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April 22-25, 2003, Santa Clara -Explore. Invent. Connect.


A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy: Social Structure in Social Software
Clay Shirky, shirky.com

Track: Keynote
Date: Thursday, April 24
Time: 11:00am - 12:00pm
Location: Santa Clara Ballroom

The psychologist Wilfred Bion practiced group therapy with neurotics *, and during this work, he came to see that groups are far more often thwarted in their goals from internal difficulties than external ones, because of a tension between the members? individual goals and their emotional commitment to group membership. This tension creates patterns in groups that cannot be accounted for by any theory of individual behavior. Bion saw this tension as unavoidable, saying that we are, as a species, "hopelessly committed to both" individual goals and to group membership.

Seeing this, Bion came to conclude that the need for group structure is largely for self-protection. We use a range of organized behavior--traditions, customs, laws--that are designed to protect the group from itself, and from predation by individual members. This scenario has played out many times on the Internet in the form of constitutional crises, where an online community confronts the impossibility of having a functioning group without some structure that shapes the behavior of individual members. From LambdaMOO's fights about the political role of wizards through today?s karma and moderation systems on sites like slashdot and kuro5hin, many communities have passed through crises of self-governance, and emerged with a structure that is nothing less than political theory instantiated in code.

In this talk, Shirky presents several patterns of constitutional crisis in online communities, and draws general lessons about designing social software that allows for a degree of self-governance by the users.

* Drawing parallels with online populations are left as an exercise for the reader..

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