Great essay about online communities

One thing leads to another, and I find this three-year-old essay by Clay Shirky: A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy. It’s all about what we used to call virtual communities — made possible by the net’s innate connectivity and democratization of expression — and now encompasses concepts as divergent as Usenet and social networks.

Anybody who has experienced Usenet understands how groups can kill themselves — unfettered, one-man-one-vote, anarchy is unworkable over time and space. Shirky touches on that, but his essay is really a primer on how to set up an online community.

First, there are three patterns of group participation that work against the benefit of the group:

  1. Sex talk — ideal chatter that subconsciously pulls against the cohesiveness of the group. (In my experience, it’s not necessarily about sex, or even flirting, but I’ve seen that, too.)
  2. External enemies. Shirky uses the example of Microsoft in an open source forum, where substantive conversations devolve into MS bashing. (I’ve seen this in journalism groups (ownership the usual target) and in the RV groups I’ve run a wide array of external forces.)
  3. Religious veneration. This has nothing to do with going to church on Sundays, and everything to do with creating sacred subjects that if questioned lead to flame wars.

These three forces are what make structure essential to any group, online or off. A key factor about forums, comments on stories, blogs, that newspaper managers miss is the need for formal structure, rules and a visible guardian (and eventually elevation of group members to moderator roles) of the structure.

I love this bit about why the technology of virtual communities has evolved the way it is — why blogging now, or example:

So the first answer to Why Now? is simply “Because it’s time.” I can’t tell you why it took as long for weblogs to happen as it did, except to say it had absolutely nothing to do with technology. We had every bit of technology we needed to do weblogs the day Mosaic launched the first forms-capable browser. Every single piece of it was right there. Instead, we got Geocities. Why did we get Geocities and not weblogs? We didn’t know what we were doing.

I will kick myself for the rest of my life: Why didn’t I envision Web logs in 1997? I remember sitting at a dinner table with a group of SPJ leaders at the SPJ national convention that year and we were talking about the future of the Web. We all agreed, the Web had the power to unleash a new era of the pamphleteer. My idea was it would be self-publishing along the lines of Geocities, but with better and stronger sense of self-branding. You would still have to know HTML. But one long, reverse chronological scroll of a person’s thoughts and words that you just typed into a Web browser and submitted — I totally missed it. The first time I looked at a blog, it was a V8 moment.

In conclusion, Shirky offers three things we must accept, and he’s absolutely right:

  1. You cannot completely separate technical and social issues. Technology and social patterns push and pull together.
  2. Members are different than users. Vibrant communities need both, but members are the reasons groups exist.
  3. The core group has rights that trump individual rights in some situations. Protect and nurture the core, the central vision of the group that motivates the core, even if it is unpopular with a vocal number of users. Social communities are not one-man-one-vote institutions.

In the course of the essay, Shirky also hits on the importance of anointing core users with status and trust. The failure to do this is why so many newspaper-run communities have failed — they tend to be nothing more than undifferentiated masses of people with no identity. Identity is the fabric of a community and without it, communities fail to coalesce.

As they say, read the whole thing.

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