|DR. ROBERT PUFF|
Introduction to Listcology
Energy and integrity of the matrix
Notes on community
The "in group"
Community Member Roles and Types
THE BACKGROUND AND FUTURE OF EMAIL LISTS
The Background of Mailing Lists
Yahoo is Gaia. Alternatives to Yahoo.
TOPICS IN LISTCOLOGY
Email lists and perception
Moderation field reports
The use of applications to join
Private, semi-private, semi-public, and public lists
INTERNET PHILOSOPHY, GROUPS, AND SOCIAL SOFTWARE
Perspectives on Social Software
Groups: Oneness and me-ness in the bag?
Psychological Applications on the Internet
The internet: philosophical inquiry
top of page
Introduction to Listcology
As fluid and fast as the internet is, it is not difficult to create strong divisions. Rigidity keeps lists separate, but fluidity moves people around. It makes sense to encourage list members to start new lists, for doing so creates a 'highway' that penetrates the rigid divisions defining new lists and along which people will travel back to the list where the encouragement was offered. As the owner of Nonduality Salon, I always encouraged people to leave the list, either as a break in activity, to discover new lists, or to start new lists. Along with this encouragement came a constant increase in the membership of Nonduality Salon. To have done otherwise, i.e., to have discouraged movement away from Nonduality Salon, or to have made efforts to retain members, would not have been conducive to an increase in the membership of Nonduality Salon. One would know this intuitively.
Listcology is the study of an email list as an ecosystem. An email list may be viewed as a complex of 'spaces.'
An email list has physical space. Email space has a physical limit given by Yahoo, though we don't know what it is. I'm referring to the amount of information that can be posted to a list in a 24 hour period. For our purposes it's basically infinite. It's not an issue.
An email list has archive space. Email space has a limit to the number of posts that can be archived. It is 32 MB for new lists in the Yahoogroups family, and 512 MB for older lists. It may be asked how the archive plays into the dynamic of list activity. The results of archive research could flow into the other spaces.
An email list has membership space. Here again, we do not know the limit to the number of members on a Yahoogroups list. This space is further divided into Contributor Space, Lurker Space, Inactive Member Space, and the gray area spaces in between.
An email list has posting space. Email space has a subjective limit to the number of posts per day. This is a function of the limits described below. Some can send two posts per day and it is too much, while some can send seven and it's not too much.
An email list has mental space. It has a mental limit. People know to not send lengthy posts or to send material beyond most people's grasp, such as quantum equations, or languages other than English (though some know higher math and many speak other languages). Each post is sent with the mental limit in mind. Mental space is almost always respected within any given email. The mental space of the whole list may get less recognition, if any. There's only so much material a person can absorb each day. An email list has mental space.
An email list has psychological space. Email space has a psychological limit. It has to do with the expression of personality and level of consciousness. The moderator him- or herself may (I say 'may,' as it could be another individual or small group) take up the most psychological space as well as hold responsibility for conditioning that space and thereby having an effect on how everything is perceived within the spaces, or the dimensions of space, within the list.
It's up to the moderator to define, shape and be vigilant of psychological space. Violations might occur when behavior is extreme --repulsing too much, loving too much -- and rationalized, thus forming a double bind. The difficulty for the list owner is that what is considered extreme by one, may be normal by others. Some members of the list may side with owner, others may disagree. It is the owner's list. When he or she feels a decision is going to split a list, it is advisable to recommend what could happen anyway. The advice would be to start a new list or lists. As well, the list(s) should be supported and members should be encouraged to join it. This action accords with the fluid nature of the internet and is 'very Tao' in that way.
Misjudgment of violations -- that is, misunderstanding a behavior to be extreme when an explanation would reveal it is not, therefore a misjudged violation of psychological space -- is a violation of psychological space from within. Seeing the error, the owner's corrective measures (and apology, if felt necessary) should heal the violation from within and stengthen the psychological space as knowledge and experience would have been gained. Violations of psychological space which might otherwise be tolerable, become much enhanced when they include violations of the other spaces.
There is thematic space. Email space has a thematic limit. This space is violated when contributors go beyond the theme or purpose of the list. It's bound to happen once in a while and can often fall under the category of humor. Even the occasional porn ad that sneaks in, and other strangers, may have their moment. Thematic space regulates itself and is not a big concern on lists unless it starts to take up too much posting space.
However, analysis of members' posts and motivations could become overly picky and focused. That would be a violation of thematic space from within -- from the moderator -- as opposed to violations from the outside. List owners who have unclear guidlines for posters and seem to arbitrarily ban members and delete messages from archives, could be violating thematic space from within.
When a list has a lot of energy going into it from the owner or core contributing group, but membership is dropping and posting frequency is going down, the moderator might look for violations of thematic space from within. What's happening is that the interior violation affects the tone of the list and that in turn affects everything else.
Violations of thematic space from the outside include spam that gets in, or posts that are undisputably off topic, and these violations are usually harmless. And because they are harmless, there's no sense over-reacting. Over-reaction indicates failure to see the founding of the list's integrity within the wholeness of its structure. It means the list isn't understood as an organism.
Social Space: Email lists can be places of social interaction. Lists have social space. This refers to the degree of freedom to socialize and the availability of opportunities for that purpose, such as scheduled times to socialize whether on the list or in a chat room, or phone calls or in-person meetings.. With expansive social space it would not be frowned upon to post brief two word messages, little humorous side statements, and so on. Social space is non-topic rather than off-topic. The moderator should be vigilant for off-topic material and violations of thematic space. Invariably, social space will touch thematic space either in support or violation of it. On lists with little or no social space, members will use the social space alongside the list, such as a chat room, or the social space of lists within the extended community and/or communicate offlist (offlist space).
