Building Communities in Online Spaces: An IT Perspective

by Thane B. Terrill

Thane TerrillDr. Thane B. Terrill is the Director of Information Services at the United Nations Office of the Bahá’í International Community (BIC) and author of the book Technology on a Shoestring: A Survival Guide for Educators and Other Professionals. He has taught educational technology at Columbia University for seventeen years. A learner in the Wilmette Institute’s course The New Five Year Plan (2016–21): Completing the First Century of the Formative Age (faculty Niki Daniels, Farzin Aghdasi, Mat Cotton, Sherna Deamer, and Joan Lincoln), Dr. Terrill wrote this article as his class project. It is his personal reflection of the possible role of technology in the Five Year Plan based on his experiences at the BIC and at numerous other Bahá’í institutions. 

As the growth process continues to gain intensity, the friends’ efforts to engage in meaningful conversations bring them into many social spaces, allowing a wider array of people to become familiar with the teachings and consider seriously the contribution they can make to the betterment of society.—The Universal House of Justice, letter to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counselors, December 29, 2015, par. 23.

Introduction

The Five Year Plan calls for large growth in the efforts of Bahá’ís to help their communities to better their conditions. One of the methods by which Bahá’ís can participate in the betterment of society is through engagement with their community’s discourses. Some of the discourses taking place in social spaces will undoubtedly include online spaces where many of such discourses either take place entirely in online spaces or are somehow connected to online spaces. Engagement by Bahá’ís wishing to participate in those discourses will, therefore, benefit from an understanding of the environment of online spaces. Yet the Internet represents a complex and sometimes problematic environment. Thus it is important to explore how the use of the Internet services and capabilities can potentially be used by Bahá’í institutions operating in clusters (including Regional Councils, regional Bahá’í institutes, local Spiritual Assemblies, and so on). For the sake of coherency, the environment being considered is that of the Bahá’í cluster. Hence the examples will assume the operations of a cluster, but the underlying ideas will also, one hopes, be useful in other institutional contexts.

The December 29, 2015, letter from the Universal House of Justice states (par. 30) that Bahá’ís need to learn “how to apply the Revelation to the manifold dimensions of social existence.” The following ideas represent an individual perspective on how the Internet may be employed by Bahá’í institutions to support the goals of the Five Year Plan (2016–21).

Integration and Disintegration

The landscape of international affairs would, he [Shoghi Effendi] said, be increasingly reshaped by twin forces of “integration” and “disintegration”, both of them ultimately beyond human control. In the light of what meets our eyes today, his previsioning of the operation of this dual process is breathtaking: the creation of “a mechanism of world inter-communication . . . functioning with marvellous swiftness and perfect regularity”; . . . These and other developments, the Guardian explained, would fundamentally alter the conditions in which the Bahá’í Cause would pursue its mission in the decades lying ahead.—Century of Light 5.18: 52.

We live at a time characterized by the dual processes of disintegration and integration. The Internet, which may well be an element of the “‘mechanism of world inter-communication’” envisioned by Shoghi Effendi (other elements may well include television, radio, telephone, and satellite communications systems). Institutions in clusters must recognize that the Internet is ultimately a tool and that every tool is only as good as the tool’s user. Given that society is in turmoil, it is difficult to discern which aspects are part of the process of disintegration and which are part of the process of integration. The Universal House of Justice has written that the process of disintegration may be a prerequisite for a process of integration. Behind this apparent societal chaos is Bahá’u’lláh’s influence. The general public may not be able to discern the patterns in the chaos around them, but the Bahá’í community and its institutions, through the activities of the Five Year Plan, can identify the patterns in chaos and are also uniquely prepared to participate in the establishment of new patterns of association. The possibilities of finding “new opportunities for cooperation and collaboration” (The Universal House of Justice, letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran, March 2, 2013, par. 4) are as numerous as the cultures and circumstances in our diverse world community.

There is a public perception that activities “on the Internet” are somehow fundamentally different from those taking place in “the real world.” This perception of a split between the “the Internet world” and “the real world” is easy to understand in light of the fact that the new online spaces include capabilities to communicate in ways that are physically not possible in a non-online environment. This disembodiment of Internet activities obscures the fact that “virtual” people and “on line” communities represent real people. Oddly, telephone calls and letters are not considered “virtual,” yet both mediate communication between people without face-to-face meetings. Generally, online environments attempt to simulate real or imagined worlds that are labeled as “virtual.” Yet, even when some online communities do not have “real-world” counterparts, these communities are nonetheless real because they represent the same human motivations and goals responsible for any form of societal association. In fact, Internet communities may be in some situations a truer form of community because membership is almost always voluntary, and they are frequently grassroots in their origins. Therefore, the guidance from the Universal House of Justice and the principles of the Faith that guide our interactions with society are applicable in the “virtual world” as they are in every other version of the world.

