Thank you so much again for taking the time to create space for this dialogue, CJ! I thoroughly enjoyed reflecting upon your thoughtful questions and look forward to continuing our exchanges elsewhere (or maybe even here! Perhaps I will interview you next time hehe). Not only did this prompt me to ponder more deeply about these topics out loud (and in an intriguing format), but also imparted some of the real warmth of qualitative, open social connection in the process--which is, in my experience, often very elusive both on- and offline.
I think that drawing attention to this concept of "community gardening" is a really wonderful way to close our discussion. It also brings me back to thinking about the words which we use to describe our online activities and experiences. So to answer your question, I want to start by pausing to reflect upon these two words: "community" and "gardening". Both are commonly understood in a simple, straightforward way, but I would again suggest that it's worth digging into our terminology a bit more deeply in order to approach 'community gardening' as a broader concept more meaningfully.
When we talk about "community", it's important to first acknowledge that there will always be a vast terrain of manifestations rooted in this term. One community's particular set of values & interests will be fundamentally different from (and potentially incompatible with) many others. As such, what it means to nurture and cultivate any given community will always vary contextually. Taking another step back, it's worth noticing that communities are not just networks of people, but also the spaces which they inhabit and activities which happen within those spaces.
(From this vantage point, I find it's helpful to consider what an inviting or healthy community feels like in the offline world. Again, this will vary greatly from person to person - but I think taking time to reflect upon what aspects stand out as distinctively positive and negative is a useful way of becoming grounded in lessons from lived experience beyond our screens.)
Now on to the "gardening" aspect. Gardening is an activity which begins with a recognition of what is currently growing or not growing in a particular environment, and a consideration of how that ecosystem might be changed 'for the better' based upon a certain values framework. Notice that I used the terms "environment" and "ecosystem" here, which I've noticed being increasingly incorporated into discussions of web platforms/experiences in recent years (this is probably a good sign). In the same way that a community is not just a network of people, neither is the web just a network of wires & signals which link people together. It is a space within which there are varying 'ecological' conditions and propensities. Some communities will thrive in one landscape and wither in another, and some landscapes are more open to 'biodiversity' than others.
Sustainable community gardening for me means finding ways to match & balance these sets of considerations through an ongoing process of individual & collaborative experimenting, exploring, and negotiating. Experimentation with different tools and techniques enables us to better understand what relationships, activities, and creations can grow in a given environment--while also expanding our collective knowledge. Exploration helps us become aware of alternative spaces/communities with ecological conditions & propensities which may better suit our needs & hopes (and perhaps prompt us to reconsider our desires as well). And negotiation serves as a means of finding compromises and reconsidering norms to accommodate greater diversity & adaptive resilience.
Taken together, my sense is that these actions inevitably lead us away from passive acceptance of flattening hegemony as the default mode of being on the web and toward an active process which enriches the landscape with a wider array of community gardens. This, in turn, empowers us to take better care of our 'personal gardening' needs as well.
In short, for me, community gardening highlights the intrinsic symbiosis between resilient social networks and the environments within which they thrive as a means of developing practices, spaces, & tools that nurture autonomy & sustainability.
At least, that's what comes to mind right now. Ask me again in six months and I'll likely have a very different answer ;^)
p.s. For anyone who wants to dig more deeply into these ideas (and read alternative perspectives which far predate my awareness of the term 'community gardening'), I highly recommend visiting the #community-gardening thread in the Scuttleverse where you can also add your own thoughts!
I think the last question I have for you here is regarding the point you made about community gardening. What does community gardening on the web look like for you personally?
This has been a wonderful conversation Seán. Thanks for taking the time to chat. The warmth you bring to these topics makes me excited about how we all can nurture a better, romantic-futurist web.
I've definitely drifted away from a number of alternative tools/platforms/spaces over the years because I was never really able to connect with them sustainably for one reason or another as well. And you're absolutely right that remaining engaged with a platform like SSB requires unlearning deep-set habits and expectations for a lot of people - an effort which many will ultimately conclude is not worth the effort.
However, I would emphasize that one crucial factor in that equation is the extent to which newcomers are able to meaningfully connect with other people in the community which they're seeking to join. If you develop strong enough bonds with even just one person in a particular space, you're much more likely to become a long-term community member than if you don't really feel like you connect with anyone or are valued (similarly to moving to a new town or starting a new job, for instance).
