A platform for people who want thoughtful, structured conversation online, without the distorting and addictive qualities of social media.
by Robin McClellan
Reading time: 9 minutes.
Parts of this are adapted from my article previously published on NewMusicBox.
I am co-creating Terrarium with Erin Jeanette, a musician and clinical psychologist, and my wife and partner. She formulated many of the core elements, and came up with the excellent project name.
In the fall of 1904, a New Mexico farmer was stringing galvanized wire between lines of barbed wire fence, building an elementary telephone network to connect his farm with those of his neighbors. He was part of a movement of telephone self-connectors, the telecom DIYers of the first decade of the twentieth century. They intuited that the telephone’s paramount value was not as a better version of the telegraph or a more efficient means of commerce [as the Bell company saw it], but as the first social technology. As one farmer said at the time, “With a telephone in the house comes a new companionship, new life, new possibilities, new relationships, and attachments for the old farm by both old and young.”—Tim Wu, The Master Switch
In the summer of 2019, six people join a new kind of online discussion platform called Terrarium. They are in four states, three time zones, two continents. They are working parents, caring for ill loved ones, studying for a competitive state licensing exam. Most have never met in person.
A wide-ranging discussion unfolds, ignited from two short readings on the topic they’ve chosen: the boundaries between fake and real. One reading is about professional mourners in Congo who cry at funerals as a paid service. The other is about art forgery in Europe during the Renaissance.
This group is distinctive for two reasons: First, they interact entirely online, using simple tools (Trello software) outside of social media. Second, the group follows a careful process designed to slow down and structure the rhythm of the discussion. There is no news feed, no ‘Like’ feature, no algorithmic advantage for the quickest or most upsetting expressions of opinion. Instead, the conversation that emerges is slow, deep, and non-polemic, despite touching easily polemicized issues like climate change, labor exploitation, forgery, and deepfakes. A sense of trust and intimacy grows.
Their conversation feels three-dimensional, spherical, like a glass terrarium; the ideas spread outward in all directions, contained within a safe and limited space. Each thought and idea stays present and active within the group’s consciousness. This is unlike typical discussions, both online and off, where a linear thread dominates and the topic is pushed forward by the more forceful personalities in the group, and by the most attention-grabbing ideas. How many times have you been in a conversation waiting to offer your thought, and by the time you have a chance to speak the topic has moved on?
Terrarium is a structured practice for deep, high-trust, small-group discussion on the internet. It’s a new kind of social network made up of tiny, six-person groups in a private online space. Interactions are scheduled and structured to remove distraction and interruption, to help us practice the art of waiting, to foster equality of voices by disrupting the linearity of conversation, and to build trust and understanding. This process helps us avoid many of the pitfalls of typical conversations, both online and face to face. Individuals rotate gradually from one small group to another, spreading ideas and connection across the larger network.
We are in the early stages of this project and we welcome you to join us, to try it out, to help us shape it in the best ways possible as we move forward. Please get in touch if you are interested, at robin [at] robinsonmcclellan.com.
A ship of fools sails out upon stormy seas. The captain knows little about navigation, and convenes a meeting of the crew to aid him. The loudest sailors sit up front, using every tool of persuasion and charisma to convince the captain to let them steer the boat. They all forget the quiet navigator toiling at his charts, trained deeply in the art of sun and stars. His stutter and timid manner make him hard to notice, harder to like. So, the loudest and most charming sailors prevail, though they lack all skill to steer the boat.— Plato, with his typical prescience, predicts social media.
(adapted from The Republic, Book VI)
For years I loved using Facebook and Instagram. I like to share my ideas, questions, photo caption contests. I like to keep up with old friends, and meet new ones. Some cherished friends from childhood are still in my life thanks to Facebook. But after 13 years, I left social media a few months ago, because I began to see how much harm it was doing, to me and to my communities, both large and small. And because I think we can build something better. We can have the good without the bad.
