Pueblo, the Humane Community platform
I recently wrote about communities, and how we might improve them. The improvements I suggested are general enough for any community platform, but I'd like to propose specific features which promote healthy communal interaction:
- Rooms and Forums to separate asynchronous and synchronous discussions
- Active Hours to discourage being "always online"
- Almost Instant Messaging to encourage mindful messaging
- Mark as... to cover content quality gray areas
To show off these features, I designed an archetypal community platform which I'm calling Pueblo.
The platforms we use for community tend to adopt a safe brand. This makes sense; they want corporate clients to trust them enough to purchase their premium offerings.
INTERFACES for popular chat tools (top to bottom) Slack, Zulip, and RocketChat. Seem pretty safe and trustworthy, don't they?
In contrast, Pueblo's brand feels bold, original, and quirky while remaining friendly and reliable. All these characteristics feature in the most interesting communities I've found.
PUEBLO's logotype and interface elements
I chose Vollkorn as the main font. It felt reliable and "everyday", and its designer described it as "dark, sturdy, and grainy". It provides a solid base on which we can build our communities. Plus, using serifs in an environment where sans-serifs reign fits the off-beat vibe we want to create.
While Vollkorn might work for body text and headers, it's not a strong UI font. To fill that role, I picked Eau Naturelle. The humanist sans-serif font matches Vollkorn's letterforms and feels friendly.
Plus, putting the two fonts together gives us the two remaining "life essentials" — food and water — to go with our community's shelter.
Pueblo's primary color is a sun-kissed orange, matching the adobe structures in real-life pueblos. It complements Pueblo's secondary color, maroon, representing the buildings' wooden supports. These colors both feel warm and friendly.
The Pueblo logotype shows a vector drawing of a pueblo building with a bold, dark outline and shaded components. It stands out as interesting and a bit quirky.
While Pueblo's brand departs from those of traditional community platforms, its layout closely aligns with theirs:
Pueblo's layout, which looks quite similar to the layouts above
People are used to this layout from their other tools; changing it would cause usability issues and make people less likely to adopt it.
I considered adopting a forum layout closer to Discourse, but I found the Slack layout more common and therefore more likely to stick. Plus, I found I could merge the forum layout into the Slack layout, as seen below.
Rooms and Forums
Pueblo features two spaces for interaction: forums and rooms. Forums store your long-lasting content and discussion, while rooms are good for short-lived discussions or quick chats. Many communication platforms feature one type, but Pueblo includes both. It recognizes that each has a separate role in a healthy community.
Pueblo's forums, which resemble traditional forums
Forums are Pueblo's asynchronous, permanent records of interaction between community members. They work like Discourse categories, subreddits, or Zulip topics. You can create as many of them as you want, but the app recommends you keep posts in the following default forums:
- Issues to discuss community problems
- Resources to store artifacts written by core contributors, intended to help other members learn about the community or improve their skills
- Questions to ask about relevant community topics
- Gatherings to schedule and coordinate meetups, either in life or online
Pueblo's forum posts, where you can vote and leave messages asynchronously
Each post is a traditional forum thread. They do not update in realtime nor show when "someone's typing". These measures promote asynchronous communication, assuring members that it's okay to go offline for a while.
Pueblo's rooms, which resemble Slack channels
Pueblo focuses on keeping communication in its forums. But it recognizes the need for quick synchronous discussions between community members, which is why it includes rooms. Rooms resemble an IRC channel or an in-person chat: you get no context on entering, and your messages are deleted soon after you leave. Thus, they're perfect for transient discussions. Rooms include all the realtime features you'd expect, including member presence, instant updates, and typing notifications.
People might treat rooms like Slack channels and hold all discussions there. To prevent this, Pueblo puts a bot in every room. Its job is to track how long people spend in a room, and how many messages they exchange. Once the conversation passes a certain threshold, the bot interjects and directs discussion to a forum thread (to record the discussion for others) or the room's audio chat (to quickly resolve issues).
Pueblo's bots try to direct long conversations to voice chat or the forums
Like other forum or chat platforms, Pueblo lets users directly message each other. Private Messages appear in the sidebar underneath your rooms. They look like rooms, but the messages last forever and the conversation stays between the two participants.
Notifications & Active Hours
With rooms, forums, or private messages, you'll end up with people who respond to your messages or request your attention by mentioning you directly. We call these notifications. Pueblo comes with a notification system, but keeping it "always on" might cause undue stress.
Pueblo helps prevent this with the concept of "active hours", a copy of Basecamp's "Work can Wait" system. It forwards your notifications directly during your configurable "active hours". Outside those hours, Pueblo batches, summarizes, and sends notifications to you a few minutes before your active hours resume. This approach should help members maintain a healthy attachment to their community.
Almost Instant Messaging
Regardless of whether you use Pueblo's rooms and forums — or another communication platform — you sometimes send messages that you regret. You might want to reword or delete it. Gmail addressed this problem with an "undo sent email" feature. Other tools allow you to edit messages after you post them. Pueblo has a different feature called Almost Instant Messaging (AIM). It creates an admin-configurable delay between when users submit a message and when it's posted to a forum or room.
Almost Instant Messaging gives you the chance to proofread your messages before anyone sees them
This delay subconsciously encourages users to proofread their messages. It gives them the time to run through a hypothetical checklist:
- is my message's grammar correct?
- does my message add something constructive or insightful to the discussion?
- does my message violate the community's code of conduct in any way?
AIM should help keep discussions civil and productive. If nothing else, it might prove an annoying barrier for posting unsubstantial messages.
Barring low-quality content with AIM helps a Pueblo's moderators and leaders keep discussions healthy. Another way to help moderators is to encourage users to moderate themselves. To support this effort, every topic and message in the forums has a "vote" button to promote positive content, along with a "Mark as..." button to flag great comments along with jokes, noise, or malice. Marking a comment as malicious hides it from view, but moderators review all negatively-flagged messages and act accordingly. This system mimics Tildes' moderation system.
"Mark As" allows users to self-moderate to a degree
"Votes + Mark As" might not work for all communities. Certain groups prefer upvotes and downvotes, or no votes at all. People have debated which system works best for a long time.
In reality, all these systems have flaws. They could all be gamed by members or misused by moderators. Conversely, any moderation system could work if your community has reasonable, high-quality members and moderators.
As the unintended consequence above suggests, your platform cannot create an active and healthy community on its own. No platform can:
- bring in the right new members and maintain the contributor lifecycle
- produce valuable learning resources for your members
- elect moderators and and hold them accountable
- foster human connections, both in-person and virtual
- provide opportunities for members to flourish
Community is a human need, and its problems require a human touch to solve. Your tools should help you solve these problems, and that's what Pueblo aims to do.
If you're a community manager, would a tool like this interest you? Are there any unintended consequences I missed? Let me know and I'll look into them.