In recent years, the internet has become very good at creating social circles and environments, thanks to the advances made by the tech industry in areas of telecommunications, mobile devices, and social media. We’re now connected to one another in ways previously unimaginable, and the possibilities and choices for forging new relationships and communities among one another is now greater than ever before.
The internet’s ability to maintain these relationships for the long-term, however, have always been sorely lacking. For anyone who has tried to build or be a part of an online community can probably recall countless experiences where groups and organizations that they’ve participated in have simply disappeared over time, due to lack of interest, organization, or economic support. “Virtual” communities have the appeal of immediacy, novelty, and convenience, but when people look for something more meaningful, they often go back to the “real world” of traditional communities that are more reliant on a brick-and-mortar approach.
Th ephemeral nature of online communities isn’t a trait that’s inherent in technology itself, but rather in the way that it has been used — for a long time, it was assumed that if you connected people together based on common interests, the users would form self-sustaining communities on their own accord. In recent years, however, society has begun to sense the limitations involved in that type of approach. Despite increasing interconnected-ness, people still suffer from feelings of isolation and loneliness, in which current technological approaches have no real means of addressing or alleviating. The internet is great place for having one-night stands and casual flings, but if you’re looking for a communal environment that’s something closer to being in a long-term relationship, you may be plain out of luck.
As it stands now, technology can often be the “gateway” toward building new communities and networks, but its long-term sustenance is nearly impossible to do without help from external sources. And these “external sources” — whether in the form of political, cultural, or economic support — are much more likely to come from traditional institutions that are already well-established in function and form. In a sense, Silicon Valley’s aversion to politics cemented, rather than disrupted (as they often like to claim), the status-quo of social structures of status, class, and modes of interactions.
As the culture of Silicon Valley begins to mature, one possibility is for the tech industry to play a greater role as “the establishment” by becoming more involved in areas of political and cultural production. The political and philanthropic involvement by figures such as Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt point in the direction that this is one possible for the industry to take. As some might recall, Bill Gates’ had a fairly nasty reputation as the oppressive nerd-tyrant who also happened to be the face of the “soul sucking” Windows operating systems in the workplace. His involvement with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, however, had given the former CEO a second chance in improving his image, thus preserving his legacy as a result. Amid the protests happening against the tech industry in recent years, we may be at a tipping point in which industry insiders may start to realize that it is in their own interest to play a more active role in the shaping of societal narratives.
While the above paragraph is a topic worth exploring in it of itself, I’d like to spend the rest of this article speculating on the possibilities of creating localized, self-sustaining communities using technology as an aid for both its creation and sustenance. It’s an ideal that every social media startup founder had dreamt about in one way or another, but none so far has been able to realize its manifestations in more than short spurts. Most online communities die out in a few weeks or months…a year or two if they’re lucky. When hardware and software systems inevitably gets replaced every few years, most people don’t bother recreating the connections that they made on older platforms — it’s a lot of work to do so, for one — but it’s more accurate to say that the bonds made through such means weren’t really strong enough to withstand the tests of time.
Is it possible to create online communities that rival the strength, stability, and support that traditional organizations have to offer? It may be, but the way the tech industry thinks of what a “community” is will have to change on a fairly radical, fundamental level. And the secret for making it happen lies in combining technology with the idea of the “Sacred Space”.
The Sacred Space
All of the major religious organizations (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.) have been around for thousands of years in human history, spanning multiple generations, crossing borders, surviving instances of war, strife, economic turmoil, and countless hardships throughout. Specific religious beliefs aside, the fact that these institutions have outlasted the rise and fall of nations, companies/corporations, cultural movements and demographic shifts should attest to its survivability, in which secular organizations can learn from in their own lines of work.
In its more practical forms, the idea of sacred-in-secular can be found in activities that most of us are already familiar with: sports teams, video games, music concerts, branding plays, and entertainment programs. While these activities don’t seek to replace or compete with traditional religions, they have the ability to inspire a kind of belief that’s based on faith, rather than scientific reasoning.