One of the reasons that I've personally become so enamored with SSB in particular is because there is a powerful, tangible sense of accessible community, history, and culture throughout the platform which I find so often lacking on Social Media. The Scuttleverse is not sprawling and addictive in the way that we've been trained to expect 'successful' social platforms to be, but it has a warm atmosphere and its roots are deep, strong, & ever-growing. Getting back to the analogy of the 'web city' (and setting aside the fact that SSB technically need not be attached to the web), it feels a bit like a beloved neighbourhood café which may never be able to compete with 'Starbucks' - but maybe that's not really the point. SSB's structure and values framing is fundamentally different from that of towering platforms like Facebook & Twitter, which is precisely why a particular core community of people have continued to nurture it over the past few years.
Prior to joining the SSB community, I've explored many other alternative social platforms (such as Diaspora, Mastodon, Matrix, etc.) - but never felt particularly welcome or valued as a newcomer. And that's the main reason I drifted away. Trying to become 'significant' enough to forge connections felt all-too-similar to the struggles I've experienced on major Social Media platforms. In stark contrast, I was very quickly and warmly welcomed into the Scuttleverse when I arrived there by a bunch of friendly, interesting people (often engaging at length with one another respectfully in longform!), and I now do my best to carry on the broader tradition of what butts refer to as 'community gardening' (loosely, fostering healthy social engagement & inclusion) there myself.
Similarly, you and I are currently engaging in a type of conversation which strikes me as an emblematic of this same emphasis on qualitative, open connection with unknown humans. Despite having no previous association with one another, you reached out to me through Write.as, and invited me to have a conversation through Are.na in a way which explores a new area of potential beyond the norms of online dialogue. In other words, you took the time to reach out to a newcomer to your community and created space for me to speak with you openly & at length in a completely different ecosystem (beyond the walls of social metricization & commodification). When does this happen on platforms like Facebook or Twitter?
[I'm now put in mind of the fact that, in a way, we're also engaging in an alternative, more DIY version of Letter--which arose to meet a deep desire which many Twitter users felt for more qualitative open human exchanges than the platform allows for, and has grown strong because it offers a novel framework which meets those values (though, sadly, they've recently introduced the number of "Reads" as a prominent default metric).]
Ultimately, I would say that whether it be Write.as or Are.na or Scuttlebutt, the long-term viability of alternative / open "y" platforms depends upon the extent to which they resonate with / respond to the values, needs, & growth of a strong core community of people who are weary of the monopolizing / restrictive "X" Platforms--enabling the formation of new habits & norms of online engagement/community-building in the process. This is, I think, less about direct competition as about finding & making room for greater online diversity and autonomy.
Do you think these tools fostering outward expansion ultimately makes people use them less in the process?
Personally I've used software similar to SSB a handful of times and then dropped them soon after, never sure why. I was probably looking for that dependency loop to keep me hooked into the software when it requires the active exploration and engagement you speak of. Perhaps I have to unlearn that tendency and become more patient. Has that issue ever come up for you?
That's a really great way of putting it. There are such profound differences and possibilities of experience to be had between modes and spaces of exploration - which we find mirrored between the online & offline realms. When you mention the different frame of mind which comes with exploring a space like the Scuttleverse as opposed to searching through massive entities like Google, I find myself thinking about the distinction between reaching destination vs experiencing journey in the exploratory process.
Google presents its search engine as the most powerful and efficient means of finding what you're looking for - but this makes a fundamental assumption about where the value of searching lies. As with so many technologies which are presumptively marketed as 'Progress', the inherent trade-offs to this value framing are swept under the rug -- such as losses of autonomy and exposure -- until they fester long enough for people to become acutely concerned about them. Meanwhile, the journeying aspect of exploration collapses to a width so small that you can barely begin to form a critical or contemplative thought between Point A and Point B. This is a powerful means of retaining control.