Journey Space: This is the space over which a person may travel throughout an extended community. Within a list or an extended community of lists, space may be characterized and defined by places that cannot be visited. When setting a list up, the owner can choose what is available to members, whether it be the membership list, the message archive. Even membership could be restrictive. Members could have more journey space than non-members. It would be difficult to violate journey space, hacking being the means. Violations of journey space could jeopardize the integrity of a list. The owner has to consider restrictions to journey space in light of the fluid nature of the internet. The owner should have good reasons for restricting journey space and be prepared to explain to anyone who questions, why journeying is limited. Journy space is limited by Yahoo, by the list owner, the journeyor's hardware and software.
We could even consider 'graphic space' along with audio and video space as part of list ecology. Typically, when someone starts a list there's a choice of whether you want emails to include attachments. Period. It doesn't have to be a black or white choice. Lists are too rich and complex for such a simple choice and list owners need to see beyond the narrow offerings.
Gene Poole suggests, "we should include Yahoo (service provider) into the listcology. Clearly, without the technical infrastructure, internet (hosted) discussions cannot occur. Listwise, Yahoo is Gaia..."
The list is one body made up of several kinds of space. Each list member is responsible for being aware of the kinds of space there are. The moderator steps-in when space is violated, not fractionally, but with with some measure. A good moderator describes the spaces as clearly as possible, brings everyone in, and notifies them they are responsible for understanding the spaces here, and holds people responsible.
However, besides the moderator there are the keepers of spaces. Each space has one or more keepers. They interface with and may function as members contributing to list topic. The topic interfaces with the environment and each shapes the other continuously.
Energy and integrity of the
How many lists get started and soon die? A list needs a constant input of energy in order to survive and grow. It needs a matrix of mental and emotional energy as its bedrock, which would also color the group feel. It is changeable. Out of the matrix arise spikes of energy which attract 'members' and their posts or their spikes of energy. A weaving occurs. However, unless the matrix maintains integrity and unless jolts of energy are applied, the weaving will stop. The list will die. Further, unless the matrix holds its integrity, it will be replaced or polluted, and this will cause the list to either die or to transform beyond recognition.
top of page
Having looked at the possibilities of list space and list energy, let's focus on the community, the dynamics of list life.
Notes on community
My experience with lists has always been that of a community. There is a larger scale shared common experience which creates the community and then groups form within the community based on more refined shared common experiences. As long as the community leaders are effective in keeping the focus on the larger scale shared experience the community continues to exist. When the community loses sight of the larger shared experience then smaller communities form based on their more refined shared experiences and the larger community weakens. I believe this is just the natural way things happen, though, whether it be countries, businesses, lists or relationships.
If I may borrow from my AA list experiences, the larger scale
shared experience is being an alcoholic. The vision of the group
leader(s) is that of adherence to the principles of AA. Since
most alcoholics who are now sober do not question the principles
of AA, the group consciousness remains intact and the list
members tend to think as a group. When an individualistic thought
is introduced, such as "I don't like the way my wife mashes
potatoes" an 'old timer' will usually steer the point back
to adhering to the principles set forth in AA and the integrity
remains whole and the list continues to function as it was
There is a point, however, before an old timer returns the focus to the list's initial vision where sub groups can and do pick up the "relatively off-topic" thread and run with it. Without the gentle nudge to return to the original vision, I have seen lists disintegrate, but with the gentle nudge group consciousness can be regained and the list returns to thinking and behaving as a group.
I believe a lot of people have invested too much into their identity of being different from others or not wanting to be like others that there will probably never be a list that thinks 100% as a group, nor do I believe there should be.
I think if we ever work through all the dynamics of an email list, I may even understand why I participate in the lists I do, other than for information, which is the readily acceptable answer to me.
Jerry responds to John. Breakaway groups.
Regarding small groups that might breakaway, a list moderator can do more than simply remind the group to return to the list topic. The moderator could make space for the group AND encourage its members to start an independent list. That keeps the members on the list. And it allows a new list to form which would be populated by new people who would eventually find their way back to the original list. That kind of attitude and practice needs to work its way into the larger scale shared experience and strengthen it in such a way that should make it harder to fracture.
As spacious as the internet is, it can be kept separate from offline life. As well, separate lives can be lived on the internet. As fluid and fast as the internet is, it's easy to create very strong divisions. List owners can use that fluidity/rigidity principle. Rigidity keeps lists separate, but fluidity moves people around. It makes sense to encourage list members to start new lists, for doing so creates a 'highway' that penetrates the rigid divisions defining new lists and along which people will travel back to the list where the encouragement was offered.
Benny asks about the "in group"
Through strict guidlines and moderation can the "in group" not be allowed to form?
Jerry responds to Benny.
The more clearly defined a list's objectives, the easier it should be to detect the arising of an "in group". If the objective is very general, e.g., a list about nonduality, you have to know who is in the group and what their agenda is. That's not always clear. If the "in group" splits off, you have no control unless you control their access to list formation. I've always welcomed "in groups," encouraged the formation of new lists, and invited the owners of new lists to recruit members from my lists. That attitude would seem to keep a list fresh and clear.
