In the current state of affairs, that’s a hard picture to paint, even for experts. What was once a promising opportunity to grow pluralism—the idea that encourages the coexistence of different opinions, beliefs, and ways of life—has become a wild-west accused of exacerbating fear of the other, promoting extremes, and spreading disinformation. It’s clear that social media is currently at a crossroads, and with it the digital communities that call these platforms home. Under this context, it might be more telling to consider what the future of digital communities might look like instead.
While digital communities follow some of the norms, structures, and rules of traditional communities, they are drastically different. For example, due to their novelty, simplicity, and methods of engagement, the fates of these communities are intertwined with the platforms upon which they are built, and they can often proliferate without even acknowledging that they are communities. Because of this, they lack many of the practical and conceptual requirements of being a stable, recursive collective that can manage and evolve itself to remain relevant in society.
This leads us to ask the question of whether our current digital communities are, at best, a flawed design, or at worst, a complete mistake. In the hopes of answering this question, the two of us interviewed multiple experts versed in a wide range of digital communities—from social media, to the sharing economy, to social civic networks. These individuals spoke on the fate and evolution of digital communities, raising diverse perspectives on the influence of emerging technologies and the role digital communities currently play in our society. Through these interviews, we have identified three recurring themes—decentralization, contextual interaction, and digital collectivism—that if addressed with resolve, could allow digital communities to evolve into stable, diverse, and human-focused collectives.
Traditionally, communities are formed of individuals devoted to operating and evolving the community based on the shared values of the group. However, for many digital communities, the way in which their members engage is determined by various external influences. Few of the platforms required to navigate the distributed nature of digital communities are designed, owned, or run by the individuals that use them. This means that the very foundations—social, technical, legal, economic, and experiential standards—that these communities are built on typically represent the interests of a third-party (often a for-profit organization) as opposed to those of the community. Jessa Lingel, author of Digital Countercultures and the Struggle for Community and assistant professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, confirms that the way in which people engage with the majority of today’s web-based content is tied to the interests of for-profit organizations like Google and Facebook. “These [organizations] are private industry rather than government, and publicly traded, meaning that they’re beholden to [the interests of] shareholders rather than users.
I think we’ll see an increasing fragmentation of platforms as people invest time in multiple platforms, and platforms emerge to serve niche groups. My guess is that we will look back at the period of Facebook and Twitter dominance as a rare moment of concentration of users in a small number of platforms.
To ensure a prosperous future, digital communities must shed misaligned third-party platforms and push for decentralized systems where the users control the fundamental parameters of engagement. As the idea permeates the development of digital communication technologies, this shift is gradually becoming a reality, even in sectors as historically slow-moving as government.
More decentralized ways of organizing communities and developing ideas are emerging with platforms like the civic-focused Ciwik, which aims to connect citizens to their elected representatives and local authorities. According to its co-founder and artistic director, Violette Suquet, decentralized platforms like Ciwik offer communities the opportunity to “create a society (and world) based on democracy and collective happiness,” in this case, by enhancing the civic process.
First, a new way to open up democratic debate will be with open data, to enable policy monitoring and transparency. Second, getting a candidate to emerge via Ciwik to circumvent the nomination system backed by a political party. Laprimaire.org was the precursor. And finally, cryptography and blockchain technology should make it possible to organize votes whose results will not be falsified.
Once a community controls its own medium, the design of the platform will match the intent of the community. This can be seen in the decentralized design of technologies such as blockchain, which have the potential to permit collaboration away from the socio-economic influence of third-party organizations. As Emily Bitze, the founder of the user-to-user bartering app Bunz, puts it, technologies designed to be decentralized “can be used to dis-intermediate large monopolies that profit from communities and pass that benefit back to the people who use the system.” In order for this shift in design to work, we also need a shift in philosophy. “It’s prudent that as we leverage new technologies, we ensure that we look past profit to benefit everyone—it starts to really become about something bigger; it has to be about coming together as people to make positive change,” says Emily.
