Announcing: The Civitas Community

To cut to the chase: I’m taking a hiatus on my blog and will be writing about community here. If you’d like to follow along, join Community on this site. That will automatically sign you up to get emails of new topics. My ambition is to start more than just a newsletter. Ultimately I’m testing the concept of this platform and my consulting business.

Nothing will come of nothing

There’s a proof of God[1] that goes:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore the universe has a cause.

As a classical theist, I like that this argument has empirical roots. Everywhere we look beginnings can be traced to precipitating events. Our ancient stories dedicate themselves to discovering causes whether as just-so stories, creation myths or national origin tales. Thanks to Francis Bacon, scientific discovery no longer considers what Aristotle called the “Final Cause” or the existential reason something exists. Even so, science begins with the premise that the world we observe got into its current state because of a complicated web of causality. Why should the universe itself be an exception?

The second premise was in doubt Until Edwin Hubble discovered that galaxies are flying apart from each other, thus giving evidence of the Big Bang. Now that we have good reason to believe the universe had a beginning, it’s harder to shake the proof’s conclusion.[2] It’s the closest we can get to empirical evidence about the origin of the universe for the very obvious reason that we haven’t invented an instrument to measure what (if anything) happened before the beginning of everything.

We have, however, invented the most unlikely things such as communication networks built on machines composed of millions of microscopic switches. On top of these networks, we’ve built cultures that manage to transcend the normal constraints of space and time. For well over a decade, my regular job has involved collaborating with people I rarely, if ever, come within touching distance of. Humanity thrives even when the tools of communication fall short of ideal.

An important cause for this site was Practical Internet Groupware by Jon Udell. Groupware is another name for community software in which every member has the ability to contribute to the discussion. It’s not like a traditional web page (one person communicating to potentially many people) or email (private conversations between a handful of people), but rather mode of communication that allows many voices to speak at similar volumes. As Jon explained in a Byte column, we are still learning how to function in online communities:

I still think that the root of the problem is unfamiliarity with the modes of communication that are enabled by NNTP (or by any comparable kind of network-based discussion software), rather than unfamiliarity with the tools used to do the communicating. Email, after all, models itself after a mode of communication that’s thousands of years old. There is a deep cultural understanding of interpersonal messaging. Although USENET seems like an ancient technology in terms of Internet time, group messaging is still a quite new development in human culture.

A greenhouse for communities

Over Christmas break our family visited the US Botanic Garden conservatory in Washington D.C. Tropical plants thrive far from their climate zone because the building is constructed to provide heat and humidity. Other parts of the conservatory house plants from desert and mediterranean biomes. Depending on what the plants need, the building can adjust—sprinklers create artificial rain and motorized windows open to adjust temperature. Both the plants and the building are marvels. Put them together (especially on chilly winter afternoon) and the effect is wonderous:

Jon Udell wrote about groupware just before the peak of the first internet boom built on a file transfer protocol (HTTP), a sharded index of site names (DNS), some server technology (Apache, relational databases, Perl, etc.), a formating protocol (HTML) and a standard client for end users (Netscape). These remain the backbone of the internet[3] with Javascript and phone apps layered on top. In spite of Silicon Valley’s enthusiasm for web3, the blockchain and large language models, the interesting things happening in technology still rely on the same basic building blocks.

Internet technology gives groups space to create community. Some internet communities thrive because the environment suits their needs. Stack Overflow became the perfect biome for programming problems because the strict question and answer format proves to be ideal for programmers. As the company expanded to other realms of knowledge the format supported other sorts of communities though not quite so well.[4] It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say every Stack Exchange site was populated by programmers exploring their hobbies.

Plants can grow in an ill-suited environment, but they won’t thrive. Many communities function with software that doesn’t exactly fit their purpose. While software recommendation can be made to work on a Q&A platform, it’ll probably be better of at a different home.[5] As I build my consulting business I’m discovering online groups using a wide variety of platforms:

My preferred platform, Discourse, facilitates these to some degree. With the Post Voting and Solved plugins, it’s closing in on becoming a functional Q&A platform.

A greenhouse can be used to protect plants from a harsh environment. They also serve as homes for learning about diverse plant life. In the same way, I’m using this site to learn about diverse community platforms by preparing the software in advance of communities moving in.

Self-owned communities

No matter how well the software functions, however, every site faces a looming problem. As Philip Greenspun, another early influence, put it twenty years ago:

Thousands of people are operating public community-style Web services. Virtually all of them are using simple standalone software packages to handle things like discussion forums or classified ads. When one of these sites becomes popular, the publisher begins to devote 80 hours a week of free labor to moderating discussions, weeding out redundant classified ads, deleting alerts for users whose e-mail addresses have evaporated, answering questions from the confused, keeping content up-to-date, developing new content in response to user questions, etc. The beautiful thing about this is that so many people are willing to devote 80 unpaid hours a week toward helping their fellow human being. The ugly thing about this is that 80 hours a week turns out not to be enough.

Site growth can outstrip the capacity of any person, no matter how dedicated or efficient.

This isn’t a technological problem. We could throw in more computation resources if it were. Instead it’s a social problem. The only sensible path is for the person running the community to delegate responsibility to others—ideally to members of the community. This all becomes easier when load is spread among people who care about and truly understand their community.

When people don’t just feel like they belong to a community, but also own it in some meaningful way, janitorial tasks suddenly become less burdensome. When you have the tools to fix, truly fix, problems, the work becomes a joy. To that end:

  1. Group owners are also moderators and may delegate that authority to other members of the group.
  2. Group owners may decide to leave this platform and take their data (including member information) with them.
  3. Groups have control over variables such as who is allowed to join and who can read content.
  4. While I retain some control over what may be posted here (please no pronography!), I will avoid meddling in communities hosted here.

What you can do to help

If this sounds interesting, please consider:

  1. Joining Community and getting new topics as they are posted.
  2. Creating your own group.
  3. Joining Jon's Biography to read my mom’s diary 50 years after she wrote it. I’ve seen the entries and it’s fun to see a slice of 70s life from a young mother.
  4. If you host a mailing list community or know someone who does, please contact me! I’m interested in learning what’s important for those communities.

  1. At the risk of getting sidetracked from my already rambly post, I should mention I don’t think proofs like this are terribly interesting except when they help you understand your prior beliefs. People tend to already accept or reject the conclusion, so sorting through the premises can help you understand why you believe what you do. I don’t expect anyone to be pursued by the proof per se. ↩︎

  2. One may object that the cause of the universe need not be God, which is a flaw in the proof. Still, it’s hard to know what to call an uncaused cause of everything other than “God”. ↩︎

  3. Though HTTP has become HTTPS and CSS, Netscape has become Firefox, Chrome and Safari, and the server technology scales better and at a lower cost. ↩︎

  4. Case study: Cooking. I find the Q&A format works well enough, but the usual format for cooking sites has evolved to a long introduction about how the author discovered this recipe by travelling to Europe/asking a relative/experimenting with different spices/reading an ancient cookbook. If you are lucky there’s a link at the top of the page to take you to the recipe at the end. Along the way expect about a million ads. As a thanks for reading all the way down to this footnote, here’s a recipe for cooking salmon in your dishwasher. ↩︎

  5. Product Hunt, for instance. ↩︎