A true sports fan doesn’t root for their team only when they happen to be winning. The true fan sticks with their team through thick and thin, through the good times and bad, and throws them their support unconditionally, despite the flaws and problems that exist within the team itself. From a scientific point of view, this type of behavior would be seen as irrational, but is a perfectly acceptable and normal thing to do for anyone who’s sees meaning in following their team of choice.
The tech industry’s obsession with “winning” tends to be antithetical to this type of faith, however. Point-, ranking-, feedback-, comment-, game-based systems resembles the Hunger Games more than any sort of real social system, appealing to people’s sense of competition, narcissism, and judgments of others in order propel its results. (And usually for a meager or non-existent prize, just like in the movie.) Users are encouraged to pay attention to something only if it reaches the very top of the ladder, which, on top of being brutally competitive, also happens to miss the point of what good sportsmanship and team loyalty is all about.
No matter how interconnected and impressive a platform system might be on a technical level, a networked system of individuals competing against one another (in more or less a free-for-all) can hardly be called a “community”, as some companies try to claim.
What exactly is a “Sacred Space”? It’s a place where people can feel comfortable being themselves, speak in earnest without being judged, find a moment of solace away from the chaos of the world, and develop a sense of peace among themselves and the people around them. While there are countless ways in which these things can be achieved, these ideas ought to be explicit goals for any companies looking to build a social networking platform that will have users stick around for the long-haul.
As counter-intuitive as it might seem, online communities today exist in spite of, not because of, social media. It’s the main reason why we celebrate successful online collaborations as improbable miracles rather than routine occurrences, as it really should be. The moment groups and relationships are forged on the internet, the social networking systems creates a heavy amount of friction between individuals and parties, eventually wearing them down to nothing as time passes on.
The first step to achieving a smoother online experience would be to remove these frictions as much as possible. And there are many — much more than most engineers and UX designers would like to admit to, since it would basically require a fundamental overhaul in how we think of social media as it stands today. But there are a few practical things that can be done now, even without having to invent new technologies in order to arrive at more favorable results.
The Sacred Space — Some Practical Steps
As mentioned above, engineers and technologists often confuse the idea of building platforms and networks with building communities, since in many cases they’ve acquired the “if you build it they will come” syndrome — the assumption that having a good app or networking system will automatically lead to the zillions of users that their system so deserves. This approach may work for utility-based platforms with a high amount of practical value (eBay, Expedia, Amazon) but any system that derives its value on social, political, or cultural capital would necessarily require a connection deeper than pure “access” to information and content. Here are a few issues that exist in social media spaces as of today:
1. Personal Identities
The era of anonymous IDs and pseudonyms can now said to be over. Facebook succeeded by requiring their users to attach their college emails to their profiles, thus creating what we now know as “authentic” identities. Maybe we’re not quite sure of what side of the person we’re seeing when we see their online personas, but at least we can be relatively sure that it’s actually them who’s behind their latest updates. (This wasn’t really the case in the days of MySpace and prior, where people created their profiles anonymously, eventually turned into a big noise-induced train wreck.)
For community managers, this step is more or less a no-brainer, because it’s impossible to maintain any semblance of a social scene if you don’t even have any idea who you’re talking to or working to begin with. The reason why YouTube and news article comments tend to be of low quality is because it’s an unregulated and anonymous atmosphere where none of its participants have enough skin in the game to really care about the consequences of their contributions. Moving towards a system with greater authenticity and identification will be the first step towards improving the quality of input by its user-base in an overall sense.
We may or may not reach a point where government-issued IDs become normal requirements for joining social sites, but in either case, any social media company looking to provide something beyond an entertainment service will have to have at least some form of verification process in the future. Users will make meaningful contributions only if they feel like something is at stake, which includes their reputation and sense of identity within the process itself.
2. Group Identities
I know lots of people who have stopped using Facebook altogether because they were afraid that they might say something that could get them in trouble with their boss, friends, family, or loved one in some way. Before the internet, if you wanted to talk about things away from certain people (parents, boss, etc.) or just have an earnest conversation with people you felt comfortable hanging around with, what would you do? You’d meet your friends or go to meetings that shared similar sentiments and beliefs with yourself.
