Thinking about permissions

During the development of our second prototype “Shepherd”, we realised that permissions for truly distributed social media are a thorny thing. Within the decentralised design of Solid, we have to define how spaces are controlled in interactions between users. We also have to be mindful of preserving the context of the interaction, while also respecting the privacy of individuals who might belong to different networks, technical or otherwise.

Forum vs Community

Ausgelöst von einem seit längerer Zeit latent schwelendem Konflikt in der deutschsprachigen Online-Rollenspielszene kamen mir neulich einige Gedanken zu der Frage, was denn eigentlich eine „Online Community“ ausmacht, wo sich solche einfinden, und was unterschiedliche Erwartungshaltungen da anrichten können.

Halten wir einmal ein paar Begriffe und Überlegungen fest:

  • wenn Menschen das gleiche Hobby verfolgen, suchen sie gerne den Austausch zu anderen mit dem gleichen Hobby
  • Damit sind sie aber noch lange keine „Gemeinschaft“. Nicht alle Skatspieler sind dickste Freunde.
  • eine „Gemeinschaft“ ist eine Gruppe Menschen, die sich grundsätzlich gut versteht, einen gemeinsamen Umgangston gefunden hat, und gerne Kontakt zueinander hat.
  • Es gibt Social Media Plattformen, „Communities“ auf diesen Plattformen, Gruppen und Foren.
    • eine Plattform ist ein Stück Onlinesoftware, dass es Menschen erlaubt, miteinander in Kontakt zu treten. Man kann allerdings auch explizit den Kontakt zu bestimmten Menschen meiden
    • eine Community auf so einer Plattform erlaubt es, Menschen dieser Plattform zu einem bestimmten Thema oder Zweck zu verbinden. Die Community dient hier als Austausch- und Anknüpfungspunkt
    • eine Gruppe ist meistens einfach nur eine eher kleine Community
    • ein Forum ist eine eigenständige Plattform, die in sich eine Community abbildet.

Foren sind damit eine spannende Sonderkonstruktion: Man kann nicht aktiv der Plattform beitreten ohne nicht gleichzeitig auch Mitglied der dortigen Community zu werden. Dadurch, wie Foren die Übersicht über neue Beiträge präsentieren, wird es zum Beispiel in der Regel bewusst einfach gemacht, immer alle Bereiche des Forums wahrzunehmen.

Die Funktion „Zeige Ungelesenes“, die immer die neuen Beiträge zu einem Thema in den Vordergrund rückt, sorgt dabei dafür, dass Aufmerksamkeit auf viel diskutierte Dinge gelenkt wird. Als Thema X vor zwei Wochen aufkam, habe ich mich vielleicht nicht dafür interessiert und es einfach weggeklickt. Wenn die Foren Software mir aber das Thema jeden Tag mehrmal wieder präsentiert und mir damit mitteilt, dass viele andere das Thema behandeln, dann werde ich doch mal neugierig. 

Das bedeutet aber auch, dass es schwierig wird, Bereiche oder Menschen bewusst auszublenden. Ein Forum „zwingt“ alle Teilnehmenden in eine „Gemeinschaft“.

Eine Plattform wie z.B. Facebook funktioniert da anders: Von vornherein wird hier akzeptiert, dass nicht alle mit allen kommunizieren wollen, und diese Filter sind häufig auch auf Gruppenebene noch funktional — man kann sich leichter abkapseln und andere ausblenden. Alternativ eben auch eigene Gruppen bilden. (Das ist dann auch das Problem: Facebook-Gruppen ab einer bestimmten Größe funktionieren häufig nicht mehr als Gemeinschaft, sondern nur noch als Ankündigungsmethode.)

Problematisch wird das ganze dann, wenn Menschen ein Forum wie eine Plattform benutzen wollen. „Lass mich doch mein Ding machen und ignorier mich“ ist ein Nutzungskonzept, dass von Menschen in einem typischen Internetforum sehr viel Selbstdisziplin und mentalen Aufwand erfordert — viel mehr als auf z.B. Facebook.

Lässt sich das auflösen?

Mein Instinkt ist, dass das nicht ohne grundlegende Änderung der dahinterstehenden Technik, bzw. der Benutzerführung geht. So oder so hilft es, wenn Menschen sich online tatsächlich bewusster damit beschäftigen und einigen, wie sie sich sehen: Als Gemeinschaft, lose Gruppe, Gruppe von Gemeinschaften oder etwas ganz anderes.

Online Interaction types — what is there, what do I look for?

While going through the Spreadsheet I created as a tool after writing the last blogpost here, I realized that what was completely obvious to me, isn’t necessarily to others. Mostly because the whole argument about the details was mostly in my head.