The level of uncensored exchange this shift could create does have the potential to enable breeding grounds for racist, sexist, and generally anti-diverse interactions. At face value, this would seem to create communities that erode the values of pluralism; however, the current approach of algorithmically-enabled echo-chambers may hide a far more sinister challenge: ignorance. At the very least, the decentralization of digital communities could help to expose the true intentions of some communities, allowing us to identify extreme views and generate discourse to better understand those communities.
We all have personal limitations for the amount of information we can absorb during a given interaction. Fortunately, traditional face-to-face interactions include innate, contextual mechanisms to help us efficiently navigate information intake, such as emotional intuition, human commitment, and behavioral accountability. However, these mechanisms are easily distorted when applied to digital communities.
Thanks to technology, it can be argued that we process more information today than any era before us, making us more prone to information overload and negligence. To deal with this deluge of information, we place an emphasis on a manicured, easily-digestible user-experience, otherwise we may not even process the information at all. As identified by Emily Bitze, in many cases, this emphasis on streamlined consumption in digital communities can actually cause us to be less social.
With a lot of digital sharing platforms there is a focus on efficiency, everything faster, easier, better. So, in those cases it can eliminate the choice to actually engage with somebody.
But, by developing better ways of integrating information and digital interaction into the background of our daily lives, we can create a more natural method that enables individuals to appropriately serve the objectives of the digital communities to which they subscribe without neglecting information. In a dystopian future, this idea could manifest as a bombardment of augmented reality pop-ups filling our analog world with digital reminders. But done correctly, these calls-to-action would be contextually filtered based on factors such as location, time, and mood, allowing individuals to shed the burden of mentally juggling to-do lists and find trust in digital tools that flow with our personal lives. In fact, according to anthropologist Alexandra Stiver who studies online activity and crowd-sourcing, we are beginning to see this contextual filtering in action.
Increasingly, crowdfunding platforms are incorporating features to promote online-offline community transitions, having recognized that these can be reinforcing rather than necessarily distinct. This represents a major shift. As a result, many platforms now offer the ability to filter by both interests and location, a choice that simultaneously capitalises on a strength of the digital space while addressing one of its limitations.
This potentially overcomes one of the greatest issues with digital communities: they are no longer well contained, bleeding together into all parts of our lives. Future digital communities should bound themselves within the right times and places in people’s lives; a question no longer simply of medium or location, but of appropriateness. This would require a synchronous understanding of situational factors like participant mood, relationship, and occasion, to enable digital interactions that are timely and considerate.
In addition, these contextual interactions solve the aforementioned engagement problem by allowing the digital world to clearly mesh with the real world, reducing the imposed demarcations between the two and improving the efficacy of digital communities. It also has the potential to humanize digital interactions by preventing individuals from hiding behind their keyboards and introducing a higher level of accountability.
Another prominent issue digital communities face is the ability to develop a lasting shared identity and perspective among a distributed, digital populous. In traditional communities, face-to-face engagement allows for richer relationship building through factors like nonverbal communication, environmental context, and physical embodiment, all of which act as nuanced considerations that deepen understanding and trust between community members. By comparison, many digital mediums are information-poor modes of interaction, leading to communities built on a superficial and potentially transient member base. The lack of fully immersive, emotional information available through digital mediums creates a thin sense of shared identity, which is emphasized by the rotating door of membership and an ever-shifting sense of community. In fact, this contradicts the idea that social media are platforms that effectively build “social networks”.
The founding director of the Institute of Network Cultures, Geert Lovink, draws a clear distinction between social media and organized networks in his book Social Media Abyss: Critical Internet Cultures and the Force of Negation. According to Lovink, “social media is the digital reality of the connected multitudes,” whereas organized networks use the strong ties of small, specialized units to accomplish social goals.
Facebook and others have never been interested in facilitating its users with pragmatic online spaces that can be shielded… These days, no one talks about community anymore (or of networks, for that matter). Ever since ‘social networks’ turned into ‘social media’ the a priori is the user-profile centric model in which the individual customer is the central category.
Beyond this, the scale of a digital community’s reach creates greater challenges to its sense of identity. Compared to traditional communities whose local membership tend to focus on specialized or local issues and solutions, digital communities are global, often tackling challenges that supersede even the purview of national governments, such as climate change, global human rights, or personal data privacy and freedoms. According to futurist and science fiction author Karl Schroeder, we are not equipped to solve these problems today.