While no one can predict how the ever-evolving communication technologies will expand the form, structure, and meaning of community, Bahá’ís and Bahá’í institutions can be sure that Bahá’u’lláh’s divine plan will always be achievable. In fact, it can be argued that many of the major technological inventions, especially those involving communication, have manifested themselves specifically for the development of the divine plan.

Defining Community

The Universal House of Justice’s Ridván 2010 message to the Baha’is of the world articulates a clear process for building communities:

  • identifying receptive populations (par. 3)
  • empowering participants (par. 11)
  • fostering meaningful interactions (par. 7)
  • creating opportunities for discourses (par. 30)
  • growing organically from the results of interactions with the community (par. 29)

All of these elements can be translated to online spaces.

When identifying a receptive population in online spaces, Bahá’í institutions use the same principles they use when finding a receptive population in a physical space, but the tools and indicators can be different. The Internet has dramatically increased the number of forms of what can be considered a community while at the same time removing limitations of geography. Pre-Internet definitions of community were usually limited to neighborhood (a street, village, city, state, country, and so on), clubs, work, schools, houses of worship, sport teams, and similar forms of associations. The Internet includes all of these forms of community, and it allows people to collect in any combination of interests imaginable and for any length of time. The idea that a large number of people would spontaneously form a community lasting a few hours or a few days would have been impossible before the Internet. Today, meaningful ad hoc communities can spring up, act, and disband in days or hours.

Another characteristic of community made possible by the Internet is that individuals may easily transition between communities, belong to many communities simultaneously, and engage with each community with varying levels of commitment. The flexibility the Internet provides makes it both very challenging to identify what community is and who a member is. Yet this very same flexibility also increases the number of possible ways in which a Bahá’í institution may identify and engage community.

Identifying Receptive Communities

Bahá’í institutions may sometimes adopt a communication strategy based on serving an existing receptive population, such as the parents in a neighborhood with vital children and youth activities. In other cases, Bahá’í institutions may find that the receptive population is dispersed geographically and otherwise is not identifiable. An example is parents with different religious affiliations looking for faith-based education for their children that does not reject either of the parent’s beliefs.

One of the benefits of the Internet, Bahá’í institutions will find, is that it supports multiple avenues of communication for addressing the same community with precisely crafted messages. For example, a Facebook account may build a sense of community, a Twitter account may keep members informed and feeling that they are part of a collaborative process, a website acts as a resource, and YouTube can supply videos that provide additional perspectives or evoke an emotional response. The communication avenues of the Internet can be seen as keys on piano. The right combination of keys greatly enhances the impact of each key played separately. One event may well use all these channels without duplication or confusion as long as the overall message is coherent. The characteristics of the receptive population are what determine the communication avenues the institutions may employ. And, just because a message or avenue of communication worked well initially does not mean that it will continue to work. As with any engagement with a receptive population, experience leads to reflection, consultation, study, and then to improvement.

Engagement

As expected, the friends are being drawn further into the life of society—a development which is inherent in the pattern of action in a cluster from the very start, but which is now much more pronounced.—The Universal House of Justice, letter to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counselors, December 29, 2015, par. 30.

“Effective social action serves to enrich participation in the discourses of society, just as the insights gained from engaging in certain discourses can help to clarify the concepts that shape social action” (The Universal House of Justice, Ridván 2010 message, par. 30). Learning enriches action, and action creates learning. Institutions will find that this process is highly suitable to the online environment because, in addition to what people say online, many of their actions, such as the number of times they visit a site or how long they stay on a site can be a strong measure of engagement. The measurements and performance matrixes that virtually all Internet services provide can represent a type of conversation with the community. What people say is clearly very important, but what they do can sometimes be even more illuminating. If the receptive population is posting on a site about children but constantly visiting the web page on family and marriage, one possible explanation is that they are talking about children because that is the topic presented to them but that they may actually be more interested about how to improve their marriages. Of course, it is not so simple. They may not want to talk about marriage because it is too personal, but holding an event during children’s classes for parents on the characteristics of a strong marriage could be welcomed. Or institutions may want to enrich the content on its website based on an analysis of user traffic.

Engagement does not always have to be verbal or even acknowledged openly. Online spaces can add nuisance to current discourses, and they can suggest new discourses.

