What do you want from a rationalist community?
Our new online rationalist community has 2350 members, which is a great start. Now we have to decide how to develop it, what it stands for and what it should be doing. Caspar Melville explains the options and how you can help decide
We’re developing this website as the hub of a community. 2,350 have already registered as "founder members" and we’re hoping that lots more will be joining.
This community is designed as a place where like-minded people, committed to the values of reason, the scientific method and humanist ethics, can find things to read, watch, listen to, think about and do. And where, as members, they can connect with one another.
We’ve started with the basics: a great platform for the content produced by the Rationalist Association – articles, blog posts, podcasts, videos, links – beautifully designed on the principle of simplicity and accessible via any internet enabled device. You’re here – it’s nice isn’t it?
But it’s only the beginning. Now we want to know from our founder members how they would like us to develop their community. So we’ve created a very straight-forward poll to find out just that. Below, I’m going to give you some details about what we’re asking and offer some guidelines before you vote. This poll is open only to founder members – if you are not one yet please do register, it’s free and will take seconds.
The first thing to say about the poll is we are asking you to vote for only three items out of a list of 13. This is to help us prioritise what we should do first, and also to make it clear that we are a small team working for a small charity with limited funds (you can help right now by becoming a members of the RA). We can’t do everything, and we need to focus on what the community wants most and what is achievable. We are ambitious, but we have to be realistic about cost. In terms of the quality and usefulness of what we do we aspire to compete with anyone out there, but of course in terms of budget that is not always possible.
Things you can vote for explained:
Publicly available Members Book connected to members’ social networks (e.g. Twitter, Facebook)
What we mean by this is a members list online and shareable where those who have joined declare their commitment to the community publicly (if they want to) and are able to list their online links – to social media, website and blogs – so that other members and the world at large can contact them and join their networks. This is something we’d like to build that we think is achievable.
Members-only comments on articles
At the moment on our site anyone can comment on blog posts but comments on articles are limited to those who are logged in as members. At the moment this is all done through a third party commenting system – Disqus – that requires a separate log-on, and is therefore cumbersome. The upside of this is that it limits trolling and those annoying comments from people who are just trying to cause trouble. The downside is that it tends to inhibit discussion (more hassle = fewer comments). Is members-only comments something members think is valuable? Is there an appetite for hosting discussions among like-minded people in the community without the noise? And if there is, is a bespoke commenting system the best way forward – these are expensive and complex to build. Members-only comments are one way to achieve a conversation amongst members. Another is…
Member-only discussion forum
Forums, where members can start their own thread, were one of the early successes of the internet, and they continue to thrive in one form or another for particular communities (e.g. StackExchange). But has some of the point of them been overtaken by social media? We can build a members discussion forum, but it will be expensive and we need to know if it’s the kind of thing that members would really value and use (the ‘empty-party’ is a big risk with such things). So another idea that might be more achievable might be…
Members’ mailing list (reader-generated debate)
The idea here is that we use free technology, like Google groups, to set up a list to which only members are invited. This would operate by email and any members would then be free to start a discussion. This is something we can institute relatively cheaply and quickly and would be a way of testing the water in terms of community discussion. So, as you might have suspected, we think that this would be the best starting option for building a conversation among the community – as it grows, if it grows, we can think about building bespoke software to support it.
Community notice board
A place online where members can post things – news, events, massage services (not that, though) – that are of interest to the community. Again this would be an email-based solution, quick, easy and cheap. If you want it we will build it.
Community events calendar
This would be a listing of relevant events, from the RA, kindred organisations and anything else that members should be aware of. This would be sourced by RA editors and via the community (email again). Perfectly doable.
We have always felt awkward that though the RA has members all over the UK (and the world) we can only afford to host events in London. But the internet offers a unique way around this: online events. Again, there is plenty of free software we can use for this – Google Hangout or similar – so we could organise events with interesting people and members wherever they happen to be, to be watched live wherever you and your computer happen to be and archived online (NB we are not in the pay of Google).
Hosted Q&A events
This is a more specific example of the above. Do members want the chance to get involved in and/or listen to/view question and answers sessions with our authors and other interesting types? We can make it happen using some of the software already mentioned (which might not even be Google).
Audio versions of articles
Self-explanatory, really. We like listening as well as reading, would you like (some) RA content delivered in sound, either read by the author or by someone with a mellifluous voice (not mutually exclusive obviously)?
T-shirts, mugs, Not-Christmas cards – are you interested in getting hold of Rationalist Association gear?
Member-recommended content and reading
Would you like to see an ever-growing list of interesting stuff recommended by members and RA editors?
Member campaigns on specific issues
We think a community should actually do things. Do you agree? Would you like to know about/get involved in specific campaigns? Let us know.
Rationalist Manifesto (statement of community values)
And finally… well this is a big one, and it’s not really about software at all. If you have joined the Rationalist Association community I’m betting that you support rationalism. But what is that exactly, how does it relate to humanism and secularism, what values are enshrined in it, what should the attitude of rationalists be to religion and the religious and how should a rationalist community behave? We think these are issues that should be addressed in a Rationalist Manifesto, and particular attention should be given to how this community behaves in a digital environment – with respect, with civility, with a commitment to treating ideas seriously, with a sense of humour and humility. We’d like to write such a manifesto with the help our community – the buzz word these days is ‘crowd-source’ it – are you in? It won’t take much in the way of technology, but it will take time to gather your thoughts, think and write. Vote for it if you think it matters – it could be the first gift of the RA community to the world.
All the ideas above, the things we could be working on, have come out of the research we did with our readers and members and social media followers over the past year, and from things we think a community should do. But it’s not up to us, it’s up to the founder members of the community. If that’s you, vote now. If that’s not you, make it you by joining and get involved.