A Conversation about Community in the Distributed web

This image created by Kevin Hodgson, a participant in the E-Learning 3.0 MOOC, as Stephen Downes said on Twitter, ‘basically completes the Task for week 8’.

For an interactive version of this image see: https://www.thinglink.com/fullscreen/1129211585894547458

The final discussion about the topic of community in the E-Learning 3.0 course centred on a Google Hangout discussion between Stephen Downes and Roland Legrand. The Hangout was open to anyone and there were a few people, including myself, in the chat, but only Roland Legrand in the Hangout with Stephen. This worked really well, allowing the conversation between them to develop and dig deeper into some interesting ideas. I can recommend watching the video recording, as their discussion helps to clarify some of the issues we have been struggling with in relation to this topic on community in the distributed web.

The discussion started with a review of how the week’s task had been experienced. Stephen had asked participants to create a community through consensus, without giving us any indication of how to do this, or what else to do, and ideally without using a centralised space. Laura Ritchie, Kevin Hodgson  and Roland put forward proposals on how to do this and ultimately we went with Roland’s initial suggestion, whilst also taking account of Laura and Kevin’s thoughts. Stephen pointed out in the Hangout that had the course attracted a larger number of participants the task would have been more difficult, because there would have been more proposals and people would have organised into groups. How then would we have chosen which community to join (the task stipulated only one community)? How do you solve consensus generally?

Roland thought that his proposal only required minimal commitment from participants, but Stephen thought that it could have been even more minimal. Whilst we all (those who participated) reflected on our course experience in our individual blogs, Stephen suggested that all we had needed to do was to provide evidence that we were there, maybe by posting the #el30 hashtag and stating that anyone who posted this was a member of the community. By making the task performative (writing a blog post) did it become exclusive? Roland questioned how posting a hashtag would work. Wouldn’t people be too dispersed?  He asked, ‘Why even talk about community?’

For Stephen (and see his summary for the week for further thoughts on this) the concept of community is important in the context of truth and facts. How do we know we belong to a community? This relates to how do we know a fact is a fact? And how do we know which facts to believe? How do we meet each other to discuss this?

Roland suggested that we need empathy and openness beyond the facts, because when faced with alternative facts our identities are threatened. The first thing people need is to feel recognised and safe. His question was, if we want people to meet each other to discuss alternative facts and perspectives, won’t the distributed web make things more difficult? Stephen agreed that lot of things are harder on the distributed web. It’s easier to build and work on a centralised platform, but as Stephen pointed out, we are already living in a world where information is distributed. For him centralised to decentralised is six of one and half a dozen of the other. He also pointed out that the decentralised web flourishes in the financial community and that there is no empathy in this community.

Roland questioned whether there is a planetary community and thought that the idea of a planet-wide lack of empathy was a bleak vision. He wondered whether we are too negative about it all, saying that humanity is more peaceful today than ever before, and most people can be trusted. But, as Stephen said, whilst most people the world over are ‘good’ there remain bad actors. We have to build resistance to bad actors and that’s why making things harder, through blockchain, encryption and managing our own data, might be a good thing. But Roland suggested that encryption and managing our own data might also be bad for security. Stephen agreed that there is tension between openness and privacy, and that a balance is needed.

They then went on to discuss whether we could set up some sort of community/forum to continue to discuss these complex ideas and whether this space should be open or closed, on a centralized platform or on the distributed web. Roland is keen to continue the discussion.

From my perspective the community topic has been very challenging, causing me to question my understanding of what we mean by community on the distributed web, and the role that trust, truth and consensus play in the formation of community on the distributed web. I have not come to any firm conclusions yet about how all the ideas fit together and why they are significant. But as I have mentioned in a previous post, I think it may be necessary to rethink the language we use when discussing how community is formed in the distributed web. A verse from the King James Bible comes to mind.

Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.

Many thanks to Stephen and Roland for a fascinating discussion.

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