Making the Web More Human

As part of our work at Creative Commons to help creators make better/more human connections when they share their creative work, we are trying to dissect what makes online collaboration thrive. We are calling this our prosocial work, and you can read the details of what we are planning and why here on the CC blog. In June, we hosted the first in a series of conversations on these topics. Patreon generously provided their space, and we gave some background on our work to date on the topic before diving into a panel discussion with representatives from Medium, Patreon, Wikimedia, and Reddit. This post provides a recap of the wide-ranging conversation that followed.

Thanks to tvol who took this photo (CC BY) and extensive notes that have allowed us to provide the summary below!

The Abstraction Problem

We started the discussion by tackling what we dubbed “the abstraction problem.” Online, it is harder to see the people you interact with as specific human beings, rather than anonymous avatars or pure abstractions. What can platforms do to make interactions within their communities more human?

Zac from Reddit said that the fact that anyone can create a community on Reddit about any topic, no matter how niche, helps people find “their people” online. Often, people get more value from communicating with a small group of people with very similar interests than they could trying to communicate with a wider audience.

Juliet from Wikimedia talked about their efforts to create moments of humanity both on and offline through in-person edit-a-thons organized around specific interests, such as Art & Feminism, where new editors can meet each other and learn the ropes around contribution. Online, Wikipedia provides the Tea House, a space for new editors to practice contributing while connecting personally with more seasoned editors.

Patreon offered an interesting perspective on this topic because their most successful creators are those for whom their fans have a real human connection. Jamie from Patreon noted that while it is hard to capture the exact factors that make its creators and projects successful, they have noticed that fans respond more to those creators with distinct personalities tied to their art, and those who keep regular and often intimate communication channels, such as a weekly podcast. She also acknowledged, however, that this type of access can be too much for some creators, so Patreon seeks to keep communication from fans to a manageable level.

The group also talked about the ways in which the exchange of money can change the personal dynamics on the platform. Neal from Patreon said paying money can cause people to better value the content at times, but it can also sometimes result in unrealistic expectations by fans, particularly around access. Alex from Medium talked about their platform’s move away from an ad-based model to one that now provides both free and paid content. Referencing Sarah Jeong’s work, he referenced some of the ways the click-based advertising revenue model can negatively affect the way people use platforms.

Deliberation / Inefficiency

The conversation then moved to the role of friction in user design. Technology is great because of how fast and easy it makes communication, but sometimes there is value in inefficiency because it replicates real life interaction, allowing room for deliberation and serendipity. Are there ways in which platforms can re-introduce some of the inefficiencies of real-life interaction in ways that lead to more prosocial behavior?

Alex from Medium said they originally designed the platform as an alternative to Twitter, with an emphasis on quality over volume — a sort of “small batch web.”

“The promise of scale is infinitely bigger with digital, but the analog world has more sympathy and forgiveness.” — Alex Feerst, Medium

They have added some intentional friction points to Medium, such as pop-ups designed to get users to pause and be deliberate before posting comments. We discussed the challenge of how to use friction in good ways, balancing the ethical question of when a platform is controlling too much or too little.

Zac from Reddit said their platform is built to have very little friction. This efficiency serves to level the playing field for their users with more niche interests that might not draw communities of millions, with the trade-off being that bad actors have the same opportunities.

Juliet from Wikimedia talked about Wikipedia’s built-in inefficiency because of their community-driven rule system. She said their challenge is retaining new users who are often scared away by the many rules of editing. Harassment is also prevalent on Wikipedia, so an anti-harassment tools team was created to add friction to prevent bad actors. Because Wikipedia values free expression and privacy, it does not track users or retain data, which helps to prevent bad actors who aim to manipulate or dox users.

Jamie and Neil from Patreon said that their focus is on improving the user experience for creators, such as enabling emoji reactions by fans, and promoting positive experiences with fans. Any inefficiencies added are to protect creators and keep communication levels with fans to a manageable level.

Ways of Regulating Behavior

Our final discussion topic was about ways of regulating behavior. Communities set social norms, platforms set rules, and the law provides the undercurrent. What role do platforms play in developing and memorializing the norms that develop within their communities?

Zac from Reddit said they are pretty hands-off as a platform, allowing each community to set its own rules and enabling users to moderate those communities. They have come up with a system for users to reward other users for good behavior, which allows social norms to propagate more organically.

Juliet from Wikipedia said that Wikipedians, like Reddit users, are the ones to enforce most site policies, while the Wikimedia Foundation plays more of a leadership role, supporting those needs the users themselves have surfaced, such as combating harassment.

Jamie and Neil from Patreon said all users are not created equal on their platform. Since Patreon is a platform for creators, they value creator feedback above fans, and allow community norms to be set by them. Patreon responds to those behaviors the creator community has recognized as positive, and works to support those positive interactions.

Alex from Medium talked about the way its community is evolving, and that sometimes what its users want may be at odds with the original vision for Medium as a platform for quality content and journalism. For example, if users are demanding a platform where they can post anything, even fake news, Medium would have to weigh those demands with the original intentions of its founders.

Q & A with the room

At the end of the night, we opened the discussion to the room and dug into some different angles on these themes. On the flip side of giving everyone a full identity online, we talked about the important role of anonymity and privacy in healthy communities. Zac from Reddit said that privacy was so important to moderators that even during physical meetups, people will sometimes use their screen names. Juliet from Wikimedia said they purposefully don’t collect information about their moderators so that anonymity provides them some protection against harassment.

We also talked through different examples of successful creative collaboration on the various platforms. Neal from Patreon said one of their most popular features was a poll that allowed supporters of a project to tell creators what they wanted to see them produce next. Zac from Reddit noted an example of a hugely successful collaborative art project involving flags of countries where contributors simply changed pixels on a canvas.

Finally, we talked about what happens when there are bad actors in these online communities. Juliet said the default at Wikimedia is to let the community try to work things out themselves first, and then they step in to solve problems if that does not work. Alex said there have been times that commenters at Medium have successfully regulated bad actors, but those are somewhat rare and mysterious examples.

Jamie and Neal from Patreon said that harassment is quite rare on their platform because the point of Patreon is to support the creator/artist, and most users come to do just that. Their community tends to be pretty supportive of each other. When fans complain about an artist not producing enough content, other fans usually come to the artist’s support.

Our Next Conversation

We’d love to hear from you about what and where our next conversation should be, and if you have suggestions for speakers with experience in behavioral research, technical or social design, or content sharing platforms that may be able to speak to these issues. We will host another conversation in San Francisco in October, with Los Angeles and New York City also possibilities for other months.

Email your ideas to jane or sarah [at] creativecommons [dot] org. We look forward to hearing from you and hosting you at our next conversation!