Message Coherency

Institutions need to recognize that the Internet is most accurately thought of as a communication platform on which everything from live video broadcasts to email messages are being transported. One commonly held misconception concerning Internet communications is that Internet communications are free of costs. While it is, indeed, true that many forms of Internet communications are free—after one obtains an Internet connection and a computer—the costs of creating good content are usually significant. While constantly lower production costs have dramatically reduced the expense of content creation, the audience’s expectations have at the same time dramatically increased. Text alone was once acceptable, then it was text with images, and now content is expected to include multimedia. As with the need to prioritize the selection of possible receptive populations, the institution will also have to prioritize the avenues by which engagement will be supported. Trying to “do it all” can be expensive and might require so many resources that the institution loses sight of the population it intends to engage.

Message coherency is more than just saying the same message via multiple media forms. In fact, saying the same thing through every channel would be like reading a radio script on television or calling a friend and reading a postcard. Online spaces are the same as physical spaces in that both have cultures and expectations. When a community is engaged with the same population in both the online and physical spaces, the messages should ideally reinforce each other. One does not want people showing up at events expecting something based on online content that is not a part of the physical activity. Likewise, people attending activities would ideally find further information online.

Using the Principles of the Faith

‘Abdu’l-Bahá (quoted in The Advent of Divine Justice 40: 26) wrote that a Bahá’í should be recognizable based on: manners, behavior, conduct, morals, nature, and disposition. When possible, institutions should imbue every message, regardless of its explicit message, with all the characteristics of the Bahá’í Faith. Ideally, the manner with which a communication is conveyed will inform the recipient as to the implicit values of the sender.

Below is a list of some principles that may be taken into consideration when designing a communications plan:

  • Oneness of Humanity
  • Trustworthiness
  • Unity in Diversity
  • Consultation
  • Independent Search for Truth
  • Harmony of Science and Religion
  • Non-involvement in Partisan Politics

Trustworthiness is a foundational spiritual principle but one that is better demonstrated than self-proclaimed. How trustworthiness could be specifically conveyed would depend on the community’s cultural expectations, the communication medium, and the institution’s previous history with the community. Referencing a claim with a well-established authority is an example of how to establish trust. The quality of the message’s content in terms of its presentation, attention to editing, appropriate use of references, and the method of delivery will all factor into the message’s credibility and thus factor into the perceived trustworthiness of the content’s creator. If the content’s creator is not trusted, nothing contained in the content will be trusted. Just as trust is the foundation of an individual’s character, it is also the foundation of any form of communication.

One of the concerns an institution faces is whether the method of communication brings with it associations that taint the message being delivered. In some cases, the available methods of distribution may adversely impact the message to the point that not communicating is the wiser choice. Evaluating the link between message and communication method can be difficult because each community has its own set of perceptions. Clearly, placing an advertisement on a gambling website would bring with it so many negative associations as to negate any value in the message. While this is an extreme example, few channels on the Internet avoid having some type of problem, and the ones with the fewest problems unfortunately tend to have the fewest visitors. People go where other people are to be found, and, to generate large numbers, the provider of the channel often has to cater to the lowest common denominator. The problem is that much of the Internet resides in a grey zone between these two extremes: high-traffic/low-quality and low-traffic/high-quality. Whereas the tradeoffs of traditional media are usually centered on decisions of costs, new media are more often concerned about the degree of control of the message. The best practical guidance is to see what other respected institutions, such as the United Nations, local governments, and other religious organizations, are doing.

Cultivating Relationships

Traditional media asks: What does the audience want? The Internet’s new media asks: What builds a relationship with the audience? The answers will be similar in terms of what the content will be, but institutions need to be aware that the answers for new media will include the expectation for interactions and the possibility of next steps.

Not all content has to be specific to building communities or promoting interactions. Providing information is a valid goal because it provides context for more conversational forms of content. Even on the Internet, the traditional modes of content and new media content work synergistically. This is because measures of interest and relevancy, as determined by the Internet searching engines, are integral to having content found. In a bookstore, unless a book is so popular that it is placed in a special display case or so unpopular that it is moved off the shelf, books sit next to each other regardless of how popular they are. Such is not the case with Internet search engines (Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and so on). For content that someone does not know about, the only way they will find the institution’s content is if the user’s search result lists the institution’s content as one of the top ten search results. A search may have hundreds of thousands—even millions—of results, but, statistically, it is unusual for anyone to go past the first twenty results (or two pages). Most users will not even continue past the first ten results.

It is important for new media content creators to know how search engines determine which of the million possible results for any given search will be listed on the first page. How Google and other search providers create their results are closely guarded secrets, but the basic principles are well understood. Essentially, search providers use the community of all its users to measure what the average user finds interesting. Search providers realized that computers cannot tell the difference between web documents that contains “this document does not discuss economics” from one that contains “this document is only about economics.” Both documents will appear for any search on the word “economics” because the word “economics” is in both. While this example is simplistic, the general problem of determining meaning was a profound one that prompted Google to create a system based primarily on analyzing their users’ behavior to identify the relevancy. Other search engines of the time continued to hire more content experts. Google became a multi-billion dollar business, and the other search engines went out of business.

