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<article>
<h1>A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy</h1>
<h2><a href="http://shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html">Source originale du contenu</a></h2>
<p><em>A speech at ETech, April, 2003</em></p>
<p>
Published July 1, 2003 on the “Networks, Economics, and Culture” mailing list.
<a href="mailto:nec-request@shirky.com?subject=subscribe">Subscribe</a>
to the mailing list.
</p>

<p>
This is a lightly edited version of the keynote I gave on Social
Software at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology conference in Santa
Clara on April 24, 2003
</p>

<hr>

<p>
Good morning, everybody. I want to talk this morning about social
software ...there’s a surprise. I want to talk about a pattern I’ve seen
over and over again in social software that supports large and
long-lived groups. And that pattern is the pattern described in the
title of this talk: “A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy.”

</p>

<p>
In particular, I want to talk about what I now think is one of the core challenges for designing large-scale social software. Let me offer a definition of social software, because it’s a term that’s still fairly amorphous. My definition is fairly simple: It’s software that supports group interaction. I also want to emphasize, although that’s a fairly simple definition, how radical that pattern is. The Internet supports lots of communications patterns, principally point-to-point and two-way, one-to-many outbound, and many-to-many two-way.
</p>

<p>
Prior to the Internet, we had lots of patterns that supported point-to-point two-way. We had telephones, we had the telegraph. We were familiar with technological mediation of those kinds of conversations. Prior to the Internet, we had lots of patterns that supported one-way outbound. I could put something on television or the radio, I could publish a newspaper. We had the printing press. So although the Internet does good things for those patterns, they’re patterns we knew from before.
</p>

<p>
Prior to the Internet, the last technology that had any real effect on the way people sat down and talked together was the table. There was no technological mediation for group conversations. The closest we got was the conference call, which never really worked right -- “Hello? Do I push this button now? Oh, shoot, I just hung up.” It’s not easy to set up a conference call, but it’s very easy to email five of your friends and say “Hey, where are we going for pizza?” So ridiculously easy group forming is really news.
</p>

<p>
We’ve had social software for 40 years at most, dated from the Plato BBS system, and we’ve only had 10 years or so of widespread availability, so we’re just finding out what works. We’re still learning how to make these kinds of things.
</p>

<p>
Now, software that supports group interaction is a fundamentally unsatisfying definition in many ways, because it doesn’t point to a specific class of technology. If you look at email, it obviously supports social patterns, but it can also support a broadcast pattern. If I’m a spammer, I’m going to mail things out to a million people, but they’re not going to be talking to one another, and I’m not going to be talking to them -- spam is email, but it isn’t social. If I’m mailing you, and you’re mailing me back, we’re having point-to-point and two-way conversation, but not one that creates group dynamics.
</p>

<p>
So email doesn’t necessarily support social patterns, group patterns, although it can. Ditto a weblog. If I’m Glenn Reynolds, and I’m publishing something with Comments Off and reaching a million users a month, that’s really broadcast. It’s interesting that I can do it as a single individual, but the pattern is closer to MSNBC than it is to a conversation. If it’s a cluster of half a dozen LiveJournal users, on the other hand, talking about their lives with one another, that’s social. So, again, weblogs are not necessarily social, although they can support social patterns.
</p>

<p>
Nevertheless, I think that definition is the right one, because it recognizes the fundamentally social nature of the problem. Groups are a run-time effect. You cannot specify in advance what the group will do, and so you can’t substantiate in software everything you expect to have happen.
</p>

<p>
Now, there’s a large body of literature saying “We built this software, a group came and used it, and they began to exhibit behaviors that surprised us enormously, so we’ve gone and documented these behaviors.” Over and over and over again this pattern comes up. (I hear Stewart [Brand, of the WELL] laughing.) The WELL is one of those places where this pattern came up over and over again.
</p>

<p>
This talk is in three parts. The best explanation I have found for the kinds of things that happen when groups of humans interact is psychological research that predates the Internet, so the first part is going to be about W.R. Bion’s research, which I will talk about in a moment, research that I believe explains how and why a group is its own worst enemy.
</p>

<p>
The second part is: Why now? What’s going on now that makes this worth thinking about? I think we’re seeing a revolution in social software in the current environment that’s really interesting.
</p>

<p>
And third, I want to identify some things, about half a dozen things, in fact, that I think are core to any software that supports larger, long-lived groups.
</p>

<h2>Part One: How is a group its own worst enemy?</h2>

<p>
So, Part One. The best explanation I have found for the ways in which this pattern establishes itself, the group is its own worst enemy, comes from a book by W.R. Bion called “Experiences in Groups,” written in the middle of the last century.
</p>

<p>
Bion was a psychologist who was doing group therapy with groups of neurotics. (Drawing parallels between that and the Internet is left as an exercise for the reader.) The thing that Bion discovered was that the neurotics in his care were, as a group, conspiring to defeat therapy.
</p>

<p>
There was no overt communication or coordination. But he could see that whenever he would try to do anything that was meant to have an effect, the group would somehow quash it. And he was driving himself crazy, in the colloquial sense of the term, trying to figure out whether or not he should be looking at the situation as: Are these individuals taking action on their own? Or is this a coordinated group?
</p>

<p>
He could never resolve the question, and so he decided that the unresolvability of the question was the answer. To the question: Do you view groups of people as aggregations of individuals or as a cohesive group, his answer was: “Hopelessly committed to both.”
</p>

<p>
He said that humans are fundamentally individual, and also fundamentally social. Every one of us has a kind of rational decision-making mind where we can assess what’s going on and make decisions and act on them. And we are all also able to enter viscerally into emotional bonds with other groups of people that transcend the intellectual aspects of the individual.
</p>

<p>
In fact, Bion was so convinced that this was the right answer that the image he put on the front cover of his book was a Necker cube, one of those cubes that you can look at and make resolve in one of two ways, but you can never see both views of the cube at the same time. So groups can be analyzed both as collections of individuals and having this kind of emotive group experience.
</p>

<p>
Now, it’s pretty easy to see how groups of people who have formal memberships, groups that have been labeled and named like “I am a member of such-and-such a guild in a massively multi-player online role-playing game,” it’s easy to see how you would have some kind of group cohesion there. But Bion’s thesis is that this effect is much, much deeper, and kicks in much, much sooner than many of us expect. So I want to illustrate this with a story, and to illustrate the illustration, I’ll use a story from your life. Because even if I don’t know you, I know what I’m about to describe has happened to you.
</p>

<p>
You are at a party, and you get bored. You say “This isn’t doing it for me anymore. I’d rather be someplace else. I’d rather be home asleep. The people I wanted to talk to aren’t here.” Whatever. The party fails to meet some threshold of interest. And then a really remarkable thing happens: You don’t leave. You make a decision “I don’t like this.” If you were in a bookstore and you said “I’m done,” you’d walk out. If you were in a coffee shop and said “This is boring,” you’d walk out.
</p>

<p>
You’re sitting at a party, you decide “I don’t like this; I don’t want to be here.” And then you don’t leave. That kind of social stickiness is what Bion is talking about.
</p>

<p>
And then, another really remarkable thing happens. Twenty minutes later, one person stands up and gets their coat, and what happens? Suddenly everyone is getting their coats on, all at the same time. Which means that everyone had decided that the party was not for them, and no one had done anything about it, until finally this triggering event let the air out of the group, and everyone kind of felt okay about leaving.
</p>

<p>
This effect is so steady it’s sometimes called the paradox of groups. It’s obvious that there are no groups without members. But what’s less obvious is that there are no members without a group. Because what would you be a member of?
</p>

<p>
So there’s this very complicated moment of a group coming together, where enough individuals, for whatever reason, sort of agree that something worthwhile is happening, and the decision they make at that moment is: This is good and must be protected. And at that moment, even if it’s subconscious, you start getting group effects. And the effects that we’ve seen come up over and over and over again in online communities.
</p>

<p>
Now, Bion decided that what he was watching with the neurotics was the group defending itself against his attempts to make the group do what they said they were supposed to do. The group was convened to get better, this group of people was in therapy to get better. But they were defeating that. And he said, there are some very specific patterns that they’re entering into to defeat the ostensible purpose of the group meeting together. And he detailed three patterns.
</p>

<p>
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.
</p>

<p>
You go on IRC and you scan the channel list, and you say “Oh, I know what that group is about, because I see the channel label.” And you go into the group, you will also almost invariably find that it’s about sex talk as well. Not necessarily overt. But that is always in scope in human conversations, according to Bion. That is one basic pattern that groups can always devolve into, away from the sophisticated purpose and towards one of these basic purposes.
</p>

<p>
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.
</p>

<p>
If you want to make it better, there’s a list of things to do. It’s Open Source, right? Just fix it. “No, no, Microsoft and Bill Gates grrrrr ...”, the froth would start coming out. The external enemy -- nothing causes a group to galvanize like an external enemy.
</p>

<p>
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 external enemies.
</p>

<p>
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.”
</p>

<p>
Try having that discussion. On the door of the group it will say: “This is for discussing the works of Tolkein.” Go in and try and have that discussion.
</p>

<p>
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.
</p>

<p>
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.
</p>

<p>
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 own members.
</p>

<p>
In the Seventies -- this is a pattern that’s shown up on the network over and over again -- in the Seventies, a BBS called Communitree launched, one of the very early dial-up BBSes. This was launched when people didn’t own computers, institutions owned computers.
</p>

<p>
Communitree was founded on the principles of open access and free dialogue. “Communitree” -- the name just says “California in the Seventies.” And the notion was, effectively, throw off structure and new and beautiful patterns will arise.
</p>

<p>
And, indeed, as anyone who has put discussion software into groups that were previously disconnected has seen, that does happen. Incredible things happen. The early days of Echo, the early days of usenet, the early days of Lucasfilms Habitat, over and over again, you see all this incredible upwelling of people who suddenly are connected in ways they weren’t before.
</p>

<p>
And then, as time sets in, difficulties emerge. In this case, one of the difficulties was occasioned by the fact that one of the institutions that got hold of some modems was a high school. And who, in 1978, was hanging out in the room with the computer and the modems in it, but the boys of that high school. And the boys weren’t terribly interested in sophisticated adult conversation. They were interested in fart jokes. They were interested in salacious talk. They were interested in running amok and posting four-letter words and nyah-nyah-nyah, all over the bulletin board.
</p>

<p>
And the adults who had set up Communitree were horrified, and overrun by these students. The place that was founded on open access had too much open access, too much openness. They couldn’t defend themselves against their own users. The place that was founded on free speech had too much freedom. They had no way of saying “No, that’s not the kind of free speech we meant.”
</p>

<p>
But that was a requirement. In order to defend themselves against being overrun, that was something that they needed to have that they didn’t have, and as a result, they simply shut the site down.
</p>

