This is a great text on social software, defined by clay as "software that supports group interaction", which really opened my eyes on some key issues regarding group dynamics in general and online communities in particular.
The core thesis is that, in any social group setting whether online or offline, the danger of explosion comes from within the group itself, and not from the outside. Quoting W.R. Bion, a psychologist of the middle of the 20th century, Clay details three patterns which I personally have seen unveiling several times:
The first is sex talk (...) And what that means is, the group conceives of its purpose as the hosting of flirtatious or salacious talk or emotions passing between pairs of members. You go on IRC and you scan the channel list, and you say "Oh, I know what that group is about, because I see the channel label." And you go into the group, you will also almost invariably find that it's about sex talk as well. Not necessarily overt. But that is always in scope in human conversations, according to Bion. That is one basic pattern that groups can always devolve into, away from the sophisticated purpose and towards one of these basic purposes.Hence, it becomes necessary to have a group structure, i.e. a set of norms, rules and rituals in order to protect the group from itself. This is especially true if we are talking about large, long-living and heterogeneous groups:
The second basic pattern that Bion detailed: The identification and vilification of external enemies. This is a very common pattern. Anyone who was around the Open Source movement in the mid-Nineties could see this all the time. If you cared about Linux on the desktop, there was a big list of jobs to do. But you could always instead get a conversation going about Microsoft and Bill Gates. And people would start bleeding from their ears, they would get so mad. (....) So even if someone isn't really your enemy, identifying them as an enemy can cause a pleasant sense of group cohesion. And groups 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.
The third pattern Bion identified: Religious veneration. The nomination and worship of a religious icon or a set of religious tenets. The religious pattern is, essentially, we have nominated something that's beyond critique. You can see this pattern on the Internet any day you like. Go onto a Tolkein newsgroup or discussion forum, and try saying "You know, The Two Towers is a little dull. I mean loooong. We didn't need that much description about the forest, because it's pretty much the same forest all the way." Try having that discussion. On the door of the group it will say: "This is for discussing the works of Tolkein." Go in and try and have that discussion. Now, in some places people say "Yes, but it needed to, because it had to convey the sense of lassitude," or whatever. But in most places you'll simply be flamed to high heaven, because you're interfering with the religious text.
Constitutions are necessary. Norms, rituals, laws, the whole list of ways that we say, out of the universe of possible behaviors, we're going to draw a relatively small circle around the acceptable ones.Clay derives very interesting conclusions from this. He emphasizes for example that you cannot separate technical and social issues when designing social software.
People who work on social software are closer in spirit to economists and political scientists than they are to people making compilers.Group dynamics are so complex, changing and social in nature that online tools to support collaboration must be of the "small pieces loosely joined together" kind.
A weblog is web-native. It's the web all the way in. A wiki is a web-native way of hosting collaboration. It's lightweight, it's loosely coupled, it's easy to extend, it's easy to break down. And it's not just the surface, like oh, you can just do things in a form. It assumes http is transport. It assumes markup in the coding. RSS is a web-native way of doing syndication. So we're taking all of these tools and we're extending them in a way that lets us build new things really quickly.The typical "one-fits-all" collaborative applications with a web interface such as those that large companies buy for their employees are thus likely to be ill-adapted to the needs of the group. There is too much design in them, and not enough emergence. All social interactions take place within the boundaries of the technical design, made by some remote project team who decided that "this is the way people should be collaborating". Managers like that, but groups don't. How many people really like Lotus Notes? What groups need, and communities of practice in particular, is
three little pieces of software laid next to each other and held together with a little bit of social glue. This is an incredibly powerful pattern. It's different from: Let's take the Lotus juggernaut and add a web front-end.The biggest mistake social software developers can do is actually to get carried away by their own design and build a flashy tower of Babel which, at best, was designed to fit the needs of a given group in a given context, and too often is designed for a hypothetical group whose behavior is mechanically predictable, and whose constitution is pre-coded and parametered by management (the guys who actually buy the software). I made that mistake myself in 2000, when I was designing knexsis