XVIII.2 March + April 2011
Page: 24
Digital Citation

Productive tensions

Tad Hirsch

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It's my great pleasure to introduce interactions' new Community + Culture forum, which will focus on designing technology with and for communities. I have spent most of my adult life involved with various kinds of community-oriented projects; I have worked in the nonprofit sector and in academia and am now based in a corporate research lab. While my own work has been concerned primarily with political advocacy, civic engagement, and community empowerment, I have an interest in and passion for the full spectrum of community technology design.

I've been reflecting on the wide range of technology projects that make some claim to community involvement. There is a lot of material to consider. Computer networks have been tied to notions of community ever since a group of idealistic techies wired up Community Memory, a network of public-access computer terminals in the Bay Area in the early 1970s. Almost four decades later, Community Memory's legacy is a dizzying array of concepts and ideas, including physical communities, virtual communities, online communities, online community managers, online research communities, communities of interest, communities of practice, user communities, support communities, community computing, community portals, social networks, social computing, social media, community media, community building, community informatics, community networks, neighborhood networks, rural networks, community technology centers, telecenters, telecottages, information kiosks, and so on.

(It would seem that technology designers have used "community" at one time or another to describe virtually any group of three or more people.)

It is beyond the scope of this article to provide a comprehensive guide to the field, or to resolve any of its many tensions and contradictions. Community technology design can be sliced and diced any number of ways. We can make distinctions between physical and online communities, between social and business concerns, between telecenters and mobile media projects. As forum editor, I hope to highlight thematics that cut across the field. I'm particularly interested in core concepts that are implicated in nearly all community technology projects and that also account for much of the divergence between methods and philosophies. Let's call them productive tensions: ideas about which there is little or no consensus, but that nonetheless shape the field. My guiding principle as I consider topics for this forum is the belief that thoughtful reflection about productive tensions helps us better understand the field, and our own place within it.

back to top  Agency

To better illustrate what I mean by a productive tension, let's consider how notions of agency play out in community technology projects. En masse, technology designers generally believe that agency resides chiefly within individuals and is expressed through decisions about which communities one might choose to join. At the same time, we understand individual agency is mitigated by a host of social, economic, and environmental factors, and that in some cases one doesn't choose to join a given community any more than one chooses one's parents. There are some communities of which one simply is a member (although the degree to which one actively participates is another matter).

While most designers will recognize this tension, there does seem to be a tendency to privilege one side of the equation. There is significant variance among designers over questions of how agency functions in communities, which has implications for the projects we choose and the design decisions we make.

For example, one can make a meaningful distinction between projects that understand community primarily as voluntary association and those that consider a community to be a product of circumstance. The former includes all manner of so-called communities of interest or communities of practice—groups that are oriented around shared concerns or professions. Many of these communities are brought into being through the introduction of communication technologies—for example, communities that arise in online environments like Second Life, World of Warcraft, or YouTube. Other examples might include fan clubs, hobbyist networks, or professional organizations. The key characteristic is that these are all communities where membership is voluntary—members choose to join and are more or less free to leave as their interests, hobbies, or professions change.

Designers who think about communities as voluntary associations tend to ask questions like, "Why do people join?" "Why do they stay?" and "How can we attract new members?" Which in turn may lead them to focus on the material and emotional benefits that individuals derive from their community engagements. The design response to such questions is a system primarily aimed at lowering barriers and providing incentives for participation such as Facebook or LinkedIn.

We understand individual agency is mitigated by a host of social, economic, and environmental factors, and that in some cases one doesn't choose to join a given community any more than one chooses one's parents. There are some communities of which one simply is a member.

On the other hand, some designers tend to focus on providing technical support for communities where membership is not strictly voluntary but rather arises out of the circumstances in which people find themselves. These are often geographically bounded neighborhoods, villages, or regions; they might also be based on, say, socioeconomic status, physical or mental health, or sexual orientation.

These designers tend to think of communities as groups of people thrown together by forces largely outside of their control. In such circumstances, collective agency and collective action often become a central focus for research and design efforts. Designers emphasize ways that members can combine their efforts in order to exert greater influence on the world around them (including on the forces that threw them together in the first place). For example, a designer might think of a telecenter not just as a place where people can come to learn job skills, but also in terms of how it can function to organize advocacy campaigns on behalf of the poor.

Obviously, this is not a categorical distinction: All communities are influenced by both agency and circumstance. And the approaches I've just described are not mutually exclusive. The online shopping network Group On is voluntary; members engage in collective action. Similarly, support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous are primarily concerned with providing benefit to their members and generally don't engage in advocacy. My point is simply that focusing the ways in which agency functions within and across projects is a useful way to understand the field and our own practice.

back to top  Scale

With the advent of social computing, the sheer size of social networks and online communities has increased by several orders of magnitude. Facebook, for example, has now surpassed 500 million users—more than 1.5 times the total number of people in the world who were online when the Internet bubble burst 10 years ago.

