There are millions of online communities, social network, interest groups, media sharing sites, you name it. That is to say nothing about all the sub-networks within massive giants like Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, et al. So many of these communities exist that one must wonder if there is a need for any new ones? Or, if having so many virtual networks is a good thing? What is this force that makes people want to join them and engage in discussions, sharing, communication? Wouldn't it be better for humans, in general, to simply do more gardening, read books, play ball-games and meditate?
Importance of such reflection can not be overstated, especially if you plan to create, build and lead one or many of such communities. You need to find the meaning that will help you to orient actions and perspectives in the process of community building, which may consume a seriously big chunk of your life.
The "why am I doing this?" question is, of course, very personal. In this post, I am simply offering my own interpretation of the meaning that intuitively seems to be the most compelling and defining reason for what we do.
Our announced mission is to "unite people" - a phrase as equivocal as it gets, actively calling for a more precise explanation. We build software that helps people to connect, communicate and collaborate, but the end-users are not our clients. Our clients, rather, are the thought-leaders that build communities. We are making a tool of the trade. Is this trade meaningful and good? Here is the case for why I think that building online communities is, in fact, the most meaningful and good thing a modern leader can do.
Why do people communicate?
Social communication is not just about survival and procreation. It is also the most powerful way of making sense of observed reality. When we encounter a fact, we create an associated story - a personal interpretation of this fact. The story is then rehashed many times over through mental or verbal repetition - more often and more emphasized if the original fact appears to be significant. Now, stories always want to be told. It is through telling stories to our peers that we remember, enrich and comprehend them. Just as we share space and time with others, we also have to present our interpretations of reality to other people's scrutiny, observe reactions and thus orient our self-awareness. In a sense, what others make of our stories defines what we make of ourselves. It starts in the early years from simple situations like when a child falls and feels pain but looks at their parent to decide on whether to tough it out or start screaming. One's character, personality and sense of self-worth is built, brick by brick, through the continuous submission of experiences to the judgement of others. Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson in one is his books expressed it like so:
People organize their brains through conversation. If they don’t have anyone to tell their story to, they lose their minds. Like hoarders, they cannot unclutter themselves. The input of the community is required for the integrity of the individual psyche. To put it another way: it takes a village to build a mind.
To paraphrase Descartes - I communicate, therefore I am I.
Why online communication?
This is easy. The Internet made a vast landscape of information accessible to everyone. The variety of inputs is far beyond what we can process within ambient communities. We learn about things we simply can't effectively discuss with our family or friends we see every day. We also see how some topics could be imposing or uninteresting for our immediate peers while being welcomed in specialised circles of enthusiastic people that care about similar subsets of life. Internet is a tool for information expression as much as it is a tool for information consumption. Through Internet, we can access the minds of more people, further away, in more ways than before.
Why not just use one super-network?
As far as communication mediums go, we are already using a super-network called the Internet. Communication protocols like HTTP and email give us basic rules of engagement, programming languages empower us to build communities. Each community creates its own narrative structure that further defines the game rules, appoints judges and defines coordination mechanisms. Like different groups of children playing hide-and-seek following their own variation of rules that suit their particular circumstances, good communities "play by the book", but the book is written and updated by the community itself, or at least by its leaders. This would be an idealistic, "natural" way of global social networking.
Troubles begin when leaders wield too much power. Even the most well-meaning foreman can not be universally benevolent. Simply due to the individual differences and often opposing ideas, it is impossible to set up a framework which would be equally beneficial, fair and good for a large number of people. We must know how to coexist in harmony, but we must not be forced to live by the same set of values or the same set of arbitrary rules. No matter how liberal or totalitarian the structure is, there must be a space where one can do things differently and communicate under different circumstances. In other words, we must visit neighbours, nearby villages, and faraway towns to truly learn more about the world and ourselves.
The only extant human species is defined as Homo Sapience - "wise man". The "man" part comes from the possession of instincts and intuitions that make and keep us alive; self-awareness and ability to discern and interpret reality. The "wise" part comes from the ability to learn - that is to update intuitions based on observed evidence. We can only call ourselves Homo Sapience if we learn! Knowing is not enough. Being is not enough. Expressing is not enough. Experiencing is not enough. Learning is essential, and, in order to learn, we must be actively seeking and trying something entirely new. We must keep moving. Just like Lewis Carrol's Red Queen says...
'Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!'
Learning from a variety of inputs is important, but it could be argued that it is possible to create a system which would efficiently feed us with just the right scope of data to achieve or at least move towards some ultimate goal that is considered universally good. Herein lies the main obstacle - there is no one definitively good common goal. For all we know, people have frequently occurring similar intuitions, but there is no clear unanimous consensus on anything. The best we can do is keep moving, even if we move in different directions, keep learning from each other along the way and try to preserve this capacity to move together.
Now, consider artificial intelligence - a system that has the capability to solve problems and learn (update on evidence). The core limitation that separates it from natural intelligence is the inability to produce novel ideas without immediate input. AI lacks something magical, something unquantifiable and impossible to reverse-engineer - that special capacity to create worlds, being imperfect, impractical, irrational - it lacks imagination.