On a related note, in recent years I've noticed an uptick in people yearning for some form of slowness to counterbalance hyperefficiency -- and I think an alternative way to think about that desire is to consider slowness as more journey time. Journeying isn't about sprinting as quickly as possible in a direct line from one place to another - it's a meandering process filled with things like natural pauses, accidental discoveries, and periods of reflection. Behemoths like Google essentially position themselves as 'shortcuts' which bypass the 'inefficiencies' of journeying -- in effect, to become The Destination for destinations (or with something like Facebook, The Community for communities). In this paradigm, people inevitably become digital tourists (again, 'users'/consumers) rather than explorers (agents) because they increasingly lose their ability to navigate on their own.
In contrast, a platform like Scuttlebutt doesn't seek to monopolize any aspect of the exploratory experience by becoming 'The X for x', but rather presents a new variable which opens up more space for people to journey either individually or collectively in any number of directions on their own terms. Even as a destination, the Scuttleverse itself is always moving and expanding -- like a wandering network of towns & outposts -- and being there strikes me not so much as being about arriving as it is about journeying. In that space, the imperfect, evolving nature of SSB itself is always an active focus of exploration and critical engagement. Rather than constantly drawing you inward like a black hole (dependency), the Scuttleverse fosters outward expansion regardless of whether that takes you beyond its boundaries (autonomy).
I'll need to think more on these distinctions to articulate my thoughts on them better, but I sense that they ultimately get at much more fundamental approaches to individual & societal wellbeing.
Getting back to that excerpt from Zach's essay, I would say that increasing the amount of verbs that we know (and create) empowers us not because it helps us become more precise and certain about obtaining 'the best answers', but rather because an expanded set of verbs/tools helps us become more open and inquisitive -- broadening our awareness of other possibilities of experience and consideration.
The Zach Mandeville module you shared is great. There's a part in it that resonated with me:
What happens if we simply try to increase the amount of verbs a person knows? What happens if we build fully in the sun, so we don't have to figure out how to stow our shadows?
This speaks exactly to what you're talking about here. I am specifically interested about your thoughts about how the tools you use help you rethink exploration of the web. It makes me think of how exploring a place in a car is different than on a bicycle which is different than being on foot. Because something like Secure Scuttlebutt requires a different frame of mind when it comes to discovery than searching a website on Google.
Isn't it funny how a word like 'surfing' can have such different connotations? I definitely see what you mean when you interpret 'surfing the web' as a passive activity, similar to 'channel surfing', and suspect that a lot of people feel the same way. I may be wrong, but my sense is that this 'active vs. passive' dichotomy falls within a broader consequential phenomenon of technological novelty sinking into mundanity. It's like how people will often talk about (and experience) something like flying as though it were no big deal -- or perhaps more relevant here, driving a car. Not only is driving a skill which can be learned & cultivated in countless ways, but it also empowers people to explore the world and, potentially, to learn about what's happening under the hood of the machine that they're moving around inside of. Not to get too deep into another metaphor (we might also talk about the responsibilities of driving), but I think there's a lot we can learn from considering and comparing human-technology interactions like these more broadly.
Gettin back to the web, I'm sure that a lot of people would chuckle at my suggestion that something like the loss of 'surfing the web' is significant, but turning that topic around, I think it's worth reflecting upon which terms we do now use to describe our online experiences/actions. Consider, for instance, the way in which the corporation 'Google' has become a verb which countless people use to describe the act of searching online. This, again, gets back to the digital hegemony that I've been vaguely calling 'Big Progress' (of which entities like GAFAM are a part), that not only seeks to dominate people's online experiences, but in some sense to become the online experience. (On this note, I must point to Zach Mandeville's Scuttlebutt essay The Future Will Be Technical which articulates perspectives on related ideas extremely well - see, for example, the "()Verbs" module.)
Tying this in to your question about how 'surfing the web' has changed for me personally over the years - so much of the power and inspiration of the web, in my experience, has always been rooted in discovery. But even this word risks taking on an aura of passivity within the current webscape (in large part due to automated recommendations), so I'll emphasize that I'm using 'discovery' in the sense of an active, open exploratory process rooted in individual autonomy. I didn't discover platforms like Are.na, Write.as, and Scuttlebutt because I 'Googled' them - I found them because I was exploring the digital landscape with intention and 'search literacy' applied toward finding particular tools and spaces (p.s. I have actually barely ever used the Google search engine).
Returning again to something I said earlier, in my eyes, the webscape has become far less colorful and diverse in large part because the corporations behind 'Big Progress' have not only converted the online experience from an active, open one into an increasingly passive, constrained one, but also because they have ushered in products and services which have a tendency to homogenize the landscape and drain its color.
