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)

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)