Designing and building websites that seek to encourage social change is more than a little bit like designing playgrounds for children with slides, ladders, jungle gyms and swings.  A difference is that when I am designing web applications about social transformation, I pay close attention to the principles of change; I seed the software with features that play upon the nature of biological, social, ontological and personal evolution.

When I was maybe nine years old, I went with my youngest sister, Gale, to the playground at the corner of the block.  Gale was four years old and had pink glasses with bluebirds at the temple.  New playground features had been added to the park.  One of them was a hefty plastic animal with a sort of saddle, embedded in a large, powerful, grounded spring that allowed for slow rocking back and forth.  Gale said she wanted to show me something and had me straddle a hippopotamus while standing on my feet instead of sitting on the hippo.  She stood in front of me and then slowly drew the plastic hippo to the ground, yanking the wooden handle coming out of its head.  She managed to draw it all the way to the ground, the hippo’s spring grunting with her exertions.  I stood where the hippo had lounged a few moments before.

“OK, watch!” said Gale.

And she let go.

After rolling on the ground for a bit, whimpering, hardly able to inhale, testicles temporarily destroyed, I shuffled home.  I remember Gale’s confusion and dismay.  That was not the outcome she intended.

A goal when designing web applications that are meant to enhance communication and cooperation is to avoid their accidental or deliberate use to offend and disrupt the work of others in the network.  The Left/Progressive community has a long history of frustrated attempts at cooperation.  This lack of cooperation has blocked forward impetus, particularly when ideological opponents on the right were well funded, well organized and had the support of the mainstream media.  There are several things we do to achieve our goal.

We seek to make the Left/Progressive networking websites fun to use.

The programming emphasizes what organizations have in common, not what they do not share.

The focus on commonalities is further encouraged by making shared issues an easy destination.

Facilitators concentrate on finding organizations allies, people they may not know.

Encouraging transparency, with everything in view, we seek to engender an atmosphere of trust.

We fill the activist playground, the website, with many options and provide guidance on their use.

Encouraging creativity by providing resources, a shared space and an experience of trust creates an opportunity for changes in behavior.  The behavior we most want to see engaged is that which comes with the confidence that an individual can make a difference.  Political empowerment comes with an access to tools, allies and an ideological framework that allows for growth in unique and unexpected directions.  Social evolution, like biological evolution, is filled with unexpected contingencies.  By nurturing an environment where anything can happen, anything will happen.

Our network websites are playgrounds where activists can practice social change.  Imagine children’s playgrounds connected by instant portals, so secure that parents wouldn’t have to fear for their child’s safety, and children could run from playground to playground, all across the world, exploring new things to play with and finding new playmates.  Imagine how much their experience would be enriched.

Eliminating barriers to change on a small scale by nurturing transparency, diversity and horizontal communication, we establish habits that can be ported to larger scales.  Noting that evolution unfolds by displaying increasing diversity and interconnection, we can design into our applications features that encourage the same experience.  We seek a neotenized society.  We are looking to manifest the features of the infant–trust, affection, dependency, creativity, curiosity, intelligence–into the society at large.  Biologically, neoteny has a lot to do with lowering male testosterone levels.  Societally, we can reduce hierarchical status confrontations, stratification and war by practicing the alternative in a safe environment.

We are new at this.  On occasion with these new tools, we will accidentally knock the wind out of an ally or ourselves.  The letdowns are lessons.  Even spring-loaded plastic hippos can be fun.


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