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11 Lessons about Digital Communities from Rome: A Photo Essay
Posted on April 16th 2014
It may be an ancient, bricks and mortar city, but the buildings, infrastructure and inhabitants of Rome offer many design insights into cyberspace, particularly when it comes to building, maintaining, and participating in digital communities. This post shares 11 lessons, organized into three feng shui-inspired themes: balancing the old and the new, letting rules serve as guides not edicts, and recognizing the fundamental humanity of digital communities. Additional ideas and examples are welcome.
While flying to Rome several years ago, I read that according to feng shui, you have to clear out the old to make room for the new. If that’s true, then Rome’s feng shui is all out of whack, and its qi is probably lost in the warren of streets that comprise the city’s “grid.”
But the fact that the grid is more like a spider web is telling. Though there are nodes (e.g., piazzas) that provide points of convergence and divergence, as well as major landmarks, Rome appears to lack a grand design. It can also appear to be crowded, chaotic and noisy, both visually and aurally. One might wonder how anything could get done there, but it’s a thriving city full of energy and movement.
Struck by these powerful initial impressions, I decided to study the city while I explored it for the first time. Viewing it as a metaphor for the Web and the sites, platforms and apps therein, I was curious to see what kinds of insights I could glean into the factors that should be considered when building, maintaining, and participating in digital communities.
What can we learn from this nearly 3000 year old city and its 3 million residents? Here are 11 lessons, organized into three feng shui-inspired themes.
Yin and Yang: Balancing the Old and the New
The first theme in these lessons is the importance of balancing old and new in ways that respect and leverage the benefits that each offers without irrationally valuing one over the other. Four lessons reflect this theme.
Lesson 1: Capitalize on the principles underlying old designs whenever they can help achieve new objectives. One of the best examples of this is St. Peter’s Basilica, the design of which (as well as the name) was adapted from the buildings previously used for legal and business affairs. These buildings were considered much more suitable than the traditional religious buildings (i.e., pagan temples) for celebrating the newly recognized Christian faith after Constantine’s conversion in the 4th century AD.
The Coliseum is another great example of this lesson. It’s impossible to visit it without being struck by how little has changed from a design perspective over the millennia. Other than the sacrifices, fights to the death, and wild animals, of course, I could have been in any modern-day stadium!
We can see the same thing in cyberspace. Thought it may seem as if everything is ever-changing and dramatically new, each generation retains and builds upon the best elements of the preceding generations. Discussion boards, for example, have been around since the early days of the internet and have proven themselves to be highly effective for online conversations. Their basic format and structure can be found in the discussion threads that populate a wide variety of digital communities today.
Lesson 2: Whenever possible, build new things on top of old foundations.
This picture of the exposed side of a building at the end of the Roman Forum shows a “modern” building built on top of the ancient structure. Roman architecture is full of such examples.
A corollary lesson is to find ways to “repurpose” old things to serve new uses. For example, in the picture of the Coliseum you can see the pockmarks left over from the days when the building was used for storage.
Another corollary lesson is to find ways to allow new and old elements and structures to complement rather than compete with each other. The picture of a building in the Piazza de Pietra in the original post demonstrates that very well.
These lessons are particularly applicable to internal digital communities, which often must be adapted from and/or integrated with legacy systems. Open APIs, data links and transfers between systems, portal access, and single sign-ons, as well as consistency in look and feel and functionality, are all necessary features to ensure that new platforms and tools work seamlessly and effectively with old ones.
Lesson 3: Sometimes it’s necessary to get rid of the old to make way for the new.
I can’t remember its exact name, but to construct one of the main streets in Rome, the leaders at the time decided to destroy the ancient baths that were situated there. And of course many of the current archeological sites throughout the city, as in the picture below, are the result of uncovering ancient spaces that had been covered up long ago to make way for something new.
In a similar respect, although it may be possible to build modern digital communities using the foundation of existing ones, sometimes it’s necessary to completely abandon the old presence and start fresh. Blog-less legacy websites with few engagement features are great examples of this.
Lesson 4: Let the past teach you about the building process itself.
Even in cyberspace, things get built brick by brick. And as evidenced by the exposed wall below, there’s no substitute for solid materials, sound design, and the time and patience it takes to build things that last.
People are often so overwhelmed by technology and the speed with which it changes they forget that the underlying principles and building blocks for websites, platforms, and digital communities are fairly consistent and standardized, and that developers are generally committed to creating and following an agreed-upon set of best practices. They may be trying to “build a better mousetrap,” but they’re not constantly “reinventing the wheel.” In fact, when you think about it, it’s actually in their best interests to capitalize on sound established principles and best practices whenever possible.