Taking a more extreme look at "in groups," consider what Gene Poole has said about list wars:
Perhaps not exactly a new phenom, but
cadres of fanatics seem to be prepping for
a 'list war'.
Recent events on several lists, including NDS,
lead me to believe that we may be looking
at an upcoming frontal attack, staged for the
purpose of eliminating 'opposition' to the
coalition of fanatics, whom for the moment
shall remain nameless.
The porn guy who posts weekly to NDS, each
time using a new identity, shows us how easy
it is to 'infiltrate' groups.
Some time ago, a similar coalition of fanatics,
mostly from Germany, 'invaded' NDS. It began
as an 'interesting' conversation, but ended when
list admin determined that abusive and anti-semitic
ideologues were behind the effort.
I may be mistaken, but my prediction is that
a similar effort is being planned right now. I
hope I am mistaken, of course.
Consider this to be both a 'heads-up' and also
on topic to 'listcology'...
Jerry's response to Gene:
This is a great topic for listcology. We have and do see
examples of it. If
you sense that something in the way of a mass intrusion is simmering, then
it may be happening before the parties involved fully know it themselves.
It's a real test to keep a list open, without membership screening,
moderation or restriction. If a list is open, the list vision has to be
strong and it has to be expressed, or lived. If members are keeping a list
vision from being carried out, they're violating it, and some action has to
be taken, with reasonable restraint, waiting, explanation, warning, and so
And if a gang of people is attempting to intrude upon a list vision, that's
another story. We don't see it happening, but it easily could. We did see
some 30 people sign onto NDS in one day for one purpose. I believe that was
back when we had about 300 members. Proportionately, it would be like
getting 70 people signing onto NDS in one day for one purpose. A ten percent
list population increase.
top of page
Transboundary lists? A growing number of countries - from Albania to Zimbabwe - are now linking up their parklands with protected areas in neighboring nations to make "transboundary" parks. The number of protected areas that bridge international borders has more than doubled in the last decade, from 59 in 1988 to more than 169 in 2001.
Thoughts on Transboundary Lists
We _could_ employ the existing methodology
of Yahoo lists, to 'transboundary-ize' a list
into other lists, by utilizing automatic cross-
This is done now by certain posters, but I don't
like to see the exact same posting on several
lists. In fact, I think that generally, cross-posting
I prefer to have each human digest and then
extend to other lists, thus serving as an indexing
and prioritizing factor. This method seems more
organic and also better represents our utilization
of list-space as 'massively parallel' thought-
computing. If you get my metaphor.
It may be possible to easily designate 'list families'
and by choice, a person can have the designation
of 'list family member'. This is kind of like the existing
concept of 'web-rings'.
Yahoo has already categorized (in an overly simplistic
way, IMO) lists, and thus families already exist. I
propose to discover a convenient method of creating
'list families' (list-rings?) using Yahoo groups as
they now exist.
I am still not in favor of automatic cross-posting,
It would be nice that if by joining one list of a
familiy of lists, that I would automatically be
subbed to all lists in the family. Maybe we can
suggest something along those lines to Yahoo
This brings up the factor of list managment, eg,
who owns a list and/or a family of lists (the originator?)
and who has authority over those a given list family...
The Alpha 'Male'
On lists people who feel omega suddenly become alpha. The
distorts and concentrates personality qualities, and Yahoo empowers.
Perhaps the alpha 'male' on an email list is the one who has a
vision out of which he dictates behavior or threatens to ban people
or do other horrific things if people don't stay in line. It doesn't have
to be the list owner, if the list owner never does anything. It could be
a forceful personality.
There are others dominant in their category or niche on a list, but they can
all be banned by the alpha list 'male'.
Joyce talks about the alpha
male being challenged. I've never felt list ownership being
threatened. I never felt people wanted to get rid of me as a list
I challenged Angelique of the Kundalini list by forming a breakaway
group. But ownership itself of another list can't be challenged.
That breakaway group was the I AM list.
Lobster was the owner of I AM. Then I challenged Lobster's ownership
of the I AM list when he threatened to close it. I started NDS.
Those were both challenges of the alpha male because at the time it
was very difficult to open a new list. People didn't know how to do
it easily. But we pulled it off.
Nowadays people just start lists if they're sick of the list owner,
and list members are so accustomed to moving from list to list that
a challenge to a list owner is laughable. If someone got on NDS and
said, "We're sick of Jerry and Gene, let's all get together and
start a NEW LIST!", it would be a joke, because of the nature of
Yahoogroups and the nature of NDS itself.
But in '98 it was serious and even a little crazy to make a
statement like that, and it was a real challenge of the alpha male
who would want to hold onto their vision and membership.
