What if we approach a design project not with the intention of fixing a problem, but supporting the people who want to tackle it? What if, as designers, we take to heart our role as conveners, creating systems that bring the experts in a problem space together to take on a shared challenge?
From 2017-2018, I worked as a researcher at the Emerson College Engagement Lab on a project that examined how legacy institutions and grassroots organizations are using media to convene people around shared interests and challenges. With generous support from the MacArthur Foundation, I visited with activists, educators, and designers in Boston, Chicago, and Oakland innovating and deploying civic media practice.
Last week, the Transformative Culture Project celebrated its 10th anniversary. I was honored to recieve an award that acknowledged my contributions as a civic designer over the past decade. The honor offered clarity to my journey and to a growing practice of designers committed to creating new opportunities for people to convene, lifting up local expertise, a supporting moments of solidarity.
Reflecting on my journey as the founder and, as I see it now, founding convener of the Transformative Culture Project, I gave the following speech that I hope others might find useful as they approach the work of designing toward civic aims.
Whether its adding content to an encyclopedia article on Wikipedia.org or marking up images from the Kepler space telescope in search of new planets on PlanetHunters.org, open digital participatory platforms like Wikipedia and Planet Hunters rely on volunteer contributors with any background and minimal to no training to stop by and help out.
This wide open invitation for anyone to contribute is tempered by a need for quality control, making sure that what a volunteer contributes actually adheres to and advances the goals of the project. Therefore open digital participatory platforms must operate by navigating a tension between what scholars Chris Kelty and Seth Erickson describe as the rhetoric of openness, encouraging anyone to participate, and the structural realities of openness, creating the terms and conditions around what participation looks like. As Tarleton Gillespie points out, open digital platforms like Facebook and YouTube have edges, meaning that while they welcome and encourage a wide range of participation, they have distinct terms of participation that constrain what we can and cannot do.
Through my research I have explored the conditions of participation on two digital platforms, Wikipedia and Planet Hunters, focusing on the different ways constraints around participation are created in order to both encourage volunteers to contribute while also ensuring that their work adheres to project goals. As I describe in a forthcoming publication, my findings point to constraints that have varying degrees of strength and that these constraints on participation can vary from feature to feature on platforms. For example, some features on a platform may impose heavy constraints on what you can and cannot do while other features may afford greater flexibility.
I describe these distinct conditions or spaces of participation and their varying constraints on the agency of the volunteer as the center and margin of participation, where the center constrains possibilities such that the contributions for volunteers are more likely to adhere to ideologies and objectives of the platform, while the margin offers greater flexibility around participation, allowing for contributions that may deviate from and even challenge objectives.
*The following post is based off a paper I presented at “The Future of Platforms as Sites of Work, Collaboration and Trust” workshop at the 2016 Conference for Computer Supported Cooperative Work
The sharing economy has been described as a phenomenon that reintroduces social interaction into economic exchanges, where people no longer place their trust solely in a network of complex legal frameworks or brand reputation, but also engage in interpersonal negotiations about the terms of the transaction .
This act of negotiating the terms of a transaction emphasizes an aspect of how trust is defined in the sharing economy in that it helps to anticipate, “imminent outcomes and behaviors in the presence of uncertainty” . For example, Yochai Benkler describes a website for an ad-hoc carpooling community that outlines behavior ranging from how people wait in line to how they should interact with each other in the car. Trust in Benkler’s example of the carpooling community is based on a mutual expectation that all participants in the carpooling community are aware of the social framework articulated on the website.
While research has looked at such mechanisms as trust, reputation, and social norms that mediate online transactions , what we know less of is how newcomers to such platforms learn what the social frameworks of participation are. Because many transactions in the sharing economy are distinct from the majority of transactions we engage in, the question of understanding the learning curve of participating in the sharing economy becomes important. Furthermore, as I suggest later on, this question of newcomers and learning curves to participation is crucial not only to how we understand existing sharing economy platforms, but how we can envision the development of new iterations of the sharing economy.
I am at the 2015 Conference on Communities and Technologies in Limerick Ireland where I will present “Being Present in Online Communities: Learning in Citizen Science” a paper I authored with my advisor and colleagues at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies. Set in the context of the citizen science project Planet Hunters, my colleagues and I explore three uniques ways that newcomers learn to contribute to the project.
The paper extends existing research on newcomer learning in online communities which emphasizes that learning for newcomers involves getting feedback from experienced participants, observing the work of others, and building relationships with experienced members. In this paper, we suggest that these key themes are problematized in settings where such opportunities for learning are limited or are not possible.