<p>
Now you could ask whether or not the founders’ inability to defend themselves from this onslaught, from being overrun, was a technical or a social problem. Did the software not allow the problem to be solved? Or was it the social configuration of the group that founded it, where they simply couldn’t stomach the idea of adding censorship to protect their system. But in a way, it doesn’t matter, because technical and social issues are deeply intertwined. There’s no way to completely separate them.
</p>

<p>
What matters is, a group designed this and then was unable, in the context they’d set up, partly a technical and partly a social context, to save it from this attack from within. And attack from within is what matters. Communitree wasn’t shut down by people trying to crash or syn-flood the server. It was shut down by people logging in and posting, which is what the system was designed to allow. The technological pattern of normal use and attack were identical at the machine level, so there was no way to specify technologically what should and shouldn’t happen. Some of the users wanted the system to continue to exist and to provide a forum for discussion. And other of the users, the high school boys, either didn’t care or were actively inimical. And the system provided no way for the former group to defend itself from the latter.
</p>

<p>
Now, this story has been written many times. It’s actually frustrating to see how many times it’s been written. You’d hope that at some point that someone would write it down, and they often do, but what then doesn’t happen is other people don’t read it.
</p>

<p>
The most charitable description of this repeated pattern is “learning from experience.” But learning from experience is the worst possible way to learn something. Learning from experience is one up from remembering. That’s not great. The best way to learn something is when someone else figures it out and tells you: “Don’t go in that swamp. There are alligators in there.”
</p>

<p>
Learning from experience about the alligators is lousy, compared to learning from reading, say. There hasn’t been, unfortunately, in this arena, a lot of learning from reading. And so, lessons from Lucasfilms’ Habitat, written in 1990, reads a lot like Rose Stone’s description of Communitree from 1978.
</p>

<p>
This pattern has happened over and over and over again. Someone built the system, they assumed certain user behaviors. The users came on and exhibited different behaviors. And the people running the system discovered to their horror that the technological and social issues could not in fact be decoupled.
</p>

<p>
There’s a great document called “LambdaMOO Takes a New Direction,” which is about the wizards of LambdaMOO, Pavel Curtis’s Xerox PARC experiment in building a MUD world. And one day the wizards of LambdaMOO announced “We’ve gotten this system up and running, and all these interesting social effects are happening. Henceforth we wizards will only be involved in technological issues. We’re not going to get involved in any of that social stuff.”
</p>

<p>
And then, I think about 18 months later -- I don’t remember the exact gap of time -- they come back. The wizards come back, extremely cranky. And they say: “What we have learned from you whining users is that we can’t do what we said we would do. We cannot separate the technological aspects from the social aspects of running a virtual world.
</p>

<p>
“So we’re back, and we’re taking wizardly fiat back, and we’re going to do things to run the system. We are effectively setting ourselves up as a government, because this place needs a government, because without us, the place was falling apart.”
</p>

<p>
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.
</p>

<p>
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.
</p>

<p>
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.
</p>

<h2>Part Two: Why now? </h2>

<p>
If these things I’m saying have happened so often before, have been happening and been documented and we’ve got psychological literature that predates the Internet, what’s going on now that makes this important?
</p>

<p>
I can’t tell you precisely why, but observationally there is a revolution in social software going on. The number of people writing tools to support or enhance group collaboration or communication is astonishing.
</p>

<p>
The web turned us all into size queens for six or eight years there. It was loosely coupled, it was stateless, it scaled like crazy, and everything became about How big can you get? “How many users does Yahoo have? How many customers does Amazon have? How many readers does MSNBC have?” And the answer could be “Really a lot!” But it could only be really a lot if you didn’t require MSNBC to be answering those readers, and you didn’t require those readers to be talking to one another.
</p>

<p>
The downside of going for size and scale above all else is that the dense, interconnected pattern that drives group conversation and collaboration isn’t supportable at any large scale. Less is different -- small groups of people can engage in kinds of interaction that large groups can’t. And so we blew past that interesting scale of small groups. Larger than a dozen, smaller than a few hundred, where people can actually have these conversational forms that can’t be supported when you’re talking about tens of thousands or millions of users, at least in a single group.
</p>

<p>
We’ve had things like mailing lists and BBSes for a long time, and more recently we’ve had IM, we’ve had these various patterns. And now, all of a sudden, these things are popping up. We’ve gotten weblogs and wikis, and I think, even more importantly, we’re getting platform stuff. We’re getting RSS. We’re getting shared Flash objects. We’re getting ways to quickly build on top of some infrastructure we can take for granted, that lets us try new things very rapidly.
</p>

<p>
I was talking to Stewart Butterfield about the chat application they’re trying here. I said “Hey, how’s that going?” He said: “Well, we only had the idea for it two weeks ago. So this is the launch.” When you can go from “Hey, I’ve got an idea” to “Let’s launch this in front of a few hundred serious geeks and see how it works,” that suggests that there’s a platform there that is letting people do some really interesting things really quickly. It’s not that you couldn’t have built a similar application a couple of years ago, but the cost would have been much higher. And when you lower costs, interesting new kinds of things happen.
</p>

<p>
So the first answer to Why Now? is simply “Because it’s time.” I can’t tell you why it took as long for weblogs to happen as it did, except to say it had absolutely nothing to do with technology. We had every bit of technology we needed to do weblogs the day Mosaic launched the first forms-capable browser. Every single piece of it was right there. Instead, we got Geocities. Why did we get Geocities and not weblogs? We didn’t know what we were doing.
</p>

<p>
One was a bad idea, the other turns out to be a really good idea. It took a long time to figure out that people talking to one another, instead of simply uploading badly-scanned photos of their cats, would be a useful pattern.
</p>

<p>
We got the weblog pattern in around ’96 with Drudge. We got weblog platforms starting in ’98. The thing really was taking off in 2000. By last year, everyone realized: Omigod, this thing is going mainstream, and it’s going to change everything.
</p>

<p>
The vertigo moment for me was when Phil Gyford launched the Pepys weblog, Samuel Pepys’ diaries of the 1660’s turned into a weblog form, with a new post every day from Pepys’ diary. What that said to me was: Phil was asserting, and I now believe, that weblogs will be around for at least 10 years, because that’s how long Pepys kept a diary. And that was this moment of projecting into the future: This is now infrastructure we can take for granted.
</p>

<p>
Why was there an eight-year gap between a forms-capable browser and the Pepys diaries? I don’t know. It just takes a while for people to get used to these ideas.
</p>

<p>
So, first of all, this is a revolution in part because it is a revolution. We’ve internalized the ideas and people are now working with them. Second, the things that people are now building are web-native.
</p>

<p>
When you got social software on the web in the mid-Nineties, a lot of it was: “This is the Giant Lotus Dreadnought, now with New Lightweight Web Interface!” It never felt like the web. It felt like this hulking thing with a little, you know, “Here’s some icons. Don’t look behind the curtain.”
</p>

<p>
A weblog is web-native. It’s the web all the way in. A wiki is a web-native way of hosting collaboration. It’s lightweight, it’s loosely coupled, it’s easy to extend, it’s easy to break down. And it’s not just the surface, like oh, you can just do things in a form. It assumes http is transport. It assumes markup in the coding. RSS is a web-native way of doing syndication. So we’re taking all of these tools and we’re extending them in a way that lets us build new things really quickly.
</p>

<p>
Third, in David Weinberger’s felicitous phrase, we can now start to have a Small Pieces Loosely Joined pattern. It’s really worthwhile to look into what Joi Ito is doing with the Emergent Democracy movement, even if you’re not interested in the themes of emerging democracy. This started because a conversation was going on, and Ito said “I am frustrated. I’m sitting here in Japan, and I know all of these people are having these conversations in real-time with one another. I want to have a group conversation, too. I’ll start a conference call.
</p>

<p>
“But since conference calls are so lousy on their own, I’m going to bring up a chat window at the same time.” And then, in the first meeting, I think it was Pete Kaminski said “Well, I’ve also opened up a wiki, and here’s the URL.” And he posted it in the chat window. And people can start annotating things. People can start adding bookmarks; here are the lists.
</p>

<p>
So, suddenly you’ve got this meeting, which is going on in three separate modes at the same time, two in real-time and one annotated. So you can have the conference call going on, and you know how conference calls are. Either one or two people dominate it, or everyone’s like “Oh, can I -- no, but --”, everyone interrupting and cutting each other off.
</p>

<p>
It’s very difficult to coordinate a conference call, because people can’t see one another, which makes it hard to manage the interrupt logic. In Joi’s conference call, the interrupt logic got moved to the chat room. People would type “Hand,” and the moderator of the conference call will then type “You’re speaking next,” in the chat. So the conference call flowed incredibly smoothly.
</p>

<p>
Meanwhile, in the chat, people are annotating what people are saying. “Oh, that reminds me of So-and-so’s work.” Or “You should look at this URL...you should look at that ISBN number.” In a conference call, to read out a URL, you have to spell it out -- “No, no, no, it’s w w w dot net dash...” In a chat window, you get it and you can click on it right there. You can say, in the conference call or the chat: “Go over to the wiki and look at this.”
</p>

<p>
This is a broadband conference call, but it isn’t a giant thing. It’s just three little pieces of software laid next to each other and held together with a little bit of social glue. This is an incredibly powerful pattern. It’s different from: Let’s take the Lotus juggernaut and add a web front-end.
</p>

<p>
And finally, and this is the thing that I think is the real freakout, is ubiquity. The web has been growing for a long, long time. And so some people had web access, and then lots of people had web access, and then most people had web access.
</p>

<p>
But something different is happening now. In many situations, all people have access to the network. And “all” is a different kind of amount than “most.” “All” lets you start taking things for granted.
</p>

<p>
Now, the Internet isn’t everywhere in the world. It isn’t even everywhere in the developed world. But for some groups of people -- students, people in high-tech offices, knowledge workers -- everyone they work with is online. Everyone they’re friends with is online. Everyone in their family is online.
</p>

<p>
And this pattern of ubiquity lets you start taking this for granted. Bill Joy once said “My method is to look at something that seems like a good idea and assume it’s true.” We’re starting to see software that simply assumes that all offline groups will have an online component, no matter what.
</p>

<p>
It is now possible for every grouping, from a Girl Scout troop on up, to have an online component, and for it to be lightweight and easy to manage. And that’s a different kind of thing than the old pattern of “online community.” I have this image of two hula hoops, the old two-hula hoop world, where my real life is over here, and my online life is over there, and there wasn’t much overlap between them. If the hula hoops are swung together, and everyone who’s offline is also online, at least from my point of view, that’s a different kind of pattern.
</p>

<p>
There’s a second kind of ubiquity, which is the kind we’re enjoying here thanks to Wifi. If you assume whenever a group of people are gathered together, that they can be both face to face and online at the same time, you can start to do different kinds of things. I now don’t run a meeting without either having a chat room or a wiki up and running. Three weeks ago I ran a meeting for the Library of Congress. We had a wiki, set up by Socialtext, to capture a large and very dense amount of technical information on long-term digital preservation.
</p>

