The work I do is at the intersection of learning, technology, and community. That’s taken lots of different shapes, from formal education, to working for a global non-profit like the Mozilla Foundation, to building a resource-sharing social network for educators with Moodle. More recently, though, I’ve been working with the Bonfire team, as well as collaborating with my WAO colleagues in helping out organisations like Participate and LocalGov Drupal.
One thing that seems to be a thread that runs through all of this work is how to engender a sense of belonging within a community. WAO use an Architecture of Participation approach which I’ve most recently written about many times to help with that. But there’s another angle I also want to explore, which I suppose sits more under the heading of ‘information architecture’.
Communities these days, even if they meet up in person regularly, are technologically-mediated. Take a sports team or a community choir, for example: they will interact at the very least through a chat app to keep everyone up-to-date with what’s going on. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, are communities where most of the people involved will probably never meet in person — an online gaming group, for example, or people who come together for a few short weeks to do an online course.
Usually, the people facilitating the community only consider the people they’re dealing with in the single dimension of that particular group or course. Most of us, however, are part of many different communities and, in addition, have direct message conversations with friends and colleagues to keep up with.
So we end up with the problem usually referred to as ‘information overload’ but I prefer to call notification literacy. As I say in the linked post, there are preventative measures and mitigating actions you can take as an individual to help ‘increase your notification literacy’. There are also ways of facilitating communities that can help, for example if the platform you’re using has threaded comments, insisting that people use instead of a confusing, undifferentiated stream of messages. You can also ensure you have a separate chat or channel just for important announcements.
However, there are UX decisions that can be made at a platform level which can help with this. I’ve already mentioned threads, which to my mind is absolutely basic — even chat apps like WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal should have these, I think. Going beyond this, it’s worth considering how to scaffold the attention of people returning to a social networking app after some time away. This might be just overnight while they were sleeping, or after several days, weeks, or months away, for various reasons.
Big Tech’s centralised, proprietary platforms deal with this through algorithmic timelines. That is to say, instead of a simple reverse chronological timeline with one update after another, they show you ‘things you may have missed’ and otherwise curate your experience for you. This is extremely effective at sucking people into spending more time on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. But it’s not a great way of preventing civilisational collapse due to us all having no short-term memory or attention.
This is why I’ve been thinking about what a healthy, sustainable, informative ‘home’ screen might be like for community-focused platforms such as LocalGov Drupal, Participate, and Bonfire. This is particularly germane for the latter two, as they are building platforms to allow people to create community spaces for learning and solidarity. I don’t think a ‘notifications’ tab is enough in this day and age to allow people to make sense of what’s going on; it involves too much context-switching and can absolutely destroy our attention.
I was particularly interested in Chris Aldrich’s observation that knowledge workers tend to talk in spatial terms about their work, especially if distracted.
Following interruptions by colleagues or phone calls at work, people may frequently ask themselves “where was I?” more frequently than “what was I doing?” This colloquialism isn’t surprising as our memories for visual items and location are much stronger than actions. Knowledge workers will look around at their environments for contextual clues for what they were doing and find them in piles of paper on their desks, tabs in their computer browser, or even documents (physical or virtual) on their desktops.
What are the contextual cues we can use in community spaces to help people understand what’s going on? I don’t think a mere notifications tab is going to cut it. Instead, I perhaps we need more advanced conversational visualisation tools such as Chartodon, and even the ability for people to colour-code and tag discussions.
There are plenty of issues with Slack for workplace chat, but one thing I find invaluable is the ability for it to remind me to be reminded about a message after a specified amount of time. It seems like such a simple thing for a social network or other community-focused platform to implement, but I haven’t seen it anywhere else.
Another thing, of course, that most chat apps have is a status icon showing whether that person is online. This has been around for decades, ever since the days of MSN and AOL Messengers, and probably before that. Knowing whether someone is (choosing to show that they’re) online can make a difference to how I reply, as well as the speed of my reply.
Ideally, to take a metaphor from WordPress, I want to separate out my ‘home’ page on a community platform from the the feed. So instead of logging-on and being presented with a firehose, instead I have something which I can immediately understand.
(I haven’t used a forum for years, and don’t even really use my Reddit account, but I seem to remember that when I logged into forums back in the day, there would be a ‘dashboard’ where I could see which threads had been updated and how many messages there were. I kind of miss that, I have to say.)
I’m very much thinking out loud in this post, which is why I haven’t included screenshots and mock-ups. However, perhaps it might be worth thinking further using some visual tools about how this could look. I’d like to get some other brains involved as well, so if you’re interested perhaps we could have a chat?