Inviting, Welcoming, Promoting More Participation

Creatives, designers, makers and developers of a so-called “platform” like WordPress are in the minority. Even the much larger group of merely supporting contributors are quite rare. There is a rule-of-thumb metric often called the 90-9-1 rule which identifies 3 broad categories of general populations (Charlene Li & Josh Bernoff vastly expounded on this idea in their analysis of participation / engagement titled “Groundswell”).

The wider, general population may use a platform like WordPress, but they generally do not themselves create it. From the vantage point of Say’s Law (economics), the provision of the WordPress platform creates demand for that platform. The very oversimplified depiction of the relationships and interactions between these groups and technologies I presented in “Linking together the WordPress community” can (and should) be much more refined. What I was attempting to do was to describe the general setting in very broad strokes.

Now I want to blur the lines a little.

To keep it simple, let’s start by saying there is no clear line separating products or services (WordPress technology) from the people involved (WordPress community). Neither is there a clear boundary or wall separating one group of people from another – and so it is completely feasible that such groups could interact and influence one another.

Let me explain this a little more with an example from another field – not far off, indeed in some ways quite closely related, but nonetheless distinct from the field WordPress is usually set in.

Today, calling someone illiterate seems tantamount to accusing them of being uncivilized. Note that this has not always been the case. It is actually only quite recently that the expectation of literacy has become more and more widespread. For most of human history, the vast majority of any population was illiterate. Even after the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press – yes: for several centuries following its invention – most of the people throughout Europe (let alone for most of the rest of the world) were illiterate. Even in the fledgling United States, the common requirement for proof of literacy was merely the ability to sign one’s own name.

How did that change? Well, that’s a simple question. The answer? It’s complicated. Consider the fact that Martin Luther wrote an open letter to princes across Europe pleading them to establish schools and public libraries. Did that happen in his lifetime? No. Did it eventually happen? Yes. One thing that did happen in Luther’s lifetime is that the written language which is today known as German was invented. The reason why that happened in Luther’s lifetime is that Luther invented it … perhaps not exactly single-handedly, because as he himself acknowledged: he simply wrote down words the way other people spoke them. I don’t believe he asked for permission – after all: at the time, copyright was probably a completely unknown concept.

In my own life, some people have felt violated by my publishing ideas they have confided in me. I have never published confidential information in the sense that I would have ever “doxed” anyone, but still some people have accused me of doing something inappropriate when it seems like I have expressed ideas that went through their heads. I don’t know what to make of this. To me, it seems like my expressions are my own. Of course other can express whatever they feel like expressing – at least that’s the way I feel about it.

This is also the way I feel about language in general: no one owns it. It is shared by its community of users, and so when Luther wrote down words that other people used to talk he no more violated anyone’s privacy than I do when I express ideas that other people have told me about.

How is my situation any different than Martin Luther’s? I would say the main difference is a matter of how widespread literacy is. Yet I would also add the caveat that today, literacy probably needs to be redefined – or at least re-contextualized. For example: many people today think that when someone types a word into Google, that the company will give the “correct” definition of the term. I consider such people illiterate, because they apparently do no understand how Google works (indeed: they probably don’t even understand very much about how the Internet works).

Let me get back to the issue of participation. If literacy is widespread, then why do so few behave in a “literate” manner? Why do so few people publish their own ideas? If everyone has a voice, why do so few people choose to use it?

The answer I alluded to just above – namely, that literacy is in fact not widespread – is one possibility, but another possibility I feel also worth considering is that people are not sufficiently motivated to participate. My gut feeling tells me that a lack of participation is down to a combination of these reasons, in varying degrees.

Luckily, I do have some ideas concerning what I consider to be good ways to invite, welcome and promote more participation – to increase engagement and strengthen community, to empower individuals, to create more social cohesion and all that jazz. Want to read all about it? Then follow me and tune in next time (maybe tomorrow) to find out more! 😀

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