Monday, December 21, 2009

A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. I was trying to write about my favorite piece of writing. I succeeded and I failed. I do love Shirky's piece but I've thought since that I should have selected another work.

On April 29, 2003 Clay Shirky gave the keynote at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology conference in Santa Clara. I wasn’t there. Fortunately, Mr. Shirky saw fit to post the text of his A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy keynote online shortly thereafter. A few years later, on the recommendation of a friend, I read this for the first time. I’ve returned to it frequently since.

The topic of Shirky’s piece is social networking. He commented on this shortly before the massive explosion of self-aware networking sites and just as blogging was becoming a mainstream concept. While the topic was hardly ahead of its time, many of the focal points were of the distant past. He saw fit to remind everyone that group dynamics and human interaction are nothing new. Neither, it would seem, are the troubles that social software operators encounter as those group dynamics are at work.

He begins by explaining the title and its origins. He explains the story of W. R. Bion, a Psychologist who published the results of a study in his paper Experiences in Groups in 1950 about a group of neurotics. It is Shirky’s opinion -- if not Bion’s, I have not read that paper -- that we can determine many behavioral patterns of a group from this study. He explains using parables of Internet communities that have long since passed, most notably “LambaMOO.” Then he explores the question of “why?” social networking is about to explode. While he continues in-depth on the subject he begins this analysis with the conclusion: because it’s time. In retrospect we can see how right he was. Still, it’s enlightening to see that moment captured and understand how everything started to come together.

Lastly, he offers advice on what not to do if you are running a community and what you may want to plan for at the onset. As someone who has participated in numerous online communities and created a few this is almost sacred text. Yet, I believe that most participants in communities could benefit from this thousand-foot view of how they operate.

I find myself drawn to this text so strongly because it all rings true to me and many of the topics are ideas that I have expressed at some time or another. Shirky brings everything together with great style, though. His words are straightforward and mostly simple. He balances heavy content with friendly presentation that does little to scare away the non-technical reader. I believe the true power of A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy is in the ability to make any member of a group more aware of the role they play. In some cases, they may not realize that they are part of that group at all. I think the most important audience for this, though, are those who seek to create, run, or oversee a group. For that audience I believe that this should be required reading.

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