Yosy responds to Jerry
dear jerry, the whole issue of ownership, challenging leaders
entirely new for me. i quess i am totally ignorant in matters of
listology... i never looked at it as power game. for me lists are
gathering of people sharing a common love/interest of a subject. the
owner/moderator's role imo is generally to introduce/give a direction
to the group, with more or less clarified objectives, usually stated
at the list commencement; and as the name implies, to moderate it
if/when the tones of the discussions etc overstep defined or common
sence dictated bounds. other then that the list developes naturally,
and the great thing i see (in internet in general) that it is sort of
a round table, where everybody has right to voice his/hers view or
belief, and defend it. do not see leaders as such - there are
naturally autority figures on any particular subject, due to
experience, scholary knowledge etc. but i do not give shit and would
stand up to anyone, be it jesus, mohammad or god himself, if what
they say would not ring right in my heart... there are occasionaly
people trying to intimidate others and force them into intelectual
submition, or enforce their particular point of view - but in my
experience they are brought back to right proportions quite fast. and
this type usually leaves the group seeking greener pastures... on
the other hand, i was kicked out from some ortodox sufstic americal
list, mainly for expressing and defending my views. they were very
similar to idris shah's, who i found out was considered an
abomination on that particular list...
and what's the big deal about ownership? to me it seems mainly
providing a space in which one can gather with friends sharing common
interest and have a good time, introducing one's ideas, (and
incidentally learning and expanding one's views), and having an
opportunity to confront various new and different opinions... while
retaining the right (and responsibility) of taking whatever measures
are necessary to enable smooth operation and maximizing the desired
Jerry responds to Yosy
On rare occasions decisions are made that change things
totally. When you look back at
those moments they could be described as the power influence involving a list owner. When
in the midst of it, it's not seen in that way. The stuff I wrote above about challenging
list owners, I had never thought of until I wrote it. It's not as though I was
consciously aware of challenging anyone or about the listcology of what was happening. We
were all flowing with the moment, not thinking about classifying the nature of our
There's no big deal about list ownership until big decisions are made. For example, the I
Am list was totally dead for a long time, for over a year. Then one day a guy named Shankar
shows up and starts posting translations from Tamil regarding Ramana. I thought this
guy's work was important enough to build the entire list around what he was doing. And
the result is that I Am is, to me, one of the best, most controlled and pristine lists
There's a lot going on around the ownership/moderator side of list activity. When NDS started,
the group of advisors was a list unto itself. There was a lot of behind the scenes stuff
going on with that.
My experience has been that list ownership is an involvement and the power issues aren't
really seen as such when you're in the midst of them. They're not seen as such until some
time later when a clear effect is seen as the result of a decision. For example, the I Am
list. There is a very dramatic distinction between the 'before Shankar' and 'after
Shankar' days. But the decision itself to build the list around Shankar wasn't as
dramatic or major. It was probably hardly noticed.
Thank you both for what you've written on this. I have seen
experienced what Jerry describes on some other lists a couple of
years ago. In theory, many/most lists are a round-table sort of
environment that functions smoothly and democratically, but in
practice some lists have subtle issues of "list politics" that
directly impact the listigencia/intelligencia. In many cases, there
is an alpha wolf on a list, and even if that individual has not ever
done anything overtly resembling a power play, the list members may
regard him has a "leader" and they can or do follow his lead on which
threads to pursue, which to drop... that sort of thing. This person
may not be the list owner or moderator, but posesses a certain
charismatic list personality and people may be drawn to follow his
lead. Some lists have seen attempts by (usually new) a member to
hijack the list, and in cases like this the interloper is making a
subtle power play and is subtly challenging the alpha on the list in
order to further his own agenda. A *negative* example of this
happened this summer on Mazie & b's list, with the evangelical
contingent and their friends moving in on the list membership while
Mazie & b were out of town. In that example, the list owners purged
the membership of the outsiders. In the example Jerry cited about the
iam list, more different outcome resulted when Shankar's postings
realigned the list's direction.
I spent a little bit of time googling for writings on this topic
related to email lists or online forums and came up empty, which
surprised me. Maybe my search criteria were faulty. I did find a 200
page doctoral dissertation that included an interesting aside about
the possibility of creating electronic *chat avatars* to help people
get around the missing elements of online connections - the body
language, facial expressions, vocal inflections, etc... Not sure if
it is interesting enough to read all 200 pages though...
Links to list topics pertaining to 'alpha wolves' etc
by Gene Poole
Here are some links obtained from Google.
They partain to commonly held (and often
hard-won) viewpoints about what constitues
good list behaviour... not only for participants,
but also for list owners and moderators.
In regard to this... I say: Just because something
is unstated (just because a behaviour is not being
pointed out, for example) does not mean that it
does not exist, or is being done. Often, it is very
difficult to point out a subtle pattern of sabotage,
or self-sabotage. It is often very difficult to find the
right words, to express something that you may
have strong feelings about. It is sometimes difficult
to say what you would say, without risking being
perceived as a drag, an idiot, a whiner, or a bully.
The hope that lists will always be cheerful, productive,
run themselves, take no time to administer, etc, is what
has killed many more lists, than flame wars or other
factors generally perceived to be 'negative'.
Joyce responds to Gene
Thanks for the links. A question - have you in your readings
encountered the term 'alpha wolf' itself used in the context of list
behavior? That is what i was using for primary google search criteria
and kept coming up empty... Just curious... and as an extension of
that, i've been thinking of how people exhibit pack behavior on
lists, too... sometimes (often?) choosing *sides* of debate based on
loyalty to the alpha rather than to more intellectual reasoning.
top of page
Gene responds to Joyce
Whenever people are involved, human behaviour
is enacted. But humans have 'hard-wired' primate
nervous and glandular systems 'beneath' the higher-
level human adaptations.
We can drop the wolf analogy and speak directly
of humans, who conform wonderfully (or horribly)
to primate social standards.
The alpha (male or female) commands obedience;
this relationship is not chosen, it is automatic; it is
how we are wired.
Of course, as individuals, we can choose to try to
transcend primate behaviours. But even if we do
succeed in that, we can count on others, who are
much less conscious of their 'hard-wired' primate
nervous system, to demand conformance to the
primate social way.
