Most substantive community work is about consensus seeking, and software is naturally very bad at this.
Bits want to be toggled on or off. I have permission to delete this thing, or I don’t. I am an administrator, or I’m not. I can view this discussion, or I can’t. And atop this mountain of toggles sits the god-king, the community owner. All abilities flow downhill from them, and thus “software-granted permission” and “community-granted permission” become very easily conflated.
Most significant decisions in a community, when it’s healthy & managed well, are likely consensus-seeking. That means it’s not really “majority rules” and votes, but rather “most folks are good or neutral about this; some may be against, but no one is irate about it.” It’s a fuzzy metric derived from a boatload of old-fashioned human-to-human communication. On the Internet, this is the domain of video calls and good ol’ prose. No one out there is making “consensus-seeking software”. But maybe they should be.
How do you put humans at the center of community software? Don’t build better algorithms, build better workflows.
It’s incredibly challenging, especially in the early stages of building something new, to stay focused on the people.
When you know how to program, your mind wanders to the bits constantly. How can this fit in a relational database, or how can I sidestep a technical bottleneck? I’ve rarely used a piece of software where I couldn’t identify where the fixation with bits had overcome a fixation on people.
When you know about business development, your mind wanders to the markets constantly. How can it fit a niche, differentiate itself, undercut competitors, or “disrupt” (that’s business jargon for “exploit”)? I’ve rarely used a piece of software where I couldn’t identify where the fixation on markets had overcome a fixation on people.
You can’t design software in a context-less bubble, either. These things have a roll to play, but they often monopolize the show. We seem to be so often attempting to maximize for one thing that we lose the big picture. Instead of looking at how not to lose focus on the people using the software, why not maximize how to put them (especially their empathy and especially their choices) at the center of our focus?
We keep building workflows that try to either bypass humans or use humans as a fallback for the dregs of what the algorithm couldn’t confidently judge. What if we built really great workflows that respected humans and helped them lead instead? Wouldn’t that be wholly better software?
Every time we lose that focus we lose a little bit of ourselves by our own hands.