So, let’s write it down:

To start, and to have a common vocabulary, we should set down a few basic communication model parameters:

  • Realtime versus Asynchronous.
  • One to one vs One to Many or even Many to Many
  • Closed vs Open
Realtime is the discussion we have at the breakfast table, or when we trashtalk our opponents inside a videogame, in a meeting, over the phone or even text or video chats. The key element is that it happens in real time, attendance is perceived and people generally consider it rude if you make them wait for an answer too long.Asynchronous communication is much more robust in regard to time constraints. In olden times, we simply knew that the messenger pigeon will take a while to deliver that missive to the King, so we waited. Letters took their time, and it was acknowledged that the recipient will then need time and effort to compose a proper answer.
One to One is a discussion with just two participants. That can be realtime (a phone call) or asynchronous (a letter).One to Many used to be the prerogative of official proclamations, public speeches and, later, newspapers and radio or tv broadcasts.
Many to Many is something that we have quite a lot today on the Internet. A group of people communicating within itself, or with another group of people. Sometimes in there, you have a few separate one-to-one conversations. Sometimes everyone is listening to just one person, sometimes everyone is broadcasting at once while no one listens.
Closed communications strive to be private — no one outside the elected circle may listen in — or they may listen in, but they are not allowed to participate.Open on the other hand is there for all to see, hear and join.

And on top of those models, we have the selectors by which people decide which communications they want to see or even participate in:

  • Serendipitous discovery
  • by topic
  • by curator

Serendipitous discovery of new topics, persons and discussions is something that is, in my mind, incredibly important these days. We need to be exposed to ideas and persons we wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. We often don’t know that we were missing an idea or something before we actually found it. I cannot search for unknown unknowns.

What I can look for are topics: Show me articles about that car I plan to buy. Or I’m looking for a place to discuss my new favorite game. Systems that make it easy for me to find those topics are helpful — but they tend to keep me in that bubble, I don’t often learn about things outside that topic.

Human Curators of content are incredibly important. Malcolm Gladwell calls them "Mavens" — a group of people that hunt out information about things and then strive to educate people about those. These curators are often very similar to a discovery by topic, because they usually have a theme, a thing that they are mostly interested in. But not exclusively so. Everyone has side hobbies, interests that are not obvious, and these make their way into the communication stream of a curator too.

Finally, we need to look at the different bits of communication and who owns them: This is less interesting in a face to face conversation in a room, without any technical tools, but gets really important very fast if you do things over the Internet.

Take this blog article here. It is written by me, posted on my Blog. I wholly own and control it — I can delete it if I want to, I can edit and revise it.

I also control the comments that are submitted on this Blog. If you have something to say about this and want to correct me, you can submit a comment here, that everyone will then be able to read.

But I will still own the comment in some sense — I will be able to hide it, delete it, even completely ban you from ever commenting again. Heck, WordPress even allows me to edit the comment, putting words into your mouths that you have never intended to write!

(I could have a variety of reasons to do so: I found what was written offensive. Or deemed it to be just not helpful for the discussion I wanted to have. Or I just don’t like the commentator. Some of these reasons can be completely legitimate, some are somewhat to very hostile)

If you want to assure ownership of your writing, you will have to do so on your own Blogpage. You could write an article of your own, pointing at mine and say whatever you want to say and I could not immediately delete it.

Different communication systems handle this ownership differently — Twitter, Mastodon and similar systems don’t know any post-comment separation. Everything is a post, and every post fully belongs to the person who made it. That has upsides (as no one can maliciously remove your contribution) but also downsides (no one can easily take stewardship of a discussion, not even with the noblest of intents)

Lastly, there are some concerns about safety: Sadly, there will always be people who use communication systems to harass others. They could use technology to stalk people, flood their screens with hateful messages or simply spread rumors and lies about them. A good system will need a few tools to address that:

  • mute a person (prevent them from talking to you. They can still see your content, but are unable to show up on your screen)
  • block a person (same as muting, but they will also be unable to see your content)
  • throw someone out of the whole communication network (they cannot interact with anyone on this system anymore, at all.)

Not all of these tools should be in everyone’s hands (I should be able to decide that someone cannot see my things anymore, but a complete ban needs a higher and accountable authority), and not all of these need to be applied for a lifetime — sometimes it is sufficient to mute someone on just this one conversation, or for just a month. Sometimes people learn after a ban and come back as a better person.

So, having set down some definitions and ideas, how does all that relate to what I expect from a system that allows me to interact with others on a daily basis?

  • In case you haven’t noticed — I love the serendipity aspect of the Internet. It is a machine that keeps showing me new and exciting things and people.
  • I also am more interested in persons than topics — so I have a greater need to follow those, instead of just subscribing to car-news and roleplaying games.
  • Even if everyone comes with the very best intentions — moderation of a discussion is important. And I prefer if those moderation powers come in very small packages, limiting the scope of the moderation to just certain parts. If not, this can quickly sour a whole community if things go wrong.
  • I believe in ambient findability. That means that it should always be easy to see the whole discussion, and where they branch off. Threaded views are key for this.
  • Text — I love memes. Really. Communicating ideas and feelings with bits of moving pictures is a great thing. And I love gorgeous photography or a well-made video. But to convey complex ideas, Text is still the best carrier. Sure, make it illustrated and hyperlinked text, where you can look up related information. But due to so many restrictions (screen size, disabilities, can’t have audio on because I’m in a quiet place, I just don’t have the bandwith because #Neuland)
  • Lastly, and this has nothing to do with the things I outlined above, whatever system we use to build our social media stream with, it should be as open, portable and vendor-lockin-free as possible. Because we learned the hard way what happens otherwise…