Google looks for sites that are known to be authoritative on a specific topic to see if they link to a site that appears to be on the same topic. If it does, that gives credence to the validity of the site being linked to. They also look at the behavior of their users once the users interact with their search results. A list that a user does not click on is naturally assumed to be a less successful list than one where multiple links are explored. A user who clicks on a link and then quickly clicks on another one is assumed to have been disappointed with the previous link. All these individual user decisions are aggregated over many millions of user actions per day. One person’s disappointment does not ruin a site’s ranking, but many people having the same negative responses will adversely impact the disappointing content’s ranking. Once the content’s listing falls below the first twenty search results, it is essentially not findable because the average user will not look past the first ten or twenty search results. Lower traffic means less interest, and that translates into a further drop in the search results. In a very real way, search engines are a type of conversation. The community of search engine users vote with their clicks about what is most interesting to them, and content producers adjust their content to gain favor with the user. Content’s ranking, even when it is remains unchanged, is constantly being reassessed in light of user interactions with it and in light of the rankings of similar content found elsewhere on the Internet.

Measuring Engagement

Institutions need to be aware that online communications almost always come with very sophisticated tools for tracking the behavior of those who come to their site via an advertisement. These measurements are very helpful in determining the effectiveness of the advertising campaign. These measurements can answer a number of useful questions. Are people visiting the content that is considered most important? If people visit the content, are they staying on the site long enough to indicate that the content is being read? Are visitors to the website continuing to read other content, and/or has the visitor gone to the contact page to look for local Bahá’ís? In the case of an advertisement for a community event, are there more people than usual attending? Are people showing up or calling based on something they read online? If these measurements are not generating the expected results, the plan may need adapting. This should not be seen as a failure. Rather, it is a natural part of a conversation.

The social nature of many Internet communication channels is one of the Internet’s most salient aspects. “Social,” in an Internet context, ranges from being intensely bonding and profound to divisive and trivial. Used properly, the social aspects of Internet-based communications can engage grassroots communities in ways found nowhere else. The Internet’s global reach is both a supreme opportunity and a vexing curse. The Internet is an unruly environment. Institutions can reach people never before reachable, but the reverse is also true. Any deranged person can, and probably will, comment on the institution’s message. They can do so from the comfort of their home, with no costs to themselves, and under the cloak of anonymity. Fortunately, most people in an online environment usually filter out the background noise of crazy and/or hateful people. In fact, most people will view with suspicion any site where the comments are “too good to be true.” Where the line is between acceptable and unacceptable interactions is dependent on many conditions. Visitors to any public site (such as YouTube and Facebook) will not expect any content provider to accept all forms of interactions. Some examples of interactions that should be considered for immediate removal are postings that include hate speech, profanity, long and repeated rambling diatribes, personal attacks, computer-automated postings, completely unrelated content, comments that unwisely provide personal information (such as ID numbers, passwords, full names of children, and so on), and self-promoting content with links back to the poster’s site. How content creators engage with both the positive and negative interactions will be a key determinant in the public’s perception of them.

Communication is not a matter of choice. Every institution communicates either through its deliberate messages or through its absence. An example of this might be a Bahá’í center that chooses not to be listed in the local telephone book. Such an absence might appear odd to anyone expecting to see a listing and thus communicates an unfavorable message. The acts of listing and not listing are thus both forms of communication. Similarly, not having a website for a large community would be considered unusual and perhaps even a sign to a member of the public that the institution does not really exist or wishes to be private. In the past, just having a site was considered an extra. Today, an institutional website is assumed, and the expectations for its quality of content and style are constantly increasing. Once again, similar institutions may indicate the form of a community’s expectations.

Feedback and Assessment

The flexibility and changeability of digital media and its associated digital distribution channels require an equal degree of flexibility and adaptability in the delivery of the institution’s message. An effective communications plan, therefore, should have feedback as an integral component. But it is important to make sure the measurements, as valuable as they might be, do not become the final objective. The measurements must, whenever feasible, be tied back to the institutional objectives that informed the communication. Too often, content creators abandon common-sense approaches to Internet-based communication because the Internet is perceived as some sort of “virtual world.” The premise that the virtual world of the Internet can only be measured within an Internet context is incorrect because it does not sufficiently appreciate that online identities represent real people. As important as the many measures of Internet activity are in assessing engagement, institutions must remember that the ultimate goal of its actions is building communities.

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