Tech Life Lowest common denominator communication

Welcome Back to the Village

Founded in 2009, Strava meets every definition of a social network. A loosely connected group of athletes: bikers, runners, swimmer, and more. Strava allows us to record our activities and, if we choose, compare those results with others.

You can follow friends or strangers. You can compare your athletic activities with others. You can celebrate each other’s feats. Conversation is apolitical and non-controversial. There’s a code of conduct that I never looked at until I researched this article.

Strava is a social network, but you can pay for premium features. When someone asks me, “Is paying Strava worth it? What premium features do you like?” I answer, “I could care less about the premium features. I need Strava to exist.”1

While the value that Strava the social network provides me is undeniable, Strava creates another construct. The humans who choose to be there are bound together by a shared purpose that I see each time I ride my bike. I often stop at the side of the road and get off my bike for a quick drink or bite. As other bikers pass, it is normal for total strangers to stop their ride and ask, “Hey are you ok?”

See, Strava built a village.

The Attributes of a Village

A village is populated with humans who live in proximity and thus know each other. There are dear friends, there are acquaintances, and there are even strangers. However, even the strangers have a bond: they live in the same village. They have an unstated mutual interest in keeping the village safe because it is their home.

Even with mutually shared interest, there are different values in the village. Differing perspective that can result in disagreement and sometimes escalate to forms of conflict. To protect this entity, some villages have defined a code of conduct or set of laws that explain their values. This explains what behavior is unacceptable and consequences of those behaviors. Values frame the hardest decisions at the most chaotic times.

The Internet made it easy to gather together vast swaths of humanity and allowed them to communicate with each other at scale. These mostly anonymous ginormous nations of humans have no shared purpose and no shared values. With no common understanding of how to treat each other and no incentives to do so, communication in these “communities” rapidly degrades to the lowest common denominator where uninformed hate is a typical knee-jerk reaction to differences.

Vast swaths of the Internet are full of toxic uninformed hate, and I believe it is time to return to our villages.

Cultivating Ideological Diversity

A challenge with a well defined and well-protected village is homogeneity. The proverbial wall that protects a village can keep toxicity out, but it keeps the natives in. While this does create a modicum of safety, it does not create healthy ideological diversity over time.

There are indeed villages that value their comfortable agreement, but I suspect that over time these villages slowly die to agree with each other. My belief is a healthy influx of differing opinions challenges the village to evolve. But what is to prevent these necessary cultural incursions from becoming toxic?

The Rands Leadership Slack provides a village.2 The requirement for entry is, “You must be able to send an email to the administrator.” A trivial requirement, but one that requires human intervention on both sides. A human must choose to send a mail to the administrator, and the administrator must both read the email with their eyeballs and then send an invitation to the Slack. This simple manual test makes sure that you are an actual human (as opposed to a robot with poorly understood intent) who has a legitimate interest in being part of the village.

Our particular village is bound together by the idea of the craft of leadership. On the wall of our village, right when you walk in, you can read how we intend to treat each other via our Code of Conduct. It intends to give residents a starting point for discussion and debate.

As with any sizable, growing group of diverse humans, there is disagreement and our Code of Conduct provides a means to disagree safely. A group of humans intent on learning the art of leadership is pre-disposed to self-regulate and learn from disagreement, but when we cannot, our Code of Conduct guides. When debate turns into an unresolvable dispute, when misunderstanding erupts into an argument, when leaders need guidance and mediation, we look to our Code of Conduct for direction, action, and resolution.

We can do this because we’ve both publicly defined what we value and we also collectively care about the health of our village.

In the Village

The design of the Internet allowed for the creation of previously unimaginable collections of human beings, but the intent and the motivations of the machinery that house the humans range from murky to unknowable to openly hostile. The comfortable and often precious anonymity of the Internet is one of it’s defining characteristics, but this anonymity also anonymizes both purpose and values.

What if each time a human said something on the Internet, they understood they must stand behind those words? They were required to explain them, debate them, and when the time arose and was justified, admit their words caused harm and apologize. What if we all appreciated the social consequence of standing behind the words that we wrote?

I’m searching for more villages. In these smaller constructs of humans, we have a shared purpose. In these collections of humans, we understand our shared values whether it’s as simple as a love of riding a bike or a sincere desire to become a better leader.

And in these villages, there are words. Glorious words. Words with humanity. Words attributed to humans. Words that you are willing to stand behind. Your words.

These villages can be built by technology, but they are a human construct. They serve the needs of the residents. They allow for personal and private interaction. They allow for the development of deep, meaningful relationships. These are familiar places because before we were all walking down the street ignoring each other staring at our devices, we were walking through a village.

  1. Yes, I grant them a “non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any Content that you post on or in connection with the Services” and, yes, I worry about that clause. 
  2. Bias Alert. I am the VP of Engineering at Slack. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

4 Responses

  1. Dragan Solakovic 6 years ago

    “ideological diversity”. All cultures are equal, all ideologies are equal. All religions are equal. We need more diversity. It’s too boring in our streets. We need more vibrant cultural enrichment. This ideology of diversity reminds me of other ideologies in our history. No, thank you.

  2. Keith Gregory 6 years ago

    Strava is not the reason that other bicyclists stop to check on you. At least, I hope it isn’t, but I’ve never ridden on the left coast, so maybe things are different out there. In the places that I’ve ridden, your bicycle is your shibboleth, and was so before online communities (or at least that was my experience, prior to participating in rec.bicycles in the mid/late 80s).

    I’ve had other bicyclists stop to check on me, and I’ve stopped for them, and I think that the reason for that is that we were _outside the village_ at the time. I don’t think that many cyclists would stop if you’re on a suburban street, unless you are clearly trying to fix your bike; ten miles outside of town, it’s a very different situation.

    As a motorcyclist, I’ve seen similar behavior with waving: when riding in the country, all motorcyclists wave, including Harley riders. In the city, very few do. In the middle of Wyoming, where you might not see another vehicle for 15-20 minutes, everybody waves: motorcycles, cars, pickups, tractor-trailers, _everybody_.

    And while the village of bicyclists is a great thing, a community, it suffers from the same ills as any insulated villlage. Around here, groups of bicyclists tend to clog the roads on a Saturday morning, riding three-abreast so that they can talk to each other. Having done some group rides elsewhere, where a single-file peloton was sacred, I originally came to the conclusion that it was the natural effect of putting Philadelphians on bicycles. But really, it’s the effect of a village that feels secure enough to intentionally insulate itself from the rest of society.

  3. Mihai 6 years ago

    ” The Rands Leadership Slack provides a village.2 The requirement for entry is, “You must be able to send an email to the administrator.” ”

    Just one hitch, the administrator has not replied. Or maybe my worst nightmare came true and my carefully crafted email got consumed by the spam filter. Should I sent the email again?