With global broadcasting systems like Twitter, Pinterest, Quora, etc. these kinds of interactions are inherently impossible, since they function only as public, rather than private platforms. (The fact that they’re called “social media” is somewhat of a misnomer, because in reality they’re more like broadcasting stations rather than anything that can really be called “social”.) Facebook and Google+ have been acutely aware of the problem, but their methods of addressing it have been clunky and ineffective at best.
In theory, it’s possible for users to fiddle around with their privacy settings on Facebook or use Google+’s “circles” systems to control who get’s to hear/see certain updates, but this is an extremely unreliable and unnatural way for people to communicate. If you were yelling a bunch of things on a top of a hill (like Twitter), you could treat it as a public event and tailor your message in such a way. An one-on-one conversation (email, private messaging) can be considered private, but tweaking privacy settings in social media platforms puts the user in a weird middle-ground where they’re not really quite sure who’s receiving the message that they’ve putting out.
For one, because of the inherent instability of these kinds of systems (they’re being changed all the time), you’re never quite sure if the features themselves are really working. And even if they were working correctly, a slight mistake or lapse in judgement could lead to a faux pas or embarrassing situation that could become immediately known and widely publicized. Then there’s the fact that being “selective” in who-gets-to-hear-what is a process of social manipulation that the system itself is forcing its users to participate in.
Most people do not actually like lying, being two-faced, or telling half-truths two others, even to those that they don’t particularly like. This is a major reason why many people use Facebook only begrudgingly, rather than seeing it as a source of joy or delight — they see its usage as a burden, an obstacle, a threat not only to their happiness and self-worth, but to their sense of integrity and inner-peace as well.
The solution to this problem lies in group-based interactions and communities with a focus on the individual’s semi-private life. If you’re part of a community that you respect and feel comfortable with, honest dialogues and discussions come easier, with disagreements less frequent and more respectful. If you know exactly who you’re talking to, then there’s usually no need to twist your words or put up a front, thus removing the anxieties and fears that come with these types of social interactions.
Somewhere in between the act of expressing your identity all over the world and the brutal honesty of communicating ideas under a psuedonym, is a place where you’re allowed to speak freely, as yourself, without the fear of retribution, even while being part of a greater whole. Some may regard this type of solace as special — even holy — in the kind of joy and meaning it brings to their lives. Hence, the “Sacred Space”.
As it exists today, social media platforms are more likely to be a source of anxiety rather than comfort, due to the fragile nature of communications and interactions that exist in online spaces. The tech community’s default response to these problems have focused on privacy and security restrictions, but this approach is the real-life equivalent of a paranoid schizophrenic’s desire to board up their windows, lock themselves in a room, and wireframing their house in order to avoid “unwanted listeners” in their private space. Perhaps some may come to see this kind of self-imposed isolation as a form of sacred space, but this is neither natural nor healthy for most people to live as a lifestyle in itself.
While there certainly have been options for building or starting your own group entities, the majority of development focus have largely gone towards individual, rather group profiles. Improvements in community standards may be as simple as paying more attention to a level one higher.
3. Group Histories
One of the major pitfalls of the digital age is that it has had an incredibly destructive effect on the content that it creates — the simple act of updating a website often causes months and years of work to simply to vanish, never to be seen again. After you make a status update about your new job or latest meal that you ate, where does it go? It might sit around in a database for a while, and maybe the host company might sell that information to a marketing firm at some point, but after a couple of years most of that information will be lost due to negligence or deleted in order to make space for newer content.
Unbeknownst to most people, the National Archives have been archiving Twitter feeds, while the Internet Archives have been taking “snap-shots” of websites throughout the internet as means of creating a historical record of what existed before in digital space. But these records are haphazard and incomplete, largely because the tech industry itself has not really developed a systematic, transparent way of keeping a record of their past content, events, accomplishments, and failures into a readable, user-friendly format.