We are in the denial phase of an understanding that humanity is not actually able to solve the critical problems that face us today. We lack institutions capable of managing transnational, multi-generational, and scale-related issues such as climate change.
This is true for digital communities with a superficial sense of shared identity, as their laudable initiatives are slowed by the discourse of attempting to bridge individuals across various social, economic, geographic, and practical gaps.
To address this problem, we should improve the fidelity of digital communication media (which many platforms have been attempting through the increased use of audio, video, and sentiment tagging) and create digital communities that engage in more traditional ways. This can help to improve the challenge of thin communication but does little to support the complexities of working across global differences. Instead, digital communities should leverage their understanding of technology to develop entirely new forms of interaction that help overcome these differences.
In a slightly distant future, one could imagine the potential to leverage data analysis and artificial intelligence (AI) to negotiate a shared representation of diverse members of a community. Much like the concept of “Deodands”—intelligent digital agents that give a voice and rights to non-human entities such as trees or water systems—that Schroeder describes in his writings, AI-based identities and perspectives could be built around communities of individuals. A community of like-minded people could be represented by an AI whose opinions and actions would be derived from the aggregation of all its members. Given the broad differences between community members, these systems would never satisfy everyone’s convictions, and could be exposed to manipulation or unintended, data-driven biases. However, AI-powered digital communities theoretically have the potential to create a new and effective form of democratic representation, so long as you can generate sufficiently accurate models of a community’s member base to ensure appropriate, characteristic decision-making.
A discussion of this kind would be irresponsible without acknowledging the potential ethical pitfalls and dangers; most notably the challenge of the tyranny of the masses. Though data-fueled communities could provide accurate representations of the will of the majority, new structures and instruments would also be required to monitor and curb potential unintended wrong-doings. In essence, what this would mean is that a data-driven sense of identity would require an equally powerful data-driven sense of morality or, as Karl Schroder puts it, “eyeglasses” to help individuals adjust around their predispositions and prejudices.
The big lesson of the social design experiments of the last century is that you cannot remake human nature in the image of your ideals. You cannot make people more tolerant. What we can do is build the social equivalent of eyeglasses: communications and governance systems that correct for the stigmatism of human biases.
So, while a data-driven shared identity has the potential to allow individuals to neglect the idea of pluralism, tools with “eyeglasses” that check our prejudice toward marginalized groups could help encourage inclusion and acceptance. These systems could help pluralism flourish by bringing individuals face-to-face with their own conscious and subconscious biases. The transparency this affords to an individual could motivate them to identify and rethink their own social faux-pas or misalignments. Though not everyone would have the tolerance to fully embrace plural societies, at minimum, such a system would provide the first step of awareness.
For those of us who remember the early years of social networks, we nostalgically cling to the hope that these platforms have the potential to change the world. We remember a younger, simpler time that was full of meaningful connection and curiosity. And just like ourselves, these platforms have matured. They have become larger, more diverse, and more controlled.
Through countless gimmicks, pitfalls, and failed experiments, many would argue that social media has been evolving in the wrong direction, promoting distrust and fear among our diverse populations. However, we must remember that these platforms are still young, and their futures, intertwined with the communities that populate them, can still adapt and grow down countless paths.
While these three trends we’ve discussed are not exhaustive, they shed light on some of the major factors we must consider when defining the future of digital communities: platform intentions, technologies leveraged, governance structures, privacy policies, and social norms are but a few of these factors, some of which may be determined for digital communities en masse and others crafted uniquely for each individual community. Done the right way, these communities have the potential to promote pluralism and inclusiveness, improve democratic systems, and bring together diverse collectives of individuals to tackle the global crises facing our world.
As professor Jessa Lingel makes apparent in her book, Digital Countercultures and the Struggle for Community, diversity can be encouraged but not conditioned by design. Lingel suggests that “every platform can be subverted, so even if these platforms tend to promote some users and uses over others, there are also constant opportunities for rupture and reappropriation.” Whatever the future holds for digital communities, we must remember that pluralism can be brought out even in the most dubious of conditions.