On fires, string quartets and the new politics of online communities…

01/24/2004

In the Guardian article Four’s a crowd, cellist David Waterman talks about how to keep a string quartet together over many years without the interpersonal relationships forcing the group apart. I love articles like this – articles that don’t seem to have an overt relationship to how we build social software but nonetheless remind us of core lessons about the nature of groups. Lesson one: the thing that keeps groups together can be a mutual passion, but a mutual activity will bring them together even more strongly. Lesson two: that intensively creative groups seem to be necessarily relatively small. And that’s because – lesson three – there will always be tensions and forces within groups that will try to push them apart from one another. And here’s where social software comes in to the fore – because lesson four is that those tensions can almost always be ameliorated or even totally removed by the careful implementation of mechanisms that institute some form of process, some kind of system – or even some kind of politics. That’s how we can operate in a macro-social way, because we have instituted a system / structure within which we all operate.

If we’re looking for more evidence about the importance of structures and systems then perhaps we should look at what happens when some of those structures break down. A recent Wired article provides the perfect example. Imagine an office during a fire – it’s the kind of environment where the normal civil strategies of co-operation between individuals can disintegrate. And the consequence is that everyone suffers – like an enormous ultra-paranoid version of the Prisoner’s dilemma. And when that break occurs, when there is no hope that the individuals concerned will take the hopeful collaborative approach, how do we stop them destroying themselves? In the article, they try to mitigate the effects of this collapse of collaboration by abstracting the problems out from a rule space into a physical one. They remake the building so that these sudden collapses in the social rulespace change the context from one in which bad behaviour results in death to one in which it doesn’t.

All of this stuff has an enormous impact on the way we should be building our online social spaces – from helping us determine how such spaces should support and compensate for human social failings (on the one extreme), all the way through to finding ways of abstracting inter-human rules for exchange and behaviour, power and reputation into organic and evolving rule-sets and meta-rule-sets that can be encoded into software and built into the very structure of our online environments. A lot of the work we put into the first version of Barbelith is based specifically around these simple concepts – creating a space with an evolving, abstracted political structure that translates inter-human process into code, with the aspiration of generating an oligarchic political economy rather than a despotic one (metafilter) that requires strong consistent leadership or a capitalist one (slashdot) that can be gamed or unbalanced. The aspiration was to – in the process – find a different model in which an online community might be able to act decisively with fast intra-group policy-making and enacting structures. The eventual aspiration – a model that goes beyond oligarchic rule into democratic or even fully anarchic / distributed rule – a model that can create communities that can operate with the absolute minimum of external or top-down management and in which the ‘citizens’ are able to self-determine and self-enforce the rough structures of their own rule-making.

I was hoping to be able to get some of this together for a participant session at ETCon, but I don’t think that’s looking practical any more, so I think finally maybe it’s just best if I start pumping it out into the open and hope someone finds it as interesting as I do…