It is of particular interest to me, that whenever and
wherever humans congregate to discuss or practice
so-called 'spiritual' stuff, the whole alpha-dominance
and primate hierarchy thing immediately materializes.
No matter how well the social hierarchy is already
organized, and no matter how happy the participants
are, someone will arrive to challenge the 'top monkey'.
This is someone with 'better ideas' or who possesses
secret esoteric knowledge; or someone who tries to
bring down the top monkey, without a thought to the
issue of who will 'lead' afterwards.
So quickly does spiritual intention become political
maneuvering, that political strategies are now built
into spiritual/religious/social structures.
Timothy Leary did more to illuminate the reality of
the hard-wired primate nervous system than any
other public figure. Many of his books are on this
Here is a link and text which tends to answer your
From the above page:
Community Member Roles and Types
By Nancy White
Every community and online group is different. The purposes vary, the
structures are different -- and the people are different. But there
are some common participation styles or patterns that have been
observed. These can be helpful when you are trying to understand
participation patterns in an online interaction space. Take note that
for each style, there are attributes that can be seen as both
positive and negative. That said, be careful of stereotyping people.
There are usually as small group of people who quickly adapt to
online interaction and provide a large proportion of an online
group's activity. Some speculate that 10% of the membership make up
90% of the community activity. These individuals visit frequently and
post often. They are important members. Understanding and meeting
their needs will go a long way to making your community successful.
They can be a source of volunteer leadership (hosts, cybrarians,
greeters) and ideas for improving the community. Ask them what they
think, need and want to do. On the flip side, be careful that they do
not dominate and make it hard for less active folks to participate
Readers or Lurkers are the unseen forces that DO affect a community.
Community owners estimate that there are approximately 10 to 100
readers per active poster. They represent a combination of people new
to the community, those not yet comfortable in posting, people who
will only read and never post, and people who come in and then drift
away without engaging. This group represents a huge pool of potential
active members. Gentle efforts to pull them in with welcoming email,
offering of guides, greeters or mentors and other efforts are well
rewarded. The readers also play another very important role: audience
to the active posters, especially in larger, open, social
communities. For commercial communities that rely on page views to
drive advertising revenues, readers are indispensable.
People who post frequently influence the pace of an online
interaction space and can, unknowingly and unintentionally, dominate
that space making it harder for others to participate. Most often,
dominators don't know they are dominating. Facilitators can gently
ask via email for the member to give others a little more time to
respond, while also acknowledging their important contribution, for
the line between core member and dominator is pretty fuzzy.
Dominators can often be given productive roles to take advantage of
their interest and time, such as volunteer hosts or content experts.
Linkers, weavers and pollinators
The bumblebees and butterflies! This group of people is very
important in larger communities where there may be a large selection
of conferences and topics from which to choose. These members tend to
participate across a range of interests, and in doing so, are in the
best position to let others know of interesting happenings across the
community. They make wonderful greeters and mentors, and often have
interest in bringing new resources to a community as cybrarians.
They keep spaces from getting dull or stale. On the other hand, they
can disrupt slower, deeper conversations with their "flitting" in and
Flamers live, as they say, to flame. Flaming is defined as sending
hostile, unprovoked messages . What is actually considered a flame
varies by community, but often there are people who enjoy challenging
other members just for the "fun of it." Name-calling, innuendo and
such are the tools of flamers. The interesting dynamic of flaming is
that to an extent, it draws community interest as a form of
entertainment. At the other end, it drives people away if it goes
over the line of community norms. Flamers can also be the source of
new ideas which, when applied within community norms, creating what
is known as "creative abrasion" and can be helpful in workgroups and
Actors and Characters
Some people very successfully develop online personas with "bigger
than" life personalities and characteristics. They may be the online
version of the "Class Clown, " the humorist or one-line master, or
just have a unique way of communicating that stands out. These are
strong attractors of community attention, especially in social
communities. They can help lighten the atmosphere for a community,
helping balance tense situations and introduce ways for people to
reveal more about themselves in a potentially less threatening
manner. When they push too hard against community norms, they can be
perceived as negative influences for two main reasons: interrupting
"serious" threads or conversations, and for not knowing when to quit
based on group norms (usually unspoken norms.)
Perhaps the most famous archetype in online communities, the Energy
Creature is an individual who so irritates a community that they form
up around him or her to try and counteract the "creature's" energy.
They community may try shunning the energy creature, but often get
pulled into the vortex and become energy creatures themselves. At
their worst, energy creatures can destroy a conversation or
community. At their best, they are often caricatured mirrors of the
community, helping us recognize our own potentially negative
patterns. They can be catalysts for groups to break through to a
deeper level of communication. Sometimes they can even wake up a
Rallying to "protect" a community from an Energy Creature evokes
another archetype, the Defender.
Defenders sometimes defend an individual (sometimes to the point of
being perceived as a slavish defender) or groups. They can be
hypersensitive to the smallest slight or suggestion of attack,
perhaps because of previous experiences. They may also have highly
developed intuitive skills, which can be very productive for a
community and serve as an "early warning" signal of a changing
It only takes one line, repeated, inserted, and insinuated, over
time, to recognize a needler. They have a point to make and it
appears again, and again, and again. Often in the form of a cynical
"I told you so," Needlers know they are right and won't let you
forget it. Their point may be insightful or irrelevant, but the value
of the point is quickly lost on an audience who gets fatigued from
the repetition. This is different from a spammer because the point is
often "on point." But it can loose its power and context, regardless
of the quality. In some cases, this may be from a visionary who is
ahead of her/his time, who needles with the best interest of the
group in mind. Other times it is from a person who will not budge
from their stance. Needlers can also keep us "honest" by not letting
a group evade critical issues or behaviors. They can be bellwethers
of new ideas.