<p>
The people who organized the meeting had never used a wiki before, and now the Library of Congress is talking as if they always had a wiki for their meetings, and are assuming it’s going to be at the next meeting as well -- the wiki went from novel to normal in a couple of days.
</p>

<p>
It really quickly becomes an assumption that a group can do things like “Oh, I took my PowerPoint slides, I showed them, and then I dumped them into the wiki. So now you can get at them.” It becomes a sort of shared repository for group memory. This is new. These kinds of ubiquity, both everyone is online, and everyone who’s in a room can be online together at the same time, can lead to new patterns.
</p>

<h2>Part Three: What can we take for granted?</h2>

<p>
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?
</p>

<p>
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.
</p>

<p>
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.
</p>

<p>
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.
</p>

<p>
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.
</p>

<p>
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.
</p>

<p>
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.
</p>

<h2>Three Things to Accept</h2>

<ol>
<li>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
</li>
<li>
<p>
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.”
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
<em>
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.
</em>
</p>
<p> 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.” </p>
<p> 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.
</p>
</li>
<li>
<p>
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. </p>
<p> 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. </p>
<p> 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. </p>
<p> 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. </p>
<p> 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. </p>
<p> 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.
</p>
</li>
</ol>

<p> Now, when I say these are three things you have to accept, I
mean you <i>have to</i> 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.
</p>

<p> 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.” </p>

<p> 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. </p>

<h2>Four Things to Design For</h2>

<ol>
<li>
<p>If you were going to build a piece of
social software to support large and long-lived groups, what would you
design for? The first thing you would design for is handles the user
can invest in. </p>
<p> Now, I say “handles,” because I don’t want to
say “identity,” because identity has suddenly become one of those
ideas where, when you pull on the little thread you want, this big bag
of stuff comes along with it. Identity is such a hot-button issue
now, but for the lightweight stuff required for social software, its
really just a handle that matters. </p>
<p> It’s pretty widely
understood that anonymity doesn’t work well in group settings, because
“who said what when” is the minimum requirement for having a
conversation. What’s less well understood is that weak pseudonymity
doesn’t work well, either. Because I need to associate who’s saying
something to me now with previous conversations. </p>
<p> The world’s
best reputation management system is right here, in the brain. And
actually, it’s right here, in the back, in the emotional part of the
brain. Almost all the work being done on reputation systems today is
either trivial or useless or both, because reputations aren’t
linearizable, and they’re not portable. </p>
<p> There are people who
cheat on their spouse but not at cards, and vice versa, and both and
neither. Reputation is not necessarily portable from one situation to
another, and it’s not easily expressed. </p>
<p> eBay has done us all
an enormous disservice, because eBay works in non-iterated atomic
transactions, which are the opposite of social situations. eBay’s
reputation system works incredibly well, because it starts with a
linearizable transaction -- “How much money for how many Smurfs?” --
and turns that into a metric that’s equally linear. </p>
<p> That
doesn’t work well in social situations. If you want a good reputation
system, just let me remember who you are. And if you do me a favor,
I’ll remember it. And I won’t store it in the front of my brain, I’ll
store it here, in the back. I’ll just get a good feeling next time I
get email from you; I won’t even remember why. And if you do me a
disservice and I get email from you, my temples will start to throb,
and I won’t even remember why. If you give users a way of remembering
one another, reputation will happen, and that requires nothing more
than simple and somewhat persistent handles. </p>
<p> Users have to be
able to identify themselves and there has to be a penalty for
switching handles. The penalty for switching doesn’t have to be total.
But if I change my handle on the system, I have to lose some kind of
reputation or some kind of context. This keeps the system functioning.
</p>
<p> Now, this pulls against the sense that we’ve had since the
early psychological writings about the Internet. “Oh, on the Internet
we’re all going to be changing identities and genders like we change
our socks.” </p>
<p> And you see things like the Kaycee Nicole story,
where a woman in Kansas pretended to be a high school student, and
then because the invented high school student’s friends got so
emotionally involved, she then tried to kill the Kaycee Nicole persona
off. “Oh, she’s got cancer and she’s dying and it’s all very tragic.”
And of course, everyone wanted to fly to meet her. So then she sort
of panicked and vanished. And a bunch of places on the Internet,
particularly the MetaFilter community, rose up to find out what was
going on, and uncovered the hoax. It was sort of a distributed
detective movement. </p>
<p> Now a number of people point to this and
say “See, I told you about that identity thing!” But the Kaycee
Nicole story is this: changing your identity is really weird. And
when the community understands that you’ve been doing it and you’re
faking, that is seen as a huge and violent transgression. And they
will expend an astonishing amount of energy to find you and punish
you. So identity is much less slippery than the early literature
would lead us to believe. </p>
</li>
<li>
<p>Second, you have to design a
way for there to be members in good standing. Have to design some way
in which good works get recognized. The minimal way is, posts appear
with identity. You can do more sophisticated things like having
formal karma or “member since.” </p>
<p> I’m on the fence about
whether or not this is a design or accepting. Because in a way I
think members in good standing will rise. But more and more of the
systems I’m seeing launching these days are having some kind of
additional accretion so you can tell how much involvement members have
with the system. </p>
<p> There’s an interesting pattern I’m seeing
among the music-sharing group that operates between Tokyo and Hong
Kong. They operate on a mailing list, which they set up for
themselves. But when they’re trading music, what they’re doing is,
they’re FedExing one another 180-gig hard-drives. So you’re getting
.wav files and not MP3s, and you’re getting them in bulk. </p>
<p>
Now, you can imagine that such a system might be a target for
organizations that would frown on this activity. So when you join
that group, your user name is appended with the user name of the
person who is your sponsor. You can’t get in without your name being
linked to someone else. You can see immediately the reputational
effects going on there, just from linking two handles. </p>
<p> So in
that system, you become a member in good standing when your sponsor
link goes away and you’re there on your own report. If, on the other
hand, you defect, not only are you booted, but your sponsor is booted.
There are lots and lots of lightweight ways to accept and work with
the idea of member in good standing. </p>
</li>
<li>
<p>Three, you need
barriers to participation. This is one of the things that killed
Usenet. You have to have some cost to either join or participate, if
not at the lowest level, then at higher levels. There needs to be
some kind of segmentation of capabilities. </p>
<p> Now, the
segmentation can be total -- you’re in or you’re out, as with the
music group I just listed. Or it can be partial -- anyone can read
Slashdot, anonymous cowards can post, non-anonymous cowards can post
with a higher rating. But to moderate, you really have to have been
around for a while. </p>
<p> It has to be hard to do at least some
things on the system for some users, or the core group will not have
the tools that they need to defend themselves. </p>
<p> Now, this
pulls against the cardinal virtue of ease of use. But ease of use is
wrong. Ease of use is the wrong way to look at the situation, because
you’ve got the Necker cube flipped in the wrong direction. The user
of social software is the group, not the individual. </p>
<p> I think
we’ve all been to meetings where everyone had a really good time,
we’re all talking to one another and telling jokes and laughing, and
it was a great meeting, except we got nothing done. Everyone was
amusing themselves so much that the group’s goal was defeated by the
individual interventions. </p>
<p> The user of social software is the
group, and ease of use should be for the group. If the ease of use is
only calculated from the user’s point of view, it will be difficult to
defend the group from the “group is its own worst enemy” style attacks
from within. </p>
</li>
<li>
<p>And, finally, you have to find a way to
spare the group from scale. Scale alone kills conversations, because
conversations require dense two-way conversations. In conversational
contexts, Metcalfe’s law is a drag. The fact that the amount of
two-way connections you have to support goes up with the square of the
users means that the density of conversation falls off very fast as
the system scales even a little bit. You have to have some way to let
users hang onto the less is more pattern, in order to keep associated
with one another. </p>
<p> This is an inverse value to scale question.
Think about your Rolodex. A thousand contacts, maybe 150 people you
can call friends, 30 people you can call close friends, two or three
people you’d donate a kidney to. The value is inverse to the size of
the group. And you have to find some way to protect the group within
the context of those effects. </p>
<p> Sometimes you can do soft
forking. Live Journal does the best soft forking of any software I’ve
ever seen, where the concepts of “you” and “your group” are pretty
much intertwingled. The average size of a Live Journal group is about
a dozen people. And the median size is around five. </p>
<p> But each
user is a little bit connected to other such clusters, through their
friends, and so while the clusters are real, they’re not completely
bounded -- there’s a soft overlap which means that though most users
participate in small groups, most of the half-million LiveJournal
users are connected to one another through some short chain. </p>
<p>
IRC channels and mailing lists are self-moderating with scale, because
as the signal to noise ratio gets worse, people start to drop off,
until it gets better, so people join, and so it gets worse. You get
these sort of oscillating patterns. But it’s self-correcting.
</p>
<p> And then my favorite pattern is from MetaFilter, which is:
When we start seeing effects of scale, we shut off the new user page.
“Someone mentions us in the press and how great we are? Bye!” That’s
a way of raising the bar, that’s creating a threshold of
participation. And anyone who bookmarks that page and says “You know,
I really want to be in there; maybe I’ll go back later,” that’s the
kind of user MeFi wants to have. </p>
<p> You have to find some way to
protect your own users from scale. This doesn’t mean the scale of the
whole system can’t grow. But you can’t try to make the system large
by taking individual conversations and blowing them up like a balloon;
human interaction, many to many interaction, doesn’t blow up like a
balloon. It either dissipates, or turns into broadcast, or collapses.
So plan for dealing with scale in advance, because it’s going to
happen anyway. </p>
</li>
</ol>

<h2>Conclusion</h2>

<p> Now, those four
things are of course necessary but not sufficient conditions. I
propose them more as a platform for building the interesting
differences off. There are lots and lots and lots of other effects
that make different bits of software interesting enough that you would
want to keep more than one kind of pattern around. But those are
commonalities I’m seeing across a range of social software for large
and long-lived groups. </p>

<p> In addition, you can do all sorts of
things with explicit clustering, whether it’s guilds in massively
multi-player games, or communities on Live Journal or what have you.
You can do things with conversational artifacts, where the group
participation leaves behind some record. The Wikipedia right now, the
group collaborated online encyclopedia is the most interesting
conversational artifact I know of, where product is a result of
process. Rather than “We’re specifically going to get together and
create this presentation” it’s just “What’s left is a record of what
we said.” </p>

<p> There are all these things, and of course they
differ platform to platform. But there is this, I believe, common
core of things that will happen whether you plan for them or not, and
things you should plan for, that I think are invariant across large
communal software. </p>

