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January 2, 2004 » 3:43 pm

Battling Group Think

Geoff Cohen asked:    (PM)

As we build different kinds of groupware/social software, what’s the role of consensus, and how powerful is it? Does software make reaching consensus easier or harder? For purely message-driven systems like email lists or USENET, consensus is much harder to reach than it would be in a real-life meeting. But once consensus is reached, breaking that consensus often brings down the flames of wrath. All of this is somehow invisibly coded in the interstices of the software architecture and human nature.    (PN)

…    (PO)

Could we architect social software that fought groupthink? Or does it just make the gravitational attraction of consensus, even flawed consensus, ever so much more irresistable?    (PP)

Seb Paquet responded:    (PQ)

I think the key to avoiding unhealthy levels of groupthink has to do with designing spaces that consistently exert pull upon outsiders (or social hackers or community straddlers), so as to keep the air fresh.    (PR)

…    (PS)

I think the blogosphere exhibits this kind of “outsider pull” much more than topic-focused forums.    (PT)

…    (PU)

But what about action? A diverse group has fewer blind spots, but on the other hand, agreement in such a group can be harder to establish, so there is a real possibility that the group will go nowhere beyond conversation. Is a core of agreed-upon ideas necessary for group action to take place? I think so. Does this mean that group action requires groupthink? Not necessarily, because some people are able to act upon ideas without believing in them so strongly they can no longer challenge them.    (PV)

Ross Mayfield added:    (PW)

He [Seb] is right that groupthink is avoided by a social network structure that allows a dynamic and diverse periphery to provide new ideas, but the core of the network needs to be tightly bound to be able to take action.    (PX)

That’s the main point of Building Sustainable Communities through Network Building by Valdis Krebs and June Holley.    (PY)

…    (PZ)

The ideal core/periphery structure affords a densely linked core and a dynamic periphery. One pattern for social software that supports this is an intimacy gradient (privacy/openness), to allow the core some privacy for backchanneling. But this requires ridiculously easy group forming, as the more hardened the space the more hard-nosed its occupants become.    (Q0)

Finally, Bill Seitz commented:    (Q1)

I think a shared mission is necessary. Whether that amounts to groupthink is a fair question.    (Q2)

There are a goldmine of ideas here, and the discussion is highly relevant to issues currently faced by the Collaboration Collaboratory. I’ll address them one at a time.    (Q3)

Group Think Versus Group Action    (Q4)

Bill’s comment points to the crux of the matter. What qualifies as Group Think or Group Action? We’ve discussed this question a lot at Blue Oxen Associates. In our upcoming research report, we draw a distinction between bounded and unbounded goals, and individual and collective goals. Generally, having shared unbounded goals is enough to constitute group alignment, but having shared bounded goals is required before you can call an effort “collaboration.”    (Q5)

The larger the group, the harder it is to define a shared, bounded goal that every group member will endorse. A good example of where this happens are elections. In the case of Howard Dean supporters, for example, the community is defined by a universally shared, bounded goal — voting Dean for president in 2004. As we’ve seen in the Dean case, having that universally shared, bounded goal was a galvanizing force for a previously unseen community of progressives in this country.    (Q6)

For large groups, I don’t think it’s necessary to have universally shared, bounded goals, although it’s nice when it happens. It’s enough to have small subgroups sharing different bounded goals, as long as they do not conflict with the unbounded goals, which must be universally shared.    (Q7)

The Intimacy Gradient Pattern    (Q8)

An aside on terminology: Intimacy Gradient is an excellent name for the phenomenon I first tried to describe in a previous blog entry, where I introduced the Think Out Loud and Whine In Private patterns. The problem I had in describing the Whine In Private pattern was that some spaces — blogs being the best example — felt like private forums, but were actually public. So people whining on their blogs are not actually Whining In Private; they just feel like they are.    (Q9)

Ross also used the term Backchannel, which I had also recently noted in my Wiki as a good name to describe this mostly private, but partially public space.    (QA)

Community Boundaries    (QB)

One of the founding principles of the Blue Oxen Collaboratories is that the products of the discussion and interaction should all be freely available to everyone. This is why the mailing list archives are publically available, even if participation is restricted to members.    (QC)

There is an Intimacy Gradient pattern involved here. There is a small barrier to entry to participate in tight-knit discussions, which makes the environment more conducive to parlor-style conversations. On the other hand, anyone can benefit from the resulting knowledge, which is our ultimate goal. Our hope is that the collaboratories act as a substrate for a much larger conversation.    (QD)

This has already begun to happen, and blogs play a key role. Bill Seitz, Chris Dent, Danny Ayers, and I have all blogged about discussions on the Collaboration Collaboratory, which expands the conversation to a larger group. The side effects include countering Group Think, as Seb suggests, and also attracting new members who want to participate more directly in the lower-level interactions. Similarly, we mention these blogs on the mailing lists, so the collaboratory members are aware of the larger conversation, thus completing the circle.    (QE)

Are there hidden costs to these Intimacy Gradients? Absolutely. Examples of blogs being read by the “wrong” audiences abound. Gregory Rawlins became a victim when he made some choice comments about another programmer’s software on a private, but publically archived list. (Sorry, Greg, but I always get a good laugh when I reread this.)    (QF)

Nevertheless, I think the benefits outweigh the downsides. I recently joined Howard Rheingold‘s Brainstorms community, and have wanted to link to some of the discussions there, but couldn’t. It’s unfortunate, because those linkages are lost, but it’s a tradeoff I understand. Finding the right balance is tricky.    (QG)

How Open Should Wikis Be?    (QH)

Our original intention with the Wikis on the Blue Oxen Collaboratories was to treat them the same as the mailing lists — restrict writing to members, but allow anyone to read the content. However, we did not configure our Wikis that way, mainly because we couldn’t — UseModWiki doesn’t have this feature — and it was low on list of things to hack. (See PurpleWiki:RoadMap.)    (QI)

Based on our experiences with this configuration and further examination of other Wikis, I’m reluctant to change this model now. One potential compromise is to require registration to write to the Wikis, but to make registration free. The difference between this and simply allowing anyone to click on “Edit This” is subtle, but significant. I’m still a bit undecided on this issue, although I seem to be leaning in favor of extreme openness. The reason for this is simply that we’ve had some interesting contributions and comments to the Wikis that probably would not have been made if there were even the slightest barriers to entry. Again, it’s a good safeguard against Group Think.    (QJ)

This issue recently cropped up again, because both the PurpleWiki and Collaboration Collaboratory Wikis were vandalized for the first time. Chris Dent discovered the act first and quickly fixed it, noting, “In a way this is sort of a good sign. Infamy is almost as good as fame….” My reaction was, “Good catch, by the way. A good sign of a healthy Wiki is how quickly the community fixes vandalism.” Notable in both of our reactions was that we simply fixed the problem and moved on, instead of rushing to implement access control.    (QK)

John Sechrest, however, suggested that access control was exactly what the Wikis needed, which led to some interesting philosophical debate about the openness of Wikis. My response to John wasn’t very deep, but it does sum up my feelings on the matter: “Wikis are successful because the cost to contribute are zero. There are downsides, but there are also upsides. Get rid of one, you also lose the other.”    (QL)

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