Many of us live far from cherished friends and loved ones. We want connection and community, and we like to meet interesting people. We have opinions we want to share, and we are curious what other people think about, what they care about, what they believe in. The barriers of distance and full schedules make it hard to connect with all of the individuals and communities we want to reach. Lives overfilled with work and family commitments, as vital and fulfilling as those can be, make it challenging to travel to see people far away, even hard to spend time with friends who only live across town.
Social media seems to answer these desires. We go there to share our lives with others, to see what others are sharing. In a limited sense, it works. Nice interactions happen, connections form. But mainstream social media, particularly Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, are deeply flawed. Writer Seth Godin offers a vivid analogy:
Imagine two classrooms, each filled with second graders.
In the first classroom, the teacher shines a spotlight on the bullies, the troublemakers and the fighters, going so far as to arrange all the chairs so that the students are watching them and cheering them on all day.
In the second classroom, the teacher establishes standards, acts as a damper on selfish outliers and celebrates the generous and productive kids in the classroom…
How will the classrooms diverge? Which one would you rather have your child enrolled in?
Like a Sieve from a Nightmare
The image of arranging the classroom chairs underlines something crucial: The problem with social media is structural. Targeted advertising is built to grab and hold our attention, and nasty things naturally do that best.
It’s like a sieve from a nightmare: when you pour human ideas and concerns into it, the quick, easy, upsetting stuff floats to the top and the thoughtful, slow, constructive stuff flushes away. That’s just how it’s built.
It’s a fundamental flaw in the business model, and it’s the reason behind almost every negative aspect of social media that we see in our daily lives and read about in the news: the privacy issues, the election meddling, the screen addiction, the social problems especially among teens, and so on. This is also why most of the high-profile efforts to address the problems of social media, like better privacy laws, or breaking up Facebook, will probably not help much.
Instead, we need to abandon the mainstream social media platforms altogether, and address the problem structurally by starting over and designing better ways to interact online.
Other forms of electronic communication like email listservs, interest-group Slack communities, and private group text chat are less inherently harmful. But these are likewise prone to the loudest or least nuanced voices taking over the conversation. Humans need structure, ritual, and human presence to have healthy, complex conversations, online and off. I believe that there are better ways to design and build online communities, and that we have only just begun to explore the possibilities.
Terrarium is a fundamentally different way to design a social network, a different way to build community online. It’s made for humans, and only for humans. In a sense, Terrarium is conservative: For online interaction to maintain depth, trust, and meaning, we need to preserve and revive modes of relating in person that have worked for millennia, and translate them to the virtual environment. Often, that means interacting within a structured space: Terrarium follows the ancient principle that ritual, method, structured practices — liturgies, therapy sessions, rehearsals, classes, and so on — set special conditions where complex, difficult, transformative beautiful kinds of thinking, feeling, and human relating can take place. Terrarium reaches back into age-old principles that humans have always used when working in small communities and handling the intense, volatile energies inherent in human interaction.
Terrarium provides a place to interact regularly with loved ones and friends, to meet new people in a safe, trusting environment, to form community. It’s a discussion and learning format designed carefully with mechanisms to build and maintain trust and to ensure clear understanding between individuals and within group dynamics. It is the inverse of mainstream social media: Terrarium calls forward the things that are not necessarily attention-grabbing or upsetting, not quick and easy, not simple or superficial. Instead, the unique Terrarium process is structured to draw out for consideration things that are slow and complex. Conversations in Terrarium animate the subtle, hard to see dynamics of life that drive how our world really works, how we really feel each day, individually and collectively.
People tend to assume that mainstream social media is the internet itself. Nearly every website on the planet has those three familiar buttons: FB, Insta, Tw, and we see them on physical signs everywhere. We treat it like basic utility, the plumbing and wiring of our digital lives.
But that’s only a perception, a fad. Social media is just one way we happen to be using the internet lately, a specific design that a few clever people at a few companies hit upon as a way to earn money. Luckily, the internet is still wide open, still ready to be designed and used any way we choose. Terrarium is a different way to design a social network, a way that ensures it is built for only one stakeholder: humans.