Flow: Letting Rules Serve as Guides not Edicts
The second major set of lessons relates to the notion of qi, or flow, and gets manifested in the balance between creating and enforcing rules while maintaining the flexibility required to allow the community to be energized, adapt to changing circumstances, and thrive. Two lessons reflect this theme.
Lesson 5: Be wary of rigid “musts” and “shoulds” and “justs” and “onlys.”
Thinking and speaking in overly definitive terms is not only wrong all too often, it can create restrictions that limit opportunities and possibilities. One great example is the idea that certain types of people (e.g., older generations, blue collar workers) will resist digital technology and will not participate in digital communities. In the first picture below is an octogenarian strolling down the street toward the Piazza de Navaro. He’s the classic image of an Italian gentleman, and the picture could have just as easily been taken in the mid-twentieth century. But though the shot is a little blurry (I was kind of stalking him!), clasped in his hands is his mobile device.
A similar example relates to where and how people should access and engage with digital technology. In the original post I included a picture of a man sitting in the Pantheon taking a moment out of his day not to pray or reflect, but to check his smartphone! Many people would be quick to criticize him, assuming he’s digitally distracted and disconnected from his physical surroundings – and they could very well be right. But it may also be that he’s looking up information about the Pantheon on the Web, or sharing a status update or other reflection about his experience there. Similarly, in a work context many leaders are quick to judge participation in social networks, both external and internal, as “non-work” time, but that participation could very well lead to great opportunities for the organization.
Lesson 6: Be flexible and adaptable.
Have rules but don’t enforce them more strictly than necessary. Provide guidelines and let people create a sense of order that works for them. As evidenced by the first picture, Roman streets, especially in the busier neighborhoods, appear to be chaotic messes. There are cars and motorbikes everywhere, parked in all directions (alongside the occasional ancient artifact), as well as a constant flow of human and vehicular traffic going in multiple directions. But though many areas are congested, generally speaking passages are kept clear and there is a there is an underlying sense of order that keeps things moving.
The parallels to digital communities should be apparent. Especially on the public social networks, there is a basic structure and enabling features, but few rules. The content, activity and life of the platforms (for better and for worse) is created by the users themselves. Although the resulting environment is noisy and can be off-putting, many others are fairly adept at finding a way to make sense of it all and manage to “go with the flow.”
People: Spaces are Fundamentally Human Places
Feng shui is about the interaction of humans and their environments, and the final theme is a reminder that digital communities are fundamentally about the people who comprise them. Five lessons demonstrate the importance of scale, the role of technology in supporting human endeavors, the value of form as well as function, the need to manage the signal/noise ratio, and the ingenuity of people in adapting to environmental circumstances.
Lesson 7: Scale for intimacy rather than anonymity.
Part of the charm of Rome is that in spite of being a major metropolis, it is a city of neighborhoods. The value it places on keeping things on a smaller, more human, scale is evident in how people shop for food. There is still a tradition of having small specialty shops, like this produce store, rather than one-stop-shopping megastores. The same idea can be applied to megasites, which can overwhelm people with choices and seem to lack character as they try to be “all things to all people.” It’s one of the reasons people continue to flock to boutique, specialty sites that offer fewer things but a richer experience.
A corollary lesson is the importance of giving people places and ways to find and engage with each other – or maybe just watch as others go about their activities (the real-life equivalent of lurkers)! The Spanish Steps are a classic meeting spot in Rome, and the city is full of piazzas and cafes and other places where people can congregate. The restaurant below, one of the fanciest outdoor cafes I’ve ever seen (on Via Veneto), shows how much the culture values being able to hang out to enjoy each other’s company and watch the world go by!
Some people love to complain about the time “wasted” in digital communities, especially public social networks – and for many those complaints are rooted in the fact it’s not how they personally would choose to spend their time. But it’s highly unlikely those folks are “perfect Puritans,” working tirelessly from sun-up to sun-down and spending what little free time they have on other matters of substance. Everyone takes breaks, and cyberspace is no exception. There’s really nothing wrong with people choosing to spend some of their time people watching and chatting. It’s an extension of the human experience from the earth to the cloud.
Lesson 8: “High tech” can help promote “high touch.”
It’s important to remember that digital technology should enhance our ability to make connections with each other rather than distancing us from one another. It should also provide “new tools” for doing “old things,” allowing us to pursue what matters most as we go about our daily lives. In this picture, for example, the men are leveraging technology to answer a question or solve a problem.
