Cooperation is born out of desire. To amplify its potential, we need to rethink its appeal. And that starts with rethinking aesthetics. It’s time to move towards creative structures that promote cooperation in a compelling way.
Aesthetics are the art of attraction. They’re what bring us together.
Expand human potential
Storytelling is fundamental to what it means to be human. We capture attention and inspire action through the stories we tell. Social media offers ever-expanding opportunity for connection, but to harness its cooperative potential we need to look outward. The same structures that position social media platforms as mirrors can also be used as a windows to our surroundings. For both individuals and brands, when we shift from self (or product)-centered stories to community-centered stories, we’re able to create narratives that are far more complex and compelling. When we reach out and elevate those around us, we can create something larger than ourselves.
Last summer, individuals and organizations throughout our hometown of Minneapolis took to social media to form and support mutual aid networks to get neighbors the supplies they needed in the midst of an uprising that reverberated around the world. Scrolling through feeds revealed a dramatic shift as local residents and businesses with no prior organizing experience dedicated social platforms to amplifying work being done in the community.
When systems are built for competition, we compete. To empower cooperation, we need to reengineer for a more interconnected, interdependent future. The Internet was built on the principles and protocols of open, peer-to-peer collaboration out of necessity. Creating an entirely new environment required profound cooperation. Collective creativity empowers the exchange of ideas in the pursuit of something far beyond what is attainable independently. To drive innovation at a societal-level, we need participatory systems. Current modes of competitive ownership are outdated and structured to serve profit over people.
One way to make collaboration more intuitive and unlock the potential of simultaneous ownership is through UX and UI design. For an example of cooperative UI in action, look to Dreams, a video game built entirely around co-creation. Dreams flips the competitive narrative of traditional video games on its head. Users are given access to an extensive suite of creative tools to build games within the game that are then shared with and remixed by other users, sparking limitless experimentation and iteration. Dreams constantly expands as new users create, blurring the lines of video game and experimental media with co-creation superseding all else.
Gritting our teeth and suppressing emotions is a behavior born out of competition. Thankfully, public perception is shifting. Increasingly, vulnerability is viewed as a strength rather than a weakness. Sharing emotions allows us to empathize and connect with others on a deeper, more meaningful level. This emotional connection is key to cooperation. Moving away from the hardening of competition and towards a mindset that embraces the emotional complexities of the human experience allows us to find commonalities and foster solidarity.
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve experienced waves of uncertainty, fear, and loss. Further exacerbating these feelings is the physical and social isolation that has left many to face these feelings alone. In response, “We’re better together” emerged as a common refrain from brands to provide positivity during the darkest days of the pandemic. It’s a worthy statement of cooperation, but oftentimes this messaging glazed over the suffering that many were experiencing. Far less common, but more impactful were brands that addressed the collective trauma more directly. By shining a light on the struggle, brands like Dove fostered a sense of collective solidarity by speaking directly to what many were feeling.
Joy as a collective expression has been in short supply the past year. On top of a flood of contrary emotions, the isolation of pandemic has made it so that even when there are moments of joy, we’re seldom able to share them. Collective emotional expression has been the subject of sociological interest for over a century. The French sociologist Émile Durkheim identified "collective effervescence" as a critical element of social cohesion. The term might be new to most, but the feeling is familiar. Collective effervescence describes the unifying euphoria that comes from collective ritual on a dance floor, in a sports arena, or in a religious space. The collective expression of emotion, and joy in particular, carries a force of belonging that bonds individuals in spite of differences. We become a part of something larger than ourselves.
The absence of collective joy during pandemic has made it clear how deeply humans rely on collective emotional experiences. Even when in-person gatherings return, we can draw inspiration from those who created digital spaces to foster collective joy during lockdown. Some of the most vibrant, cooperative spaces arose in the form of streaming isolation dance parties. Party series like Club Quarantine repurposed video conferencing to channel the electricity of bodies on a crowded dance floor. Club Q provides a space for empowerment and experimentation, guided by the queer underground dance community’s long-standing ethic of respect and radical inclusivity. Visitors from around the world interact with the streaming video format as a sort of social borderlands between the physical world and digital realm, where online personas and IRL identities blend together. Ideas are exchanged and identities shift at the speed of the internet, with the added real-time performative element of video.
Cooperation is the future. Now is the time to make it more compelling.