<p> Writing social software is hard. And, as
I said, the act of writing social software is more like the work of an
economist or a political scientist. And the act of hosting social
software, the relationship of someone who hosts it is more like a
relationship of landlords to tenants than owners to boxes in a
warehouse. </p>

<p> The people using your software, even if you own it
and pay for it, have rights and will behave as if they have rights.
And if you abrogate those rights, you’ll hear about it very quickly.
</p>

<p> That’s part of the problem that the John Hegel theory of
community -- community leads to content, which leads to commerce --
never worked. Because lo and behold, no matter who came onto the
Clairol chat boards, they sometimes wanted to talk about things that
weren’t Clairol products. </p>

<p> “But we paid for this! This is the
Clairol site!” Doesn’t matter. The users are there for one another.
They may be there on hardware and software paid for by you, but the
users are there for one another. </p>

<p> The patterns here, I am
suggesting, both the things to accept and the things to design for,
are givens. Assume these as a kind of social platform, and then you
can start going out and building on top of that the interesting stuff
that I think is going to be the real result of this period of
experimentation with social software. </p>

<p> Thank you very much.</p>

<p><em>
Published June 30, 2003 on the “Networks, Economics, and Culture” mailing list. </em></p>
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title: A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy
url: http://shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html
hash_url: 4d81a301bbb7936312cd16e6674f3ff6

<em>A speech at ETech, April, 2003</em>

<p>
Published July 1, 2003 on the “Networks, Economics, and Culture” mailing list.
<a href="mailto:nec-request@shirky.com?subject=subscribe">Subscribe</a>
to the mailing list.
</p>

<p>
This is a lightly edited version of the keynote I gave on Social
Software at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology conference in Santa
Clara on April 24, 2003
</p>

<hr>

<p>
Good morning, everybody. I want to talk this morning about social
software ...there’s a surprise. I want to talk about a pattern I’ve seen
over and over again in social software that supports large and
long-lived groups. And that pattern is the pattern described in the
title of this talk: “A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy.”