I believe that a new approach is urgently needed. Social media dominates online discussion broadly, and journalism is being subsumed within and distorted by social media’s ad-driven algorithms. Honest and open public discourse is in danger. With it, what we need to continue as a healthy society is at risk. Terrarium offers a possible remedy within the digital realm.
Small and Structured, Slow and Steady:
How Terrarium Works
Terrarium works, first, because each group within the network is very small: just six people. But even small groups, without deliberate practices and methods to guide them, tend toward the sporadic and superficial. When it comes to getting deep thinking done as a group, grownups need structure. So Terrarium works, second, because it is highly structured: there is a steady rhythm to the interactions, and that rhythm is very slow. It moves, as my co-creator Erin Jeanette puts it, “no faster than the speed of human relating.” Medieval monks and nuns understood the power of rhythm and practiced it in the Divine Office, a set of seven scheduled prayers throughout each day.
Joining a Terrarium group means committing to one brief reading and writing task per week, for a cycle of several weeks (exact number to be determined; we started with six-week cycles). We begin with a prompt: two or three pieces of writing, music, or visual art that ignite a theme or topic. Then we each react to the prompt and respond to each other in a series of scheduled stages.
The Terrarium process relies on full, roughly equal participation from every member of the group.
A strong focus on explicitly examining interpersonal process among group members is built into the discussion prompts.
The process doesn’t take much time, maybe a half hour of reading and writing time spread out over given week.
Convenience and accessibility are key. Using free Trello software, Terrarium members can complete their reading and writing task anytime during each week, any time of day or night, from anywhere, and from any handy device.
One key detail of the Terrarium process is that each round of responses is hidden until a designated day and time each week, whereupon all the posts become visible to the whole group at the same moment. This gives each person the time and space to think their own thoughts without influence from whoever would otherwise have happened to post their response first.
What are the topics of discussion? We can take up an important ethical or interpersonal question, or a complex problem facing an organization or multi-stakeholder project. A typical Terrarium group might discuss:
- Where are the boundaries between fake and real?
- How do the modes of communication we use drive what we think and do, as much as the content of our communication?
- How can a given company reframe and update its business model?
- Can a person, idea, or group achieve cultural impact by being kind, truly avoiding the denigration of some other idea, person, or group?
- After an interpersonal problem within a performing group, how can its members recover goodwill and avoid similar issues in the future?
Terrarium also serves as a place for art and community to flourish spontaneously, as vital but secondary elements of the discussion. This is, we believe, the key to bringing art into its most powerful role, where it can work its magic most deeply. Read about that here. In this way Terrarium is a new incarnation of my previous project, El Salto.
Each Terrarium group has a leader who serves as coordinator and host. Their presence builds trust among other members, who may not already know one another. But there is no hierarchy and the group is not about that leader; it’s about the gathering of co-equal members.
Terrarium can also serve as a parallel online component for in-person groups. Despite the many advantages and pleasures of in-person communication, not every personality thrives in that environment, and there are types of conversations that actually work better in the slower, more structured medium of written communication. It can help an in-person group to have a separate, online space for certain kinds of conversations.
A Spherical Conversation:
What it’s like to be in a Terrarium group
What does it feel like to be part of a Terrarium group? As I described earlier, the conversation feels three-dimensional and spherical, like a glass terrarium. When each set of six individual responses in the Terrarium group appears at the same moment, we find that each member has gone in their own imaginative direction, drawing diverse ideas into the sphere. As a reader it can feel hard to take them all in, precisely because the ideas have not become lost or sidelined; it’s not easy to keep so many things in one’s mind in order to prepare one’s own next response to the group. (There is no obligation to respond to every idea that has been raised, but in our first-run group, we each felt a desire to address as many as we could.) That mental and emotional effort is the point. Pondering all these ideas at once, with plenty of time to do it, and no one forcing one’s attention toward one idea or another, helps disparate thoughts connect in one’s mind, yielding surprising insights.
