One of my favorite essays from the early 2000s is Clay Shirky’s A Group Is It’s Own Worst Enemy. It describes a dysfunction of on-line communities that is very familiar to us now in the age of social media.Communities often start as free spaces, but eventually chaos and harassment appear. Once they do, quite a bit of the group’s activity shifts toward rule setting and enforcement. Shirky described this process in pre-social-media spaces like The Well, but anyone who has paid attention to Twitter since it was created knows the pattern. Twitter, as a corporate entity, has explicit editorial control - they can edit out malicious users. The Well and similar early forums had less commercial focus and they were somewhat community-based. They had to deal with issues of governance among users as peers, and that’s a step up from just being a group of people who know each other and want to talk to each other online.
I’ve been thinking about A Group Is It’s Own Worst Enemy recently as I’ve reflected on something that happened a few years ago. I was invited to speak in a track at a conference. It was a conference I’d become less interested in over the years but I was invited by a friend and it looked like it would be fun. The track was supposed to be alternative - a space where the more esoteric topics of the conference could reside. There was discussion about not even advertising the topics and, rather, walking around the conference and inviting people in. That sounded okay to me. Generally, I like to just do my talk and chat with people in the hallways, but some additional structure can be nice sometimes.
After I accepted, I was invited to a Slack for the track speakers. We went through the standard introductions and then the conversion shifted to: what do we want the track to be?
I read for a while and saw that what the track was going to be was an open question according to some of the participants, but with a little digging, I saw that the track had run before, and it seemed to have a good model. I wondered why they weren’t just taking the conventions from the previous year as a starting point. My thought was the organizers were ok with letting the current year’s track develop on its own with a mix of new and previous speakers. That seemed ok, but it was involvement than I expected given my assumption that I would just be speaking at a conference.
As the conversation in the Slack developed, one of the invited speakers unleashed some resentment and anger toward one of the organizers that seemed to come out of nowhere. I sat back and read, sort of stunned. If you’re going to raise anger-filled objections, then, at least, maybe dm? I thought that if I were in the same position, I’d probably not try to derail things, but rather say “well, this format doesn’t work for me, but it seems to work for others so out of respect for the people who are ok with it, I’m just going to leave.” But, it didn’t go that way. I actually forget how it was resolved, but I do know that almost immediately after that interjection, there was a discussion about getting a facilitator to do an online session with the six or eight of us to help us work though issues as we organized our participation in organizing this conference track.
Again, this was more involvement than I expected, but that was my fault for not checking before I agreed to take part. Because of time constraints (and private frustration), I mentioned that I wasn’t going to take part in the Slack conversation and that I would show up and do my session at the conference if that was ok with everyone else. It was, and I did.
I had a very different experience around the same time at another conference. It was one I decided to go to outside of the software industry. The conference revolved around a science topic I’d been interested in for quite a while and I had put getting out of the software industry bubble a bit on my list of things to do a few years ago. It was very interesting. There was a lot of excitement and no real friction at all. Everyone was there because they were interested in the topic. It had that sense of exploration that the track at the other conference was trying to create, to engineer, but it seemed to happen naturally. In a way, it reminded me of the earliest software development conferences I’d ever gone to. They were about software, not us doing software. It made me realize that there might be a little nugget of truth there, a lesson.
While the health of a group is important, when it becomes the dominant topic of conversation, it creates a feedback loop that can spiral out of control. A group needs to be about something other than itself.
In fairness, that group was about something. It was about a conference track, but for a period of time, that was lost.
I had an idea for a play once. The play’s setting was to be multi-day gathering of facilitators. In it, a fight breaks out between two of the facilitators during the first evening session and all of the facilitators leap to their aid by - facilitating. The play would be about the aftermath, the meta pile-on that takes days to unravel. I don’t think I’ll ever have time to write that play, but the idea seemed compelling to me. When we are learning, we use the tools we are learning. When we become good at using them, we look for opportunities to use them. This is why, for instance, software developers often try to write software to solve any problem, rather than thinking about non-software solutions. It’s an occupational hazard. And, we are not alone. People in other fields do it too. I think it's particularly challenging in fields that are about people working together, and that is largely what software has become.
I don’t think the non-software conference I went to would ever fall into the same trap as that track. It wasn’t meta in that way of being about the participants. It was about something else, a topic that everyone was there to learn about and investigate. It was about the other - something other than ourselves. Being about the other can be liberating. We lose ourselves and bond together to encounter that which is other than us. It’s a deeply human thing, and I think it’s why people who are unhappy are encouraged to help others. Sitting alone thinking about one’s problems can spiral out of control. It’s interesting that the same thing seems to be true of groups.