Whereas in my early days online, it was difficult to experience drab sameness day after day online when 'surfing the net', now sameness pretty much engulfs the 'web browsing' experience. The same handful of platforms and templates not only dominate the landscape, but monitor & control the roads most people travel upon. Discovery via high 'personalization' & popularity is not really discovery to me, so much as passive indulgence -- which is okay and potentially even beneficial in moderation sometimes, but I think unhealthy as a default mode of exploration and learning.
There are many rabbit holes to dive into here, but I'll wrap up my thoughts by emphasizing that the ability to tinker is directly tied to the ability to discover openly. 'Roaming', 'surfing', 'exploring', and 'searching' are a means of both becoming more aware of the features & possibilities of the online landscape (past, present, & future), as well as finding better tools & guides with which to learn, experiment, & build. My feeling is that the more open and diverse that landscape is, the more likely it is to cultivate active participation (whether tinkering, coding, connecting, or just expanding web culture in various ways).
That's a great point about 'surfing the web' falling out of use. I'd be curious to hear how 'surfing the web' has changed (or hasn't) for you personally over the years — because I didn't even think of tinkering as part of that experience, maybe because 'surfing the web' struck me as a more passive activity than it actually is.
I think you're honing in on a very important distinction for me between the value of teaching people how to become programmers vs teaching them how to become 'roaming tinkerers' -- both are powerful ways of becoming more literate, but the emphasis is different (i.e. programming is more specialized, whereas 'roaming & tinkering' is more generalized).
In recent years, I've been thinking a lot about how the concept of 'surfing the web' has fallen out of fashion - which may seem superficial, but I think is actually a fairly consequential metaphorical loss which is relevant here. You don't have to know how to build a surfboard or learn oceanography to become a good surfer. And surfing is a skill that you have to work at, not a passive experience that just happens when you step on the board. Surfing is also fun, and I think this is sadly missing from most of the web these days.
Getting back to your questions, the majority of my 'web teaching' focus has always been very personal -- spending time helping loved ones and friends become more web literate and critical. This often arises naturally as a result of frustrations and concerns which people have while navigating web experiences.
A simple example which I think says a lot about the state of web literacy is the topic of making strong passwords/phrases and managing them without becoming overwhelmed. This is a foundational aspect of the online experience and remains elusive to the vast majority of Internet users -- not because people don't care about security, but because it seems 'hard' to do.
When issues like this are more or less left to 'sort themselves out', my sense is that they drift into a normalcy of prideful ignorance (e.g. people laughing about how bad their passwords are). And unlike in the offline world, where there are often other people who demonstrate things like security (even as simple as using different keys to lock different doors), this is something which typically comes across in the online world as a security textbook on a reference shelf (no offense to the wonderful resources out there by groups like the EFF).
This is a long, winding road to saying that I try to walk people through these kinds of topics in as human a way as possible. Ideally, sitting down at a computer together to talk through the procedures and issues in a way that makes sense to them. I don't think this can be replicated online anywhere near as effectively, which is another major reason for the slippage away from online autonomy toward dependency on 'Big Progress' in my opinion. When things seem 'hard' and there's no one around to help you feel otherwise, a learning opportunity is lost.
Lately, I've been guiding my partner through a lot of these kinds of topics and helping her understand some tools & techniques which can empower her to become more digitally autonomous. Like me, she's also much more 'artist-minded' than 'engineer-minded' but has similar concerns to me about her web experience. However, no one has ever sat down and walked her through gaining an understanding of these topics. Some of it is technical, like popping open the hood of a car and describing how to swap out the parts, but a lot of it is an open creative exercise where the basic question is: what do you want the web to look/feel like? Then we might draw it out on a piece of paper, and both dig around online to learn how to manifest it digitally.
I've never considered myself much of a teacher, but when I do engage in activities like these, I feel a real sense of 'reward' which is so often described about the teaching process. It's always so exciting to see what people come up with when they have the basic tools and understanding to build or tinker.
Have you gotten as far as to teach some aspects of tinkering to people? If so, what were those experiences like? What parts of web agency do you focus on? You got me thinking about agency not so much as teaching people how to be a programmer but how to be a 'roaming tinkerer' on the web.