Affinity Spaces and Physical Spaces

Some years I ago I wrote about a phenomenon I called “affinity spaces”.  I had been looking at a website devoted to the video game Age of Mythology (AoM), a site where fans of the game came together to engage in a wide variety of activities.  The site had a number of interesting features that turned out to be typical of many such interest-driven sites.  People of all different ages, backgrounds, and degrees of expertise entered the site.  Some entered many times and stayed a long time, other entered less often and stayed less often. 

Most people who used the site shared a good deal of knowledge about AoM, but each had special interests.  They came to do many different things: discuss the game; critique it; suggest improvements; share strategies; collaborate to program new levels or scenarios for the game; write fan fiction or do fan art; discuss advanced topics in AI for games; research the statistical underpinnings of the game (sometimes called “theory crafting” by gamers); discuss history and mythology, including aspects that were not in the game; set up events outside the site; form groups; and teach and learn from each other about all different aspects of the game.

The site was a hive of activity that was not age-graded and where experts and newbies were together.  Anyone could engage as much or as little as they wanted anywhere in the space they wanted.  As I pursued more sites like this one, several important things became apparent.  Such sites were driven by passion, not in the sense that everyone entering the site had a passion and not just an interest in AoM, but in the sense that passion was the attractor to the space and had to be respected.  It was those people with passion who organized and upheld the values and social norms of the space.  It was shared interest and passion that defined the space, not social categories like race, gender, ability, or ethnicity.  Since people in the site could remain aynomous, they could choose when and how to use these social categories as they wished (or not).  Leadership and mentorship roles were fluid and flexible; sometimes a person led, sometimes followed. 

Many people would have lumped these sorts of affinity spaces under the popular label of “communities of practice”.  However, what interested me was that it was hard to define who was in the “community” and who was not.  Some people entered only once for one purpose, others devoted large parts of their lives to the space, but often to quite different activities.  It seemed best to call the site a “space” and just look for who entered when and why and define “membership” as anyone who entered, much as if we wanted to study the United States in terms of all who entered, left, or remained and not get fussy about defining “citizenship”.

Furthermore, it was apparent that the AoM site I was studying was only one of many such AoM sites and other “portals” to AoM information and activities, including books, guides, fan gatherings in the real world, and associations on social media.  Fans of AoM used one, several, or many of these portals to carry out their individual and social activities around AoM.  The original site I studied was a space like Madison, WI, a space inside others or linked to others.  Indeed the AoM site linked to many other related sites and sources of information.  Just like someone may enter Madison only to get to other parts of Wisconsin or the U.S., while someone else may call it home or be there for a long-term visit, so, too, someone may go to one affinity space to get to another, while someone else is there for the long haul.

We can call AoM an attractor for interest/passion.  The whole set of places (virtual, social, real world) which are portals to information or activities devoted to AoM are each affinity spaces (yes, we can treat, let us say, Dungeon and Dragon manuals as a space that fans of D&D can enter and, of course, there are also Internet sites devoted to the manuals and discussion around them) and all together are one big affinity space. Spaces are inside other spaces or linked to them via different routes.

It soon became apparent that there were affinity spaces (spaces within spaces) devoted to a great many things, such as women’s health, citizen astronomy, vampire romance fan fiction, robotics, and almost anything else you can think of (including, of course, pornography and, I have recently discovered, identity theft).  It also became apparent that affinity spaces were very often distributed teaching and learning spaces, a new type of educational system.  People could teach or learn in all sorts of different ways.  Didactic tutorials, lectures, instructionals, coaching, mentoring, collaboration, written materials, graphic materials, chat rooms and board, social events in the real world, wikis, and many other devices were made by people passionate about an attractor and used by people who sought out the resources that worked best for them and their comfort levels and goals. 

Affinity spaces at their best are passion-based, out-of-school teaching and learning systems, organized in ways that are quite different from and foreign to schools.  Fanning interests into passions is their core goal.  Learning is not defined by time, but by mastery.  People are not rewarded by grades, but by the shared approval of others who are recognized as having achieved high standards by the norms of a specific (usually sub-) space.  Evaluation is not dumbed down, but everyone is allowed to pursue mastery if they wish, and on their own time scale and partially on their own terms.

For any learner we can map out the routes the learner takes though linked spaces, spaces that have links or paths to others, spaces devoted to an attractor.  We could see, for a time and place, fellow travelers on a given route or set of them and when they part to go on with other fellow travelers.

It now dawns on me that this talk of “space”, where much of it is digital or virtual, though linked to real spaces and even books treated as spaces is, of course, a metaphor taken from physical space.  Yet, ironically, today, people are interested in how the values and practices of digital/virtual/real spaces—where so much learning and teaching goes on—can be translated to physical spaces like schools and colleges.  The metaphor comes back to its base to transform it.  How (and when, why, and where) we should bring the digital and virtual back to bricks, mortar and physical space will, I would think, become a more and more pressing question in architecture.

We don’t actually need school buildings after all.  Today’s school buildings shape teaching and learning quite differently than do affinity spaces.  We need an argument for why we should bother to keep schools as buildings and, then, what those buildings ought to look like and how they ought to function. 

As a linguist, I believe that face-to-face communication is and always will be crucial, fundamental, and important to human communication, trust, bonding, and learning.  Such communication has been vastly supplemented by new digital and social media, but not replaced.  I would argue that an architect who wants to design physical space to leverage some of the values and virtues of affinity spaces will have to ask how, when, where, and why we should incorporate embodied face-to-face communication, in ways where it is supplemented by other forms of communication and interaction, but where it offers irreplaceable benefits.

In regard to schools and learning in the 21st Century, I believe that passion is the key. Each person will need—in order to survive, flourish, and resiliently change with change—to develop a core set of skills through thousands hours of practice and such effort can only be fueled by passion.  Each of us will need also to be able to share our passionate skills with people who have other sorts of passionate skills to solve problems too big and complex for any one of us.  Finally, each of us must be able to fuel new interests into new passions as we pursue various routes to the future and seek to flourish in a high-risk, fast-changing, global world.  

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