Spatial Communities

Most internet communities are one-dimensional. They are a feed of information and interactions members are supposed to process linearly. As a reader, you go from the top of the feed downwards in a straight line, and your attention follows. Platforms are built so you read one message in one thread and then move on to the next. They are built for you to focus on one conversation or piece of information at a time. Telegram threads, Discord channels, Whatsapp groups, Facebook posts or comments are all examples of one-dimensional community platforms.

The problem with these platforms is that they fail to include and grow the context of the community. They don’t connect ideas and discussions together. They make it difficult for members to scan or browse multiple threads of information. This hurts members’ ability to process information in context and understand the overall community.

To improve members’ ability to develop context and process information, communities should look beyond one dimension.

Adding More Dimensions

We forget that computers are flexible and can do more. They aren’t limited to one dimension. Spatial communities can be created when we move information into two and three dimensions. These extra dimensions may be more useful for many of the tasks members want to accomplish. Communities (and platforms) should take advantage of this to provide better experiences for their members.

For a long time, forums (and many other “web1” sites) were the default platform for internet communities. They provided more options for spatiality compared to feeds that are popular now. They might have looked more chaotic, but also provided more context. It was easier to browse ongoing discussions and dive deeper where relevant. For experienced members, this was great. They could quickly process what was going on in the community, and interact where relevant.

As feed and chat-based social media platforms grew, so did their one-dimensional feeds. Many communities followed because the design was simple, familiar, and worked on a small scale. Forums, as an example of a design with more dimensions, aren’t as popular as they once were.

Tailored for Scanability: Craigslist and Supertalk’s forum.

We lost the benefits of dimensionality and spatiality by moving entirely to feeds. Providing more information in multi-dimensional formats can help members scan, understand, and develop context for the community. To see the advantages of this, compare the information density of Craigslist and forums versus feeds. These are examples of spatial platforms that are more multi-dimensional than a feed and provide readers with more flexibility with how they process information. This allows readers to scan to see what they are interested in, connect ideas in different ways, and then dive deeper when necessary.

The Benefits of Extra Dimensions

When extra dimensions are added, members can explore information and build context much faster. As a member, I can get a pulse on the community better. I can see multiple discussions happening at once, and figure out what is interesting or popular at the moment. I am provided more paths to explore compared to feeds that focus on one piece at a time.

Those branching paths provide new ways of processing information. Many people benefit from processing information in space, it provides a hook to remember things. Because people only have a limited amount of time, energy, and attention to process information and interact with a community, providing them with ways to process information easier is valuable. Using multiple dimensions to store information creates a “memory palace” for members. It is a technique used by “professional memorizers” to remember more information.

“A Memory Palace is an imaginary location in your mind where you can store mnemonic images. The most common type of memory palace involves making a journey through a place you know well, like a building or town. Along that journey there are specific locations that you always visit in the same order.”

Multiple dimensions also allow for multiple conversations while feeds often get clogged with one. Any older information or conversations are lost. Multiple dimensions allow people to get more perspective on the conversations and discussions happening in the community. It also allows people to go deeper into their individual conversations with less worry about being interrupted.

Being able to see all the discussions gives an insight into presence. In real-world spaces, we feel this presence and might not realize it is lost in the virtual world. We feel the energy of the people around us. Extra dimensions allow us to “feel” other members of your community in a way that might not happen unless you were talking with them directly. This is comforting and builds a feeling of belonging.

As an example of the benefits of extra dimensions in conversations and presence, we can look at virtual offices. These are two-dimensional spaces that represent in-person offices for groups of people to spend time in. They provided an additional dimension to work in compared to Slack or Teams or other chat-based work apps. During the rush from the office to remote work, people realized they were missing something. They realized the extra dimensions of in-person let them feel the presence of their teammates and have higher fidelity conversations easier. Virtual offices try to recreate that as best they can.

How Communities Can Benefit from Extra Dimensions

Communities don’t have to shift themselves entirely into another dimension to benefit from it. They can take pieces of the community and add additional dimensions to them. For example, the onboarding process could include processing information in a two-dimensional space like Kinopio or Miro. There could be multiple paths for a user to explore before joining a community. Communities could host virtual events in a multi-dimensional video chat app like Gather or Sprout. Instead of breakout rooms, people could literally move away from each other to discuss.

Kinopio, Miro, Gather, and Sprout

To understand where more dimensions should be considered, communities can ask themselves:

  • Where would members benefit from being able to scan or explore more?
  • Where would users benefit from processing information in space?
  • Where are users having multiple conversations at once? How can we help them split these out?
  • Where would members benefit from having presence?

Answers to these questions may prompt you to change the way you are storing and displaying information, the way members communicate and interact with each other, or the way events will run. The good thing is that plenty of tools exist for providing communities with more dimensions. These tools will continue to improve over time, and community processes will better be able to integrate them.

You’ll never know the benefits of giving an engaged community another dimension to play with until you do it. As the best example of what can happen, look at r/Place, a collaborative canvas formed one pixel at a time. The designs and art created by the different communities are incredible and happened because Reddit gave them new dimensions to express themselves. We should help this happen more.

Thanks to JG Garibaldi and Katerina Bohle Carbonell from Foster for the feedback.

Let me know what you think on Twitter.

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