Communities don’t grow in troll farms

Lessons from co-matter’s Community Leadership Summit #2

To get to the Community Leadership Summit in Berlin, I had to take a few leaps of faith. On a practical level, I had to trust that the pilot on my flight won’t commit suicide, that Berlin bus drivers won’t be on a strike, that my Airbnb host won’t kill me. Then I had to trust that this whole 6-hour summit thing won’t be a waste of time. That I could talk to complete strangers and that this would somehow prove constructive. I know this sounds paranoid, but think about it. We do this all the time: the semi-conscious, almost automatic reckoning of the risks involved when we trust people we don’t know to provide services, respect rules and be nice to each other. As a society, we’ve gotten far in trusting strangers. But we’ve gotten farther in exposing deception, corruption, manipulation, unethical and immoral behaviour. We discovered our politicians lie, our banks lie, our companies lie, our platforms lie. And yet our lives depend on us trusting each other. We depend on human connection and community to thrive.

Anyway, I got there. The venue had this cosy staircase-style seating area where 85 community leaders squeezed together to be greeted by the co-matter team. We were like a group of kindergarten children, you could barely shut us up or make us sit still. Most of us had just met for the first time, but the hosts knew everyone personally, which in turn gave us a feeling of familiarity.

Severin trying to quiet down the kindergarten

The plan was to have two rounds of talks, where some of the participants presented their work and the communities they led. In between, we had two breakout sessions, where people gravitated towards one of 6 topics and discussion areas, for open debate and idea generation. It was the second gathering I had ever experienced where I was surprised by how easily people spoke their minds, shared their challenges, listened and gave heartfelt advice. The first time had been at the previous edition of the same community leadership summit, in Copenhagen. In hindsight, this is not surprising at all. If you can trust anyone to build meaningful conversation and active participation, it’s going to be the community builders themselves, in all their shapes and sizes, colours and causes, challenges and unique perspectives. They are the first ones to understand the value of coming together, the first to bring their similarities and differences to the table and figure out a common way to deal with something they all care a lot about. In this case, the thing they cared about was how to gather people in a post social media age.

Someone once told me there’s so much you can learn from behind your computer screen, by reading articles, taking online courses, watching TED talks. But you’re still one brain, and you’re still alone in your endeavour. When you’re surrounded by 9 people and you’re discussing, you’re 10 brains processing something at the same time. That’s just magic.

On January 24, 85 brains synced to process the challenges and opportunities of building thriving communities in our contemporary social infrastructures.

We talked about the tools we need to use, the strategies we need to apply, the values we need to foster. Here are a few points that stuck with me the most:

We need to be social without the social media

At the end of last year, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian proclaimed the digital world had reached peak social. 2018 was particularly bad for the likes of Facebook, who finally had to pull off their bring-the-world-closer-together mask. We now know they don’t protect user data, but they use it to gain strategic advantage in high-stakes business partnerships. We know that their algorithms favour misinformation and extreme views, outrage and fear to increase user engagement. We’re far from the utopian global communities we thought social media would build.

Even without these companies’ evil agency, our digital addiction has made us bitter, lonely, selfish, obsessed with our online personas but out of touch with our real selves and our surroundings.

We talked a lot about this during the summit. The general agreement was that we should take the current state of digital social networks as a valuable lesson in how we should build genuine human interaction and collaboration. Rather than throwing our phones in the sea and hiding in a bunker away from the surveillance lords, we should mindfully consider the limitations of large-scale online community building and turn to more personal and intimate offline gatherings. Now that we finally got tired of constantly perfecting our digital identity or pretending that we always hustle and never sleep, we can start spending more real time together, sharing our thoughts, our anxieties, a laugh, a dinner.

We increasingly gather around vulnerability. We are now encouraged to show our true self rather than our best self – from one of the breakout sessions.

At the same time, we should acknowledge how much technology and the internet can still help us build diverse and unconventional communities. Imagine how hard it would have been 50 years ago to find lovers of the Mola Mola bony fish around the world and create a fan club.

Communities can use the online for functional benefits, and the offline for emotional ones – Olivia Stamp from Entrepreneur First, the world’s leading talent investor.

