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Some reflections on “When Leaders become Followers”

There was an excellent piece this morning by @schuth asking “what happens when we think about our online environment as if it were a physical space.” He proposed a thought-experiment that considered two online spaces as though they were two coffeeshops with very different community standards and management styles.

The piece showed how difficult it can be sometimes for us to understand online “spaces” in the same way we understand spaces out in the physical world. A child’s bedroom, a prison cell, a coffeeshop, a sports arena, a barbershop — it’s hard to imagine confusing any of these spaces for any of the others if we were to actually walk into them and look around.

But online, it’s different. If we don’t understand the nature and purpose of the space — or if we’ve been misled about its purpose — then our expectations will always be at least a little out of sync, both while we’re in that space and also when we take those expectations with us into other “spaces,” no matter how alike they may seem to us.

Broad, shallow similarities can mask deep, essential differences. How I set up the kitchen in my new house is very different from how I would design a commercial kitchen in a restaurant. Sure, they’re both “kitchens,” but one is a hearth, and the other is the core workshop for a commercial venture.

To that point, I want to build on and modify William’s original metaphor of coffeeshops. As apt as it is in many ways, it’s not completely accurate in others. (Of course it can’t be: comparisons are always between things that are at least somewhat dissimilar…)

The coffeeshop analogy captured the sociable aspects of the two spaces, but I honestly don’t think, and the IndieWeb movement in general, is trying to be another privately-managed commercial space. Twitter may very well be a coffeeshop of sorts, but definitely isn’t. This is part of why some of the Twitter exiles are bewildered by

So comparing Twitter to is perhaps like comparing a shopping mall to a farmer’s market in a public park. In the shopping mall, all purposes and uses are subordinate to the commercial activities; in the farmer’s market and park, the commercial is only one activity among many.

Another key distinction is that one space is private and the other is public. Communities can thrive in both sorts of spaces, but we should be very careful not to equate the two. No matter how similar they may seem, a space in which community isn’t the first priority is very different from one in which it is.

And no community can survive long anywhere without clearly defined (or at least clearly understood even if hard to define) standards and strong moderation. And that brings me to the next and possibly most important distinction between different sorts of spaces. Cost.

Maintaining a community, even if it’s a secondary purpose — a loss leader to get people in the door — is expensive. Do we pay for it through taxes whether we use it ourselves or not, or do we charge fees of only those who use it, or do we find corporate sponsorship, or do we pay with our time through volunteering, or some mixture of these? Every answer is fraught. The rhythms of a community are shaped by every choice it makes, and by every choice that is made for it.

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