Stars Aligning, Ice Breaking

Jon Ramer had a great line this morning that really struck a chord. He said he felt like the stars were aligning and the ice was breaking. It’s a beautiful metaphor, because it describes in a nutshell what needs to happen in order for a self-organizing system to be successful. Catalyzing collaboration in a community consists of removing obstacles and prodding the system. In the end, however, your success still depends on whether or not the stars are aligned.    (KO4)

A lot of politicians saw Howard Dean‘s successful use of the Internet in 2004 and tried to replicate it with limited success. Similarly, a lot of organizations install Wikis thinking they’re going to have the next Wikipedia, or they Open Source their software, thinking they’re going to have the next Apache. It’s okay to think big, but it’s also important to recognize what you can and can’t control.    (KO5)

You can’t organize self-organization. Those who try are doomed to failure. Successfully catalyzing large-scale emergence requires understanding this fact and managing expectations accordingly.    (KO6)

Online Community Summit: DeanSpace

Zack Rosen, Zephyr Teachout, Nicco Mele, key contributors to Howard Dean‘s presidential campaign, spoke about their online efforts last Thursday at the Online Community Summit. Some key points:    (2EP)

  • As Dean volunteers started using MeetUp regularly, the campaign started hosting regular conference calls with MeetUp leaders as a way of disseminating information through its communities.    (2EQ)
  • One of the early grassroots activities was distributing flyers as PDF. Nicco recognized this and decided to distribute official flyers as PDF also. Once this happened, the grassroots flyers largely dried up.    (2ER)
  • Related to the flyers issue was the vetting process. Initially, the campaign reviewed contributed flyers, but on the advice of its lawyers, it decided not to officially approve of any outside work to avoid liability. This was not a problem, and according to Zephyr, the community tended to be more risk-averse than the campaign. After all, they wanted to elect Dean, not hurt his chances.    (2ES)
  • The cross-pollination between the different mediums was relatively low. In other words, folks who blogged didn’t necessarily participate in MeetUp.    (2ET)
  • Replacing volunteer organizers with paid organizers tended to kill communities, regardless of how good the people were.    (2EU)

The theme of this talk was that the campaign was reactive, not proactive. It tended to watch things happen and to try and facilitate the good things, rather than start things themselves.    (2EV)

My takeaway from the talk: You can’t organize self-organization. There are things that you can do to catalyze it, but in the end, if the circumstances aren’t right, it’s not going to happen. What you can do is get out of the way when it does happen. This is an important lesson for folks trying to replicate the success of the Dean campaign and other self-organization success stories — Open Source, MoveOn, Indymedia, etc.    (2EW)

Joan Blades at PlaNetwork

Joan Blades just gave a great keynote at Planetwork. The first part covered MoveOn‘s history and accomplishments:    (1HJ)

  • Wes and Joan’s first email petition went to about 100 friends, and ended up reaching 1,000 people in a week. It eventually reached 500,000 people.    (1HK)
  • MoveOn raised $2 million for the 2000 presidential campaign. The average contribution was $35.    (1HL)
  • More than 300,000 members participated in the MoveOn primary (last summer, which Howard Dean won), more than the New Hampshire and Iowa primaries combined.    (1HM)
  • Over 1,000 people submitted commercials for the Bush in 30 Seconds contest, which were rated by 100,000 members and also field tested. (CBS refused to run the winning ad, Child’s Play.) Joan showed six of the ads; great, great stuff. The talent and creativity of the contributions were clearly evident.    (1HN)
  • Bake Back America was a nationwide bake sale that raised $750,000 dollars. Joan said, “It’s the only bake sale ever covered by the Economist.”    (1HO)

Ultimately, the MoveOn mission is about connecting people. The bake sales, for example, helped a lot of people with progressive values who felt out-of-place in small towns discover other likeminded people in the same communities. She told several great stories from MoveOn‘s recent book, MoveOn’s 50 Ways to Love Your Country, written by 50 members (selected out of 2,000 submissions).    (1HP)

More quotes and highlights:    (1HQ)

  • “Connecting takes us beyond the foolish dichotomy of right and left.”    (1HR)
  • “Politics on television is becoming indistinguishable from professional wrestling. There’s lots of posturing and a detachment from reality.”    (1HS)
  • “The public sector has been hollowed out.” It’s been replaced by idealogues (neocons) and entertainers (Bill O’Reilly). However…    (1HT)
  • The Internet is changing all of that by giving everyone a voice. “Connection puts us all on equal footing.”    (1HU)
  • Because of this change, the leaders of tomorrow need, “Strong vision, big ears.”    (1HV)
  • MoveOn did a nationwide survey, and found that there was a consistently strong message in all of the responses: a hunger for connection to core values, things like compassion, fairness, justice, opportunity, family, country, freedom, responsibility, and democracy. It reinforces Joan’s assertion that…    (1HW)
  • Progressive values are American values.    (1HX)

Joan ended her talk with three suggestions:    (1HY)

  • Lead from the heart.    (1HZ)
  • Be bold. “The way to win is to be about something.”    (1I0)
  • Call to the best in all of us.    (1I1)

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)