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« ETech: The inmates are running the asylum | Main | We-Learning: Social Software and E-Learning »

December 22, 2003

Think Group

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Posted by Ross Mayfield

Geoff Cohen asks,
"Could we architect social software that fought groupthink? Or does it just make the gravitational attraction of consensus, even flawed consensus, ever so much more irresistible?"
And our very own Seb suggests,
I think the key to avoiding unhealthy levels of groupthink has to do with designing spaces that consistently exert pull upon outsiders (or social hackers or community straddlers), so as to keep the air fresh. As long as they feel welcomed, outsiders are able to inject an essential dose of criticism into a group's deliberations, which will help steer it out of groupthink potholes.
Seb goes on to say I think the blogosphere exhibits this kind of "outsider pull" much more than topic-focused forums, but is less effective at taking action and he wonders if group-action requires group-think. He is right that groupthink is avoided by a social network structure that allows a dynamic and diverse periphery to provide new ideas, but the core of the network needs to be tightly bound to be able to take action. That's the main point of Building Sustainable Communities through Network Building by Valdis Krebs and June Holley. When studying a community over time, they suggest a vibrant community is made up of four stages: 1) Scattered Clusters 2) Single Hub-and-Spoke 3) Multi-Hub Small-World Network 4) Core/Periphery The ideal core/periphery structure affords a densely linked core and a dynamic perhiphery. One pattern for social software that supports this is an intimacy gradient (privacy/openness), to allow the core some privacy for backchannelling. But this requires rediculously easy group forming, as the more hardened the space the more hard-nosed its occupants become.

Comments (3) + TrackBacks (0) | Category:


1. Bill Seitz on December 22, 2003 4:48 PM writes...

Another beneficial role of text collaboration spaces is that they help people make assumptions explicit to the group, making it safer to question them.

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2. Lucas on December 22, 2003 6:46 PM writes...

I think that the topic of consensus formation lies at the heart of what social software is all about, so I applaud this article. I've given this lots of thought, and I think it instructive to divide the idea of consensus into two types, assumed and emergent.

When we join a group it is for a specific purpose. This purpose often implies a shared understanding of the problem domain, or at least a shared desire to accomplish a given task. When the purpose revolves around shared understanding, a shared value system or worldview is often implied. This is the assumed consensus of a group, and it is not open to debate. The single solution to those who don't like it is to leave. Obviously there is the danger of groupthink to assumed consensus, but there is also the danger of statis with the lack of it.

The emergent consensus is the agreements arrived at through interaction amongst members. It is layered on top of the assumed consensus and is the ultimate goal of the group. Action can be taken without consensus, but unanimous agreement should be considered by all the group's goal and their own personal goal. There will inevitably be those who don't consider unanimous agreement to align with their personal goals, and then there are those whose goal is to achieve false consensus. These are the politicians and saboteurs, respectively. Which brings me to the next point.

One of the ways of achieving emergent consensus is to eject members who do not agree. This may seem unduely harsh to those living in a pluralistic society, but to succeed social software needs to model itself after tribal mores, and banishment has always been a neccessary tool. The antidote to the groupthink threat wielded by this tool is a liberal admissions policy. In an ecosystem of competing groups these traits will emerge naturally, which gives a good indication as to their usefullness.

All of this implies that the best way to achieve consensus while avoiding groupthink is not through the centripital force of outsiders seeking the center as this article implies, but the more tribal centrifugal force of assumed consensus and banishment.

Centripital action will always produce parasites, politicians, and suckups. Just compare and contrast modern democratic republics with intimate tribal societies for a glaring example of this.

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3. Ross Mayfield on December 22, 2003 8:00 PM writes...

Great thoughts Lucas. If they weren't I could have removed your comment ;-)

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