Virtual: Community, Democracy, Public Sphere


Building community is the central task for any virtual organization [VO] that a) needs to rely on an expert community to develop/deploy technology, or b) is looking to spread new technology among the wider (and thus more diverse) population. the cybersocialstructure effort is designed to bring together best theories and practices to help cyberinfrastructure [CI] projects know when, how, how much, and what kind of community building to pursue. Community is often the “undesignated” group that shows up in the proposal (or the RFP) as the larger target  developer or user cohort. But turning a cohort into a community, and a weak community into a strong community (when this is necessary) needs time, effort, budget, and skill.
There is no reason to build community for community’s sake. What your VO gets along with community is commitment, leadership, and communication. Volunteers can identify with the goals of the community and the other members of the group. Those with initiative can step up in the organization. Communication is member-to-member, peer-to-peer: with implied obligations to respond in timely fashion. Criticism is enabled and so is praise. Other management efforts become more effective and cost less (in effort and time).  This is fortunate because running the community is neither easy or inexpensive. At the end the total cost is likely to be the same, but the impact and broader outreach of a sustainable community of volunteers becomes another deliverable for the project.

Governing a virtual organization is  no less problematic than governing any large, non-virtual volunteer-led group. Subtending all of the project management tasks of any large VO is the need to build sufficient social networking and identity resources to feed  the amount of non-paid work (volunteer efforts) required to a) complete the actual project and b) sustain the community. Democracy, as this can be applied within virtual organizations, is one way a VO can create real communication among peers and real ownership by the community over the outcomes of the VO.
While community building is a more subtle social practice that happens as well (or better) in cafes and bars during meeting breaks than it does in plenary sessions, democracy is a noisy, visible practice that everyone in the organization does (to some extent) intentionally and explicitly. Democracy in a VO announces itself through public practices that involve all the members or their delegates. In part, democracy in a VO might resemble what you find in your nation-state: meetings, voting, constitutions and by-laws, and protests. The ability to voice disagreement is perhaps the most precious outcome of democracy in a VO: this is what will save the organization more often than any other management practice.
Democracy in a VO offers unique challenges and opportunities. Since the interactions are normally mediated and the records digital, democracy can become embedded into the digital communication services to where this becomes ubiquitous. By activating the voices of all of the community members, the VO energizes its community and can legitimately harvest real value from them in return.

Public Sphere:
With community as its destination, the virtual organization uses democracy as its vehicle and the virtual “public sphere” as its pathway to sustainability. The virtual public sphere (VPS) is made from the cyberarchitectural structures (the services and netware) that connect the peers, enable democratic participation, and assemble the means to build community.  The feedback forms on the website, an electronic voting service, chat, email, and WIKIs: all of these and more serve to connect volunteers into a peer network.
In any VO working in, through, or toward cyberinfrastructure (CI), a part of that infrastructure will be dedicated to the communication needs of the CI team effort. When these communication infrastructure services and nodes are also made available to support democratic community building, then they form the basis for a VPS.
In a democratic nation-state, the public sphere is the precious arena within which the discussions of its citizens are meant to inform public policy. The Public Sphere (capital “P”) is a space (discursively and mostly physically) distinct from that of religion, home, or the workplace. And the Public Sphere is the ongoing conversation that happens in this space. The strength or weakness of the space or the conversation in the space impacts the qualities of the available democracy in the nation-state.
In a democratic virtual organization, the public sphere is the space created by the cyberinfrastructure and the conversations enabled by the governance of the VO. Examining the “cyberarchitecture” allows us to predict how much democracy is available within the VO.

PHoto Credit: Timothy Vollmer

Community, Democracy, and IT work


ANOTHER FAMILIAR SCENARIO: Those of you from the IT world recognize this room: PPT up the old wazoo. But then it’s over and the work plans that have been listed on slide 17-23 (if not 117-123) are slated to become deliverables. The listserves get busy, the telecons are scheduled. Perhaps your IT group tracks tasks on BaseCamp and pings you whenever someone else has completed something. But if your not in the critical path, you might not know what others are doing and what your next step is. You might be able to volunteer a couple hours this week, but how do you know where these are best spent?

There might be a couple hundred people like you in the virtual organization (VO) that surrounds this particular project. Some were brought in to advise, others because of a current interest. At the core, decisions are being made and money spent. But the whole idea was that this was more than a distributed project among a small group of  paid Co-PIs. Most of the room was excited about helping move this forward, looking at the outcome as their payback. The workshop cost the government agency $100k to put on, and spent up three person-years in a week.  It had the carbon footprint of a small town.

The feeling of engagement that many participants experienced at the meeting lasted a few days. The funded Co-PIs went back to work. The larger VO languished as everyone else’s calendar’s filled up. Opportunities to pull in the talent and skills of the larger community passed by and dried up.

This doesn’t have to happen.

What is the answer?

One answer is, of course, cash. Spread the funding around and more people pay attention. But that is rarely possible. Another answer is community: grow it, use it, let it manage the work. And give it just enough funding to help people work together.

Be warned: when you let the VO community run the project you invite a range of voices into the room. You have to deal with competing interests and conflicting priorities. The good news is that these interests and priorities were there hidden (more or less) all the time in the VO, so dealing with them is something you can now do and move on. Otherwise you face these same issues when the project of over. To succeed, the VO community will need some form of internal governance. Since you are working with IT professionals, you’d better treat them like peers.

Your peer-based VO community will demand something that looks a lot like a democracy. Do not be afraid. You know that’s not how business gets done. At least you think you know that. In VO communities, democratic governance paves the way for volunteer participation, for leadership, for constructive criticism, and for active attention to the goals of the project. Try getting things done without it.

This is cyberSocialstructure: discussions about Virtual Democracy

Anti Iraq war demonstration
Anti Iraq war demonstration will be moving to a Drupal-based website later. In the meanwhile, the discussion about how much democracy is needing for your Virtual Organization (VO) can continue.

CyberSOCIALstructure is destined to be a space where many people add their voices to discussions about the role that social practices (and theories) play in creating and sustaining cyberinfrastructure and CI organizations.
CONTACT: Bruce Caron
New Media Research Institute, Santa Barbara, CA

CyberSOCIALstructure (CS) looks at the social issues implicit in cyberINFRAstructure (CI). This discussion reverses the usual conversation about the impacts of the Internet on global politics and eGovernment. Instead, CS looks at community and governance as necessary social aspects of building and sustaining VOs.