As it stands now there is no incentive for the industry to really do so, at least in the short term. It has the potential to cut into their profits and there’s always the chance that their competitors may use that information against them at some point in the future. But in order for the startup ecosystem to stay innovative, this is a kind of infrastructure that will eventually become necessary — perhaps even essential. (A common complaint that VCs make is that they’ve become tired of hearing the same pitch ideas over and over. While entrepreneurs should definitely do their research, how can they be expected to, when there’s no data?)
But there is a social angle to this as well: people like hearing about the history of things that they care about.
Facebook has experimented with the idea of historical record through their “Personal Timeline” — we now have access to what we’ve done on Facebook as early as 2006, and have been given the option of writing our own history in ways of our own choosing. While this feature might appeal to a few megalomaniacs and narcissists who’re one step short of writing their own autobiography, the fact that most users have largely ignored this feature should probably be taken as a sign that people are looking for something more than just an ego massage.
(Ego and objectivity issues aside, using Facebook to document your life is probably a bad idea for the reasons mentioned above — you have no idea if your work is actually going to survive the rise and fall of social media platforms and companies. It would be much safer just to write it down in a text file or save it as a scrapbook in the real world somewhere.)
The timeline feature is, however, strangely absent from group profiles, which would actually be much more useful in collective, rather than individual, situations and contexts. In addition to making people feel like they’re contributing something in the bigger scheme of things, it serves a double-purpose in helping to initiate newer members into the identity and procedures of the group itself. Group histories are a very basic — almost tribal in some sense — human need that many companies have overlooked in their recent attempts at creating social media platforms. While personal timelines will flop in the vast majority of cases, capturing the power of the historical narrative on a collective level can have a powerful effect on people’s sense of purpose and meaning.
It’s no coincidence that organizations that have withstood the test of time usually have a Secretary of some sort, whos job is to act as the historian and record-keeper for everything that has transpired. They serve an important role in propagating the legacy of the group’s long-term existence and purpose. If technological infrastructures can be designed to better serve user’s collective history, the chances of its survival will be that much greater.
4. Symbolic Queries
The internet is currently designed to connect people based on things that they might be commonly “interested in”, matched by common and similar keyword references. If you Google “improv comedy groups, Your Town” you might find a list of a few places or groups to watch a few shows with in your area. After thumbing through a few prospects, you might eventually decide to meet up with a few groups in person, at some point.
If you’re interested in the same activities, you must have so much in common, right? A match made in heaven?
Well, not quite.
Establishing communities based on interest matches is bad for the same reasons why marrying someone for money or hobbies is usually a bad idea: people’s tastes in goods and activities change over time, often very quickly and without reason. Material objects all get boring eventually, while common interests (like a favorite band) can change easily through minor life changes or even swings in a person’s mood. Like attempts to fix a bad marriage, tech companies often try to deal with this problem by placating their users by “giving them what they want”…or at least what they think they want.
These attempts at “customer satisfaction” usually manifests itself in the form of more features, more access, more market research, more stimulation, so on and so forth. It attempts to capture people’s attention by their short-term interests, pivoting from one idea to another endlessly in an schizophrenic fashion, but ultimately never reaching a state of satisfaction or fulfillment.
From a pragmatic standpoint, the problem with this approach is that it’s a process that gets more and more expensive over time, all eventually reaching a point of unsustainability. There is a difference between leaving a customer satisfied vs. giving them anything and everything they could ever dream of, the latter of which is only possible with an infinite reserve of capital and access.
Even if the latter were somehow possible, however, the problem still wouldn’t be solved. Most people do have limits to the amounts of consumption they can do — not just economically — but psychologically as well. Placing ones focus on satisfaction over abundance is not only cheaper, but better for the health of the company (and consumer) in the long run.