Newbies or NewBees
Sometimes called "clueless newbies," newbies (or New Bees, as I like
to call them) are members new to a community. They might also be new
to online interaction. When new folks jump into an online interaction
without checking it out, observing the interaction or learning the
community norms, they can be perceived as rude and clueless. In some
communities, newbies are treated to a baptism of fire by old hands as
a way of either being accepted or rejected from the group. Newbies
are also the source of new blood, ideas, interest and "pollination,"
thus the new-bee appellation. Newbies deserve our attention and
should be supported with information to help them become part of the
Also known as the PC (politically correct) Police. PollyAnnas also
operate across a range of "acceptable" behavior, from being a source
of appreciation of community members, to the being "nice" at the
expense of being honest or "real." They see the bright side to most
anything, so they can be a positive influence. However, Pollyannas
drive some people so nuts they will leave a thread just to escape.
PollyAnnas avoid conflict and withdraw before clarity is reached
because they are averse to conflict.
Spammers post the same thing over and over again. Often, it is
commercial material with little or no relevance to the community.
Sometimes members start spamming as a reaction to feeling that they
are not being "heard." Sometimes it is simply a matter of ignorance
of community norms and the general disapproval of spam by experienced
Internet users. Spammers should be contacted via email immediately
and asked to stop.
"Black and White" Folks
These are the people who present immutable positions. They appear to
be initially unwilling to see points of view beyond their own. They
push instead of probe. They are usually willing to take the blame for
their style (ownership) but shy away from the responsibility of the
impact of their style. They engage only on their own terms, but may
refuse to engage others who utilize the same tactics. Interaction
often escalates and winning is the goal. They also are keepers of
important information that the community may need, but not
particularly liked. They ask the tough questions, but may not like to
be asked them back in return.
"Shades of Grey" Folks
Sometimes characterized as wishy-washy, with no clear convictions,
and as members who shrink away from the tough issues. Often they
won't fully engage or justify their positions. On the other side,
they often can help neutralize a polarized situation and offer new,
combined viewpoints for a community. They tend to carry new
information into a group that has polarized on issues and can be a
breath of fresh air.
We tend to thrust this archetype on others -- the expert, the guru --
and sometimes unconsciously create a different set of rules or norms
for the elder. Most often, the elder does not seek this recognition.
Elders may not held accountable to the same community norms or
scrutiny of the other members. Elders can dominate new members by a
few words, regardless of the value of the words of others around
them. Their wisdom is gold to a community, but their influence can
inadvertently muzzle the rest of the group who might feel
uncomfortable posting in such company.
Mike Reed's Flame Warriors site is a don't miss. Not only does Mike
have a great glossary of online interaction terms, he has illustrated
an even wider range of online "types."
top of page
THE BACKGROUND AND FUTURE OF EMAIL LISTS
The Background of Mailing Lists
Yahoo groups are mailing lists which happen to
appear on the web, on web pages dedicated to
those (this) list.
Originally, mailing lists were strictly by email,
by use of mailserver software called 'mail exploders',
which simply sent to all members, any letter sent to
the email address of the mailserver assigned to the
mail exploder. Many mailing lists still work that way,
with no involvement of the WWWeb; the software is
The WWWeb is an application which runs on
the 'net (internet). Its protocol is designated
Mail uses a different protocol,
POP or SMTP or IMAP.
Nowdays, with the advent of portable devices
(wireless PDAs and web/email enabled cell phones
(3G protocol), the lines between use and application
protocols are becoming even more blurred.
Soon, this and other groups will be delivered to your
refrigerator door and bathroom mirror, via wireless
home LAN connected to WWAN.
The time is coming when small ubiquitous wearable
computers will feed eye-glass mounted mini-LCD
projectors; we will be able to read email lists on the
web while walking in the park... or (Jerry?) driving
the car, as the images are projected directly on
So with all this in mind, I strongly suggest that
we get our list-shit together, soon
Yahoo is Gaia. Alternatives
Concerning Yahoo groups, I continue to wait
for the other shoe to drop.
I consider it a small miracle that Yahoo is able
to exist and function as it does. And I do not
have any sense of entitlement, in regard to
the services they provide.
While I have thoroughly enjoyed (and exploited)
the use of Yahoo groups, I am aware of the
major trouble and expense it is, for those that
give us this online functionality.
I sincerely hope that things continue as they
are, and that Yahoo is a blazing success, so
that our lists can go on into an indefinite future.
Such hopes often prove unfounded, however.
To that end, those of us with the 'moxie' to do
so, will be looking around for alternatives,
including home-based list servers, which include
email management software, etc.
And there is always USENET... (shudder)
In any event, it is my intention to carry on here,
on Yahoo lists, and to also research and obtain
alternatives so that this sort of threaded
communication can be carried on with minimal
I think we should include Yahoo (service provider)
into the listcology. Clearly, without the technical
infrastructure, internet (hosted) discussions cannot
Listwise, Yahoo is Gaia...
Jerry expands on list background
We may as well look at how lists are made available. You
mentioned majordomo. There's also ListServ. Those apparently now
offer web versions, or a web archive interface.
