Defending the group

An essay by Clay Shirky, called “A Group Is Its Worst Enemy”, has been floating around for a couple of years – but I just ran across it. It’s an interesting meditation on group dynamics and social software, shaped by crushed hopes for Usenet as well as a book about neurotics thwarting group goals (by the psychoanalyst W.R. Bion: “Experiences in Groups“).

What comes across in the Shirky piece is a sense of fragility – the need to protect group rights against “sandbagging” individuals. This protection cuts against bromides of democracy, generally, and some tenets of wikiland, in particular. For example, Shirky on the rights of a group:

The core group has rights that trump individual rights in some situations. This pulls against the libertarian view that’s quite common on the network, and it absolutely pulls against the one person/one vote notion. But you can see examples of how bad an idea voting is when citizenship is the same as ability to log in.

The essay also emphasizes the importance of reputation as a regulating principle – which, in turn, suggests that functioning collaboration depends on recurrent, accoutable identity. OK so I have to sign in and get recognized. What about ease of use? Full access? Equal rights? Nope, Shirky argues for the virtue of barriers: ” It has to be hard to do at least some things on the system for some users, or the core group will not have the tools that they need to defend themselves.”

All in all, a forthright argument against anonymity, scalability, equality, and, perhaps most surprisingly in the context of software devoted to group interaction, ease:

Now, this pulls against the cardinal virtue of ease of use. But ease of use is wrong. Ease of use is the wrong way to look at the situation…. The user of social software is the group, not the individual.

Not exactly the Wiki Way, is it?

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