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Group think May 12, 2008

Filed under: content,social media — contentninja @ 4:35 pm
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Each line is drawn between two nodes, representing two IP addresses. This is a small look at the backbone of the Internet.Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been on a Clay Shirky kick lately, but not by design. Quite by chance today, I came across a transcript of a speech he gave in 2003: “A Group is its Own Worst Enemy.”

In it, Shirky looks at patterns of group behavior. Although the research predates the Internet, it does apply to online communities as well. The gist of it is that groups of people will act as “aggregations of individuals” AND “as a cohesive group.”

There are identifiable patterns of group behavior that get in the way of the community’s success unless there is structure in place to regulate the members’ interaction.

Shirky writes: “Group structure is necessary to defend the group from itself. Group structure exists to keep a group on target, on track, on message, on charter, whatever. To keep a group focused on its own sophisticated goals and to keep a group from sliding into these basic patterns. Group structure defends the group from the action of its own members.”

Shirky concludes with three things to accept and four things to design for, if one hopes to build a long-lived community. I’m paraphrasing greatly for the sake of brevity:


  1. That you cannot completely separate tech and social issues.
  2. That members are different from users, and the core group matters most.
  3. The core group has rights that sometimes trump individual rights.

And design for:

  1. User handles and reputation building.
  2. A way for members to be “In good standing.”
  3. Barriers to participation. (Yes, you read that correctly. Shirky says that if it’s too easy, the core group will not have the tools it needs to defend itself against the larger group.)
  4. Spare the group from scale, which kills conversation.

It’s a lengthy speech, and I cannot do it justice here. I urge you to take the time to read Shirky’s words for yourself. Find it here.

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3 Responses to “Group think”

  1. […] so it doesn’t implode from the forces of growth or group behaviors (see related post “Group Think” of May […]

  2. […] of group behavior and why a core group with powers to defend the community is a must. See my post “Group think.” I think he’s right; the core group of activist users should have rights that lurkers do […]

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