The (non-profit) business of connecting people through technology (REPOST)

— 5 minute read

As product manager for the Rebus Community, I’m tasked with directing the design and creation of our platform. This means taking everything we learn from the projects we’ve worked with, as well as from other community members that give us feedback, and distilling it into a coherent piece of software that does something useful. In our context, “something useful” means creating a platform to support collaborative, community-driven, open textbook publishing at scale. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Our first attempt at building this platform did some things very well, but it only had very basic communications features like commenting, without the fun/useful stuff like replies, tagging, and direct messaging. Now—and this will be a surprise to no one—when you’re trying to build a platform that supports community interactions, communications features are pretty important!

I have a complex relationship with technology, particularly with technologies that aim to facilitate human interactions. I believe they can do wonderful things, and I know that they do many, many terrible things. In a former life, I was a student and then a lecturer in communications studies, and spent many hours trying to help students develop a more critical relationship with their Facebook accounts. Having maintained an active and often grim interest in how communications technologies impact societies, cultures, and daily lived experiences, I’ve found myself recently having the recurring thought, Thank god I’m not trying to teach kids about Facebook anymore.

But, as it turns out, I’m trying to do something not all that unrelated.

Being short on resources, we ran into a hard limit on how much development time we could dedicate to fixing this problem ourselves, and instead began to investigate third party options that we could build into our platform. As you may know, we had been running a forum from early on in the Rebus lifecycle, with some success, but not as much activity as we had hoped. While there are many factors that explain that, once we began looking into different forum software options it became clear that the one we had chosen was holding us back. And this only really became clear once we found a better one. I tell you, I have never felt more nerdy than when I was jumping with excitement having found some new setting or feature that was just so awesome I couldn’t wait to use it, oh my god.

Our goal: to foster a vibrant and engaged community of OER creators permalink

So. While we aren’t Facebook (we really, really aren’t), we are in the (non-profit) business of connecting people through technology. That’s not something we take lightly. We understand that the technologies we choose and the platform we create will shape interactions, for better or worse, as much as many other decisions we make.

In the end, we decided to close our NodeBB forum in favour of building a discussion space directly into our platform, using Discourse. We’re really excited about this transition for lots of reasons. Discourse is a smartly-built software that is extensible in interesting ways, with a vast plugin library and robust API—which basically means we can build a lot of very useful features into it and on top of it. But more importantly, we’ve found that it is built in such a way that makes it clear that the creators have spent a lot of time thinking about how to build healthy communities. They’ve thought about the behaviours we want to foster, like community leadership, and those we want to discourage, like harassment and trolling. They’ve built in encouragement and reward mechanisms, without overly commoditising or gamifying person-to-person interactions. There are useful analytics, but ones that are targeted at improving community interactions, not manipulating behaviours. And it’s open source, so if push comes to shove, if they start doing anything we don’t like or don’t agree with, we can grab our data and get the hell out of there (and take y’all with us!).

We still have an enormous responsibility to take what they’ve created and put it to work positively for the OER community, but they’ve given us a big head start.

At the same time, we are putting our own stamp on things. For one, their standard community guidelines centre around the idea of ‘civilized discourse’. Given the history of calls for ‘civility’ that have been used in tone policing, we’ve adapted their guidelines to better suit our approach and ethos. They know a lot of things, but we do too, and we know you, our community, better than anyone.

Ultimately, while I am really excited about the kinds of things we can do with our new tool, it’s only valuable to us so long as it helps us achieve our goal: to foster a vibrant and engaged community of OER creators. It’s no small thing to do, and in this age of platform lock-in, big data and privacy nightmares, we’re taking it seriously. While a frictionless experience for our users is the goal—one in which you don’t ever have to think about what’s going on under the hood—we’ll continue to be transparent about the choices we are making and why. And rest assured, my habit of staying critical of communications tech isn’t going anywhere.

With thanks to Leigh Kinch-Pedrosa for editing and inspiration, because creation is always collaborative.