Book Review-Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities

I’ve been a part of or have led many groups in my time. Each one had a unique “feel.” Some were hyper focused, and others generally organized around a topic. Some were high technology and others decidedly not so. Developing communities has always been interesting, since some communities flourish and others languish. Understanding how communities are formed – particularly communities that exist, at least in part, in the ethereal space of our digital age – is what Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities is all about.

The Way Back Machine

Before getting to the content, it’s necessary to explain that this isn’t a new book. It was published in 2009. I was first introduced to it through a book by Michael Sampson called User Adoption Strategies, which I read all the way back in 2011. Back at that time, my note-taking was substantially more primitive. I wasn’t writing reviews on a regular basis. I was working on some user adoption content for a client and stumbled across the reference – and the desire to revisit some of the sources that shaped my thinking about user adoption strategies.

Reviewing a 9-year-old technology book feels like dusting off dinosaur bones in the space of communities and digital collaboration – but though many of the examples cited in the book have been lost to the sands of time, the underlying principles of how communities come together and stay together haven’t changed. While myspace lost to Facebook, and some of the thriving communities from 10 years ago are all but gone, the need for humans to connect hasn’t changed in a few thousand years.

Discover the Truth

Alone and Together

Alone Together takes a negative view of how technology is driving us further from one another. Bowling Alone speaks of our continued abandonment of physical communities. There is a certain component of destruction in new creation. Digital Habitats is focused on the creation part of the process. It speaks of how communities are drawn together – whether in person or online – and how technologies can enable and support that process.

While it’s possible to create technologies that isolate us from one another, it’s equally possible to create connections.

Rhythms and Interactions

Digital Habitats speaks of our connection with others in communities in two parts. First, there are the rhythms – that is, the patterns of being together and apart. Second is interactions, which is described as participation and rectification. Rectification means “making into object.” In this context, I’d adjust this to say that it’s consensus building – whether written and formalized or not.

Rhythms of connection – and disconnection – are important. They form the basis of our ability to merge with the group identity and separate to regain our own standalone identity – or merge ourselves into other groups. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more on the identification process.)

Interactions are the part of communities that most of us consider when thinking of the community – but from the narrow perspective of the episodes of interactions rather than the outcome of those interactions. Interactions can divide; but more frequently within a community, they build our understanding and create consensus. We learn about different perspectives and nuances about the thing that we’re in the community to learn about. Sometimes members of communities convert the consensus into an artifact that can be leveraged by others to speed their learning about the topic. (For instance, take a look at my posts about the Indy CIO Network and my summary of those conversations, like Marketing Information Technology to the Organization or Effective IT Steering Committees.)

At an individual level, we gain knowledge through our communities. At an aggregate level, the artifacts created from the interactions of those passionate about a topic – whether expert or not – creates value to the world as those artifacts are available to others.

Orientations

Digital Habitats asserts that there are different orientations to every community, and those orientations shape the needs of the community. The orientations and their key needs are listed here:

  • Meetings – Emphasis on regularly scheduled meetings
  • Open-ended conversations – Emphasis is on the ability to reach out and connect in a conversation at a time
  • Projects – The desire to work together to complete specific projects
  • Content – The desire to create content
    • Library – Providing an organized set of documents
    • Structured self-publishing – A forum for participants to publish information using a consistent format and metadata
    • Open self-publishing – Participants contribute but in a format and structure that suits them
    • Content integration – Participants build a network of links that connect information available publicly into a consumable structure
  • Access to expertise – The community forms so that the members can have access to expertise that they don’t possess
    • Access via questions and requests – Questions are broadcast in a way that experts can respond
    • Direct access to explicitly designated experts – Specific folks are identified as the experts that others seek to get access to
    • Shared problem solving – Group members help individuals solve problems
    • Knowledge validation – Artifacts are routed to members until they’re fully vetted
    • Apprenticeship and mentoring – Learning of the individual takes place through the mentorship of a skilled practitioner
  • Relationships – Connecting with other people on a common interest
    • Connecting – Networking with people who are likely to be useful
    • Knowing about people – Getting to know others at a professional and personal level
    • Interacting informally – Interacting one-on-one and in small groups
  • Individual participation – Creating opportunities for individuals to engage
    • Varying and selective participation – Various forms of participation are offered as ways to engage
    • Personalization – Members can individualize their experience of the community
    • Individual development – The community helps the development of individual members
    • Multimembership – Coordinating access across multiple communities
  • Community cultivation – Focused on the creation of the community itself – or the broader community
    • Democratic governance – Self-governing structures of self-management
    • Strong core group – A caring group of people take a nurturing role in the community
    • Internal coordination – A small group takes the role of coordinating the community
    • External facilitation – An external facilitator who is typically not a subject matter expert is responsible for managing the community
  • Serving a context – Orientation to the member’s point of view
    • Organization as context – The community is seen in its relationship to the host organization
    • Cross-organizational context – The community as seen as serving multiple organizations in a larger community
    • Constellation of related communities – The community sees itself in terms of the related communities that it serves
    • Public mission – The community sees itself in terms of the public mission it’s moving forward

While the ability to distinguish between multiple goals of different communities is important, I find this taxonomy unwieldy. Because this is a multiple selection-type organization, every community falls within every category to some degree or another, making it difficult to put your finger on exactly what the goals are.

More troubling than that, it seems as if, rather than being one set of categories, what we have are a few dimensions. I’d propose that there are a set of dimensions for communities as follows:

  • Context – Self-serving or other serving
  • Organizational approach – Completely democratic and free-form to completely bureaucratic
  • Expected Participation – From the “lurker” who never posts to the highly engaged
  • Relational – Is the objective casual professional talk or deep relationships that transfer outside of the group as well?
  • Intent – Meetings (ritualized gatherings), open-ended conversations, access to expertise, projects, and content creation

Technology Stewards

Ultimately, Digital Habitats seeks to empower technology stewards. That is, to take the caretaker for the habitat and enable them to make intelligent technology decisions to help the membership to get out of the group what they desire. In this, the book explains some categorizations and selection criteria that didn’t survive the test of time very well but provides a focus on the needs of the community, which will always be relevant.

Every digital habitat needs a caretaker, someone who will look after their Digital Habitats.

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