[FoRK] A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy
Dr. Ernie Prabhakar <
drernie at radicalcentrism.org
> on >
Tue Dec 12 14:17:53 PST 2006
More about open source than religion, but apropos of both. I suspect
many of you have seen this before, but it was new to me.
-- Ernie P.
P.S. Bonus points for identifying which patterns (if any) best
characterize FoRK. :-)
Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics & Culture, Media & Community, Open Source
Published July 1, 2003 on the "Networks, Economics, and Culture"
...there are some very specific patterns that they're entering into
to defeat the ostensible purpose of the group meeting together. And
he [Bion] detailed three patterns.
The first is sex talk, what he called, in his mid-century prose, "A
group met for pairing off." And what that means is, the group
conceives of its purpose as the hosting of flirtatious or salacious
talk or emotions passing between pairs of members...
The second basic pattern that Bion detailed: The identification and
vilification of external enemies. This is a very common pattern.
Anyone who was around the Open Source movement in the mid-Nineties
could see this all the time. If you cared about Linux on the desktop,
there was a big list of jobs to do. But you could always instead get
a conversation going about Microsoft and Bill Gates. And people would
start bleeding from their ears, they would get so mad....
So even if someone isn't really your enemy, identifying them as an
enemy can cause a pleasant sense of group cohesion. And groups often
gravitate towards members who are the most paranoid and make them
leaders, because those are the people who are best at identifying
The third pattern Bion identified: Religious veneration. The
nomination and worship of a religious icon or a set of religious
tenets. The religious pattern is, essentially, we have nominated
something that's beyond critique. You can see this pattern on the
Internet any day you like. Go onto a Tolkein newsgroup or discussion
forum, and try saying "You know, The Two Towers is a little dull. I
mean loooong. We didn't need that much description about the forest,
because it's pretty much the same forest all the way."
...Now, in some places people say "Yes, but it needed to, because it
had to convey the sense of lassitude," or whatever. But in most
places you'll simply be flamed to high heaven, because you're
interfering with the religious text.
So these are human patterns that have shown up on the Internet, not
because of the software, but because it's being used by humans. Bion
has identified this possibility of groups sandbagging their
sophisticated goals with these basic urges. And what he finally came
to, in analyzing this tension, is that group structure is necessary.
Robert's Rules of Order are necessary. Constitutions are necessary.
Norms, rituals, laws, the whole list of ways that we say, out of the
universe of possible behaviors, we're going to draw a relatively
small circle around the acceptable ones.
He said the group structure is necessary to defend the group from
itself. Group structure exists to keep a group on target, on track,
on message, on charter, whatever. To keep a group focused on its own
sophisticated goals and to keep a group from sliding into these basic
patterns. Group structure defends the group from the action of its
People who work on social software are closer in spirit to economists
and political scientists than they are to people making compilers.
They both look like programming, but when you're dealing with groups
of people as one of your run-time phenomena, that is an incredibly
different practice. In the political realm, we would call these kinds
of crises a constitutional crisis. It's what happens when the tension
between the individual and the group, and the rights and
responsibilities of individuals and groups, gets so serious that
something has to be done.
And the worst crisis is the first crisis, because it's not just "We
need to have some rules." It's also "We need to have some rules for
making some rules." And this is what we see over and over again in
large and long-lived social software systems. Constitutions are a
necessary component of large, long-lived, heterogenous groups.
Geoff Cohen has a great observation about this. He said "The
likelihood that any unmoderated group will eventually get into a
flame-war about whether or not to have a moderator approaches one as
time increases." As a group commits to its existence as a group, and
begins to think that the group is good or important, the chance that
they will begin to call for additional structure, in order to defend
themselves from themselves, gets very, very high.
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.
1.) Of the things you have to accept, the first is that you cannot
completely separate technical and social issues...
2.) The second thing you have to accept: Members are different than
3.) The third thing you need to accept: The core group has rights
that trump individual rights in some situations...
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
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
* Four Things to Design For
The first thing you would design for is handles the user can invest in.
Second, you have to design a way for there to be members in good
Three, you need barriers to participation.
finally, you have to find a way to spare the group from scale...
...those four things are of course necessary but not sufficient
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