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July 16, 2003 » 8:12 pm

Whining In Private

In the process of writing Blue Oxen Associate‘s first research report, “An Introduction to Open Source Communities” (BOA-00007), I wanted to describe a pattern I had observed in the SquirrelMail community. The problem was, I could not figure out what to call it. I came up with something thoroughly inadequate, included it in the first draft, and subsequently removed it after Chris Dent rightfully criticized it.    (U)

A few days later, in a fit of silliness, I thought of a name: Whine In Private. Squirrel Mail’s core team was well-versed at whining in private, and for some reason, I thought that it was useful, important behavior that needed to be highlighted and discussed. Unfortunately, I still could not articulate why, and thus, it never made it into the report.    (V)

A Parliamentary Model of Virtual Communities    (W)

I realize now why I got stuck. Whine In Private is an important pattern, but what is even more important is the notion of space and boundaries within communities. There are at least two kinds of space in every community — private and public — and appropriate behaviors depend on the space in which they take place.    (X)

This may seem obvious, but it’s not always taken into consideration when people study communities. It’s easy to assume that all discourse in online communities occurs online and in public. Sometimes, this is true, but not always. I contend that most effective online communities have a substantial amount of correspondence between members that occurs outside of the public forums. I further contend that this correspondence is not merely idle chit-chat, but communication that is essential to the overall group dynamic.    (Y)

In BOA-00007, I describe two open source communities — TouchGraph and Squirrel Mail — both of which exhibit this behavior. In the case of Touch Graph, I note that Alex Shapiro, the project’s founder and leader, had named three people who had made significant contributions to the project, and yet, none of those three people had ever posted to Touch Graph’s public forums. All of those conversations had occurred over private e-mail.    (Z)

Similarly, core members of Squirrel Mail, whose public forum is significantly more active than Touch Graph’s, frequently correspond over private e-mail, instant messenging, and even the telephone. Additionally, Squirrel Mail, has a private mailing list that is reserved for core contributors.    (10)

Both Touch Graph and Squirrel Mail exhibit a parliamentary model of community interaction. In a parliament, discourse between community members is public and is often archived for the public record. However, a significant amount of interaction occurs behind-the-scenes, and these backroom meetings often shape the discussion and decision-making on the floor.    (11)

Without awareness of the private interactions, it would be impossible to fully comprehend the public interactions. A prime example is the filibuster. On the surface, a filibuster seems to consist of an individual hogging the floor with rhetoric that adds no new insights to the discussion at hand. In reality, a filibuster is a political move designed to stall decision-making until a compromise is reached behind-the-scenes.    (12)

Online communities resemble this parliamentary model, and as a result, we must be cautious when studying these communities. We cannot fully understand the patterns of public discourse in an online community without also understanding the context of those interactions.    (13)

Think Out Loud    (14)

Recognizing the parliamentary model of virtual communities is useful, but it also begs the question: When should one discuss things in private rather than in public? I believe that the answer is different for online communities than it is for face-to-face communities, because the digital medium encourages another important pattern of collaboration: Think Out Loud.    (15)

One important aspect of online communities is that the interaction is usually archived and accessible to an even larger community. When you post to an online forum, you are aware of a finite number of people who are visible within that community and who will most likely pay attention to what you say, but you are also cognizant of the possibility that many other people may be listening. That possibility subtly influences what you say and whether you say it.    (16)

For example, one behavior that is common in online forums is long, back-and-forth conversations between two people, exchanges that are not always acknowledged as on-topic or accessible to the community at large. Although opinions differ on the appropriateness of these exchanges, they are tolerated far more often on online forums than in face-to-face meetings. Because they occur asynchronously, only those interested in following the discussion need devote the time to do so. Listening closely to these conversations, especially when held between respected members of the community with strongly opposed viewpoints, can be extremely enlightening.    (17)

Think Out Loud is an important pattern of collaboration, and members of successful online communities tend to do it well. I think that Touch Graph would have benefited from doing more Think Out Loud by having the core contributors discuss their changes on the public forum rather than over private e-mail.    (18)

However, Think Out Loud has its drawbacks. The biggest is the danger of information overload. While a detailed exchange between two gurus can be fascinating, it can also clog your e-mail. If enough of these exchanges occur, you may find yourself ignoring the content of that community entirely.    (19)

Additionally, some things are simply best left unsaid, or at least said in private. That generally includes whining.    (1A)

Whine In Private    (1B)

In my description of Squirrel Mail in BOA-00007, I alluded to some political difficulties, but I did not elaborate, because I did not have enough time to hear all sides of the story. I would never have even known about these problems had I not been as aggressively thorough with my research. Every core member of the project knew about these problems and had given these problems some thought, and yet, none of them had ever mentioned these problems publically. In other words, they had Whined In Private.    (1C)

There’s an old saying in sports about “keeping it in the locker room.” In the military, etiquette prevents officers from criticizing their superiors in front of other soldiers. Everyone knows that there are going to be internal squabbles even among the closest groups of people, and the common wisdom is to work these problems out in private when possible.    (1D)

I felt like Squirrel Mail did an excellent job of Whining In Private — working out their problems over private e-mail and telephone — and I am certain that it helped strengthen the bonds within the community while maintaining a strong, unified public front. What I wanted to convey in BOA-00007 was that effective communities knew when to discuss things in public and when to discuss things in private. I failed to do this, because I was still unable to identify to my satisfaction when it was appropriate to Whine In Private, and why.    (1E)

Further Graying the Boundaries    (1F)

At first glance, Whine In Private seems to be in direct conflict with Think Out Loud. (This is not strictly true, as there is an implicit qualifier to Think Out Loud of “when appropriate.”) The premise of Think Out Loud is that there is value in expressing yourself when you know (or at least think) that other people are listening. The premise of Whine In Private is that some things are best left unsaid, or at least said privately.    (1G)

However, not only do online communities blur the notions of public and private space, but different tools blur them even more. In the paradigm of online forums, for example, Think Out Loud and Whine In Private do indeed conflict. However, blogs are public vehicles of self-expression, public spaces that feel private, and thus, facilitate some level of both patterns simultaneously.    (1H)

Blogs allow you to Think Out Loud as much as you like without fear of overburdening others with information, because listening is strictly voluntary. Listening is not entirely voluntary with online forums; if it were, then spam would not be a problem, because people could simply ignore it.    (1I)

Similarly, blogs allow you to Whine In Private, or at least feel like you’re Whining In Private. The fact that they are not actually private cannot be ignored. For example, I do not think it would have been appropriate for the Squirrel Mail core members to complain about their political problems on their blogs. However, I do think there are circumstances where whining on a blog would actually be positive for a community, while making the same complaints on a mailing list would be disastrous.    (1J)

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