Relationships with substance are built on common goals, beliefs and values, which serve as the foundations for trust and loyalty — key ingredients for the long-term sustenance of any kind of community. Interests and tastes can and do switch on moments notice, but a person’s core beliefs and values are much more likely to stay the same, far beyond the hype cycles of trends and fads. These notions are, unfortunately, aren’t really concepts that can be acquired through simple keyword queries alone, no matter how sophisticated and evolved matching algorithms might become.
But the problem doesn’t lie with the algorithms, data, or keywords themselves — it lies in how queries and search terms are weighted in its results.
Certain keywords can come to represent certain values through the behaviors and activities of well-formulated entities and groups. “Improv comedy” is a generic term that could really mean anything to anyone, but “Key and Peele” is a loaded-term that carries meaning beyond the utterance of the name itself. While generic terms like “football” and “electronic music” are useless keywords when it comes to community-building, loaded terms like “Seahawks” or “Amon Tobin” carry a degree of weight, meaning, and history that can be used as a flag for people to declare their loyalty and allegiance to.
While nothing is ever guaranteed, social connections made through loaded terms are, by far, much more likely to create meaningful relationships and favorable outcomes than generic ones. The more loaded the term (some might call this “depth”), the higher the possibility of making a match with substance and sustainability. With generic terms, you really have no idea what you’re going to get from its matching results — other than the superficial, surface level connection that exists, it’s more or less a crap-shoot and hoping to get lucky. (The “I’m Feeling Lucky” button on the Google search bar is a subtle admission of the truth behind the statement above.)
The word that describes the phenomenon of the loaded term is sometimes referred to as “symbolism”, which can often be seen in contexts of religious, spiritual, and cultural happenings and events. Names, places, gestures, and words become symbolic when used as part of a cycle of rituals that gain meaning through regularity and repetition — a kind of “inside joke” for the people involved, but with deeper meaning and substance. In symbolic gestures/words/icons, meaning exists outside of gestures themselves, but are nonetheless more specific in the kinds of beliefs and values that it represents.
The current approach to social media, as it stands now, is generally ill-equipped to handle queries based on symbolic notions, because most of its development cycles have revolved around generic, rather than loaded terms. In loaded terms meaning exists external to the symbols used, and as a result, its significance doesn’t usually show up in search queries which mostly pulls its information from pure data, rather than the sentiment that exists behind the data.
A talented data scientist/artist with an UX infrastructure to reflect its results, however, may be able to organize a new system in this regard, even with current technologies. (The limitations that exist in regard to this issue are more political than technological.) Categorizations ought to be organized by symbolic meaning and sentiment, rather than by descriptions or genres, as it is usually done today.
5. Symbolism and Ritual
Although it was mentioned earlier that generic terms tend to be light in meaning and substance, all symbolic gestures start off being generic, at least in the beginning. Generic gestures gain meaning through ritual and repetition, eventually becoming loaded — then, given enough time, evolve into symbolic entities onto itself.
A ritual can be something as simple as agreeing to meet every week with your friends and having dinner. Maybe on the first day you’ll bring an apple to the party with you to have for dessert. Your friends end up enjoying the apple, so you decide to bring it again the following week. After a few months of doing the same, the apple becomes an “inside joke” within the group, spurring conversations and discussions about various subjects related to fruit. After a few years, the apple comes to symbolize the friendship that exists among you and your friends, coming to represent the beliefs and values of the group as a whole. Given enough time and iterations, eating the apple suddenly becomes an activity much more than the act of eating in itself.
Culture, in a nutshell, is basically a more refined, elaborate version of the apple story above. Creative story-telling can be said to be the act of turning generic gestures into symbolic ones through the use of ritual, repetition, and developmental forms. Some artists might sing about personal experience, sentiments, and lessons that they’ve learned throughout their life — while in the music of J.S. Bach, one might be able to hear glimpses of entire worlds being created and destroyed in the span of a few minutes. Skilled film-makers can create symbolic meaning within the time frame of a movie, creating smaller worlds onto themselves.
