Just Say No to Digital Community/Portal/Platform Projects

What not to do.

August 4, 2016

Sometime between now and 2018 there is a good chance that you will be asked to participate in a new community, portal, or platform digital project.

My advice is to decline this invitation. Send your regrets. Just say no.

Who amongst us in academia that can actually evade work that is someone else’s priority is a different discussion.This is a discussion about autonomy - the different roles and perquisites of faculty and staff (and within faculty and staff) - and a good discussion to have.

For now, I am assuming that you will have some agency, and that by forthright or subversive tactics you will be able to avoid that community or portal or platform project.

To stipulate, there is nothing inherently wrong with portals or communities or platforms.  You might participate in worthwhile examples of all three. (Although I’m dubious of a worthwhile example of a portal - but happy to be proven wrong).

What is highly unlikely is that you will be part of a successful community, portal, or platform rollout. The odds are just too stacked against you.


Everybody loves a community. We seem to love the word community. I know that I do. My favorite digital community is the higher ed tribe that gathers at IHE.com.

The problem with community’s is that they resist external creation. If a community is to form, it will be one made up of people who have found each other.

A community can only be the result of something valuable that brings people together. Once in a shared (digital) space, individuals might cohere into a sustainable and durable community - or they might not.  I’ve never been able to predict. That process, should it happen, is organic and bottom up. The community is not created, but instead it coalesces.

Attempts to introduce a forcing function into community creation will always fail. The community cannot follow anyone’s agenda but their own.

If a nascent community exists, most likely these people with shared interests/passions/expertise have already found each other. They are already doing what a community does - just not on your platform.  They will not migrate to your space, and they will not stay if they visit.


If everyone loves community’s, everybody hates portals.  Seriously - are we still talking about portals? If the language of portals is indeed coming back - I’m getting some weak signals - then I attribute this linguistic trend to collective 1st bubble amnesia.

The promise of a portal (back at the turn of the millennium) was - according to Wikipedia - a "specially designed web site that brings information together from diverse sources in a uniform way.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_portal

Well okay now. What could be wrong with that?  It turns out, just about everything.

Portals don’t work because a web built on passively consuming information would not be the web. The web is an active medium. The web is a tool for connection. We don’t want portals because we don’t want the web to be like a television set (the ultimate portal).

Perhaps there is a deep human tendency to want to categorize and aggregate. Creating a portal might scratch the itch of its creators. But it never is much use to anybody else.


An elevator pitch without the word “platform” mentioned at least one-time per floor would be considered to be dim-witted and senseless. We work in that we are creating a new platform to almost all of our projects - even when in reality we are doing nothing of the sort.

Everybody knows that the future of business is platforms. We in higher ed, being determined not to leave the future to the corporate knuckleheads on the coasts, have decided that we are in the platform business as well. We are not sure of exactly how we are a platform, but we know that we should be.

Again, my advice is to let somebody else build our platforms.  By all means - make good use of whatever platforms that you want to reach your goals.  I’m a big believer that edX is a platform - and that edX will redefine both the admissions funnel (particularly graduate education) and the first year of much of undergraduate postsecondary education.

Maybe I’m right about edX being a really important platform, and maybe I’m wrong, but the point is that really meaningful platforms are exceedingly rare. Better to put your energy into that platform that you think will have traction in the future than to try to create your own.

What is your favorite (or most disdained) digital community, portal, or platform?



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