Once upon a time, in fragmented forums and chats, in a time of upheaval and change, Ana and Khaled met. As they chatted, they realized that they both had been hearing the same complaints about communication and collaboration from people working on many different things, in different silos, and wondered if the communication infrastructure was part of all of these problems.
They put their heads together and got to work.
Everyday, they would listen to the challenges different groups of people faced as they working on various parts of social, environmental, and other problems that plague society. Big questions surfaced, like: How can a large group of people do small actions, and still inform each other about big ideas as things change? How can a common purpose or message remain a shared goal over time without fragmenting or growing irrelevant?
One of the groups they spoke with had a need to get a message to 'get out the vote' to supporters that were only loosely connected to the group and to each other, and Ana and Khaled thought they could help. With a few friends, they built tools that helped spread person-to-person messages over Facebook, and saw how the network effect works to mobilize and inform networks of people. The tools reached upwards of three million people on Facebook within a few months and got upwards of 60,000 people to vote who may not have. It was exiting! And educational.
Yet it wasn't enough.
Other groups with other messages they wanted to share with people started asking for similar tools. Bojana joined and brought her empathy and design chops to bear on the problem, helping to create an iteration of the tool. But our intrepid team began to realize that solving the challenge of 'getting the word out' was not going to create lasting change. To do that, groups needed to 'get the word in'. They struggled to stay coordinated with each other and yet not overwhelmed. To hear or find what they need when they need it in order to do their own work. To silo bust. As they used the new tool, they gave feedback that one of the most useful things about it was the ability to see other groups. This visibility help them see the scope and context of the work and made it easier to know what to do next in their own work.
Our small team began to research innovations in how people organize, and realized how hard it was to do work together outside of an established organization. But so much overhead is needed to form new groups, and legal organizations often are slow, costly, rigid, and the groups they spoke with wanted to innovate, move fast, adapt, and be inclusive.
They wanted change, and the existing tools were either not enough, or too heavy.
So Ana, Khaled, and Bojana looked at the small, less organized groups that had been able to cohere into effective teams and networks. Their research showed that these groups are adaptive, inclusive, and driven by values. Their structures and cultures help them accomplish things quickly and cheaply. One was nothing but a website with a list of values and a goal, nothing else. Everyone that adhered to the values (code of conduct) and goals was “in” the organization and could call themselves a part of it. Anyone that didn’t, wasn’t. Brilliantly simple and spread by word of mouth, they effectively mobilized a large network of people and orgs and created meaningful, valuable work together. It was the epitome of “decentralized”.
Another community they engaged with - an ongoing part of our research today - is the 'decentralized web', groups of people taking these organizing principles right down to the tech protocols. Exciting because other people were also tackling the problems of decentralization and group-to-group organizing, this community shared some of the same questions about communication and coordination. But, the nascent technologies don’t solve some of the basic social problems. How can teams get started with low cost? How can many teams with aligned purpose communicate so that an effective network emerges, one with coherent purpose and able to produce useful work?
It still wasn't enough.
Meanwhile, Christina, an ecologist who had turned her focus to helping human groups learn to better self-organize and support the life within them, found herself facing very similar problems. The network and ecosystem maps she built for groups wrestling with entrenched challenges would help one group, for a little while, as they made the system of activity more visible to and more coherent to participants. Energy, food security, organizational change, healthcare, and climate networks. Even a map for the wonderful decentralized web community. But, like our team's early tools, they were also siloed, hard to keep up to date, and failed to create the ongoing and dynamic reflection of the living network she knew was possible. She found herself with more questions than answers, and knew that she wanted to shape software as part of the exploration of those questions.
Maps weren't enough.
When our team came together, and Ana, Khaled, Bojana, and Christina met, we opened up our many questions to new depths. We're making slow progress towards a deep understanding of the infrastructure support groups need for real-world systems change work. We've turned our small team into a cooperative, gotten funding from the National Science Foundation, built and tested an early prototype, expanded our team with fantastic advisors and collaborators, and are designing what we hope will offer improvements in our group-to-group coordination infrastructure.
Grounded in the health of living systems, versed in the emerging possibilities of new technologies, diligent about researching the many very human challenges that tech will not solve, and committed to a commons-oriented perspective, we are Socialroots.
We hope you'll join us. Together, we might be enough.