The reason why religious symbolism has such a powerful effect on people is because it houses the oldest, most refined, most loaded, and the most universally recognized symbols and rituals out there. It provokes intense and powerful reactions from both its followers and detractors alike, occasionally even leading to war. Can the rituals of online communities compete against such a force in terms of its survivabililty and duration? Probably not, but it doesn’t have to, because most people don’t spend their entire lives living inside a church. There are various types and levels of rituals — personal, communal, professional, religious, and so on, that can be designed towards greater fulfillment.
What the tech industry can do now is to identify the rituals that already exist on their respective platforms and throw its communities its full-fledged support. The communities and rituals happening in tech spaces may not end up lasting for an eternity, but it can certainly be made to last much longer than now — if music groups, sports teams, and activity clubs can span for more than a generation, the possibility of doing the same in the tech space is entirely achievable.
6. Ritual and Leadership
As mentioned in the previous sections, rituals and symbolic gestures can emerge out of anywhere, anytime, using virtually any idea, icon or gesture — as long as there’s a prolonged involvement and development with the activity itself. As spontaneous as they might seem to appear, however, they don’t happen by accident or emerge out of thin air. There is usually a leading force, either an individual or a small group of individuals, who puts in the majority of creative and logistical efforts in the creation and maintenance of these niche communities.
We might call these people “community leaders”, “directors”, “managers” as part of their official titles, but in contexts where rituals and symbolic meanings are actively being built, they serve a role that can be said to be spiritual in nature. For any community to flourish, it is necessary to allow for the emergence of shaman- or priest-like figures to fulfill the group’s core purpose and leadership roles.
Why are we here? What is good and evil? What is the purpose of life? The “big questions” that philosophers think and write about also happen to be the subjects in which community identities are formed, implicitly or explicitly. An activity executed with technical perfection can often be a source of genuine excitement and entertainment, but meaning is acquired through the continuous search for answers to the deeper questions in one’s livelihood.
It is said that the mastery of any activity leads to its practitioners turning into philosophers and gurus — they begin to see their craft in relationship to life, the world, existence and the implications it has on everything around them. Hence, spiritual leaders in niche communities can be identified by their ability to speak about their craft in relation to life and existence itself.
Someone who involves themselves deeply in street racing no longer sees it as just a matter of driving cars really fast — it’s a “way of life”, they would say. The same goes for anyone who put in the obsessive amounts of time, effort, and resources needed to gain mastery of any activity (art, sports, cooking, science, writing, business, etc.), no matter insignificant or banal it might seem to those outside of the group. The individuals who involve themselves in their craft on very deep levels have the ability to become the core and essence of their particular niche community.
Formulation of leadership roles in online spaces is currently very difficult, however, because the notion of leadership is often conflated with technical expertise and technical knowledge. A world built in the tech industry’s own image, forums and social media platforms often reward the technical understanding of their systems over the individual’s ability to lead and inspire.
The world’s greatest ping-pong player will not necessarily be very good at managing a forum or running a Kickstarter campaign in order to pursue a livelihood and their projects. Too bad, some might say — competition is a bitch, and survival is a matter for the fittest and capable. But this attitude incorrectly applies the tech industry’s definition of meritocracy into other worlds where quality and execution are measured by completely different standards, thus creating an incongruity between the platform and users themselves.
Before any real progress can be made, it is first necessary for social media platforms to acknowledge that such differences in standards exists and build systems that respect emerging communities on their own terms rather than their own. The other steps are to acknowledge the existence of emerging leadership roles and the spiritual (not scientific) nature that these types of practices come to represent for its participants.
Most social media platforms today don’t seem to be aware that these issues exist, much less doing anything that might resemble a remedy or solution to the problems pointed out above. Underneath the layer stimulation and interactivity that our electronic screens readily provide 24/7 exists a multitude of existential needs that are just yearning to be fulfilled. To be fair, these problems are very difficult problems — because they are essentially problems of the world, society, and life itself. But with acknowledgement may come solutions, and with solutions, a world better than before.
Will the entrepreneurial spirit of the tech industry carry them into the worlds of Sacred Spaces? Only time will tell.