Technology & Coalition Building: A Critical Review of Online Platforms

Last September, Hack Library School outlined three initiatives to work on over the next year. Since then, we’ve made some changes according to these initiatives–some expected, some not. What has come out of those efforts is a keener understanding of the role technology plays in shaping the experience of coalition building and sustainability.

Without further ado, here’s a look at behind the scenes of these past few months, and why we’ve made the choices we have concerning design, communication, and publishing:

Switching Landlords: From Google Groups to Slack

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Slack is a virtual space that organizes content before you sign in, depending on which “team” you are checking in with. It’s fairly easy to learn if you don’t mind learning in front of an audience.

Google Groups was the tried and true method for communicating weekly announcements, feedback on upcoming posts, and general banter about life and school. The more in-depth the conversation, the longer the thread, the more you had to read to catch up, much less contribute. And few of us, if any, have an email address dedicated solely to our work at HLS. So there was the added bonus of sorting through the competing obligations of your inbox on any given day.

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Slack certainly isn’t the only option out there for organizers. If security and access to conversation archives are important to you, expect to either put down some money or look for other options. Given our smallish endeavor (less than 20 writers) and limited scope, it’s been pretty great. Plus, the /giphy add-on is a lot of fun.

Paying Rent: Ad-Free Since 2016

I have some strong words for online advertising, but especially advertising that invades the space of volunteer communities without consent. We found ourselves in such a position this fall when it came to our attention that advertising was being placed on our site by WordPress to “to help pay the bills.” For me, the real knock in the teeth is their argument that this helps “keep free features free.”  For the sake of brevity, I’ll just say that if you aren’t paying for it, then you’re the product. And if someone wanted to buy me Joe Turow’s The Daily You as an early holiday present, that would be cool. Any organization worth its salt takes the integrity of its output seriously. Branding, marketing, and targeted ads compromises the relationship between HLS writers and readers. It distracts from our purpose. So as a group, we chose to bite the bullet and pay the extra fees to keep advertising off Hack Library School.

Our Online Home, Now & Then

WordPress.com is not the same place as when HLS was started six years ago. Today, it is the single largest online publishing platform for blog-style publishing. It’s grown in leaps and bounds and so has the way its operations are financed and supported. This is reflected in its many tiered payment plans, hosting services, and expanded customer support department. WordPress prioritized usability over user control and this is reflected in what you can and can’t do without paying a little extra. Whereas content creators used to be able to customize page design and integrate their independent Widgets with ease, you must pay extra to do what was previously a given. Simply put, it is nearly impossible for coalitions to maintain an online presence without investing some capital, financial, social, or otherwise. There aren’t exceptions in the rule, but for a project like ours that rotates the majority of its membership every 12 months, there’s only so much one cohort can do.

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All this talk about money, and ownership, and conflicts of interest does beg the question–if you’re group is dishing money out anyways, why not strike out on your own, learn a little MySQL, buy a small server, and just do it yourself (in the true hacking spirit)?

I think we made the right choice this year in purchasing a WordPress theme. It has resolved some long standing design issues such as post visibility and navigation. And, it does look pretty slick. However, when we signed up to write for HLS, these were not the kinds of conversations we expected to have.

Choice matters, regardless of form

The choices your team makes about how to communicate and publish make a big difference in not just the day-to-day, but also in the ideological commitments with which your group aligns itself. Ultimately, organizations and coalitions are responsible for not just meeting their stated goals of any given calendar or fiscal year. You must also tend to the ideological considerations that occur as a by-product of those choices–the ideas, beliefs and systems that are afforded by your choice in communication technology. Often made informally and away from public view, those choices make a tremendous statement about who you are, what you do, and what you stand for as a coalition. As managing editor, my job is to handle these issues and let my writers do what they came here to do–write about their experiences and make the publishing process as seamless as possible. The needs of every coalition will look different. Here at HLS, we’re invested in supporting our readers and supporting each other.


Image Credit: Soorsa, Lisa and Don Tapscott, Rethinking Civilization for the Social Age, ImageThink.net, 12 July 2012.

1 reply

  1. just like online voting needs a paper trail, online democracy needs local chapters. the library can be those chapters– but it has to be. online-only democracies will fail every 5-10 years, if not faster. feel free to research why they do.

    in-person democracies stand a better chance. occupy was one. it was very steadily fought. if you want robust democracies, you will have to find the weak points and strengthen the community in those spots– locally. even though there will be fewer libraries in 5 years. what online democracy is great for is increasing involvement and awareness. but you need (partial) physical attendance to back it up.

    Liked by 1 person

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