</p>
<p>
In particular, I want to talk about what I now think is one of the core challenges for designing large-scale social software. Let me offer a definition of social software, because it’s a term that’s still fairly amorphous. My definition is fairly simple: It’s software that supports group interaction. I also want to emphasize, although that’s a fairly simple definition, how radical that pattern is. The Internet supports lots of communications patterns, principally point-to-point and two-way, one-to-many outbound, and many-to-many two-way.
</p>
<p>
Prior to the Internet, we had lots of patterns that supported point-to-point two-way. We had telephones, we had the telegraph. We were familiar with technological mediation of those kinds of conversations. Prior to the Internet, we had lots of patterns that supported one-way outbound. I could put something on television or the radio, I could publish a newspaper. We had the printing press. So although the Internet does good things for those patterns, they’re patterns we knew from before.
</p>
<p>
Prior to the Internet, the last technology that had any real effect on the way people sat down and talked together was the table. There was no technological mediation for group conversations. The closest we got was the conference call, which never really worked right -- “Hello? Do I push this button now? Oh, shoot, I just hung up.” It’s not easy to set up a conference call, but it’s very easy to email five of your friends and say “Hey, where are we going for pizza?” So ridiculously easy group forming is really news.
</p>
<p>
We’ve had social software for 40 years at most, dated from the Plato BBS system, and we’ve only had 10 years or so of widespread availability, so we’re just finding out what works. We’re still learning how to make these kinds of things.
</p>
<p>
Now, software that supports group interaction is a fundamentally unsatisfying definition in many ways, because it doesn’t point to a specific class of technology. If you look at email, it obviously supports social patterns, but it can also support a broadcast pattern. If I’m a spammer, I’m going to mail things out to a million people, but they’re not going to be talking to one another, and I’m not going to be talking to them -- spam is email, but it isn’t social. If I’m mailing you, and you’re mailing me back, we’re having point-to-point and two-way conversation, but not one that creates group dynamics.
</p>
<p>
So email doesn’t necessarily support social patterns, group patterns, although it can. Ditto a weblog. If I’m Glenn Reynolds, and I’m publishing something with Comments Off and reaching a million users a month, that’s really broadcast. It’s interesting that I can do it as a single individual, but the pattern is closer to MSNBC than it is to a conversation. If it’s a cluster of half a dozen LiveJournal users, on the other hand, talking about their lives with one another, that’s social. So, again, weblogs are not necessarily social, although they can support social patterns.
</p>
<p>
Nevertheless, I think that definition is the right one, because it recognizes the fundamentally social nature of the problem. Groups are a run-time effect. You cannot specify in advance what the group will do, and so you can’t substantiate in software everything you expect to have happen.
</p>
<p>
Now, there’s a large body of literature saying “We built this software, a group came and used it, and they began to exhibit behaviors that surprised us enormously, so we’ve gone and documented these behaviors.” Over and over and over again this pattern comes up. (I hear Stewart [Brand, of the WELL] laughing.) The WELL is one of those places where this pattern came up over and over again.
</p>
<p>
This talk is in three parts. The best explanation I have found for the kinds of things that happen when groups of humans interact is psychological research that predates the Internet, so the first part is going to be about W.R. Bion’s research, which I will talk about in a moment, research that I believe explains how and why a group is its own worst enemy.
</p>
<p>
The second part is: Why now? What’s going on now that makes this worth thinking about? I think we’re seeing a revolution in social software in the current environment that’s really interesting.
</p>
<p>
And third, I want to identify some things, about half a dozen things, in fact, that I think are core to any software that supports larger, long-lived groups.
</p>
<h2>Part One: How is a group its own worst enemy?</h2>
<p>
So, Part One. The best explanation I have found for the ways in which this pattern establishes itself, the group is its own worst enemy, comes from a book by W.R. Bion called “Experiences in Groups,” written in the middle of the last century.
</p>
<p>
Bion was a psychologist who was doing group therapy with groups of neurotics. (Drawing parallels between that and the Internet is left as an exercise for the reader.) The thing that Bion discovered was that the neurotics in his care were, as a group, conspiring to defeat therapy.
</p>
<p>
There was no overt communication or coordination. But he could see that whenever he would try to do anything that was meant to have an effect, the group would somehow quash it. And he was driving himself crazy, in the colloquial sense of the term, trying to figure out whether or not he should be looking at the situation as: Are these individuals taking action on their own? Or is this a coordinated group?
</p>
<p>
He could never resolve the question, and so he decided that the unresolvability of the question was the answer. To the question: Do you view groups of people as aggregations of individuals or as a cohesive group, his answer was: “Hopelessly committed to both.”
</p>
<p>
He said that humans are fundamentally individual, and also fundamentally social. Every one of us has a kind of rational decision-making mind where we can assess what’s going on and make decisions and act on them. And we are all also able to enter viscerally into emotional bonds with other groups of people that transcend the intellectual aspects of the individual.
</p>
<p>
In fact, Bion was so convinced that this was the right answer that the image he put on the front cover of his book was a Necker cube, one of those cubes that you can look at and make resolve in one of two ways, but you can never see both views of the cube at the same time. So groups can be analyzed both as collections of individuals and having this kind of emotive group experience.
</p>
<p>
Now, it’s pretty easy to see how groups of people who have formal memberships, groups that have been labeled and named like “I am a member of such-and-such a guild in a massively multi-player online role-playing game,” it’s easy to see how you would have some kind of group cohesion there. But Bion’s thesis is that this effect is much, much deeper, and kicks in much, much sooner than many of us expect. So I want to illustrate this with a story, and to illustrate the illustration, I’ll use a story from your life. Because even if I don’t know you, I know what I’m about to describe has happened to you.
</p>
<p>
You are at a party, and you get bored. You say “This isn’t doing it for me anymore. I’d rather be someplace else. I’d rather be home asleep. The people I wanted to talk to aren’t here.” Whatever. The party fails to meet some threshold of interest. And then a really remarkable thing happens: You don’t leave. You make a decision “I don’t like this.” If you were in a bookstore and you said “I’m done,” you’d walk out. If you were in a coffee shop and said “This is boring,” you’d walk out.
</p>
<p>
You’re sitting at a party, you decide “I don’t like this; I don’t want to be here.” And then you don’t leave. That kind of social stickiness is what Bion is talking about.
</p>
<p>
And then, another really remarkable thing happens. Twenty minutes later, one person stands up and gets their coat, and what happens? Suddenly everyone is getting their coats on, all at the same time. Which means that everyone had decided that the party was not for them, and no one had done anything about it, until finally this triggering event let the air out of the group, and everyone kind of felt okay about leaving.
</p>
<p>
This effect is so steady it’s sometimes called the paradox of groups. It’s obvious that there are no groups without members. But what’s less obvious is that there are no members without a group. Because what would you be a member of?
</p>
<p>
So there’s this very complicated moment of a group coming together, where enough individuals, for whatever reason, sort of agree that something worthwhile is happening, and the decision they make at that moment is: This is good and must be protected. And at that moment, even if it’s subconscious, you start getting group effects. And the effects that we’ve seen come up over and over and over again in online communities.
</p>
<p>
Now, Bion decided that what he was watching with the neurotics was the group defending itself against his attempts to make the group do what they said they were supposed to do. The group was convened to get better, this group of people was in therapy to get better. But they were defeating that. And he said, there are some very specific patterns that they’re entering into to defeat the ostensible purpose of the group meeting together. And he detailed three patterns.
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
You go on IRC and you scan the channel list, and you say “Oh, I know what that group is about, because I see the channel label.” And you go into the group, you will also almost invariably find that it’s about sex talk as well. Not necessarily overt. But that is always in scope in human conversations, according to Bion. That is one basic pattern that groups can always devolve into, away from the sophisticated purpose and towards one of these basic purposes.
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
If you want to make it better, there’s a list of things to do. It’s Open Source, right? Just fix it. “No, no, Microsoft and Bill Gates grrrrr ...”, the froth would start coming out. The external enemy -- nothing causes a group to galvanize like an external enemy.
</p>
<p>
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 external enemies.
</p>
<p>
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.”
</p>
<p>
Try having that discussion. On the door of the group it will say: “This is for discussing the works of Tolkein.” Go in and try and have that discussion.
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
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 own members.
</p>
<p>
In the Seventies -- this is a pattern that’s shown up on the network over and over again -- in the Seventies, a BBS called Communitree launched, one of the very early dial-up BBSes. This was launched when people didn’t own computers, institutions owned computers.
</p>
<p>
Communitree was founded on the principles of open access and free dialogue. “Communitree” -- the name just says “California in the Seventies.” And the notion was, effectively, throw off structure and new and beautiful patterns will arise.
</p>
<p>
And, indeed, as anyone who has put discussion software into groups that were previously disconnected has seen, that does happen. Incredible things happen. The early days of Echo, the early days of usenet, the early days of Lucasfilms Habitat, over and over again, you see all this incredible upwelling of people who suddenly are connected in ways they weren’t before.
</p>
<p>
And then, as time sets in, difficulties emerge. In this case, one of the difficulties was occasioned by the fact that one of the institutions that got hold of some modems was a high school. And who, in 1978, was hanging out in the room with the computer and the modems in it, but the boys of that high school. And the boys weren’t terribly interested in sophisticated adult conversation. They were interested in fart jokes. They were interested in salacious talk. They were interested in running amok and posting four-letter words and nyah-nyah-nyah, all over the bulletin board.
</p>
<p>
And the adults who had set up Communitree were horrified, and overrun by these students. The place that was founded on open access had too much open access, too much openness. They couldn’t defend themselves against their own users. The place that was founded on free speech had too much freedom. They had no way of saying “No, that’s not the kind of free speech we meant.”
</p>
<p>
But that was a requirement. In order to defend themselves against being overrun, that was something that they needed to have that they didn’t have, and as a result, they simply shut the site down.
</p>
<p>
Now you could ask whether or not the founders’ inability to defend themselves from this onslaught, from being overrun, was a technical or a social problem. Did the software not allow the problem to be solved? Or was it the social configuration of the group that founded it, where they simply couldn’t stomach the idea of adding censorship to protect their system. But in a way, it doesn’t matter, because technical and social issues are deeply intertwined. There’s no way to completely separate them.
</p>
<p>
What matters is, a group designed this and then was unable, in the context they’d set up, partly a technical and partly a social context, to save it from this attack from within. And attack from within is what matters. Communitree wasn’t shut down by people trying to crash or syn-flood the server. It was shut down by people logging in and posting, which is what the system was designed to allow. The technological pattern of normal use and attack were identical at the machine level, so there was no way to specify technologically what should and shouldn’t happen. Some of the users wanted the system to continue to exist and to provide a forum for discussion. And other of the users, the high school boys, either didn’t care or were actively inimical. And the system provided no way for the former group to defend itself from the latter.
</p>
<p>
Now, this story has been written many times. It’s actually frustrating to see how many times it’s been written. You’d hope that at some point that someone would write it down, and they often do, but what then doesn’t happen is other people don’t read it.
</p>
<p>
The most charitable description of this repeated pattern is “learning from experience.” But learning from experience is the worst possible way to learn something. Learning from experience is one up from remembering. That’s not great. The best way to learn something is when someone else figures it out and tells you: “Don’t go in that swamp. There are alligators in there.”
</p>
<p>
Learning from experience about the alligators is lousy, compared to learning from reading, say. There hasn’t been, unfortunately, in this arena, a lot of learning from reading. And so, lessons from Lucasfilms’ Habitat, written in 1990, reads a lot like Rose Stone’s description of Communitree from 1978.
</p>
<p>
This pattern has happened over and over and over again. Someone built the system, they assumed certain user behaviors. The users came on and exhibited different behaviors. And the people running the system discovered to their horror that the technological and social issues could not in fact be decoupled.
</p>
<p>
There’s a great document called “LambdaMOO Takes a New Direction,” which is about the wizards of LambdaMOO, Pavel Curtis’s Xerox PARC experiment in building a MUD world. And one day the wizards of LambdaMOO announced “We’ve gotten this system up and running, and all these interesting social effects are happening. Henceforth we wizards will only be involved in technological issues. We’re not going to get involved in any of that social stuff.”
</p>
<p>
And then, I think about 18 months later -- I don’t remember the exact gap of time -- they come back. The wizards come back, extremely cranky. And they say: “What we have learned from you whining users is that we can’t do what we said we would do. We cannot separate the technological aspects from the social aspects of running a virtual world.
</p>
<p>
“So we’re back, and we’re taking wizardly fiat back, and we’re going to do things to run the system. We are effectively setting ourselves up as a government, because this place needs a government, because without us, the place was falling apart.”
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<h2>Part Two: Why now? </h2>
<p>
If these things I’m saying have happened so often before, have been happening and been documented and we’ve got psychological literature that predates the Internet, what’s going on now that makes this important?
</p>
<p>
I can’t tell you precisely why, but observationally there is a revolution in social software going on. The number of people writing tools to support or enhance group collaboration or communication is astonishing.
</p>
<p>
The web turned us all into size queens for six or eight years there. It was loosely coupled, it was stateless, it scaled like crazy, and everything became about How big can you get? “How many users does Yahoo have? How many customers does Amazon have? How many readers does MSNBC have?” And the answer could be “Really a lot!” But it could only be really a lot if you didn’t require MSNBC to be answering those readers, and you didn’t require those readers to be talking to one another.
</p>
<p>
The downside of going for size and scale above all else is that the dense, interconnected pattern that drives group conversation and collaboration isn’t supportable at any large scale. Less is different -- small groups of people can engage in kinds of interaction that large groups can’t. And so we blew past that interesting scale of small groups. Larger than a dozen, smaller than a few hundred, where people can actually have these conversational forms that can’t be supported when you’re talking about tens of thousands or millions of users, at least in a single group.
</p>
<p>
We’ve had things like mailing lists and BBSes for a long time, and more recently we’ve had IM, we’ve had these various patterns. And now, all of a sudden, these things are popping up. We’ve gotten weblogs and wikis, and I think, even more importantly, we’re getting platform stuff. We’re getting RSS. We’re getting shared Flash objects. We’re getting ways to quickly build on top of some infrastructure we can take for granted, that lets us try new things very rapidly.
</p>
<p>
I was talking to Stewart Butterfield about the chat application they’re trying here. I said “Hey, how’s that going?” He said: “Well, we only had the idea for it two weeks ago. So this is the launch.” When you can go from “Hey, I’ve got an idea” to “Let’s launch this in front of a few hundred serious geeks and see how it works,” that suggests that there’s a platform there that is letting people do some really interesting things really quickly. It’s not that you couldn’t have built a similar application a couple of years ago, but the cost would have been much higher. And when you lower costs, interesting new kinds of things happen.
</p>
<p>
So the first answer to Why Now? is simply “Because it’s time.” I can’t tell you why it took as long for weblogs to happen as it did, except to say it had absolutely nothing to do with technology. We had every bit of technology we needed to do weblogs the day Mosaic launched the first forms-capable browser. Every single piece of it was right there. Instead, we got Geocities. Why did we get Geocities and not weblogs? We didn’t know what we were doing.
</p>
<p>
One was a bad idea, the other turns out to be a really good idea. It took a long time to figure out that people talking to one another, instead of simply uploading badly-scanned photos of their cats, would be a useful pattern.
</p>
<p>
We got the weblog pattern in around ’96 with Drudge. We got weblog platforms starting in ’98. The thing really was taking off in 2000. By last year, everyone realized: Omigod, this thing is going mainstream, and it’s going to change everything.
</p>
<p>
The vertigo moment for me was when Phil Gyford launched the Pepys weblog, Samuel Pepys’ diaries of the 1660’s turned into a weblog form, with a new post every day from Pepys’ diary. What that said to me was: Phil was asserting, and I now believe, that weblogs will be around for at least 10 years, because that’s how long Pepys kept a diary. And that was this moment of projecting into the future: This is now infrastructure we can take for granted.
</p>
<p>
Why was there an eight-year gap between a forms-capable browser and the Pepys diaries? I don’t know. It just takes a while for people to get used to these ideas.
</p>
<p>
So, first of all, this is a revolution in part because it is a revolution. We’ve internalized the ideas and people are now working with them. Second, the things that people are now building are web-native.
</p>
<p>
When you got social software on the web in the mid-Nineties, a lot of it was: “This is the Giant Lotus Dreadnought, now with New Lightweight Web Interface!” It never felt like the web. It felt like this hulking thing with a little, you know, “Here’s some icons. Don’t look behind the curtain.”
</p>
<p>
A weblog is web-native. It’s the web all the way in. A wiki is a web-native way of hosting collaboration. It’s lightweight, it’s loosely coupled, it’s easy to extend, it’s easy to break down. And it’s not just the surface, like oh, you can just do things in a form. It assumes http is transport. It assumes markup in the coding. RSS is a web-native way of doing syndication. So we’re taking all of these tools and we’re extending them in a way that lets us build new things really quickly.
</p>
<p>
Third, in David Weinberger’s felicitous phrase, we can now start to have a Small Pieces Loosely Joined pattern. It’s really worthwhile to look into what Joi Ito is doing with the Emergent Democracy movement, even if you’re not interested in the themes of emerging democracy. This started because a conversation was going on, and Ito said “I am frustrated. I’m sitting here in Japan, and I know all of these people are having these conversations in real-time with one another. I want to have a group conversation, too. I’ll start a conference call.
</p>
<p>
“But since conference calls are so lousy on their own, I’m going to bring up a chat window at the same time.” And then, in the first meeting, I think it was Pete Kaminski said “Well, I’ve also opened up a wiki, and here’s the URL.” And he posted it in the chat window. And people can start annotating things. People can start adding bookmarks; here are the lists.
</p>
<p>
So, suddenly you’ve got this meeting, which is going on in three separate modes at the same time, two in real-time and one annotated. So you can have the conference call going on, and you know how conference calls are. Either one or two people dominate it, or everyone’s like “Oh, can I -- no, but --”, everyone interrupting and cutting each other off.
</p>
<p>
It’s very difficult to coordinate a conference call, because people can’t see one another, which makes it hard to manage the interrupt logic. In Joi’s conference call, the interrupt logic got moved to the chat room. People would type “Hand,” and the moderator of the conference call will then type “You’re speaking next,” in the chat. So the conference call flowed incredibly smoothly.
</p>
<p>
Meanwhile, in the chat, people are annotating what people are saying. “Oh, that reminds me of So-and-so’s work.” Or “You should look at this URL...you should look at that ISBN number.” In a conference call, to read out a URL, you have to spell it out -- “No, no, no, it’s w w w dot net dash...” In a chat window, you get it and you can click on it right there. You can say, in the conference call or the chat: “Go over to the wiki and look at this.”
</p>
<p>
This is a broadband conference call, but it isn’t a giant thing. It’s just three little pieces of software laid next to each other and held together with a little bit of social glue. This is an incredibly powerful pattern. It’s different from: Let’s take the Lotus juggernaut and add a web front-end.
</p>
<p>
And finally, and this is the thing that I think is the real freakout, is ubiquity. The web has been growing for a long, long time. And so some people had web access, and then lots of people had web access, and then most people had web access.
</p>
<p>
But something different is happening now. In many situations, all people have access to the network. And “all” is a different kind of amount than “most.” “All” lets you start taking things for granted.
</p>
<p>
Now, the Internet isn’t everywhere in the world. It isn’t even everywhere in the developed world. But for some groups of people -- students, people in high-tech offices, knowledge workers -- everyone they work with is online. Everyone they’re friends with is online. Everyone in their family is online.
</p>
<p>
And this pattern of ubiquity lets you start taking this for granted. Bill Joy once said “My method is to look at something that seems like a good idea and assume it’s true.” We’re starting to see software that simply assumes that all offline groups will have an online component, no matter what.
</p>
<p>
It is now possible for every grouping, from a Girl Scout troop on up, to have an online component, and for it to be lightweight and easy to manage. And that’s a different kind of thing than the old pattern of “online community.” I have this image of two hula hoops, the old two-hula hoop world, where my real life is over here, and my online life is over there, and there wasn’t much overlap between them. If the hula hoops are swung together, and everyone who’s offline is also online, at least from my point of view, that’s a different kind of pattern.
</p>
<p>
There’s a second kind of ubiquity, which is the kind we’re enjoying here thanks to Wifi. If you assume whenever a group of people are gathered together, that they can be both face to face and online at the same time, you can start to do different kinds of things. I now don’t run a meeting without either having a chat room or a wiki up and running. Three weeks ago I ran a meeting for the Library of Congress. We had a wiki, set up by Socialtext, to capture a large and very dense amount of technical information on long-term digital preservation.
</p>
<p>
The people who organized the meeting had never used a wiki before, and now the Library of Congress is talking as if they always had a wiki for their meetings, and are assuming it’s going to be at the next meeting as well -- the wiki went from novel to normal in a couple of days.
</p>
<p>
It really quickly becomes an assumption that a group can do things like “Oh, I took my PowerPoint slides, I showed them, and then I dumped them into the wiki. So now you can get at them.” It becomes a sort of shared repository for group memory. This is new. These kinds of ubiquity, both everyone is online, and everyone who’s in a room can be online together at the same time, can lead to new patterns.
</p>
<h2>Part Three: What can we take for granted?</h2>
<p>
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?
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<h2>Three Things to Accept</h2>
<ol>
<li>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
</li>
<li>
<p>
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.”
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
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.
</p>
<p>
<em>
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.
</em>
</p>
<p> 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.” </p>
<p> 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.
</p>
</li>
<li>
<p>
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. </p>
<p> 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. </p>
<p> 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. </p>
<p> 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. </p>
<p> 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. </p>
<p> 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.
</p>
</li>
</ol>

