“A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy”

Clay Shirky, who publishes an often-good email list called Networks, Economics and Culture sent a great — but very long — essay this summer called A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy which contains an incredibly rich series of nuggets about group dynamics and applies them to experiences with online groups and community building.

Anyone who’s involved in any kind of collaborative work (online or not!) owes it to themselves to read this essay.

I’ll briefly summarize some of the key ideas/’grafs:

*Patterns of group defiance*

In the first part of the essay, Shirky summarizes the mid-19th Centry research of W.R. Bion into group dynamics. Some of the key insights that Bion arrived at from doing group therapy with neurotics:

— Groups are _both_ cohesive groups and aggregations of individuals.

— All groups will eventually conspire (conciously or unconciously) to defeat the intentions of their founders. This defiance manifests in three basic patterns:

# “Sex Talk” – in Shirky’s words, “the passing of flirtatious or salacious talk or emotions” between pairs of members.
# Identification and vilifcation of external enemies
# Religious veneration – literally or figuatively (e.g. in a Tolkein discussion group)

— These patterns are why group structure (e.g. rules) are necessary.


Shirky also spends some time talking about the right scale for group interactions. “Less is different,” he writes. “Small groups of poeple can engage in kinds of interaction that large groups can’t. And… we blew past that interesting scale of small groups. Larger than a dozen, smaller than a few hundred.” This is the size where Shirky believes that interesting, dense conversations can be had in a supportable way.

*Things to Accept*

Shirky posits three “things to accept” about online group dynamics:

# You cannot separate technical and social issues. This means that all collaborative spaces must be ready to accept some mixing of social and “technical” discussions. Attempts to firmly separate these will ultimately fail.
# Members are different than users. There will always be some members of the group that care more about the group itself. This “group within the group” is real, and Shirky argues that “it matters most.” These are the people who “garden” the group, keeping it healthy and productive.
# The core group has rights that sometimes trump individual rights. The core group needs ways to defend itself from being hijacked by disruptive users. Shirky writes that “all groups of any integrity have a constitution” and that these constitutions are partially formal, and partially informal.

*Applying the Lessons*

Shirky concludes the essay with four ideas that all social software should somehow incorporate to be successful. (Although as he notes, most groups will fail anyway.)

# Simple and “somewhat persistent” handles — that is, some way to identify people. Intensive reputiation management probably isn’t feasible or desirable, because the best reputiation management system is your brain.
# A way for good works to be recognized. This can be as simple as all posts to appear with the poster’s identity.
# Barriers to participation. This is counter-intuitive, but Shirky claims that there has to be some kind of cost (not necessarily financial) to join or participate, so that the system won’t be swamped by noise. I would note that most small group systems I see have the opposite problem — barriers to entry/use are too high.
# A way to spare the group from scale. Shirky writes that “scale alone kills conversations.” Successful groups need to find a way to “soft fork” so that more conversations can happen, instead of bigger ones. And those conversations need “soft overlap” — ways to connect to other conversations.

There’s a lot to think about in here. What do you think? How can the environmental movement apply these insights to its work?

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