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Online communities have been around since the beginning of the internet. A family chat on Telegram, a work Slack, a Subreddit about questionable investment advice... for many of us, our lives have become inseparable from both the information we communicate and the people we connect with through these platforms. Every morning, when we scroll through our emails and social networks, we are checking on communities we feel we belong to, whether it is with loved ones, workmates, or strangers we decided to follow. After all, why would we build a network of personal devices, if not for these persons to connect with one another?
At Aether, we think about communities a lot. For those of you who are new, we started as a peer-to-peer network of self-moderated communities, and we are deeply interested in many important aspects of online communities, which also make us keen observers of internet dramas 🤓 One hot topic is that of community governance and content moderation.
Governance and moderation
One thing we learned is that most platforms implement more or less the same system, where proprietary software is offered as a cloud-based service running on company-operated servers, keeping centralized databases of users and their content, meanwhile the company (often reluctantly) assumes absolute power as censor of information, even on complex topics they may not be well-equipped to make a judgment on. Of course, Twitter has a character limit of 280 characters while Facebook lets you organize events, and Subreddits have community moderators in addition to admins that are employees of Reddit, while Google plays benevolent dictator but often removes YouTube content based on fraudulent claims, but beyond shiny user interfaces, mainstream platforms are hardly experimenting on core features that truly support the diverse types of online communities.
We are afraid this lack of experimentation and innovation force communities to confine to the tools rather than the other way around. Free Piano lessons simply may not exist anymore on YouTube.
Let's take the recently famous r/wallstreetbets Subreddit as an example. First of all, the community has a thread-based mode of communication on the Subreddit, and also a chat-based mode of communication on their Discord. Earlier this year, their Discord experienced a brief ban, and the Reddit moderators have had to seek intervention from Reddit admins to fight off hijack attempts from inactive moderators. During the period of increased traffic, moderators have had to deal with spammers and hijackers on multiple platforms that don't share common user identities, and resort to having Reddit admins play benevolent dictator, meanwhile the community cheers on and expresses gratitude to their favorite moderators, but are largely powerless as the drama unfolds.
At Aether, we have written extensively about our thoughts on consent-based governance and the rights and responsibilities of user-citizens as they apply to community moderation. In the same blog post series, we will be writing about our democratic moderation system based on elections and subjective moderation.
When it comes to moderation systems, there is no universally correct model. The system that's right for you is one that reflects the politics of your community.
Types of communities
Every online community is unique. For example, r/wallstreetbets describes themselves as "like 4chan found a Bloomberg Terminal", and their members developed a language culture that could range from distasteful to offensive to outsiders. For example:
Smooth Brain refers to someone who is stupid or uneducated. On Reddit, it is often used to refer to oneself or one’s peers.
Algorithms and centralized censors often do not have the sensitivity to moderate such spaces, and in moderation decisions, preferences of the affected communities are often not prioritized. People holding controversial political views or other marginalized communities that don't conform to the dominant culture often share similar fates. In these cases, Aether's P2P Universe and its subjective moderation system ensure the community, rather than the system admins, will be in charge because there is no centralized infrastructure for the system. The system operates completely peer-to-peer.
On the other end, some communities would benefit from a much more centralized moderation model as there are stakeholders of different tiers. For example, a community associated with a brand, such as the Dropbox and Spotify communities. While a "team Slack" is private, and a "hobby Subreddit" is public, brand communities are often semi-public, with the brand assuming a benevolent-dictator-for-life role through its staff moderators. These communities may prefer to use Aether's Hosted Universe which implements a traditional server-client model with centralized moderation and fine-grained control over user privileges.
Then we have communities that are more transient in nature, and users may not want to create a permanent identity or have their actions permanently recorded. For example, in physical conferences and workshops, not all exchanges are recorded by the physical venue you attend, but yet in online spaces platforms often assume that chat logs and artifacts become permanent. What you say is associated with you forever, permanently recorded, and pushed through all social media channels. In reality, ephemerality is often an appreciated feature that encourages certain exchanges in online spaces. Default pseudonymity and ephemerality are inherent properties in Aether's P2P Universe.
Attention and cadence
There is no question that brands derive huge value from strong user communities, where users mutually support each other and staff may chime in to represent the brand and steward conversations. In products with a savvy audience, such as Synology and Ubiquiti, the users generate a wealth of information that become permanent resources for the brands. In the forums of The Online Meeting Co-operative, where users are considered members of the co-operative video conferencing platform, user members actively participate in the future roadmap of the brand. In all these instances, it is important to choose suitable ways to offer users privileges that reflect the unique relationships they have with a brand and are respectful of people's attention.
At Aether, we believe that chat rooms, threads, newsletters, and embedded content on websites are modes of communication that can be employed in different scenarios. They are not distinct apps, but features that reflect particular relationships with users, which demand varying amounts of someone's attention. Chat rooms, similar to audio and video calls, are high bandwidth interactions that come with social expectations of minute-to-days in turnaround time.
Threads, like in Reddit and Discourse, are "async" and information is organised for consumption and participation patterns over a day-to-weeks timescale. It is also a much better format to build context-rich and permanent resources.
For example, at a conference, chat-based conversations would be valuable during a lecture or workshop, where participants can exchange messages quickly. Ahead of the conference, however, participants often do not have time to participate in "yet another Slack". Instead, a thread-based forum can be used to share important information and carry out asynchronous planning, while newsletters can be used for low-cadence month-to-quarterly communication for future events.
Right now, stewards of online communities stitch together Slack + Reddit + Mailchimp + Disqus, or alternatively, Discord + Discourse + Google Groups + Rocket Chat, in order to support their diverse community members. Aether offers all of these modes of communicating across a common user identity system. Our business is not a chat or forum app, our business is communities 🙂
We’d love it if you check it out and let us know what you think — you can sign up for free at aether.app.