The trouble with groups

Several years ago, Clay Shirky gave an excellent talk titled "A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy." (Link is to lightly edited text version of talk.) I just noticed that I had never linked to it from this blog.

I've liked pretty much everything I've read of Shirky's. But I particularly like this piece.

Some tidbits to whet your appetite:

[W. R. Bion] said that humans are fundamentally individual, and also fundamentally social.


[...G]roups often gravitate towards members who are the most paranoid and make them leaders, because those are the people who are best at identifying external enemies.


Now you could ask whether [this problem a BBS encountered] was a technical or a social problem. [...] But in a way, it doesn't matter, because technical and social issues are deeply intertwined. There's no way to completely separate them.


As a group [...] begins to think that the group is good or important, the chance that they will begin to call for additional structure, in order to defend themselves from themselves, gets very, very high.


The informal part is the sense of "how we do it around here." And no matter how [the rules are] substantiated in code or written in charter, whatever, there will always be an informal part as well. You can't separate the two.


The world's best reputation management system is right here, in the brain. [...] Almost all the work being done on reputation systems today is either trivial or useless or both, because reputations aren't linearizable, and they're not portable.


If you want a good reputation system, just let me remember who you are. And if you do me a favor, [...] I'll just get a good feeling next time I get email from you; I won't even remember why. And if you do me a disservice and I get email from you, my temples will start to throb, and I won't even remember why. If you give users a way of remembering one another, reputation will happen[....]

There's lots more good stuff in the full talk; the above isn't a summary, just some of the lines I particularly liked.

Sure, I have a few nitpicks. He might've mentioned APAs in that opening section, for example, and I think the analysis of party dynamics is a little oversimplified, and there are plenty of very small Yahoo groups that are not at all failures, and I disagree with him about anonymity and the lessons of the Kaycee Nicole incident; and although some bits of his discussion are dead-on descriptions of mailing lists I've been on, there are some bits that he says are essential/inevitable that haven't actually happened on some long-lived mailing lists I've seen. And I'm not convinced that his solutions are the right ones. And so on. But setting those small points aside, there's a lot of fascinating food for thought in this piece.

3 Responses to “The trouble with groups”

  1. Jacob

    Yup, that’s a good one. A version of it was included in Joel Spolsky’s The Best Software Writing I.

    This particular piece also reminds me a lot of a good piece Joel wrote called “Building Communities With Software“.

  2. Jed

    Thanks for the pointers!

    …My reaction to Spolsky’s “Building Communities” post (which I don’t think I had seen before) is much like my reaction to a lot of his stuff: I think there are several interesting and good points, well-written, mixed in with a bunch of strong opinions (half of which I disagree with) stated as absolute fact, the net result being that it makes me want to argue with him even though I largely agree with him.

    The most important thing that I think is missing from his analysis is that although technical and design decisions can certainly have an effect on community, the intangibles can often have a much bigger effect.

    For example, two different sites can use exactly the same forum software but end up with entirely different communities and levels of participation. (I’ve seen this happen.)

    And even forums with horrible, horrible GUIs that make me want to run away screaming (and that make it difficult and/or annoying to post and/or to read discussions) often have thriving and active communities, with participants who seem to like it there.

    My other biggest issue with this Spolsky piece is that it seems to me that he starts out making the value-neutral statement “design decisions influence the kind of community that results” (which I mostly agree with), but ends up saying “here are the right design decisions to make to end up with the right kind of community; nobody likes the non-communities that result when you make other design decisions” (which I disagree with).

  3. jacob

    Oh, agreed. I’ve been known to state my opinions as fact also (I’m trying to get over that), particularly with regard to software development.

    I do think that the forums on, and his (and Jeff Atwood’s) new project, do tend to bear out his claim that technology can push a site towards a better community, but the converse is, obviously, patently untrue (that some other technology will inevitably lead to a worse community).


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