How a Group is its own Worst Enemy/Part 3

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Facilitator: Roshanara Rahman

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How a Group is its own Worst Enemy
Written by Clay Shirky

IntroPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Conclusion


Part Three: What can we take for granted?

If these assumptions are right, one that a group is its own worst enemy, and two, we're seeing this explosion of social software, what should we do? Is there anything we can say with any certainty about building social software, at least for large and long-lived groups?

I think there is. A little over 10 years ago, I quit my day job, because Usenet was so interesting, I thought: This is really going to be big. And I actually wrote a book about net culture at the time: Usenet, the Well, Echo, IRC and so forth. It launched in April of '95, just as that world was being washed away by the web. But it was my original interest, so I've been looking at this problem in one way or another for 10 years, and I've been looking at it pretty hard for the a year and a half or so.

So there's this question "What is required to make a large, long-lived online group successful?" and I think I can now answer with some confidence: "It depends." I'm hoping to flesh that answer out a little bit in the next ten years.

But I can at least say some of the things it depends on. The Calvinists had a doctrine of natural grace and supernatural grace. Natural grace was "You have to do all the right things in the world to get to heaven..." and supernatural grace was "...and God has to anoint you." And you never knew if you had supernatural grace or not. This was their way of getting around the fact that the Book of Revelations put an upper limit on the number of people who were going to heaven.

Social software is like that. You can find the same piece of code running in many, many environments. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. So there is something supernatural about groups being a run-time experience.

The normal experience of social software is failure. If you go into Yahoo groups and you map out the subscriptions, it is, unsurprisingly, a power law. There's a small number of highly populated groups, a moderate number of moderately populated groups, and this long, flat tail of failure. And the failure is inevitably more than 50% of the total mailing lists in any category. So it's not like a cake recipe. There's nothing you can do to make it come out right every time.

There are, however, I think, about half a dozen things that are broadly true of all the groups I've looked at and all the online constitutions I've read for software that supports large and long-lived groups. And I'd break that list in half. I'd say, if you are going to create a piece of social software designed to support large groups, you have to accept three things, and design for four things.

Three Things to Accept

1.) Of the things you have to accept, the first is that you cannot completely separate technical and social issues.

There are two attractive patterns. One says, we'll handle technology over `here, we'll do social issues there. We'll have separate mailing lists with separate discussion groups, or we'll have one track here and one track there. This doesn't work. It's never been stated more clearly than in the pair of documents called "LambdaMOO Takes a New Direction." I can do no better than to point you to those documents.

But recently we've had this experience where there was a social software discussion list, and someone said "I know, let's set up a second mailing list for technical issues." And no one moved from the first list, because no one could fork the conversation between social and technical issues, because the conversation can't be forked.

The other pattern that's very, very attractive -- anybody who looks at this stuff has the same epiphany, which is: "Omigod, this software is determining what people do!" And that is true, up to a point. But you cannot completely program social issues either. So you can't separate the two things, and you also can't specify all social issues in technology. The group is going to assert its rights somehow, and you're going to get this mix of social and technological effects.

So the group is real. It will exhibit emergent effects. It can't be ignored, and it can't be programmed, which means you have an ongoing issue. And the best pattern, or at least the pattern that's worked the most often, is to put into the hands of the group itself the responsibility for defining what value is, and defending that value, rather than trying to ascribe those things in the software upfront.

2.) The second thing you have to accept: Members are different than users.

A pattern will arise in which there is some group of users that cares more than average about the integrity and success of the group as a whole. And that becomes your core group, Art Kleiner's phrase for "the group within the group that matters most."

The core group on Communitree was undifferentiated from the group of random users that came in. They were separate in their own minds, because they knew what they wanted to do, but they couldn't defend themselves against the other users. But in all successful online communities that I've looked at, a core group arises that cares about and gardens effectively. Gardens the environment, to keep it growing, to keep it healthy.

Now, the software does not always allow the core group to express itself, which is why I say you have to accept this. Because if the software doesn't allow the core group to express itself, it will invent new ways of doing so.

On alt.folklore.urban , the discussion group about urban folklore on Usenet, there was a group of people who hung out there and got to be friends. And they came to care about the existence of AFU, to the point where, because Usenet made no distinction between members in good standing and drive-by users, they set up a mailing list called The Old Hats. The mailing list was for meta-discussion, discussion about AFU, so they could coordinate efforts formally if they were going to troll someone or flame someone or ignore someone, on the mailing list.

Addendum, July 2, 2003: A longtime a.f.u participant says that the Old Hat list was created to allow the Silicon Valley-dwelling members to plan a barbecue, so that they could add a face-to-face dimension to their virtual interaction. The use of the list as a backstage area for discussing the public newsgroup arose after the fact.

Then, as Usenet kept growing, many newcomers came along and seemed to like the environment, because it was well-run. In order to defend themselves from the scaling issues that come from of adding a lot of new members to the Old Hats list, they said "We're starting a second list, called the Young Hats."

So they created this three-tier system, not dissimilar to the tiers of anonymous cowards, logged-in users, and people with high karma on Slashdot. But because Usenet didn't let them do it in the software, they brought in other pieces of software, these mailing lists, that they needed to build the structure. So you don't get the program users, the members in good standing will find one another and be recognized to one another.

3.) The third thing you need to accept: The core group has rights that trump individual rights in some situations.

This pulls against the libertarian view that's quite common on the network, and it absolutely pulls against the one person/one vote notion. But you can see examples of how bad an idea voting is when citizenship is the same as ability to log in.

In the early Nineties, a proposal went out to create a Usenet news group for discussing Tibetan culture, called soc.culture.tibet. And it was voted down, in large part because a number of Chinese students who had Internet access voted it down, on the logic that Tibet wasn't a country; it was a region of China. And in their view, since Tibet wasn't a country, there oughtn't be any place to discuss its culture, because that was oxymoronic.

Now, everyone could see that this was the wrong answer. The people who wanted a place to discuss Tibetan culture should have it. That was the core group. But because the one person/one vote model on Usenet said "Anyone who's on Usenet gets to vote on any group," sufficiently contentious groups could simply be voted away.

Imagine today if, in the United States, Internet users had to be polled before any anti-war group could be created. Or French users had to be polled before any pro-war group could be created. The people who want to have those discussions are the people who matter. And absolute citizenship, with the idea that if you can log in, you are a citizen, is a harmful pattern, because it is the tyranny of the majority.

So the core group needs ways to defend itself -- both in getting started and because of the effects I talked about earlier -- the core group needs to defend itself so that it can stay on its sophisticated goals and away from its basic instincts.

The Wikipedia has a similar system today, with a volunteer fire department, a group of people who care to an unusual degree about the success of the Wikipedia. And they have enough leverage, because of the way wikis work, they can always roll back graffiti and so forth, that that thing has stayed up despite repeated attacks. So leveraging the core group is a really powerful system.

Now, when I say these are three things you have to accept, I mean you have to accept them. Because if you don't accept them upfront, they'll happen to you anyway. And then you'll end up writing one of those documents that says "Oh, we launched this and we tried it, and then the users came along and did all these weird things. And now we're documenting it so future ages won't make this mistake." Even though you didn't read the thing that was written in 1978.

All groups of any integrity have a constitution. The constitution is always partly formal and partly informal. At the very least, the formal part is what's substantiated in code -- "the software works this way."

The informal part is the sense of "how we do it around here." And no matter how is substantiated in code or written in charter, whatever, there will always be an informal part as well. You can't separate the two.

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