9 Projects Trying to Build Social Platforms That Don’t Make You Hate Yourself


Built In

February 25, 2021

By: Jeff Link

The following is a portion of the entire article written, which features Front Porch Forum.

Internet toxicity takes many forms. Violent provocations, misinformation, stalking, doxxing and dogpiling make online social forums feel icky and, frankly, unsafe for many people.

That’s one of the reasons behind a new Civic Signals research project co-directed by Eli Pariser and Talia Stroud. Pariser is the former executive director of MoveOn and co-founder of Upworthy. He coined the phrase “filter bubble” to describe the polarization of siloed online communities in his book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. Stroud is the director of the Center for Media Engagement and an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas–Austin.

Speaking online at the New Public Festival earlier this year, they shared the results of a two-year study of digital public spaces that identified 14 measurable qualities of healthy online communities. After talking with hundreds of experts in fields from political science to software design to develop these signals, the research team surveyed 20,000 high-frequency “superusers” across 15 platforms (including Google, Reddit, Facebook, Pinterest and WhatsApp) to determine how well people thought the sites were performing.

THE 14 SIGNALS OF HEALTHY DIGITAL PUBLIC SPACES, ACCORDING TO CIVIC SIGNALS

  1. Invite everyone to participate.
  2. Encourage the humanization of others.
  3. Ensure people’s safety.
  4. Keep people’s information secure.
  5. Cultivate belonging.
  6. Build bridges between groups.
  7. Strengthen local ties.
  8. Make power accessible.
  9. Elevate shared concerns.
  10. Show reliable information.
  11. Build civic competence.
  12. Promote thoughtful conversation.
  13. Boost community resilience.
  14. Support civic action.

Grounding the research is the notion that digital communities should be understood much like physical public spaces — like libraries, parks and town squares — with agreed-upon social goals and relational rules, accessibility requirements and rules for governance, Stroud told me.


Beyond the results themselves, the study illustrates how design principles commonly applied to physical public venues can be used as a guide to structure digital communities. Do programming options reach diverse audiences? Do visual cues establish behavioral norms? Are there clear accessibility requirements? Are rules for governance and enforcement developed in partnership with community leaders and stewards?

Stroud told me a key purpose of the study — and Civic Signals’ work, more generally — is to provide a common framework to assess existing platforms. Beyond that, the 14 signals can serve as a roadmap for founders, designers and developers of new platforms to think about how they might build friendlier, more equitable digital spaces.

At the New Public Festival, leaders of nine emerging platforms presented models of what those better online spaces might look like. Here’s what was written about Front Porch Forum, one of the nine platforms.

]Front Porch Forum is a community-based forum where neighbors can share information and local concerns.
Image: Shutterstock

FRONT PORCH FORUM

Now in its third software iteration, Front Porch Forum is a community-based forum where neighbors can share information and local concerns. Active in Vermont and parts of New York, the 20-year-old platform launched by Michael and Valerie Wood-Lewis trades in short posts about locally relevant topics — lost pets, cars for sale, plumber recommendations, school budget issues and political protests. The service hosts online neighborhood and small-town forums for registered users.

“Once a day they’ll get an issue that arrives via email or website or mobile app,” Wood-Lewis said of users. “The average issue might have about 10 postings. It’s not emoticons. It’s not LOL-type stuff. It’s more substantive. The most compelling content tends to gravitate toward the top.”

“There’s no anonymity. It’s like wearing a name tag and showing up at a block party with your neighbors.”

Open only to local citizens, officials, nonprofits and businesses, the platform is distinct from several of its larger social-networking competitors.

“There’s no anonymity. It’s like wearing a name tag and showing up at a block party with your neighbors,” Wood-Lewis said during the panel discussion.

In addition, every posting is reviewed by a staff of online community managers before publication.

*To read the entire article, click here.

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