersection of mutual benefit and proximity. Sometimes that intersection lasts for generations; other times, just for a night. When it is threatened by leadership vacuums or lack of resources, a vital community will fight for the sanctity of its signals, the maintenance of its spaces, and the preservation of its structures. If yours doesn’t seem willing to make efforts past your initial involvement, perhaps its time has simply passed.

The point of a community is to connect people. After the signals have flickered off and the spaces have shuttered, the connections built by the community still remain. The scaffolding has fallen, but the building stands tall.

Christina Xu is an organizational designer, ethnographer, and enabler based in New York.