Let's grow online greenspace for healthy sociality & mutual aid

tl;dr  Now that so many are forced to use online media to communicate, let's use this opportunity to create many smaller virtual communities and social networks outside the enclosed world of Facebook.


With hundreds of millions of people around the world forced by the Covid-19 pandemic to work from home and to further their children's education online, can we take advantage of an otherwise dark situation to claw back some social media space from the surveillance capitalists and grow our own virtual communities and mutual aid networks? We have a window of opportunity right now, with a suddenly captive user population online, to break some people out of Facebook groups and encourage widespread use of free and open source tools such as WordPress, Discourse, Mastodon, and Big Blue Button to create virtual spaces where healthy discourse and social capital can grow.  As Josh Costine put it in Techcrunch: " When the infection waves pass, I hope this swell of creativity and in-the-moment togetherness stays strong."

Recently, enthusiasm for technological progress, from smartphones to search engines, has turned into a backlash against the companies that make fortunes by commodifying our privacy, amplifying the reach of hate groups, enabling misinformation, malware, and human trafficking -- along with all the useful and benevolent activities they make possible. Now that we are forced to use online media to communicate with our friends, family, co-workers, clients, customers, employers and employees, a surge of prosocial activity is perhaps temporarily (if only partially) reversing the tide of hate speech, spam, invective, and disinfotainment. In particular, self-organized mutual aid networks are growing explosively online

The mutual aid I personally experienced on the WELL (still active!) in the 1980s led me to write an article about virtual communities in 1987 and a book, The Virtual Community, in 1993. One experience out of many impressed me: the time the parenting discussion group organized support for "Philcat," a parent whose son was diagnosed with leukemia. Twenty five years later, when I was diagnosed with cancer, a group of people I knew almost entirely online organized to drive me to daily radiation treatments. Philcat drove thirty miles each way to chauffeur me to treatment.

I don't need to do much convincing to point out that social media aren't a utopia of civility and mutual aid these days. Although many have pointed to The Virtual Community as an example of techno-enthusiasm that seems anachronistic in the era of 4chan, troll brigades, and the dark web, I did think about how it all might go wrong: the final chapter was titled "Disinformocracy." My point is not that the "social web" (a term I started writing about in 1996) is a convivial place -- but that we can turn our sudden enforced mediation of work and social communication into a counter-tide that encourages enough virtual communities and mutual aid networks to grow and thrive. A "green space." More accurately, many smaller greenspaces, some linked into networks, some standalone.  This is not an entirely new idea. The Indie Web effort has been moving that direction. Let's expand and build on their efforts.

You need to know/access a few things to start your own green space. It's easy enough to set up a blog at Wordpress.com and invite your friends, family, mutual aid network, interest group to co-blog and/or comment. You can start out with a free site, and pay for added features. Or you can download the free and open source Wordpress from Wordpress.org and find a server to install it -- not only is that easier than it sounds, the Wordpress community has a wealth of how-to material and a living community to answer questions. You can also get a forum plug-in to make your many-to-many conversations more structured than comment threads on blog posts. Blog posts can be strictly text, and can also include links, graphics, video embeds, audio embeds, gifs. Ghost.org,  also open-source,  also can be downloaded and installed on any server for free, and also you also can access as pre-installed hosted service for a monthly fee.

If you have ten people discussing ten topics, posting one comment a day, you have a thousand comments in ten days. Better is a forum, sometimes known as a discussion board. I've written elsewhere about how and why to use forums -- and why Facebook groups suck. I mentioned Discourse as a good free and open source forum; another good free and open source web forum is Caucus. Or you can very easily set up a subreddit on Reddit, "a web forum of a particular topic where you can post links or create a self post and discuss. "

Right now, the business and social worlds are flocking to Zoom, an audio-video-text-chat service that just works. They operate on a freemium model. You can get a free Zoom room, then pay if you want sessions longer than 40 minutes. For the past ten years, a group of neighbors have worked with me on art projects on Saturday afternoons; now that we are isolated in our homes, we have a weekly Zoom cocktail hour. There are many alternatives. Videomeeting is one, and its page lists open source alternatives. I've used Big Blue Button for years -- it's free and open source, they will store recordings of sessions; it includes audio and video for multiple users, a shared whiteboard, screensharing, and a text chat. Here is Techcrunch's list of video chat apps. And here is advice on how to choose a free videoconferencing app.

If you are really ambitious and comfortable with servers and hosting, why not move your friends and family out of Facebook and create your own social network? Mastodon is a Twitter alternative. Discord, originally for gamers, offers "the easiest way to communicate over voice, video, and text, whether  you’re part of a school club, a nightly gaming group, a worldwide art  community, or just a handful of friends that want to hang out." And many are using Slack as a community water cooler/help line.

You need one other ingredient if you plan to host a group of any size beyond your immediate family for any time beyond a week or two: knowledge of how to facilitate an online community. It's not exactly the same as hosting a party, although they share characteristics: party hosts online and in the physical world try to put together a congenial mix of invited guests, welcome participants as they arrive, make introductions, move the fistfight away from the punchbowl. Online, particularly when participants can't see and hear each other (thus missing important cues from body language, tone of voice, facial expression), active facilitation helps make for convivial communities. I dashed off something pithy more than twenty years ago that (I'm told) is still useful: The art of hosting good conversations online.

Many of us who enjoyed and helped enliven life online in the olden days of sharing economies have felt helpless as online cultures became inundated by trolls, spammers, scammers, and predators. Now is a time when we can work together to grow a counter-movement of smaller-scale, convivial, communities of interest and mutual aid networks. 

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