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Community and Groups Rules of Existence and Success

September 13, 2009
Clay Shirky
Image via Wikipedia

I was reading the fabulous article Asher Idan posted on Facebook about group dynamics, specifically examining group dynamics and how sometimes group can be its worst enemy despite having a mutual goal. The classic article was written by Clay Shirky

One of the interesting stories described in the article is the sad case of Communitree, a 1970’s BBS based community tool that was one of the first out there to facilitate a conversation online, rather than assemble messages. Communitree was a community based on open and free access and dialogue, that was demolished and closed because freedom of speech ran itself over with a couple of students that took over the community to fill it with meaningless content. The story of communitree is one to exemplify why Community Guidelines and rules are so needed:

The story of the life and death of the first CommuniTree tells us how and why the later virtual community systems were designed. The original CommuniTree was designed with the idea that the community it facilitated would be completely free. Anyone could enter any sort of message. In fact, censorship was completely prohibited at the level of the code, of the Tree’s program.,, And that’s how, back at the beginning of virtual time, the first virtual community left the Magic Garden and entered the “real” virtual world in which good had to find ways to coexist with evil. (from the

Shirky speaks of 2 core processes a group needs to go through: formation of rules and then breaking of them in order to define the agreed structure. Formation of a group, especially in its initial stages,  includes a battle with an enemy to define rules of operation. And rules have to be enforced to maintain the health and existence of the community, the group. Secondly,  identifying and actioning against a group enemy strengthens the group. A known strategy to invigorate conversation in the online papers comments section is for an internal to post something to go against whoever is identified as the core group that reads the article, to generate comments.

The second claim is about how separate can the technical remain from the social, if at all:

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.” 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. “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.”

As indicated,  the technological is intertwined with the social – these two cannot be separated. Who defines who, that’s another question, and most would argue it’s the social that defines the technical: technology is always already there, it’s our preparedness to absorb is the one to allow sites like Facebook to happen. That is also why the technical cannot separate itself from the social.

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

The question still remains, and the answer is still valid. What is the magic ingredient to make a group successful? I have seen many groups come to life, become extremely successful and used as a home to many people. Some dies, some continue. We still don’t have a magic formula, but as Clay says – we do know of some of the ingredients, such as the inseparable nature of technical and social, the fact a group is composed of individuals but also the group’s entity as trumping individual wishes.

what are the ingredients you have seen as successful to a group?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 15, 2009 4:52 pm
    here you can find the begining of an answer to some of Shirky’s deep questions Concerning the dynamic of social entities. There is a kind of S curve concerning the implosion of the Buzz

  2. alin wagner-lahmy permalink*
    September 17, 2009 9:52 am

    Hi Asher, that’s a really interesting theory around the growth and reach of a group. I left my comments there. I would be curious to see the research or assumptions that led to the conclusion that mutual connection are such an impactfull factor in the formation of a group and that 15% is the avg mutual connections percentage between users. Definitely interesting theory.

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