Using IT to 'Do Good' in Communities?

Susanne Bødker

Department of Computer Science & Center for Participatory IT, Aarhus University, Denmark. Email:

In this point of view I will position myself in relation to the current state of affairs in community technology. In particular I will look at how people at large participate in technology mediated activities and what this means for our understanding of such technology mediated communities, and our methods and roles as researchers when studying them (and as activists when engaging with them). This discussion is quite timely and fueled for example by the community-related sessions in the prestigious ACM CHI conference in 2015 (Begole et al., 2015).

I step back from community briefly, because I find it useful to start the discussion of 'doing good' in participatory design. Participatory design in its classical form was about taking a stance for and with somebody, some groups of users/workers/people, at the cost of other groups, whether these were recognized or not. This is the place where my own research started, much before anybody talked about online communities and computer supported cooperative work. In the 1990s in particular, participatory design became something 'good' in itself, no matter with whom researchers and designers collaborated. The arguments for participatory design were made in terms of the quality of products and in particular their usefulness to users as such. This development was questioned by many (Kyng, 2010, Beck, 2002, Bødker, 2003), at the same time as it led to many positive changes in human-computer interaction research and practices (Bødker 2006).

Fallman (2011) on a slightly different trajectory, makes the argument that HCI in the second and third wave (Bødker, 2006) is seeking new forms of 'good', 'the new good.' He discusses the role of participatory design as blurring fundamentally what the 'new good' is. However, I'm not concerned with what makes HCI and participatory design 'good', as much as with the phenomenon that it is 'good' . I find strong parallels between the way in which trying to engage people through participatory design 'was good' and how we think about working with communities. Accordingly, I'll use this development to discuss (IT-mediated) communities:

I find that 'communities' have moved to a place where they are considered 'good'. When I read papers with my students about communities, the papers often just assume that if we, as researchers/designers can find a community to work with, that is, almost by definition, good. Looking back at e.g. Preece & Maloney-Krichmar (2003), who do a rather good job of summarizing work on online communities, this is indeed also very much the case historically. Their paper, like many recent cases, looks at how we can support the communication and interaction of, and help people build communities with technologies. Preece & Maloney-Krichmar (2003) point to participatory design methods to facilitate these processes, and very much to individual choice as a factor in joining and leaving communities. Following these writings, we can even invent communities through the design of our technologies, and we are doing really well, if this community is in the third world, in some sort of entrepreneurial space, or suffering from some sort of chronic disease that we can all identify with.

In the same way, as I am skeptical of the development of participatory design, I'm concerned with this kind of do-good perspective on communities. I think we need to somewhat step out of it and look at its negations. Not only perhaps to consider communities that are not all just good, if they are simply subversive, or even harmful to others. In the Danish press, e.g, there has recently been a discussion of why pedophilia is so little studied, even clinically; the claim being that it largely stigmatizes the researchers. Preece & Maloney-Krichmar (2003) mention the dark side of online medical communities as an additional example, and suicide communities are other examples.

Now, I'm not suggesting that we should help build community technologies for pedophiles. I'm only asking that we consider this as an ugly alternative. Where the Arab spring was an interesting study object for many, it is less obvious that the massive and well-organized on-line presence of ISIL/Islamic State, is an equally attractive study object. There are indeed alternatives to this perspective, and we also need to consider such things as oppressed voices and marginalization, and not least to find theoretical framings that help us in this. In my perspective there are two elements in scholarly work here: To work more specifically with tensions and contradictions in the communities (see Faraj et al. 2011) and to seek ways where the researcher can establish a position outside the community, while working with it.

Understanding Community

The philosopher Thorup (2013) points towards the relationship between friends and enemies and concludes that creativity and innovation happen in communities, which are under pressure at their boundaries, whereas peace at large leads to laziness and laissez-faire. Clement & Wagner (1995) discuss how drawing boundaries are nonetheless a way of creating more efficient communication within communities, and Bødker et al. (2003) use Barth's cultural-anthropological notion of boundaries which they suggest helps focus on contexts and situations in which boundaries are generated . Barth suggests that it is boundaries that define the group rather than the cultural core, and hence that the boundaries are important to understand when studying communities. Boundaries outline the identity of the community and are marked because communities interact with entities from which they are, or wish to be, distinguished .

Björkvinsson et al. (2012), mention Dewey's idea of publics as a frame for conflicts and heterogeneity, rather than that of community. Basically there is no public without something to be against. LeDantec & DiSalvo (2013) move on from Dewey to think about power structures and marginalization. Björkvinsson et al. (ibid.) similarly point towards Star's extensive work on boundaries and marginalization (1990, 2010) as a result of standardized networks or infrastructures.

