Published on [Permalink]

Some reflections on “When Leaders become Followers”

There was an excellent piece this morning by @schuth asking “what happens when we think about our online environment as if it were a physical space.” He proposed a thought-experiment that considered two online spaces as though they were two coffeeshops with very different community standards and management styles.

The piece showed how difficult it can be sometimes for us to understand online “spaces” in the same way we understand spaces out in the physical world. A child’s bedroom, a prison cell, a coffeeshop, a sports arena, a barbershop — it’s hard to imagine confusing any of these spaces for any of the others if we were to actually walk in and look around.

But online, it’s different. If we don’t understand the nature and purpose of the space — or if we’ve been misled about its purpose — then our expectations will always be at least a little out of sync, both while we’re in that space and also when we take those expectations with us into other “spaces,” no matter how alike they may seem to us.

Broad, shallow similarities can mask deep, essential differences. How I set up the kitchen in my new house is very different from how I would design a commercial kitchen in a restaurant. Sure, they’re both “kitchens,” but one is a hearth, and the other is the core workshop for a commercial venture.

To that point, I want to build on and modify William’s original metaphor of coffeeshops. As apt as it is in many ways, it’s not completely accurate in others. (Of course it can’t be: comparisons are always between things that are at least somewhat dissimilar…)

The coffeeshop analogy captured the sociable aspects of the two spaces, but I honestly don’t think (and the IndieWeb movement in general) is trying to be another privately-managed commercial space. Twitter may very well be a coffeeshop of sorts, but definitely isn’t. This is part of why some of the Twitter expats are bewildered by

So comparing Twitter to is perhaps like comparing a shopping mall to a farmer’s market in a public park. In the shopping mall, all purposes and uses are subordinate to the commercial activities; in the farmer’s market and the park, the commercial is only one activity among many.

The crucial distinction here is that one space is public and the other is private. That is: No one “owns” a city park the way someone “owns” the interior of a shopping mall (or the interiors of the stores in that shopping mall). No one owns the Internet the way someone owns the content of a single website.

So, according to this definition, is public to the extent that the content that wends its way through the timeline doesn’t belong to MB is a gathering place, the way the farmers market is a gathering place.

A coffeeshop sells coffee, and the “social” space it offers is secondary. In many ways that space is no different from the branded mugs and merchandise it sells. There’s no intrinsic reason why coffeeshops should have comfortable seating areas; it’s as much tradition as anything else that we’ve come to expect a coffeeshop to be a gathering place as well as a point of sale. A place with amazing coffee in an otherwise inhospitable or tiny space with no comfy chairs can still thrive.

And if really were a coffeeshop, what exactly would it be selling, to whom, and why? For example, I haven’t paid a penny to participate here at I have a free username, and I’m simply pouring my blog’s RSS feed into’s timeline. I’m not’s customer exactly, and I’m certainly not its product.

I am, however, paying someone for web hosting and domain registration. So that made me think that rather than a business that sells something like coffee or a commercial space filled with shops and businesses in which social spaces are offered as an afterthought or as a loss leader to make the product more appealing to its customers, is more like an aggregator of many different independent endeavors, almost none of which are commercial in nature.

Say I’m a farmer with a whole farm of my own, forty miles out of town. I set up a stall at the market. The stall is sorta like my farm’s RSS feed: the farm is out there regardless of whether I maintain any sort of presence at the market. And if I get banned for my offensive racist speech, I still have my farm. People can come visit it directly, or I can set up a new stall at other farmers markets, or off the back of my pick-up on on the sid of the road, with hand-painted particle-board signs: “sweet corn, kohlrabi, offensive racist speech, tomatoes”…

Or maybe I do crafts in my living room, and I just set up a stall at the market every weekend to peddle my sculptures made from tongue-depressers. Or I’m a self-employed poetaster with a letterpress in my basement, and every weekend I show up with a portable typewriter to bang out improvized poems for a buck each, and a stack of weird broadsides.

The tomatoes, the sculptures, the broadsides belong to us, not to, and if we part ways with M.b., we take everything with us.

But the only way we could possibly consider Twitter or Facebook as farmers markets — that is, as aggregators of content — is to say that Twt/FB lends you the gardening supplies and a little plot of soil, and they make all the money from your tomatoes and racism. And if they kick you out, you lose our plot, and you lose your tomatoes. (Your racism, however, is yours to keep.) They really are more like businesses that own the space you’re gathering in, and they exploit your identity to sell spectacle.

Communities can thrive in both public and private spaces — we are, after all, social primates and we’re gonna try to coalesce into communities and tribes and cliques pretty much anywhere, no matter what — but we should be very careful not to equate the two. No matter how similar they may seem, a space in which community isn’t the first priority is very different from one in which it is.

And no community can survive long anywhere without clearly defined (or at least clearly understood even if hard to define) standards and strong moderation. And that brings me to the next and possibly most important distinction between different sorts of spaces. Cost.

Maintaining a community, even if it’s a secondary purpose — a loss leader to get people in the door — is expensive. Do we pay for it through taxes whether we use it ourselves or not, or do we charge fees of only those who use it, or do we find corporate sponsorship, or do we pay with our time through volunteering, or some mixture of these? Every answer is fraught. The rhythms of a community are shaped by every choice it makes, and by every choice that is made for it.

But, you know, I’m really annoyed by how pervasive the notion of business-and-customer is. Why do we go to all these storefront, shopping mall, coffeeshop metaphors? Is it because we’re all either the piper or the guy who calls the tune (or the schlemiel with the Spotify subscription)? The commodification of everything?

Sure, everything requires resources of some kind, directly or indirectly. The meter is always running. I paid someone my time (and my skills, which in turn cost time and money to acquire) in exchange for money, some of which I passed on to my landlord and the utility companies in order to have the space and time to sit here and tap away on

But not every model is a business model. I am not a business, I am not a brand, I am not a customer, I am not a product. I am a member of many overlapping human communities, one of which is right here inside’s RSS timeline.

Businesses can foster community. But community is not a business. The minute smells like a business, I’m gone.