<p> Now, when I say these are three things you have to accept, I
mean you <i>have to</i> 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.
</p>
<p> 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.” </p>
<p> 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. </p>

<h2>Four Things to Design For</h2>

<ol>
<li>
<p>If you were going to build a piece of
social software to support large and long-lived groups, what would you
design for? The first thing you would design for is handles the user
can invest in. </p>
<p> Now, I say “handles,” because I don’t want to
say “identity,” because identity has suddenly become one of those
ideas where, when you pull on the little thread you want, this big bag
of stuff comes along with it. Identity is such a hot-button issue
now, but for the lightweight stuff required for social software, its
really just a handle that matters. </p>
<p> It’s pretty widely
understood that anonymity doesn’t work well in group settings, because
“who said what when” is the minimum requirement for having a
conversation. What’s less well understood is that weak pseudonymity
doesn’t work well, either. Because I need to associate who’s saying
something to me now with previous conversations. </p>
<p> The world’s
best reputation management system is right here, in the brain. And
actually, it’s right here, in the back, in the emotional part of the
brain. Almost all the work being done on reputation systems today is
either trivial or useless or both, because reputations aren’t
linearizable, and they’re not portable. </p>
<p> There are people who
cheat on their spouse but not at cards, and vice versa, and both and
neither. Reputation is not necessarily portable from one situation to
another, and it’s not easily expressed. </p>
<p> eBay has done us all
an enormous disservice, because eBay works in non-iterated atomic
transactions, which are the opposite of social situations. eBay’s
reputation system works incredibly well, because it starts with a
linearizable transaction -- “How much money for how many Smurfs?” --
and turns that into a metric that’s equally linear. </p>
<p> That
doesn’t work well in social situations. If you want a good reputation
system, just let me remember who you are. And if you do me a favor,
I’ll remember it. And I won’t store it in the front of my brain, I’ll
store it here, in the back. I’ll just get a good feeling next time I
get email from you; I won’t even remember why. And if you do me a
disservice and I get email from you, my temples will start to throb,
and I won’t even remember why. If you give users a way of remembering
one another, reputation will happen, and that requires nothing more
than simple and somewhat persistent handles. </p>
<p> Users have to be
able to identify themselves and there has to be a penalty for
switching handles. The penalty for switching doesn’t have to be total.
But if I change my handle on the system, I have to lose some kind of
reputation or some kind of context. This keeps the system functioning.
</p>
<p> Now, this pulls against the sense that we’ve had since the
early psychological writings about the Internet. “Oh, on the Internet
we’re all going to be changing identities and genders like we change
our socks.” </p>
<p> And you see things like the Kaycee Nicole story,
where a woman in Kansas pretended to be a high school student, and
then because the invented high school student’s friends got so
emotionally involved, she then tried to kill the Kaycee Nicole persona
off. “Oh, she’s got cancer and she’s dying and it’s all very tragic.”
And of course, everyone wanted to fly to meet her. So then she sort
of panicked and vanished. And a bunch of places on the Internet,
particularly the MetaFilter community, rose up to find out what was
going on, and uncovered the hoax. It was sort of a distributed
detective movement. </p>
<p> Now a number of people point to this and
say “See, I told you about that identity thing!” But the Kaycee
Nicole story is this: changing your identity is really weird. And
when the community understands that you’ve been doing it and you’re
faking, that is seen as a huge and violent transgression. And they
will expend an astonishing amount of energy to find you and punish
you. So identity is much less slippery than the early literature
would lead us to believe. </p>
</li>
<li>
<p>Second, you have to design a
way for there to be members in good standing. Have to design some way
in which good works get recognized. The minimal way is, posts appear
with identity. You can do more sophisticated things like having
formal karma or “member since.” </p>
<p> I’m on the fence about
whether or not this is a design or accepting. Because in a way I
think members in good standing will rise. But more and more of the
systems I’m seeing launching these days are having some kind of
additional accretion so you can tell how much involvement members have
with the system. </p>
<p> There’s an interesting pattern I’m seeing
among the music-sharing group that operates between Tokyo and Hong
Kong. They operate on a mailing list, which they set up for
themselves. But when they’re trading music, what they’re doing is,
they’re FedExing one another 180-gig hard-drives. So you’re getting
.wav files and not MP3s, and you’re getting them in bulk. </p>
<p>
Now, you can imagine that such a system might be a target for
organizations that would frown on this activity. So when you join
that group, your user name is appended with the user name of the
person who is your sponsor. You can’t get in without your name being
linked to someone else. You can see immediately the reputational
effects going on there, just from linking two handles. </p>
<p> So in
that system, you become a member in good standing when your sponsor
link goes away and you’re there on your own report. If, on the other
hand, you defect, not only are you booted, but your sponsor is booted.
There are lots and lots of lightweight ways to accept and work with
the idea of member in good standing. </p>
</li>
<li>
<p>Three, you need
barriers to participation. This is one of the things that killed
Usenet. You have to have some cost to either join or participate, if
not at the lowest level, then at higher levels. There needs to be
some kind of segmentation of capabilities. </p>
<p> Now, the
segmentation can be total -- you’re in or you’re out, as with the
music group I just listed. Or it can be partial -- anyone can read
Slashdot, anonymous cowards can post, non-anonymous cowards can post
with a higher rating. But to moderate, you really have to have been
around for a while. </p>
<p> It has to be hard to do at least some
things on the system for some users, or the core group will not have
the tools that they need to defend themselves. </p>
<p> Now, this
pulls against the cardinal virtue of ease of use. But ease of use is
wrong. Ease of use is the wrong way to look at the situation, because
you’ve got the Necker cube flipped in the wrong direction. The user
of social software is the group, not the individual. </p>
<p> I think
we’ve all been to meetings where everyone had a really good time,
we’re all talking to one another and telling jokes and laughing, and
it was a great meeting, except we got nothing done. Everyone was
amusing themselves so much that the group’s goal was defeated by the
individual interventions. </p>
<p> The user of social software is the
group, and ease of use should be for the group. If the ease of use is
only calculated from the user’s point of view, it will be difficult to
defend the group from the “group is its own worst enemy” style attacks
from within. </p>
</li>
<li>
<p>And, finally, you have to find a way to
spare the group from scale. Scale alone kills conversations, because
conversations require dense two-way conversations. In conversational
contexts, Metcalfe’s law is a drag. The fact that the amount of
two-way connections you have to support goes up with the square of the
users means that the density of conversation falls off very fast as
the system scales even a little bit. You have to have some way to let
users hang onto the less is more pattern, in order to keep associated
with one another. </p>
<p> This is an inverse value to scale question.
Think about your Rolodex. A thousand contacts, maybe 150 people you
can call friends, 30 people you can call close friends, two or three
people you’d donate a kidney to. The value is inverse to the size of
the group. And you have to find some way to protect the group within
the context of those effects. </p>
<p> Sometimes you can do soft
forking. Live Journal does the best soft forking of any software I’ve
ever seen, where the concepts of “you” and “your group” are pretty
much intertwingled. The average size of a Live Journal group is about
a dozen people. And the median size is around five. </p>
<p> But each
user is a little bit connected to other such clusters, through their
friends, and so while the clusters are real, they’re not completely
bounded -- there’s a soft overlap which means that though most users
participate in small groups, most of the half-million LiveJournal
users are connected to one another through some short chain. </p>
<p>
IRC channels and mailing lists are self-moderating with scale, because
as the signal to noise ratio gets worse, people start to drop off,
until it gets better, so people join, and so it gets worse. You get
these sort of oscillating patterns. But it’s self-correcting.
</p>
<p> And then my favorite pattern is from MetaFilter, which is:
When we start seeing effects of scale, we shut off the new user page.
“Someone mentions us in the press and how great we are? Bye!” That’s
a way of raising the bar, that’s creating a threshold of
participation. And anyone who bookmarks that page and says “You know,
I really want to be in there; maybe I’ll go back later,” that’s the
kind of user MeFi wants to have. </p>
<p> You have to find some way to
protect your own users from scale. This doesn’t mean the scale of the
whole system can’t grow. But you can’t try to make the system large
by taking individual conversations and blowing them up like a balloon;
human interaction, many to many interaction, doesn’t blow up like a
balloon. It either dissipates, or turns into broadcast, or collapses.
So plan for dealing with scale in advance, because it’s going to
happen anyway. </p>
</li>
</ol>