Over the past year I was part of a team that developed the Co-op, a newcomer support space on Wikipedia. The Co-op was designed to match newcomers with experienced Wikipedians around specific needs. In our final report we present our findings from the pilot, describing the existing newcomer support ecology on Wikipedia, where the Co-op fits in, as well as performance outcomes of new editors that used the Co-op. You can find the final report here.
Wikipedia was once seen as “wild west” experience for newcomers, leaving them to their own devices to figure out how to participate. Over the past few years we have seen a growth and formalization of newcomer support systems, however researchers have not taken stock of what this growing ecology for newcomer support looks like. In a recent post on the progress of the Wikipedia mentorship project I am working on, I talk about this need for scholarship as well as some findings from a recent interview about this topic. Below is an excerpt from the post:
From initiatives like the Education Program that connect experienced Wikipedians with college students editing for the first time, to spaces like the Teahouse, where newcomers can ask questions the best way they know how without any worry of criticism, each of these examples consolidates information-seeking opportunities into a manageable experience.
See the full post here and scroll down to “August-September Updates.”
Perhaps one of the more challenging but also enjoyable parts of writing my dissertation has been grappling withe the idea of sociomateriality. There are a number of approaches to defining and researching sociomateriality, but the most obvious take away is that sociomateriality directs the researcher towards examining the role of materiality in the structuring/durability of human action. Some authors dance around the idea while others, through superb rhetoric, unveil this condition with profound clarity. A passage (see below) from Bruno Latour’s 1996 work,“On Interobjectivity”, is particularly illuminating:
We circulate smoothly from the offices of the post office’s architect, where the counter model was sketched and the flux of users modeled. My interaction with the worker was anticipated there, statistically, years before-and the way in which I leaned on the counter, sprayed saliva, filled in forms, was anticipated by ergonomists and inscribed in the agency of the post office.Of course they didn’t see me standing there in the flesh, any more than they saw the worker. But it would be a serious mistake to say that I was not there. I was inscribed there as a category of user, and today I have just carried out this role and have actualized the variable with my own body. Thus I am indeed connected from the post office to the architect by a slender but solid thread that makes me go from being a personal body in interaction with a worker to a type of user represented on a blueprint. Inversely, the framework sketched out years ago remains, through the intervention of Portuguese workers, concrete, carpenters and fiberglass, the framework that holds, limits, channels and authorizes my conversation with the post office worker. As soon as the objects are added in, it will be seen that we must get used to circulating in time, in space, across levels of materialization.
Today I presented research with my advisor, Dr. Carsten Osterlund, on the sociomateriality of newcomer socialization in the citizen science project, Planet Hunters. See the abstract of our talk below:
Crowdsourced initiatives rely on contributions from experienced and non-experienced contributors rather than on permanent workers. Such new organizational forms challenge existing theories of organizational socialization. Theoretically, the present paper merges insights from the socialization literature with notions of multiple spaces and forms of presence drawn from the sociomateriality debate, leading us to conceptualize socialization as emerging out of the mutual co-construction of the technical infrastructure and the volunteers. Combining virtual ethnography, trace ethnography, and survey responses, we study socialization of participants in a large citizen science project involving more than 800,000 participants. Our results depict newcomer socialization as a gradual change in the types of spaces participants perform. They start out performing scientific and communal system features as highly structured regional spaces characterized by authoritative-subject forms of relations. As they become more comfortable with the scientific practices some participants shift to perform system features as a resonance space characterized by a communal form of authority. The research contributes to our understanding of socialization in crowdsourced environments and implications their design and management.
Wikipedia has matured as an open source collaborative project, featuring a robust governance structure that has emerged over the project’s 13 year history. While the policies and guidelines help shape the creation of quality content on Wikipedia, one area of the community structure that is receiving a great deal of attention and thought is the experience of newcomers. Research shows that ,of late, newcomers find themselves in a hostile environment that does not welcome their contributions. With Wikipedia surviving on the goodwill of volunteers, chasing away newcomers has implications for the long term sustainability of the movement. As such, researchers and community members alike are rethinking how to support newcomers so that they will be more inclined to stay with Wikipedia. As someone who thinks a lot about the experience of newcomers in online collaborative communities, I was excited to receive news this week that I along with two other Wikipedians received a grant from the Wikimedia Foundation to develop a new mentorship system that matches newcomers with experienced Wikipedians based on the skills newcomers wish to learn. The aim of the project is to support newcomer socialization and learning with the broader goal of supporting newcomer retention. Over the next six months I will work on this grant as a researcher, examining the newcomer experience in the system we design as well as the outcomes of their participation. This project should shed light on some of the broader issues of expertise sharing and newcomer socialization and will ideally make valuable contributions to the research and design around development and management of online collaborative environments. I look forward to writing here about what I find over the next six months.