Some of the greatest benefits of digital communities, both personal and professional, are that they enable us to connect with others even when we can’t see them in person, and give us a means to communicate and collaborate, and get information and help we need to pursue opportunities and address challenges.
Lesson 9: Form matters as much as function.
Details are important, and you need to channel perfection where it matters most. In other words, some “small stuff” is worth sweating! One of my first thoughts when I arrived in Rome was that there was crap everywhere! There were relics strewn about, and people and vehicles streaming in all directions. There was also tons of dirt and graffiti. On the surface, it appeared that Romans didn’t care about their environment, but the more time I spent the more time I realized it was a question of values and priorities. Aesthetics and pleasure matter very much to them.
The original post includes a picture from a little Anglican church I discovered near the Piazza de Popolo. All of the seats in the church had these cushions (kneelers) that had been painstakingly stitched (it’s needlepoint), as had the chairs the priests used. Tremendous care and love, not to mention time, went into crafting these cushions for the parishioners’ comfort.
The picture here is a classic example of the importance of food to the Romans, and the display emphasizes the importance of visual appeal as well as taste. Even after being dug into, it’s still a work of art. The value placed on aesthetics is also evident in the produce shop (look at the chandelier!) and café (with its starched white tablecloths) images in Lesson 7.
In cyberspace in general and digital communities in particular, we see the importance of aesthetics in the resurgence of interest in user interfaces (UI) and user experience (UX), as well as the need for cleanness and simplicity driven by mobile devices and apps. Like Rome, cyberspace is still a noisy, messy, chaotic space, but there are oases of calm that offer respite from the madness.
Lesson 10: Monitoring and managing public communication activity is imperative.
As evidenced by these pictures, Rome is full of graffiti and posters of all types. I did a little research and learned that graffiti has its roots in ancient Roman society, but the ubiquity of the practice today creates eyesores in an otherwise beautiful city.
Cyberspace is also vulnerable to excessive public “sharing.” Although we have official channels for expressing ourselves (e.g., Twitter feeds and status updates), we are all constantly challenged by the distractions of excessive noise, spam, and inappropriate posts. Monitoring and managing public communication activity – including a healthy does of self-policing by both individuals and organizations (think before you post!) – is critical to creating a proper signal/noise ratio and ensuring digital communities are welcoming and pleasant.
Lesson 11: Never underestimate people’s ingenuity.
People are incredibly adept at adapting to their environments and finding ways to make things work. The original post includes a picture that demonstrates how Romans adapt to the small spaces available to them. Under the awning is the outside seating area of a restaurant, and I saw many impossibly tiny shops tucked into various buildings throughout the city. The nooks and crannies of cyberspace are similarly filled with a variety of micro digital communities started by people with a particular passion who wanted to create a space for like-minded folks to gather. The Denovati Group itself started as one of those micro communities in 2009…
The more entrepreneurial among us will also find ways to make a buck, even if it means offending others. In the second picture is one of the many men offering to sell umbrellas to passersby on a rainy day outside Vatican City (to cover all the bases, they apparently have an inventory of sunglasses to sell when the weather is nice!). We find equivalent opportunists throughout cyberspace, who exploit the openness of digital communities to “sell” their wares. We call them spammers…
More Lessons and Reflections
After I published the original version of this post, I got some great comments that inspired a few more lessons and reflections:
- The idea of synchrony has been used a lot to explain how members of digital communities can – and often do – regulate their actions to stay in synch with one another. This video about starling murmurations illustrates the idea beautifully. As a related point, allowing digital communities to develop and function more organically can foster more cooperative behaviors, whereas tightly regulating them may cause people to be more self oriented.
- Though it wasn’t intentional, including the Anglican Church in the original essay highlights another important point about digital communities. There are always minority elements that will carve out a space for themselves and shouldn’t be neglected when so much attention is paid to the majority members. To those who need them, the specialized niches are just as important – if not more important – than the larger community.
- The best way to learn about any community, including digital communities, is to “go native.” Though there’s great value in observing and learning about the culture of a community before actively engaging in it, those observations and lessons are limited by one’s outsider status. You can only really understand a community when you actively engage in it.
In addition, Harold Jarche referred back to the original post and shared his own thoughts in I came, I saw, I learnt. They provide a nice complement to the ideas I offer.
What do you think Rome – or any city for that matter – can teach us about digital communities? What do they reveal about best – and worst – practices? I’d love to know what you think!