ListServ looks very interesting actually, for scholarly or academic discussions. I did a search under 'consciousness' and what came up looked interesting. Someone should do a side project for NDS, looking for cool ListServs. The trick is finding the right keywords for the search engine. I didn't find a search engine for majordomo groups.
Then there are the list hosting services that are more like yahoogroups:
The nonduality, hard-core spirituality lists appear to be all on Yahoo. We started on Onelist, which was bought by eGroups, which was taken over by Yahoo.
It's interesting to look at the evolution of lists from strictly email based to those richly integrating the web. I don't know if the web versions of majordomo and listserv have relieved them of the stuffiness and sense of strict practicality that I feel seems to characterize them. My impression is that technically they're still a pain.
At the same time, we who are on the richly web integrated yahoogroups, might stay at our level even when the possibility for greater freedom is available someplace else.
Understanding where we are within the world of lists and where we could stay stuck and where we could go, is part of getting our list-shit together.
Wikiweb looks interesting. We should look at that and blogs,
discussion boards, along with old-fashioned listserv, USENET, and Yahoogroups, as part of looking at where we've been and where we're going in listland.
Joyce on Wiki webs
(Wiki) works only for *communities* - so it would take a group
of people to build and make it work...like an offshoot of a
In terms of listcology and the present yahoo removing and restricting of attachments, a yahoogroup could collectively create a wiki and everyone could add their attachments to that site, instead. Or so it seems. I've been watching one list building their wiki on seedwiki for the past couple weeks, wondering if there will be an impact on the list's level of activity.
More Wiki: http://wiki.org/wiki.cgi?WhatIsWiki
Wim responds to Joyce on Wiki
I still wonder though if we could discuss lists on wiki's
without focussing as easy as we can now on list idiosyncracies...
unless of course it is the last resort... but that would mean
that us ecologists have sounded the deathknell of lists... A Wiki
though would have been the solution for "Our own web
page." Does editing a wiki list allow anybody to delete
anything as well? That could have been handy with the Linda
remarks... but then I like the openness, and I think Linda is
back... and the openness helped...
A list and Wiki on the side seems very good to me...
top of page
TOPICS IN LISTCOLOGY
Email lists and perception
by Gene Poole
While list spaces can be identified, described, and monitored, it is done by observers and list participants whose perception of list content is subject to manipulation.
Gene Poole writes about how information, or media content, is
received and manipulated: He says, We have a crux between
conscious and deliberate thought and intention, and unconscious
or automatic thought and surprising or unexpected conclusions.
It is a common strategy of the reader of lists to deploy 'filters' to make the content of read lists 'linear'; that is, that readers often (or always) adjust their perceptions to take into account what seems to be incomplete or fragmented information (postings).
One side-effect of such filters is the disappearance of information to be gleaned by accepting the nonlinear content of lists (including content of many lists, not just one list).
This effect is termed by social psychology to be a 'latent function' of the technology of lists (threading).
List ecology must take this effect into consideration, even if it is understood that each reader has deployed filters which are quite different than any other reader.
Meanings derived from reading of lists (threaded postings) are not only subject to ordinary misinterpretation, but also, to the effect of joining nonlinear information which has infiltrated the mind of the reader, information which has bypassed the filters (assumptions) of the reader. Such joined information may manifest in a manner that is either progressive or retrogressive, with effects which are experienced as pleasant (progressive) or unpleasant (retrogressive) by the reader.
Readers of lists (one or more lists) are subject to the effect denoted in the speech content of the below linked website.
(broadband connection recommended)
This has directly to do with manipulation of media content, with unexpected effects on the 'consumer'.
Text in lists is media content.
Please tell me... what is this 'thing' about bemoaning
'rules'? Who, what, when and where
has idealized the 'rule-less' as best, better, or preferrable?
Good grief... look at it... 'life' is nothing but rules!
It seems that 'rules' are seen as somehow a bad flavor, a party spoiler, a turd in the
The spate of protests over the most recent demise of n0by, while minor, is one of the
most ridicules ones.
I think the real 'issue' is that the rules are not adminstered by a machine, but instead,
by an actual person. This person has to deal with 'infallibility', an impossible standard
to attain. Any 'rules decision' will be taken poorly by a certain percentage of people,
and cheered by others. But what of the common mourning for the necessity of rules? What
is up with that?
Is it that 'rules' give license to abuse of power?
Is it that the personal ideal, is to not need rules?
Is it that we are all, everyone, so darned wise and fair, that we just know in our
hearts, that nothing will ever occur, which needs be resolved by 'authority'?
Can we depend, that any poster who becomes troublesome, is amenable to reason? I think
Rules are part of any game. Any game with no rules is not a game; in other words, there
are no games without rules.
Just because someone can't see the rules, does not mean there are no rules.
Life is about rules, and those rules begin with rules that are impossible to break. Later
rules, manmade rules, can be good or bad rules, and they can be enforced wisely or
stupidly. But please... consider your attitude about rules.
top of page
Joyce and Jan B. dialogue:
it is interesting watching the assorted different attempts by people to
fill the silence, too, by reposting the same material on
Could be a flag of universal importance attributed by the poster as well.
It fills up the mailbox and the mind, and blurs the distinction
between the lists until there is this homogeneity...
