Sidewalk Spaces and Positive Gatekeeping

Continuing my “Networked Communities” blogchain with Tom Critchlow, talking about how we write, how we connect, how we build communities online & more. This is the third post; see Post 1 (me) and Post 2 (Tom) first if you haven’t read those yet!

Tom’s latest post puts forth another way to frame what blogging is for: not as simply writing for ourselves, or even for each other, but to fulfill a wider social obligation to our networks.

I too enjoyed Nadia’s post Reclaiming public life, which talks about the idea, via Jane Jacobs, of “sidewalk life” — the hybrid social spaces that exist between public and private, where we can find a degree of familiarity and trust, but also leave room for serendipity.

So a big question here is: how can we find or create more sidewalk spaces for our online communities? And how can we make these spaces feel comfortable and vibrant, so people want to actually inhabit and enjoy them?

The blogosphere does seem like an ideal candidate for sidewalk space, though maybe lacking the density for Jacobsian chance interactions? Being on a social platform like Twitter can feel like being in the middle of downtown in a foreign city you’re visiting. Staking out a claim as part of the indie web can feel like you’re surrounded by your neighbors…but/and like you’re on an open frontier where the closest of those neighbors are miles away. The right structure is there but maybe our job is to increase the population density, if not at large, at least in certain pockets.

I found another post on Nadia’s site, Hidden cities, with some very interesting points about scale and gatekeeping. Basically: some things stay better if they’re hard to find, or intentionally impose limits in order to access them.

So now I’m thinking: how can we productively constrain the boundaries of our communities? How can we be our own gatekeepers, but still feel a sense of generative possibility? How can we navigate the tension between wanting to maintain some kind of consistency and comfort level in a space, and also remain open to serendipitous communion?

Darius Kazemi has an awesome guide, Run your own social, where he shares what he’s learned about maintaining a small DIY social network for his circle of friends. One of the points he emphasizes is that this really only works when kept at a small scale. He has around 50 active users on the network, and reckons that’s near the upper limit. He goes on to say:

Of course, the question is how does this scale beyond those 50 people? Well, that is why I’m writing this guide. I think there should be thousands of these small servers talking to each other.

To support his social network, Darius runs a fork of Mastodon called Hometown where he’s adding some cool features: things like a private local-only (non-federated) posting layer, extended content types, and better list management. He also provides some great tips in his guide, like:

  • Personal onboarding, giving each user a custom introduction to the network, explaining not just the software, but who the other users are, and their group norms and traditions
  • Group activities (e.g. movie night or book club) — things that help socialize everyone with each other, build tight-knit connections
  • And at the end, he brings up the idea of a “neighborhood” concept for federated social networks, as a layer between local (your home server) and public (everyone else)…this seems very in line with spaces designed to foster sidewalk life!

I don’t think this structure necessarily works for every situation, and there may be issues with basically being part of just one “local” community and figuring out how to “federate” certain parts of your conversation out to the wider world. Mastodon still feels a bit opaque to me. But I think the general outline here — how to think about building a community that prioritizes intimacy, comfort, participation — has a lot we can learn from.

I’d like to consider a broad range of possible mechanisms for sparking conversation and making people more comfortable participating in the various places I frequent and share ideas, from my personal blog here, to the Antilibraries forum, to Twitter and email. And I think I’d be doing myself a favor to think less in terms of “building an audience” and more in terms of connecting with individuals or a small handful of people at a time.

Maybe that means starting more blogchains and inviting responses (reading this? want to blog together? let’s do it!) Maybe it’s trying the one-on-one onboarding process for the forum, or making a private section where folks can chat more freely. Maybe it’s sending more emails and DMs. Maybe it’s…starting a tiny local indie social network? Maybe all the above!