Uncommon began with an appropriately uncommon question: What if we took all of the accepted wisdom about social networks and startups and at every defining moment, did the opposite?
Instead of a “free” service paid for by ads and user data, what if there was a subscription fee? Instead of trying to get people to spend as much time as possible, what if we designed every experience to be delightful, enriching, and brief? Instead of pursuing outside investment that has a singular definition of success, what if we built something sustainable, giving each member a voice in its future?
We pour ourselves into app after app, contributing our photos, stories, art, reviews, travels, essays, and memories, only to have them shut down without a trace. It doesn’t have to be that way.
In June, we’ll celebrate Uncommon’s 4th birthday and the 150th dispatch. In 2012, I wrote about this idea, curious if anyone else craved online community, but didn’t believe we had to accept the new defaults. I’m thankful every day that many of you felt the same way.
We set out to create a front porch for the internet, an online home for kind and curious people from all parts of the world and all walks of life. A hearty band of volunteers have dedicated hundreds of hours since to this effort, and the phenomenal result is a testament to their love for this community. The timeline captures captures a small portion of what's been accomplished.
Today, you can share your 10 favorite things in the world and see them celebrated through amazing art. You are introduced to new neighbors. Each day you stop by, a curated stack of people, favorites, replies, and prompts await you. You can see everyone who loves rain and thunderstorms and why. Every moment is designed to be peaceful and reflective, rather than distracting and demanding. And there are two significant new things in the works that I can't stop smiling about.
What’s missing is equally important. Uncommon is free from ads, spam, and trolls. There aren’t numbers next to every contribution, measuring its worth. You won’t find an unread count that makes you feel like you’re falling behind or infinite scroll that makes you feel like you’re never done.
A neighborhood is defined in the end by the people who call it home and it's the members that make Uncommon a place like no other. This incredible community stretches from Malmö to Berlin, Vancouver to Melbourne, and Cape Town to Brooklyn. It's filled with artists and teachers, advocates and travelers, poets and musicians, novelists and engineers. They are welcoming people eager to meet new people and new ideas, to openly explore who they are and be changed in subtle and profound ways by their neighbors.
We started the dispatch to capture the story of what was being built, and it’s done just that. I thought it would be the story of a website, but it turned out to be the story of a community. For many of you, Uncommon is the dispatch. For me, personally, it has been an unending source of joy, insight, and friendship.
There’s so much more, though. Uncommon is an online community, a neighborhood of amazing people, and the dispatch is one small piece of that. Joining Uncommon is like finally moving to that wonderful neighborhood that you fell in love with on your weekend visits.
In two months, we’ll light four candles and enjoy a delicious birthday cake. Then, we’ll turn the page and start a new chapter. I hope you’ll be part of it.
If you have any questions about joining, what's ahead, or whether memberships are available when funds are tight (of course!), just say hello.
The latest dispatch asked, What makes a great neighborhood?
People who live in Los Angeles joke about how, no matter where you want to go, everything in the city is about 20 minutes away (without traffic). Grocery store? 20 minutes. Movie Theater? 20 minutes. Museum? 20 minutes. Everything has 20 minutes of houses and apartments and businesses between you and wherever you're going. You can't just drive to the bank, stop at an interesting store, and wind up at a movie theater where - on a whim - you catch a show - because all those things are nowhere near each other. There are some areas where that is possible but those places are increasingly filled with either people who are ok with living in an expensive shoebox or the very rich (who, somehow, spend all day at cafes and the gym). So you wind up living in an island somewhere, working on another island, eating and drinking on another island - and traveling between them is a commitment. Which means your life has somewhat less spontaneity.
So, to me, the street matters a lot more than the neighborhood. How many houses vs apartments? How many loud neighbors do you have? How crowded is the street parking? How early is street cleaning? What does it feel like to come home after a long day of work? I discovered that trees are very important to me. Probably has something to do with the fact that I grew up on a street called Los Arboles ("The Trees" in Spanish). I guess the neighborhood matters most on Saturday and Sunday when I open all the windows and doors and some of the life on the street and in the air drifts into my home; those rare days when I get to eat before the sun goes down and take a walk in the fading light. I think as long as I can take a deep breath and enjoy that walk I'll count my neighborhood as a good one. That, and quick access to good coffee.
In my adult life, I’ve never lived in an old-fashioned neighborhood, where neighbors know each other and local businesses are full of familiar faces. But right now I live in the closest thing I can imagine, outside of a city. I imagine the perfect neighborhood being a lot like mine: nice parks, a few restaurants I can walk to from my house, a barber shop I’ve been patronizing for five-plus years, and a great place to go running, where I’ll see a few of the same people out on the trails with me every week—and some new faces, too. But what I would probably want to change is… me.
To the extent that I don’t get that old-fashioned “American” neighborhood feel, it’s because I stay inside, and I don’t talk much to people when I’m out and about. I don’t make time to go relax in the park, and I try not to spend money on food, so I miss out on those random encounters with my neighbors that people with different values get to experience.
I don’t think I’m making “bad” or “wrong” choices—just choices that prioritize my own productivity and autonomy over a sense of physical community I could have if I chose my values differently. What’s missing from my neighborhood is my willingness to make it one.
The Science of Making Friends by Elizabeth Bernstein:
If you want new friends, you need to look with intention. And, just as you would when looking for a mate, you need to look for someone who has something in common with you, and who is emotionally available.
We Are What We Build by Eric Myer:
Either way, the nature of a system says something very clear about the people who create that system and what they value; just as much as how we use those systems, and what we tolerate in the behavior of those around us, says something very clear about us and what we value.
If you look at feedback loops like likes and retweets, they’ve been very carefully crafted to maximise certain types of behaviours. But if we reward people based on a measurement system where there’s literally no difference between a one-second page view or reading something that brought them value or changed their mind, it’s like – your job is feeding people, but all you’re measuring is maximising calorie delivery. So what you’d learn is that junk food is more efficient than healthy, nourishing food.
What song do you have on repeat?