<h2>Conclusion</h2>
<p> Now, those four
things are of course necessary but not sufficient conditions. I
propose them more as a platform for building the interesting
differences off. There are lots and lots and lots of other effects
that make different bits of software interesting enough that you would
want to keep more than one kind of pattern around. But those are
commonalities I’m seeing across a range of social software for large
and long-lived groups. </p>
<p> In addition, you can do all sorts of
things with explicit clustering, whether it’s guilds in massively
multi-player games, or communities on Live Journal or what have you.
You can do things with conversational artifacts, where the group
participation leaves behind some record. The Wikipedia right now, the
group collaborated online encyclopedia is the most interesting
conversational artifact I know of, where product is a result of
process. Rather than “We’re specifically going to get together and
create this presentation” it’s just “What’s left is a record of what
we said.” </p>
<p> There are all these things, and of course they
differ platform to platform. But there is this, I believe, common
core of things that will happen whether you plan for them or not, and
things you should plan for, that I think are invariant across large
communal software. </p>
<p> Writing social software is hard. And, as
I said, the act of writing social software is more like the work of an
economist or a political scientist. And the act of hosting social
software, the relationship of someone who hosts it is more like a
relationship of landlords to tenants than owners to boxes in a
warehouse. </p>
<p> The people using your software, even if you own it
and pay for it, have rights and will behave as if they have rights.
And if you abrogate those rights, you’ll hear about it very quickly.
</p>
<p> That’s part of the problem that the John Hegel theory of
community -- community leads to content, which leads to commerce --
never worked. Because lo and behold, no matter who came onto the
Clairol chat boards, they sometimes wanted to talk about things that
weren’t Clairol products. </p>
<p> “But we paid for this! This is the
Clairol site!” Doesn’t matter. The users are there for one another.
They may be there on hardware and software paid for by you, but the
users are there for one another. </p>
<p> The patterns here, I am
suggesting, both the things to accept and the things to design for,
are givens. Assume these as a kind of social platform, and then you
can start going out and building on top of that the interesting stuff
that I think is going to be the real result of this period of
experimentation with social software. </p>
<p> Thank you very much.</p>
<p><em>
Published June 30, 2003 on the “Networks, Economics, and Culture” mailing list. </em></p>

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<article>
<h1>The Tyranny of Stuctureless</h1>
<h2><a href="https://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm">Source originale du contenu</a></h2>
<p><em>The
earliest version of this article was given as a talk at a conference
called by the Southern Female Rights Union, held in Beulah, Mississippi
in May 1970. It was written up for <u>Notes from the Third Year</u> (1971),
but the editors did not use it. It was then submitted to several movement
publications, but only one asked permission to publish it; others did
so without permission. The first official place of publication was
in Vol. 2, No. 1 of <u>The Second Wave</u> (1972). This early version
in movement publications was authored by Joreen. Different versions
were published in the <u>Berkeley Journal of Sociology</u>, Vol. 17,
1972-73, pp. 151-165, and <u>Ms.</u> magazine, July 1973, pp. 76-78,
86-89, authored by Jo Freeman. This piece spread all over the world.
Numerous people have edited, reprinted, cut, and translated “Tyranny” for
magazines, books and web sites, usually without the permission or knowledge
of the author. The version below is a blend of the three cited here.
</em></p>

<hr>

<p>During
the years in which the women’s liberation movement has been taking shape,
a great emphasis has been placed on what are called leaderless, structureless
groups as the main -- if not sole -- organizational form of the movement.
The source of this idea was a natural reaction against the over-structured
society in which most of us found ourselves, and the inevitable control
this gave others over our lives, and the continual elitism of the Left
and similar groups among those who were supposedly fighting this overstructuredness.
</p>

<p>The
idea of “structurelessness,” however, has moved from a healthy
counter to those tendencies to becoming a goddess in its own right. The
idea is as little examined as the term is much used, but it has become
an intrinsic and unquestioned part of women’s liberation ideology. For
the early development of the movement this did not much matter. It early
defined its main goal, and its main method, as consciousness-raising,
and the “structureless” rap group was an excellent means to
this end. The looseness and informality of it encouraged participation
in discussion, and its often supportive atmosphere elicited personal insight.
If nothing more concrete than personal insight ever resulted from these
groups, that did not much matter, because their purpose did not really
extend beyond this.
</p>

<p>The
basic problems didn’t appear until individual rap groups exhausted
the virtues of consciousness-raising and decided they wanted to do
something more specific. At this point they usually foundered because
most groups were unwilling to change their structure when they changed
their tasks. Women had thoroughly accepted the idea of “structurelessness” without
realizing the limitations of its uses. People would try to use the “structureless” group
and the informal conference for purposes for which they were unsuitable
out of a blind belief that no other means could possibly be anything
but oppressive.
</p>

<p>If
the movement is to grow beyond these elementary stages of development,
it will have to disabuse itself of some of its prejudices about organization
and structure. There is nothing inherently bad about either of these.
They can be and often are misused, but to reject them out of hand because
they are misused is to deny ourselves the necessary tools to further
development. We need to understand why “structurelessness” does
not work.</p>

<h2>FORMAL AND INFORMAL STRUCTURES</h2>

<p>Contrary
to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless
group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for
any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in
some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it
may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the
members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities,
personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that
we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds
makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any
basis whatsoever could we approximate structurelessness -- and that is
not the nature of a human group.
</p>

<p>This
means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive,
as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free”
social science, or a “free” economy. A “laissez faire”
group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the
idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned
hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because
the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation
of informal structures, only formal ones. Similarly “laissez faire”
philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing
control over wages, prices, and distribution of goods; it only prevented
the government from doing so. Thus structurelessness becomes a way of
masking power, and within the women’s movement is usually most strongly
advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious
of their power or not). As long as the structure of the group is informal,
the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness
of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know
the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion,
or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which
they are not quite aware.
</p>

<p>For
everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and
to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not
implicit. The rules of decision-making must be open and available to
everyone, and this can happen only if they are formalized. This is
not to say that formalization of a structure of a group will destroy
the informal structure. It usually doesn’t. But it does hinder the
informal structure from having predominant control and make available
some means of attacking it if the people involved are not at least
responsible to the needs of the group at large. “Structurelessness” is
organizationally impossible. We cannot decide whether to have a structured
or structureless group, only whether or not to have a formally structured
one. Therefore the word will not be used any longer except to refer
to the idea it represents. Unstructured will refer to those groups
which have not been deliberately structured in a particular manner.
Structured will refer to those which have. A Structured group always
has formal structure, and may also have an informal, or covert, structure.
It is this informal structure, particularly in Unstructured groups,
which forms the basis for elites.</p>

<h2>THE NATURE OF ELITISM</h2>

<p>“Elitist”
is probably the most abused word in the women’s liberation movement. It
is used as frequently, and for the same reasons, as “pinko”
was used in the fifties. It is rarely used correctly. Within the movement
it commonly refers to individuals, though the personal characteristics
and activities of those to whom it is directed may differ widely: An individual,
as an individual can never be an elitist, because the only proper application
of the term “elite” is to groups. Any individual, regardless
of how well-known that person may be, can never be an elite.
</p>

<p>Correctly,
an elite refers to a small group of people who have power over a larger
group of which they are part, usually without direct responsibility to
that larger group, and often without their knowledge or consent. A person
becomes an elitist by being part of, or advocating the rule by, such a
small group, whether or not that individual is well known or not known
at all. Notoriety is not a definition of an elitist. The most insidious
elites are usually run by people not known to the larger public at all.
Intelligent elitists are usually smart enough not to allow themselves
to become well known; when they become known, they are watched, and the
mask over their power is no longer firmly lodged.
</p>

<p>Elites
are not conspiracies. Very seldom does a small group of people get together
and deliberately try to take over a larger group for its own ends. Elites
are nothing more, and nothing less, than groups of friends who also happen
to participate in the same political activities. They would probably maintain
their friendship whether or not they were involved in political activities;
they would probably be involved in political activities whether or not
they maintained their friendships. It is the coincidence of these two
phenomena which creates elites in any group and makes them so difficult
to break.
</p>

<p>These
friendship groups function as networks of communication outside any regular
channels for such communication that may have been set up by a group.
If no channels are set up, they function as the only networks of communication.
Because people are friends, because they usually share the same values
and orientations, because they talk to each other socially and consult
with each other when common decisions have to be made, the people involved
in these networks have more power in the group than those who don’t. And
it is a rare group that does not establish some informal networks of communication
through the friends that are made in it.
</p>

<p>Some
groups, depending on their size, may have more than one such informal
communications network. Networks may even overlap. When only one such
network exists, it is the elite of an otherwise Unstructured group, whether
the participants in it want to be elitists or not. If it is the only such
network in a Structured group it may or may not be an elite depending
on its composition and the nature of the formal Structure. If there are
two or more such networks of friends, they may compete for power within
the group, thus forming factions, or one may deliberately opt out of the
competition, leaving the other as the elite. In a Structured group, two
or more such friendship networks usually compete with each other for formal
power. This is often the healthiest situation, as the other members are
in a position to arbitrate between the two competitors for power and thus
to make demands on those to whom they give their temporary allegiance.
</p>

<p>The
inevitably elitist and exclusive nature of informal communication networks
of friends is neither a new phenomenon characteristic of the women’s movement
nor a phenomenon new to women. Such informal relationships have excluded
women for centuries from participating in integrated groups of which they
were a part. In any profession or organization these networks have created
the “locker room” mentality and the “old school” ties
which have effectively prevented women as a group (as well as some men
individually) from having equal access to the sources of power or social
reward. Much of the energy of past women’s movements has been directed
to having the structures of decision-making and the selection processes
formalized so that the exclusion of women could be confronted directly.
As we well know, these efforts have not prevented the informal male-only
networks from discriminating against women, but they have made it more
difficult.
</p>

<p>Because
elites are informal does not mean they are invisible. At any small group
meeting anyone with a sharp eye and an acute ear can tell who is influencing
whom. The members of a friendship group will relate more to each other
than to other people. They listen more attentively, and interrupt less;
they repeat each other’s points and give in amiably; they tend to ignore
or grapple with the “outs” whose approval is not necessary for
making a decision. But it is necessary for the “outs” to stay
on good terms with the “ins.” Of course the lines are not as
sharp as I have drawn them. They are nuances of interaction, not prewritten
scripts. But they are discernible, and they do have their effect. Once
one knows with whom it is important to check before a decision is made,
and whose approval is the stamp of acceptance, one knows who is running
things.
</p>

