The Null Device

A Group Is Its Own Enemy

A fascinating article from Clay Shirky on why A Group Is Its Own Enemy, exploring some of the patterns of human behaviour in groups (in the context of "social software").

The article makes some interesting points: there are 3 patterns which pop up in groups: sex talk/flirting, vilification of external enemies (e.g., Penguinheads railing against Microsoft, or indeed left-wing and right-wing bloggers accusing each other of eating babies) and quasi-religious veneration of figures beyond criticism (i.e., try criticising part of an author's work on a group full of his fans and you'll get flamed for your diligence). Also, anarchy doesn't scale, and neither does naïve direct democracy; any group beyond the limits of a small social group (which Shirky doesn't mention, but which Malcolm Gladwell places at 150 people in The Tipping Point) needs a constitution, some form of hierarchy with different strata of participation and decidedly undemocratic and perhaps authoritarian powers for the core group (the "Listmoms" of a certain mailing list I'm on would be one example), in the interest of defending the group and its culture. Examples of the failure of egalitarian direct democracy include a 1970s bulletin board having been shut down after becoming infested with high-schoolers, and a campaign by Chinese Internet users to vote down the creation of soc.culture.tibet:

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.

Shirky also makes the point that users should have identities (or "handles") they can invest reputation in, that there be some sort of member-in-good-standing mechanism, and that there be barriers to participation. And he knows; having been on Usenet since the early nineties, he watched it implode under the influx of The September That Never Ended.

All in all, an article well worth reading, whether you're a social-software/smart-mobs digerato, an anarchist/libertarian social theorist, a scifi writer looking to build a plausible fictional utopia, or just a student of human psychology. (via Graham)

There are no comments yet on "A Group Is Its Own Enemy"

Want to say something? Do so here.

Post pseudonymously

Display name:
To prove that you are not a bot, please enter the text in the image into the field below it.

Your Comment:

Please keep comments on topic and to the point. Inappropriate comments may be deleted.

Note that markup is stripped from comments; URLs will be automatically converted into links.