Some thoughts on Uncommon in Common

I'm fascinated by the concept of the Slow Web Movement. I understand it as the idea that our online lives should follow the pace of our offline lives, rather than the reverse. That instead of receiving a constant stream of notifications and responding to them instantly, we should interact with our online networks only a few times a day, or at least only as often and as deep as they fit into our daily lives in the world.

God knows I'm guilty of letting my online life get the best of me; an otherwise quiet day, in which I maybe plan to read a book and do the dishes, might see me getting caught up in a Twitter argument or watching an argumentative comment thread. And then I wonder why I'm so keyed up at the end of the day. So I'm greatly interested in websites which actively aim to avoid this trap -- which aim for occasional meaningful engagement rather than addiction.

The most interesting Slow Web site I've found so far is Uncommon in Common (often just referred to as "Uncommon"). This is a site which aims to act as a "front porch for the Internet", and their about page is almost a manifesto for the Slow Web:

We are building a sustainable community supported by the people who love it. There is an annual membership fee, but no advertising. Every part of the experience is designed to encourage thoughtful sharing and meaningful interaction.

We stand against the cocktail of validation and addiction that many sites use to entice us. What if we took all of the accumulated knowledge about how to increase page views and engagement, everything designed to tether us to our screens, and did the opposite? What if there was a place that believed that your time and attention are incredibly valuable and should never be squandered? Uncommon is a trampoline, not a rabbit hole.

Uncommon seems to mainly consist of two parts. First, there's a free monthly email newsletter called the dispatch which typically includes an essay, some links to articles which the authors found thought-provoking, reader responses to a question like "What's the best thing you read this year?", and a prompt for next month's newsletter.

Second, there's the Uncommon web site, for which an account costs $24 per year. The site feels a little like a social network, but there's no news feed, no friendship or follow mechanism, no way to comment on others' posts. Instead, there's just a set of user profiles where they list their favorite things, and a home page which shows you a random profile or user Favorite as a way to get you to think about new things. You're limited to ten Favorites with long descriptions (though you can post as many "Uncommonly Good" things with no descriptions as you like near the bottom of the page), so there's no urge to keep updating your profile every day with new content. And all user profiles are visible only to those with accounts.

On the whole I rather think I like this approach to a social network, and since I signed up I've found that visiting Uncommon once or twice a day functions as a "moment of calm" rather than the constant low-level tension I get from Facebook or Twitter. I only feel the need to visit for a couple of minutes now and then, but doing so generally makes me smile, rather than getting me excited or angry or annoyed. The contrast feels rather like the feeling I got when I moved to Santa Fe from the Bay Area; the people are more relaxed, the pace is slower, and no one is trying to sell you anything.

I will say that I've generally felt more engaged by the monthly Dispatch than by the site itself, and I think they do a very good job with it. The essay is generally interesting, I read most of the links, and I've occasionally felt inspired to reply to one of the prompts.

There are a couple of negatives. On the site design end of things, I wish there were a way to contact a person through their profile page; right now, the only way I can directly talk to someone on the site is to click their web site link (if they have one) and go hunting for an email address. In a community that bills itself as a "front porch of the Internet", it seems like it should be easier to start a conversation.

The other qualm I have about Uncommon is how focussed it is on the positive, and on sharing "things" which make you happy. Now this is clearly part of the site's mission, and on the one hand I definitely like it; there are plenty of other spaces on the Internet to argue. But it there are plenty of people who don't really have the space in their lives to focus on the postivie right now, and who would be left out of this kind of community. And I definitely have friends who would find the whole concept insufferable at best.

Still, I have to say I've greatly enjoyed Uncommon In Common so far; and while I'm not about to give up the fast pace of Twitter or stop checking my email as frequently, I think there's room for a slower-paced community in my life too. It's still early days for Uncommon, so I'm sure there will be plenty of changes; but I actually have some confidence that this is one site which won't try to "increase engagement" at all costs.

And if you'd like to find me on Uncommon I am, as everywhere else, ajdecon.