We don't fully understand the nature of creativity and imagination, but we do know that it can be trained. It is stimulated through the simple practice of listening to storytelling. To train imagination it is not enough to observe facts. It is necessary to observe interpretations of facts, realizing that every fact carries an infinite number of possibilities when interpreted by different minds. And every new interpretation becomes a fact in itself, up until we realise that we don't even need facts to create possibilities. In "natural intelligence" the "nature" is everything and everyone surrounding us - the more variety there is to it, the more natural it is.
And now, think about what a typical oversized social network does... Someone defines the structure that is same for billions of people, walled from any inputs that they might experience under different circumstances. Further on, big networks create automations, and worse - AI-driven automations that have predefined desirable outcomes - usually revenue maximisation. Automations don't have their own sense of morality, nor they're built to acquire it through learning. In its ultimately successful form such a system is popularly represented as the Matrix - the system which dulls peoples creative capacity in exchange for a personalised comfort-zone - own Neverland for each Peter Pan of the Earth.
Such a system could still be good, actually, if only it didn't have a tendency to converge. Unfortunately, humans have biases that produce terrible outcomes without adequate natural checks and balances. Any advanced AI will feed on those biases, exploiting them to its own ends, reaffirming them and creating the ever-strengthening patterns. The worst rabbit hole ever conceived by humanity.
Think about the most common human biases and how they are exploited:
Confirmation Bias - preference for interpretations that reaffirm pre-existing views. AI learns that we use the site more, click more ads and buy more stuff when we are exposed to information we already believe in or "like". Users are exposed to narrowed-down worldview, which is not even built to serve their wellbeing.
Groupthink Bias and Bandwagon Effect - bypassing critical evaluation in favour of group harmony. We do what our friends do, even if it's not the best thing to do. A smart system uses this to further amplify its power - recommending friends that share content most likely to produce a better financial outcome for the network, filtering out content from "underperforming" friends. It would make sure to tell you that "Your friend also liked this and that...", "Your friend also bought this and that..." - so your own personal bubble merges with someone else's near-identical bubbles - together producing homogenous bandwagons of brainwashed "friends".
Clustering Illusion - tendency to look for patterns in random data. This tendency is very useful in a random system, helping to process more information without overloading, but it can be absolutely disastrous when the system is already guided by pre-defined patterns. Not only we don't see the full picture, but everything that we do see seems to be at 1000%. All other people are always beautiful and happy, all wars are unavoidable and ultimate, all conspiracies are true and there is nothing mundane, boring or stable. The system needs us to be in a state of elevated sense of anxiety, which is when we call for most easily-accessible surrogates of sustained wellbeing - social recognition (I may be unhappy, but people "like" me, so it's good enough) and sense of ownership (buy more stuff - it makes me feel like people like me more, plus it makes me feel safer).
Observer Expectancy Effect - we are influenced by what we think others expect us to do. You may not like or even care for a picture your friend shared, but you "like" it anyway when you think that this is what they expect. It's like a devil's insurance that cuts off any chance to break out of the deal. Say, you might actually find an interesting, thought-provoking article that gives you a new perspective, but you'd be unlikely to share it because it's not what your audience is likely to "like". The system is reassured that you actually don't need to engage with alternatives, because even when exposed to them, you don't react. While in natural environment all sorts of things affect you even if you don't act on them immediately, an AI needs to be able to register confirmatory action to learn about your perception, but you are unlikely to show it. No "like", no "follow" - and the signal is dismissed. AI may know a lot about what you do, but knows little about what you are, and it has no ideas about what you can be,
There are many other biases, illusions, effects and tendencies. Some we don't even know about yet. A robust software system with enough data and smart AI can take things really far, really fast, without any guarantee for an ethically good end-result.
What makes smaller communities better?
Any balanced natural ecosystem thrives on diversity - nothing gains upper-hand and the risk of irreversible damage is minimised. Balance is particularly dependent on the diversity of circumstances and continuous multi-directional change. One type of trees is doing best in warm climates and another type prefers temperate. Birds can therefore migrate and eat year-round. Humid years will produce massive growth and dry years will produce a re-setting fire. Some species are formidable and highly successful but can only live in freshwater, while others may be meek but they find their perfect heaven in the subsoil. Survival of everything depends on the random limitations, successes and failures.
If we are to build artificial systems that facilitate social networking, it is important to try and mimic that diversity as much as possible. It is only possible when many such platforms exist and their architects pursue different ideas. If, instead of a handful of giant networks or thousands of very similar networks we had had a good variety of very different ones - the overall effect on humans would be far more healthy, natural and good.
What makes UNA a good platform?
The most important quality that makes UNA a positive force is the intention that drives its development. It is the system that makes it possible to create highly customised communities, without the massive development cost, giving full creative control and ownership to the community operator. It's not a pre-built solution for a cookie-cutter community site. UNA is a framework that gives your tools and components that can be modified in various ways allowing for truly unique combinations of features, rules and styles. We try to make these tools as accessible as possible, minimising the need for coding skills or extensive technical expertise. UNA is a platform for creative leaders, who come up with new crazy ideas and have the tenacity to turn their ideas into reality. It is a tool for pioneers, trailblazers and discoverers - that is what makes UNA a good platform.