Then, there is a group process for reining the conversation back in, to refocus the collective understanding via slow consensus-building — perhaps ending up in different places than any of us expected.
Terrarium’s regular rhythm aids focus, permission and sharing. In the current internet’s infinite web of nodes and spokes, each pulse of energy — a post, a comment, a share, an email, a blog, a news item — fires at a random moment in the day, rarely predictable. That’s why we use alerts and notifications. But those random pings are bad for calm, bad for focus. This is why Terrarium follows a steady, scheduled beat. You don’t need notifications when you know when each communication will arrive. Then, at the moment in which you make yourself vulnerable by sharing, you already have the welcome and permission of the group. Your reward is their true attention. Instead of sending your energy out into the frenzied cacophony of a busy street, you send it into your peaceful back garden.
A Network of Small Groups
Terrarium is conceived as a large network of small six-person groups. Groups connect with each other via individuals rotating from one group to another, two at a time (see below). During each multi-week cycle, individuals have time to get to know each other before the groups reconfigure before beginning the next multi-week cycle. Ideas and learning gradually pass from one group to another, spreading insight and knowledge across broad swaths of society in a way that’s very different from online news and mainstream social media.
So. Terrarium offers an alternative to mainstream social media and other problematic forms of online communication like email listservs. Terrarium brings the benefits of the small group, the ancient home base of human interaction, to the wires, overcoming barriers of distance and busy schedules. It’s a structured home in which to build relationships and carry on deep conversations with anyone, anywhere.
Terrarium is just beginning. We are in a phase of testing and experiment to hone the process and to make it work in the best ways possible for the humans who participate. If you want to find out more or get involved and to help us kick the tires on this brand-new project, please reach out to me at robin [at] robinsonmcclellan.com.
Experiments and Next Steps for Terrarium:
If you like puzzles, here’s one for you. We are working on how individual Terrarium members move from one small group to another within the larger network. We welcome your suggestions on this!
Terrarium is a network of six-person groups, no limit to how many people can participate. As more people join, we add more groups. Each small group carries on a discussion over several weeks (number of weeks to be determined) — that’s one cycle. For the next cycle, some members of each group rotate into the next group, and the next discussion begins.
Picture the groups connected side to side, looping around to form a flow of people from left to right:
As each new group is added, it joins in between two other groups, and the loop gets bigger.
So: what are the best ways for individuals to flow from one group to the next? Interpersonal goals include:
- People should have enough time with others in the same group to be with friends and form strong bonds.
- There should be an even mixture overall, so people from all the different starting groups eventually meet each other over multiple cycles.
- No one should be alone in a group of strangers — they should always know at least one other person from the beginning of a conversation cycle.
- At the same time, no pair of people stays together the entire time.
These goals seem to be met with this simple rubric:
After the first cycle, person 2 and 3 move to the next group. (The numbers don’t indicate hierarchy, only position, like players on a volleyball team.) After the second cycle, person 3 and 4 (now from different starting groups) move. Then 4+5, then 5+6, then 6+1, then 1+2, until the original groups are reunited. Then it starts again.
Imagine yourself in this moving flow. Picture yourself as “green 2” or “orange 4” and watch how you’d move across groups. Notice how the different members of the group each have different timing for how long they stay in each group before moving on. Person 1 is the host/facilitator, and stays the longest in their starting group for the sake of continuity.
How would you want this to work if you were one of these people? Are there ways you’d want things to flow differently? Would you change any of the interpersonal goals, or add any?
Here are some advantages of this approach. The four who stay each time provide continuity, and the two new arrivals bring in fresh energy. The two who move already know each other from the previous group, so they have at least one familiar face in their new group. Starting with the second move, the two people moving are always from different starting groups so that every individual meets people from every other starting group, and no group dominates.
There are six cycles until the starting groups reunite. Groups don’t interact with each other during each cycle, but as individuals move from group to group between cycles, ideas spread and friendships form across the whole network. Each small group becomes a reunion of friends.
Again, this is just one possible approach. We would love your suggestions. Thank you!