Welcome to Smalltown, a Civic Space Online

image of Amherst Town Meeting April 5, 1997
Amherst Town Meeting, held April 5, 1997. Image courtesy of Amherst Community Television, via CC BY-ND 4.0 license.

At iDPI we’re agitating for a smaller future of the Internet. To illustrate this, it’s helpful to think about rooms.

Offline, there are all sorts of rooms that we gather in: there are churches, bars, gyms—what we do in each of those is pretty different. Facebook is like a big conference center, with high ceilings, fluorescent lighting, and way too much open space.

We’re ultimately hoping to usher in an era of smaller spaces online that serve a bunch of different functions. These networks already exist in subreddits, Facebook Groups, and Discords, but we think there’s more work to be done to realize the full potential of small social networks. In particular, we believe that small social networks may have the power to transform small-scale civic interactions.

Smalltown is an experimental social network we have created that’s meant for use in small-scale civic discussions. It is a fork of Mastodon, a free, open-source social network server. We built Smalltown to test our hypotheses about small social networks:

  1. Small social networks with well-defined values and robust moderation can be a useful and healthy addition to the social media landscape.
  2. Spreading out civic discussion and supporting asynchronous interaction can improve access and inclusion to important conversations.
  3. Experimentation by communities, researchers, and entrepreneurs requires cheap, flexible, and easy-to-use software.
  4. Once you have the software you need, the success of small social networks is primarily dependent on social and institutional factors.

Values and Moderation

Currently, many of our online interactions take place in the digital equivalent of a shopping mall. Controlled by corporations and designed to maximize advertising revenue, they sometimes host civic discussions, but they aren’t real civic spaces. We choose to have conversations about our children’s schools or about cleaning up the local park on Facebook or Twitter not because these are the best places to have these discussions, but because they are convenient—we assume most of our fellow participants are on these popular networks.

There is clearly an opportunity to build a better future, one that commits to digital spaces that enhance our social and civic life; one that gives communities control over where and how they come together online.

Small social networks can choose to focus conversations on civic issues and limit off-topic posts. They can limit participation to people who are directly affected by the issues being discussed. They can experiment with moderation and participation rules to enable the conversations a community wants to have. Using an existing commercial social network has far less flexibility. (For an in-depth exploration of these ideas see our Civic Logic essay from the Illustrated Field Guide to Social Media)

Access and Inclusion

screenshot of Smalltown software showing its discussion section
Smalltown’s discussion section

In conventional civic engagement, participation is a high-intensity, brief activity due largely to the time and space constraints of physical, synchronous meetings.

Consider the classic civic meeting: an hour and a half on a weeknight in a local community building with discussion limited to presentations from the meeting’s leaders followed by a few questions and comments from the audience. These time and space constraints lead to many of the shortcomings of conventional civic engagement such as a tendency for small groups of individuals to dominate discussion, limited time for engagement, schedule conflicts that block participation, and potential participants’ hesitancy to voice their opinions in public.

Smalltown spreads out opportunities for participation by enabling a community to engage in discussion before, during, and after civic meetings, asynchronously, in a persistent digital space. This means that people can use the network whenever and wherever they have internet access, their participation no longer limited by the constraints of physical, synchronous engagement.

With Smalltown, people don’t have to find the time and transportation to get to a meeting on a weeknight. They don’t have to gamble on whether they’ll be able to speak and don’t have to worry about speaking up in front of a group of strangers.

Software built for experimentation

It’s difficult to customize, control, and run the software needed to host a small social network. Existing commercial solutions are expensive and limit a community’s ability to control and customize the software and data. Open-source software often requires technical expertise to set up, manage, and customize.

This means that the group of people able to experiment with small social networks is limited to those able to pay for technical experimentation and those with the knowledge to experiment themselves. To truly enable a flowering of small social networks, we need a system that enables people with minimal technical expertise and money to spin up their own custom and controllable social networks. We’re trying to make it as straightforward for someone to create and customize a social network as it is for them to fill out an online form.

Smalltown takes a step towards that goal by managing the software for our partners and offering a number of customizations that don’t require people to code. For example, we enable communities to turn on a post queue, which makes it so all posts submitted to the site have to be approved by a moderator before appearing on the site, with the click of a button. Similarly, communities can add and remove direct messaging with the click of a button.

Social innovations over tech

Unlike global platforms, such as Facebook and TikTok, which are largely differentiated based on technical functionality, small social networks are largely differentiated by their social and institutional qualities. Who gathers in the space? Why does the space exist? What are the norms, rules, and governance structure of the space?

We’ve found in our experiments with Smalltown that high quality participation on small social networks requires significant “social scaffolding.” Much of this scaffolding looks similar to what a local reporter or community organizer does. Connecting with people, asking questions, surfacing issues, building trust, and organizing. You can’t just build a tech system and wait for participation. You need “community entrepreneurs.”

This could be rephrased as the 80/20 rule of small social networks: 80% of the work and impact is social and institutional, 20% of the work and impact is technical. We hope to explore this hypothetical heuristic further as part of our work.

What’s Next?

Going forward, we are looking to try Smalltown out in more communities to further test these hypotheses and are planning updates to the project based on feedback from our partners and observations from our experiments. We think communities that need a digital space that they can customize and control would benefit the most from trying Smalltown. For example, a community may find Facebook Groups a bad fit for their values, because of Facebook’s stances on privacy and moderation, and too rigid, because they can’t customize the functionality and are forced to live on Facebook’s platform. Smalltown could offer a solution to both of those problems, giving the community an independent digital space that they control and can customize.

You can find the source code for Smalltown on GitHub. Please reach out to Community Lead Kevin Zheng (kyzheng@umass.edu) or Project Lead Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci (crajendranic@umass.edu) if you have any questions or are interested in trying Smalltown out in your community.


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