The massive adoption of social networking sites raises a number of questions for community technology designers. Many doctoral students will earn their degrees in the next several years trying to understand the dynamics of Facebook's user base. Chief among the questions they will address is whether a difference in scale really connotes a difference in kind—if the way 500 million people behave is simply a larger version of the way 500 people do, or if in fact something fundamentally changes with massive scale. And if so, we may ask, what are the implications for technology design?

More broadly, many communities wrestle with notions of scale. Whether it's an implicit understanding or a stated goal, community technology projects often operate with some notion of how many members they anticipate, the rate at which the community is expected to grow, and so forth. These factors inform decisions about physical infrastructure, financial goals, software architecture, and interface design, as well as the rules and policies that govern members' behavior.

It is worth noting that valorizing community technology by scale—the idea that Facebook's value is measured by the size of its user base—is really appropriate only for particular kinds of projects. For many geographically bounded communities, for example, the idea of massive scale doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Similarly, the notion that successful communities seek growth is also highly contextual. For example, one may fairly say that Bosnia and Herzegovina's Landmine Survivors Initiatives would prefer that the community it serves not get any bigger.

back to top  Identity and Ownership

Collective identity—the sense of "we-ness" shared among a group of people—is central to the experience of community. It is one of the key attributes differentiating communities from, say, demographics. But there are varying degrees of collective identity. Many participants in community technology projects experience a relatively weak form of collective identity: They may barely acknowledge their membership at all. But there is a wide range of experience. At its most intense, community spirit can be a source of great personal satisfaction and an engine for collective action and social cohesion. It can also lead to xenophobia and exclusion.

The extent to which collective identity surfaces in community technology projects—and what that surfacing enables—is often tied to the sense of ownership participants feel toward the project, which is largely shaped by the policies that designers establish to shape participation. For example, allowing users to exert control over a project in whole or in part or including them in design decisions encourages participants to feel that a technology offering is owned by the community, which in turn enables community engagement to arise through interactions with the system. The relationship between ownership and collective identity can cause tensions between institutions that host community technology projects (i.e., those who are legally and/or financially responsible) and the community those products are intended to serve (i.e., those who feel a sense of ownership).

back to top  Difference

While communities nurture and support their members, we should acknowledge that communities can also be fractious and unruly. Arguments and disputes are common within communities, as are factions that nurture longstanding disagreements or grudges.

Technology designers have never been particularly comfortable with tension. The rhetoric around online communities has always emphasized common interests rather than discord; when a dispute is considered at all, it is generally thought of as a disruptive force to be mitigated. Wikipedia, for example, is built around ideals of consensus and agreement and struggles to contend with ongoing disputes that defy easy resolution. But the productive power of disagreement is worth considering. Among individuals, disagreements can hone critical thinking and foster deeper interpersonal bonds. At the community scale, contention and difference are the prerequisites for democratic process.

Points of contention can also spawn innovation. Consider the role that forking has played in the development of open source software. While spinning derivative efforts off from existing projects (forking) is generally discouraged within the open-source community, forking can also be the impetus for important new initiatives that extend existing capabilities and strengthen the community as a whole. For example, Ubuntu Linux is an operating system that was forked from the Debian codebase in 2004 in response to criticisms about the rate at which updates had been released and complexity of installation.

Ubuntu has since become one of the most popular Linux distributions in the world, and the ease with which it can be installed has encouraged significant numbers of new users to begin using open source operating systems.

back to top  Looking Ahead

My goal for this forum is to foster a discussion by and for practitioners from across the field about questions and issues of mutual concern. I also hope to expand the discourse to relevant practitioners whose perspectives are seldom represented in ACM publications. In particular, I hope to foster dialog between community technology designers and artists who engage in public and community-based work. There is a long tradition of community engagement in the arts, within which there are a number of artists who work explicitly with computational artifacts. These practitioners share many of the same aspirations and deal with many of the same challenges as community technology designers, but their perspective is quite unique. I believe that we have a lot to learn from each other.

With these introductory remarks, I have tried to lay out an initial set of concerns that may provide fodder for future articles. Over the next several issues, this forum will present essays by distinguished practitioners that explore and expand the themes described here. In parting, let me also say that I am keen to hear from researchers and practitioners with compelling projects and provocative points of view. If you would like to propose an article for this space, please send a note to

back to top  Author

Tad Hirsch is a senior research scientist with Intel's Social Insights Lab, where his work focuses on the uses of technology for advocacy, civic engagement, and environmental sustainability. He has taught design at the Rhode Island School of Design, the University of Oregon, and Carnegie Mellon University.

back to top  Footnotes


back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. The Community Memory Project was the world's first public computerized bulletin board system. Users could add messages, include keywords, and find messages using those keywords.

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