Mouffe as well as Bakhtin have been used in the literature to address communities and publics from the point of view of multiple voices with adversarial viewpoints. Björkvinsson et al. (2012): "As Mouffe argues, the goal of democratic politics is to empower a multiplicity of voices in the struggle for hegemony and to find 'constitutions' that help transform antagonism into agonism, moving from conflict between enemies to constructive controversies among 'adversaries' - those who have opposing matters of concern but who also accept other views as 'legitimate'.

All of these writings in my perspective point towards a view on communities as not just good. We need to understand the dynamics of communities, beyond the individual choice of coming and going (Preece & Maloney-Krichmar (2003)). We need to study and address communities more systematically, and not least understand our own role as designers/researchers/activists in this space:

  1. Who are the enemies, and what should one be against?
  2. Who gets marginalized and what happens on the boundaries?
  3. How to use technology to bring forth multiple voices in constructive controversies.
  4. When are communities? This is to say that we need to understand the configurations that come before and after communities and mechanisms that help make or break communities.
  5. When are we dealing with other sorts of configurations of groups and individuals?
  6. And, when are these actually interesting for our studies?

I don't suggest that we go all in for publics, but rather that we study the formation of communities, publics, networks, and how these formations change. Again however, there is hope in a voice from the past: Let's step back and look at work in the early years of CSCW. Robinson (1991) discusses the co-operative movement and its very long history (from Minoan civilization 5000 years ago, via the industrial revolution, to the 750000 co-operative societies in the 1980s). He discusses how in this movement there has always been a problem of coordinating disparate viewpoints in a democratic way. In assessing how different technologies may mediate such processes, he points to four principles to be considered: Equality, mutual influence, new competence and double level language. These terms are indeed quite different from those mentioned by for example Preece & Maloney-Krichmar (2003) of shared purpose or common good.

Making Community

In addition to multiple voices and boundaries, equality and mutual influence we are facing the challenge that to a large extent the kinds of communities we are interested in, seem to be emergent or in the making . They are neither stable in terms of people, of instruments nor of meaning or purpose. New competences as those mentioned by Robinson (1991)'s may be a result of pressure on the boundaries, and largely communities need a language for addressing such issues (the double level language). With much recent development, communities are also in the making in a different manner: They are not well-established communities of practice (in contrast to the learning communities that were the outset of Lave and Wenger's (1991) work on communities of practice); communities of practice that can be studied and understood prior to the design of the technology. To the contrary, we are working with communities that are constantly moving and changing, and we are introducing new ways of communicating and engaging that did not exist before the technology. In Bødker & Christiansen (2004) we found inspiration from Grudin (2002) in suggesting that new ways of using technologies to probe these emerging practices need to be found for this kind of research and design:

"We have found very few discussions and very little literature reporting on design experiments concerned with the background maintenance of a social (perhaps virtual) community. As seen from the point-of-view of design, the ephemerality and prototypicality of social encounters are not addressed, let alone embodied in ways productive to the design process."

In other words we emphasize the need to study and design for the mechanisms that help shape communities and also those which work against this. What is needed is

  1. Long-term studies of the emerging practices and/or development of technology mediated communities.
  2. New, and more reflective, ways for designers/researchers to engage with communities. In particular we may need to be more aware of what is at risk for the researchers and designers and what they need to invest.
  3. Methodological and conceptual thinking that considers how to design for practices yet to develop, in particular communities that are in the making. In this I suggest that we need to consider more the negations of all that is 'good' in communities: Addressing the periphery rather than the center, the enemies rather than the friends, the controversies and multiple voices.

Arguments, parallel to this, are developed by Clement et al. (2012) from the perspective of what they call participatory infrastructuring. They focus more on participation and infrastructuring and less on community, yet they conclude that critical probing (through technologies that are not products-to-be) and participatory design are useful ways of opening up to a public imagination, which does lead back to what may or may not come before communities.

Making Communities Go Away?

Being true to my own analytic stance, I should also perhaps ask how one may design technologies to make communities go away. In some instances, as mentioned in the introduction, this would sound like the true subversion. At the same time, however, the issue opens to totalitarian and other 'possibilities' that I personally don't see the end of. Neither the making nor the breaking of communities through information technology is good by definition, to reiterate my introduction.

I thank the AU interdisciplinary center PIT ( and the participants in two SummerPITs for fueling this debate.


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The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441