<p>Since
movement groups have made no concrete decisions about who shall exercise
power within them, many different criteria are used around the country.
Most criteria are along the lines of traditional female characteristics.
For instance, in the early days of the movement, marriage was usually
a prerequisite for participation in the informal elite. As women have
been traditionally taught, married women relate primarily to each other,
and look upon single women as too threatening to have as close friends.
In many cities, this criterion was further refined to include only those
women married to New Left men. This standard had more than tradition behind
it, however, because New Left men often had access to resources needed
by the movement -- such as mailing lists, printing presses, contacts,
and information -- and women were used to getting what they needed through
men rather than independently. As the movement has charged through time,
marriage has become a less universal criterion for effective participation,
but all informal elites establish standards by which only women who possess
certain material or personal characteristics may join. They frequently
include: middle-class background (despite all the rhetoric about relating
to the working class); being married; not being married but living with
someone; being or pretending to be a lesbian; being between the ages of
twenty and thirty; being college educated or at least having some college
background; being “hip”; not being too “hip”; holding
a certain political line or identification as a “radical”; having
children or at least liking them; not having children; having certain
“feminine” personality characteristics such as being “nice”;
dressing right (whether in the traditional style or the antitraditional
style); etc. There are also some characteristics which will almost always
tag one as a “deviant” who should not be related to. They include:
being too old; working full time, particularly if one is actively committed
to a “career”; not being “nice”; and being avowedly
single (i.e., neither actively heterosexual nor homosexual).
</p>

<p>Other
criteria could be included, but they all have common themes. The characteristics
prerequisite for participating in the informal elites of the movement,
and thus for exercising power, concern one’s background, personality,
or allocation of time. They do not include one’s competence, dedication
to feminism, talents, or potential contribution to the movement. The former
are the criteria one usually uses in determining one’s friends. The latter
are what any movement or organization has to use if it is going to be
politically effective.
</p>

<p>The
criteria of participation may differ from group to group, but the means
of becoming a member of the informal elite if one meets those criteria
are pretty much the same. The only main difference depends on whether
one is in a group from the beginning, or joins it after it has begun.
If involved from the beginning it is important to have as many of one’s
personal friends as possible also join. If no one knows anyone else very
well, then one must deliberately form friendships with a select number
and establish the informal interaction patterns crucial to the creation
of an informal structure. Once the informal patterns are formed they act
to maintain themselves, and one of the most successful tactics of maintenance
is to continuously recruit new people who “fit in.” One joins
such an elite much the same way one pledges a sorority. If perceived as
a potential addition, one is “rushed” by the members of the
informal structure and eventually either dropped or initiated. If the
sorority is not politically aware enough to actively engage in this process
itself it can be started by the outsider pretty much the same way one
joins any private club. Find a sponsor, i.e., pick some member of the
elite who appears to be well respected within it, and actively cultivate
that person’s friendship. Eventually, she will most likely bring you into
the inner circle.
</p>

<p>All
of these procedures take time. So if one works full time or has a similar
major commitment, it is usually impossible to join simply because there
are not enough hours left to go to all the meetings and cultivate the
personal relationship necessary to have a voice in the decision-making.
That is why formal structures of decision making are a boon to the
overworked person. Having an established process for decision-making
ensures that everyone can participate in it to some extent.
</p>

<p>Although
this dissection of the process of elite formation within small groups
has been critical in perspective, it is not made in the belief that
these informal structures are inevitably bad -- merely inevitable.
All groups create informal structures as a result of interaction patterns
among the members of the group. Such informal structures can do very
useful things But only Unstructured groups are totally governed by
them. When informal elites are combined with a myth of “structurelessness,” there
can be no attempt to put limits on the use of power. It becomes capricious.
</p>

<p>This
has two potentially negative consequences of which we should be aware.
The first is that the informal structure of decision-making will be
much like a sorority -- one in which people listen to others because
they like them and not because they say significant things. As long
as the movement does not do significant things this does not much matter.
But if its development is not to be arrested at this preliminary stage,
it will have to alter this trend. The second is that informal structures
have no obligation to be responsible to the group at large. Their power
was not given to them; it cannot be taken away. Their influence is
not based on what they do for the group; therefore they cannot be directly
influenced by the group. This does not necessarily make informal structures
irresponsible. Those who are concerned with maintaining their influence
will usually try to be responsible. The group simply cannot compel
such responsibility; it is dependent on the interests of the elite.</p>

<h2>THE “STAR” SYSTEM</h2>

<p>The
idea of “structurelessness” has created the “star”
system. We live in a society which expects political groups to make decisions
and to select people to articulate those decisions to the public at large.
The press and the public do not know how to listen seriously to individual
women as women; they want to know how the group feels. Only three techniques
have ever been developed for establishing mass group opinion: the vote
or referendum, the public opinion survey questionnaire, and the selection
of group spokespeople at an appropriate meeting. The women’s liberation
movement has used none of these to communicate with the public. Neither
the movement as a whole nor most of the multitudinous groups within it
have established a means of explaining their position on various issues.
But the public is conditioned to look for spokespeople.
</p>

<p>While
it has consciously not chosen spokespeople, the movement has thrown up
many women who have caught the public eye for varying reasons. These women
represent no particular group or established opinion; they know this and
usually say so. But because there are no official spokespeople nor any
decision-making body that the press can query when it wants to know the
movement’s position on a subject, these women are perceived as the spokespeople.
Thus, whether they want to or not, whether the movement likes it or not,
women of public note are put in the role of spokespeople by default.
</p>

<p>This
is one main source of the ire that is often felt toward the women who
are labeled “stars.” Because they were not selected by the women
in the movement to represent the movement’s views, they are resented when
the press presumes that they speak for the movement. But as long as the
movement does not select its own spokeswomen, such women will be placed
in that role by the press and the public, regardless of their own desires.
</p>

<p>This
has several negative consequences for both the movement and the women
labeled “stars.” First, because the movement didn’t put them
in the role of spokesperson, the movement cannot remove them. The press
put them there and only the press can choose not to listen. The press
will continue to look to “stars” as spokeswomen as long as it
has no official alternatives to go to for authoritative statements from
the movement. The movement has no control in the selection of its representatives
to the public as long as it believes that it should have no representatives
at all. Second, women put in this position often find themselves viciously
attacked by their sisters. This achieves nothing for the movement and
is painfully destructive to the individuals involved. Such attacks only
result in either the woman leaving the movement entirely-often bitterly
alienated -- or in her ceasing to feel responsible to her “sisters.”
She may maintain some loyalty to the movement, vaguely defined, but she
is no longer susceptible to pressures from other women in it. One cannot
feel responsible to people who have been the source of such pain without
being a masochist, and these women are usually too strong to bow to that
kind of personal pressure. Thus the backlash to the “star” system
in effect encourages the very kind of individualistic nonresponsibility
that the movement condemns. By purging a sister as a “star,”
the movement loses whatever control it may have had over the person who
then becomes free to commit all of the individualistic sins of which she
has been accused.</p>

<h2>POLITICAL IMPOTENCE</h2>

<p>Unstructured
groups may be very effective in getting women to talk about their lives;
they aren’t very good for getting things done. It is when people get tired
of “just talking” and want to do something more that the groups
flounder, unless they change the nature of their operation. Occasionally,
the developed informal structure of the group coincides with an available
need that the group can fill in such a way as to give the appearance that
an Unstructured group “works.” That is, the group has fortuitously
developed precisely the kind of structure best suited for engaging in
a particular project.
</p>

<p>While working in this kind of group is a very heady experience, it is also rare
and very hard to replicate. There are almost inevitably four conditions
found in such a group:
</p>

<ol>
<li><em> It is task oriented</em>. Its function is very narrow and very specific,
like putting on a conference or putting out a newspaper. It is the task
that basically structures the group. The task determines what needs to
be done and when it needs to be done. It provides a guide by which people
can judge their actions and make plans for future activity.
</li>
<li><em>It is relatively small and homogeneous</em>. Homogeneity is necessary
to insure that participants have a “common language” for interaction.
People from widely different backgrounds may provide richness to a consciousness-raising
group where each can learn from the others’ experience, but too great
a diversity among members of a task-oriented group means only that they
continually misunderstand each other. Such diverse people interpret words
and actions differently. They have different expectations about each other’s
behavior and judge the results according to different criteria. If everyone
knows everyone else well enough to understand the nuances, these can be
accommodated. Usually, they only lead to confusion and endless hours spent
straightening out conflicts no one ever thought would arise.
</li>
<li><em>There is a high degree of communication</em>. Information must be passed
on to everyone, opinions checked, work divided up, and participation assured
in the relevant decisions. This is only possible if the group is small
and people practically live together for the most crucial phases of the
task. Needless to say, the number of interactions necessary to involve
everybody increases geometrically with the number of participants. This
inevitably limits group participants to about five, or excludes some from
some of the decisions. Successful groups can be as large as 10 or 15,
but only when they are in fact composed of several smaller subgroups which
perform specific parts of the task, and whose members overlap with each
other so that knowledge of what the different subgroups are doing can
be passed around easily.
</li>
<li><em>There is a low degree of skill specialization</em>. Not everyone has
to be able to do everything, but everything must be able to be done by
more than one person. Thus no one is indispensable. To a certain extent,
people become interchangeable parts.
</li>
</ol>

<p>While
these conditions can occur serendipitously in small groups, this is not
possible in large ones. Consequently, because the larger movement in most
cities is as unstructured as individual rap groups, it is not too much
more effective than the separate groups at specific tasks. The informal
structure is rarely together enough or in touch enough with the people
to be able to operate effectively. So the movement generates much motion
and few results. Unfortunately, the consequences of all this motion are
not as innocuous as the results’ and their victim is the movement itself.
</p>

<p>Some
groups have formed themselves into local action projects if they do not
involve many people and work on a small scale. But this form restricts
movement activity to the local level; it cannot be done on the regional
or national. Also, to function well the groups must usually pare themselves
down to that informal group of friends who were running things in the
first place. This excludes many women from participating. As long as the
only way women can participate in the movement is through membership in
a small group, the nongregarious are at a distinct disadvantage. As long
as friendship groups are the main means of organizational activity, elitism
becomes institutionalized.
</p>

<p>For
those groups which cannot find a local project to which to devote themselves,
the mere act of staying together becomes the reason for their staying
together. When a group has no specific task (and consciousness raising
is a task), the people in it turn their energies to controlling others
in the group. This is not done so much out of a malicious desire to manipulate
others (though sometimes it is) as out of a lack of anything better to
do with their talents. Able people with time on their hands and a need
to justify their coming together put their efforts into personal control,
and spend their time criticizing the personalities of the other members
in the group. Infighting and personal power games rule the day. When a
group is involved in a task, people learn to get along with others as
they are and to subsume personal dislikes for the sake of the larger goal.
There are limits placed on the compulsion to remold every person in our
image of what they should be.
</p>

<p>The
end of consciousness-raising leaves people with no place to go, and
the lack of structure leaves them with no way of getting there. The
women the movement either turn in on themselves and their sisters or
seek other alternatives of action. There are few that are available.
Some women just “do their own thing.” This can lead to a
great deal of individual creativity, much of which is useful for the
movement, but it is not a viable alternative for most women and certainly
does not foster a spirit of cooperative group effort. Other women drift
out of the movement entirely because they don’t want to develop an
individual project and they have found no way of discovering, joining,
or starting group projects that interest them.
</p>

<p>Many
turn to other political organizations to give them the kind of structured,