When I read about or listen to others talking about networks, I often find the examples people cite to be too narrow. They’re either Internet-mediated networks (which are interesting) or organizational networks (which are not). I wish that more people would consider things that look like the intersection of the two — networks that look similar to the Internet, but are not primarily mediated by the Internet.
One of my favorite examples of this also happens to be one of my passions: pickup basketball — casual, just-for-fun (but sometimes highly competitive) games that anyone can start or join. Not all games are open, but most of them are. You can find a pickup game pretty much anywhere in the world, and you’ll find that the rules and norms — mostly unwritten — are almost identical, with some common variations. Half court or full? Ones-and-twos or twos-and-threes? Winner takes ball? Win, you’re in?
Still, each game is made up of different people, and as such, has its own culture and practices. Some games are unapologetically meritocratic — as long as you win, you stay on the court. Other games are more inclusive — if you win two games in a row, you sit and let others play. In my game, we stop play when someone falls. There was never any up-front agreement about this. Someone started doing it in the early days, and it was highly appreciated by the older players (i.e. me).
I’ve had many regular pickup games over the years, some of which I’ve started, some of which I’ve joined. In some cases, I accidentally stumbled upon them and just kept showing up. In other cases, people would add me to their mailing lists or online forums.
One of my favorite organizing models was a game a colleague invited me to join in Menlo Park in the early 2000s. We generally played on Tuesdays and Thursdays during lunch. Someone had set up a mailing list, and on the morning of, someone — it could be anyone — would send an email to the list with the number, “1.” That meant they wanted to play. If you were up for joining, you would respond to the list and increment the number. In other words, the next person would respond, “2,” the next would respond, “3,” and so forth. If you hit, “4,” you had enough to play, and the game would officially be on.
I currently play every Sunday morning at Julius Kahn Park in San Francisco, a hidden gem with views of the Bay and the Presidio. We’ve been playing every Sunday for four years. Originally, a few friends and I invited others to come play. After a few sessions, someone started a Facebook group and invited more people that way. Initially, he would set up an event every week. One weekend, he was heading out-of-town. He didn’t tell anyone, but I noticed that he hadn’t set up the event as usual, so I decided to do it. For a while, I kept doing it. Then, I needed to head out-of-town. Sure enough, someone else stepped up and set up the event without anyone asking.
We also have gotten a good number of folks who accidentally came upon the game and kept showing up. Some of them are on the Facebook group, but many are not, not because we’re trying to exclude anyone, but because it’s largely unnecessary at this point. We’re consistent enough that if you show up, we’ll likely be there.
How is pickup basketball like the Internet?
First, there’s some basic infrastructure — a hard surface, a backboard, a basket, and a ball.
Second, there are protocols. Some of them are formal and unshakeable. For example, on the Internet, there’s the Internet Protocol, the base-level protocol that everything on the Internet uses. With pickup basketball, there are the basic rules of basketball — between 1-5 people per team, dribble with one hand only, once you stop, you have to pass or shoot, whichever team scores more wins, etc.
Some of them are informal and loosely enforced, such as the aforementioned pickup basketball variations. Most of the protocols on the Internet began as RFC’s (Request for Comments) — informal technical specs and design documents. Many — such as HTTP, the basis for the World Wide Web — were widely adopted before ever becoming officially standardized.
Third, they’re both decentralized and open, which leaves a lot of room for experimentation and different kinds of leadership (both good and bad). I’ve already mentioned the different cultures and kinds of organizing you’ll find at different pickup games. Another important form of leadership worth noting is the role the NBA plays. It can’t directly dictate what happens on the thousands of basketball courts around the world. However, its athletes and teams have been very intentional in investing in infrastructure — building and maintaining courts, for example — and for acting as ambassadors. The league as a whole has created many channels via media (both old and new) and on-the-ground work to create more exposure for the game all across the world. That ultimately enables the NBA to do what it does best — inspire people all over the world to watch and play the game.
The NBA doesn’t hold meetings for “representatives” of the pickup game network to try to align around a shared vision or to discuss pickup game governance. It doesn’t do social network analysis to try to demonstrate impact. It articulates its own vision of the game by stewarding and showcasing the best players in the world, it invests in infrastructure so that more people can play, and it invests in visibility so that more people are inspired to play.
Folks who are attempting to professionalize networks could learn a whole lot from pickup basketball.