How Technology Choice Can Exclude Community Members
Note: This post originally appeared in the Gather Community Consulting Newsletter. Get future newsletters by subscribing at the form below this post
I am back in the community-building trenches, helping to kickstart my UWM grad school cohort’s Slack workspace this week.
We face a situation common to almost every community I’ve ever worked with: a lot of new members (in this case, students) are joining existing students, most of whom have already forged connections. This creates a divide between the existing membership and brand new members.
The existing members have lots of knowledge of community norms, rituals, events, and language that we newbies are missing. We want to organize, but we’re unsure what channel to use when not in-person. We have email but no other universally-shared way to stay in touch. And everyone claims to hate email.
There are a million ways for us to bring this offline community together online. However, up until now, we have taken the “organic” route. Some are on Facebook, others on Snapchat, some text each other to make plans. The problem is: the way many communities come together organically excludes others, even if unintentionally.
The way many communities come together organically excludes others, even if unintentionally.
Such exclusion reinforces existing biases, unequal access to information, and solidifies an in-group that ignores outsiders and often gatekeeps them to keep them that way.
That’s what happened to us. I noticed that most part-time students had no lines of communication to the rest of us, and those that didn’t partake in bar-related evening events were left out entirely - parents, non-drinkers, those with night jobs.
In my experience, choosing a platform new to everyone creates a painful learning curve, but it also cements a bond through shared struggle, in this case with technology. So my classmates asked what platform we should use, and I suggested Slack. Most hadn’t even heard of Slack - they've never worked full-time jobs - but had used Discord (very similar to Slack, but used mainly in gaming communities). Everyone had cell phones. Everyone wanted to opt-in and -out of specific topics of conversation.
The Slack strategy has a major risk: if it’s new to everyone, everyone might ignore it and will revert to what they know.
That risk is worth taking. This effort might fail. We may all revert back to email. We may end up with nothing.
But if we fail, we end up no worse than where we started. If we succeed, we create a community that is united in its purpose to collaborate and gather equitably.
Choosing a platform new to everyone creates a painful learning curve, but it also cements a bond through shared struggle, in this case with technology.
As community builders, we have the opportunity and responsibility to ensure that everyone can be included. Many people say they want to include others but act in ways that maintain safe "cliques" of sameness. Technology choice is one of the ways we reinforce inequality in our groups, whether we like to admit it or not.
I believe that creating community is often about quieting our temptation to close off to the unknown and inviting people to question their assumptions of others and of their own insecurities.
It isn't easy, but it will always be worth the risk.
*The former English major in me won't let me leave this here without noting that this Samuel Beckett wisdom, often co-opted by entrepreneurs, is wildly out of context. And still. And still it is worth repeating.