We need new systems of trust

Humanity didn’t thrive because we were better hunters, but because we got better at communicating, sharing and trusting one another. First, we trusted our tribe, our kin, our family–people we lived among our whole lives. Then we started trusting institutions: kings, governments, priests, corporations, banks. Now, information technology is helping us uncover that many of these institutions are not trustworthy, so we’re creating distributed trust. This is the kind of trust that flows laterally between individuals, and whose key ingredients are transparency and ownership. Let’s call it open source trust. One of the best embodiments of distributed trust in community terms? Github, the “community where more than 31 million people learn, share, and work together to build software”.

This trust is still enabled by platforms and systems, but it doesn’t depend on them to exist. As someone put it during one of the breakout sessions:

We trust the connection we build between you and me, while totally distrusting the platform/medium we use to facilitate that connection.

As community leaders, our job is to foster this trust by emphasizing the value of each member of today’s hierarchy-free communities. Our communities always know more than we do. When we interact with our members, we should ask “what do you need to know about X?”, but also “what do you know and can share about X?” (advice via Rico Grimm from Krautreporter) It’s incredible to see how much strength that brings in the community.

We need to re-learn how to talk to strangers

We attend gatherings and join communities because we need to get out of our office and our own head. We long for the creativity born out of unpredictable encounters and conversations, we crave new ideas, new projects, new jobs. But as soon as we enter a room filled with people we’re supposed to meet, we can’t find enough excuses to hide our faces behind our phones. During one breakout session, someone wondered whether their job as community managers really goes much further than helping people get drunk enough that they can loosen up and actually connect. In fact, their role is much more complex, but you could say it ultimately amounts to solving our human disconnection crisis.

We now understand that the solution isn’t to engineer networks of likes and shares, but to go back to the settings where humans have always found belonging and community: in local groups, residents associations, book clubs, dancing nights, potlucks, communal dinners. In this kind of gatherings, people are not always similar, they don’t always agree, but they are driven by a common goal.

At the summit, we discussed the lack of spaces for disagreement in digital networks–r/changemyview being that exception that proves the rule. In real life, we can’t always choose to meet certain people and block others. We often get surprised by others’ perspectives and we sometimes disagree. Why is it so hard then to engage in healthy debate online? In order to survive the algorithm, we literally need to get out and talk to strangers.

We need a brave new digital space

Even with all the Russian trolls and the click farms, online social networks aren’t going anywhere. What is–hopefully–changing is how we use them. Instead of expecting them to guide our interests and entertain us when we’re bored, we’ll use social technologies with a specific intent. To paraphrase Xavier Damman in his talk at the summit: “Communities used to be defined by what they consume; now they’ll be defined by what they create together”. Instead of just joining a digital community, we’ll shape it. That’s why one of the summit’s main questions was how to create a healthy digital space.

A healthy digital space is diverse in background but unified in purpose and values (from a conversation in a breakout session). To achieve diversity, we might sometime need to help underrepresented voices be equally heard (Johnny Drain, co-founder of independent food magazine MOLD).
A healthy digital space is based on a pay-it-forward mentality (Natasha Lytton from Seedcamp, Europe’s seed fund).
A healthy digital space functions on clear guidelines and retribution for those who abuse them (Jonathan Baker from game development studio Klang).
A healthy digital space reflects a healthy analog space, which at the end of the day could be just about not being a dick online (Fiona O’Grady from H&M). We are naturally nicer to each other in real life than online, so we have to discover what makes the difference and transfer that in the digital space.
A healthy digital space is one whose purpose is not to keep us online as much as possible, but to enable us to meet easier in real life (from a breakout session).

I want to end by sharing a poem. I didn’t know it until after the summit but, when I read it, it resonated so much with the conversation about our healthy digital space. A space that’s not necessarily safe, but it’s honest, it’s brave, it allows for equal representation and demands accountability.

Invitation to brave space

Together we will create brave space
Because there is no such thing as a “safe space”
We exist in the real world
We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.
In this space
We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,
We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,
We call each other to more truth and love
We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.
We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.
We will not be perfect.
This space will not be perfect.
It will not always be what we wish it to be
It will be our brave space together,
We will work on it side by side.

By Mickey Scottbey Jones (discovered in a newsletter from Ladies Get Paid)

Photo credits: the wonderful Ana Santl