Yes, it could be something the poster feels is universally needed as
a message... That brings up the topic (again) of why people post what
they post and where... I have a friend (actually about 3 of them) who
use the lists as places to pour out their emotional stuff; let's say
that something happens in their world, and they have an *emotional*
reaction to it... They do *writing therapy* to deal with it, pouring
out their reaction (anger/angst/pain/rage/starvation/whatever) and
then post it to the lists... They end up feeling a sense of
catharsis, but what they've done is to pass off that stuff onto the
readers. Sometimes that can be toxic to the readers. I think they
don't realize that. But it's all a give-and-take, in the *best* sense
of *that's what friends are for* - the mutual sharing and
listening... One of the beauties of being alive, that ability to
Not a bad idea, combining lists would eliminate multiple posting at the cost
of receiving other posts (of no interest). A kind of "bitten by the cat or the
And even if the material is good, do we want to see the same post(s)
by the same people in 3 or more places?
No , who wants to receive a post with 300k in graphics thrice but if the cost of
separation would be subscription to many lists, the
"bitten by the cat or the dog" issue as 30 posts of 10 K take roughly the same
i prefer the many lists approach because i hate getting a
125k digest 2/3 full of material that does not resonate. I mean, i
want the posts that are the *gems* but not the dross... But it's like
a yard sale - one person's junk is another person's treasure. Who am
i to say what is or is not a treasure? Heaven knows i've posted more
than my own share of what turned out to be drivel...
But the posts with the enormous graphics (and yes, i've done that
myself)... A few weeks ago, someone posted a post that was about
485k... and they posted it on at least 3 lists (probably more)... The
Yahoo and Hotmail mailboxes are small, and to receive more than a meg
from ONLY ONE PERSON is an inconvenience, at best. I finally wrote to
the person and explained how to compress the jpgs.
I think people should post those sorts of messages in only 1 place,
and then if they want to share to a wider distribution, just repost
the url on the other lists. Broadcast posting (and i've done it, too)
is almost like spam.
The more specialized a list, the fewer the number of posts.
Like with everything, finding the balance.
Perhaps Yahoo could extend the service by inserting a little
program so a member doesn't receive the same post even when
it's send from every list: the member would have to specify the
preferred list the post is received from.
top of page
Moderation field reports
by Gene Poole
It is 'interesting' being moderator of NDS,
and in the carriage of those duties, to encounter
unreasoning responses from persons who should
One big factor in all of this, is the issue of
a person _being able_ to have personal
_1 The moderator can suffer from being
in a 'double-bind'; that is, being held
accountable by all 'sides' in any conflict,
for judgments made, and being unable to
present a universally 'acceptable' persona;
and being held _personally_ accountable
by various aggrieved parties, instead of those
parties taking account of a _person_ acting
An example, is the 'n0by affair'; this complex
and messy story is not yet ended, but has
resulted in 'n0by' erecting web pages which
compare the NDS moderator to Hitler, and
this in pictures, as well as by verbal accusation.
It is clear, that n0by may be a mentally ill person;
but whatever his disposition may be, it is also
clear that he grossly violated the TOS of NDS,
which came to a 'head' in regard to Jeff Brooks
('Poppajeff'). My action as moderator, to remove
and BAN him, led to gross acting-out on the
part of Melody, who confronted Gene the person,
expressing her distaste, in a manner which
transcended a critique of moderation;
It also led to the arrival of 'celtic moon dance',
who attempted to influence, in a political manner,
the outcome of the moderator's decision. This
'CMD', who is a regular in the 'n0by group', was
also BANNED by the moderator.
In an attempt to plumb deeper into this n0by
effect, I joined his group; and he has been
conspicuously absent, since my joining. CMD,
after being called a 'stupid bitch' by n0by, seems
to have reconsidered her position, and now is
friendly with Gene.
CMD has sincerely petitioned n0by, to take down
his punishing and slanderous web-pages, which
are certainly an attempt to punish and humiliate
me; only time will tell, the outcome of her attempt.
Listcology NEEDS to have this, and other similar
accounts, in order to derive certain vital information;
we need to be able to understand, the dynamics of
such blowups, for prevention, and also, to mitigate
any damage, which may occur, on any level, for any
The conduct of several members of the n0by group,
highlights the GOOD that a moderator can do; his
group is 'totally unmoderated', and there being no
means of control or ejection of offending members,
all members suffer equally, the abuses imposed by
a few. n0by remains true to his promise of 'totally
unmoderated'; he may try, from time to time, to
shame or humiliate a member into shutting up or
leaving, but he will not take responsibility as
moderator, apparently for fear of being seen as
a 'bad guy' of the same sort that he reviles, attacks,
and slanders in public.
I can say, that unless other means of quality assurance
are employed, that moderation of groups is a real
and vital necessity; my experiences in USENET and in
the n0by group, clearly point this out. Without a means
of controlling quality, the group becomes first a circus
and waste of time, and then, everyone leaves. The group
loses its purpose, unless the group itself, has an 'ego'
or better stated, an 'immune system'.
There can be endless debate, on the issue of just how
to identify ''toxic invaders', and how to handle them;
I will not address that now. Now, I want to present, the
whole picture of how even the best and most rational
of moderation, can still elicit a veritable shit-storm,
which as we have seen, and can 'bring down' otherwise
stable members, who may misunderstand what is
really going on.
I have tried various approaches in NDS, to the job of
moderation. It is probable that not many observers
realize how systematic I have been. I have estimated
and now employ the best and 'safest' methodology,
while I continue to deliberately make public, my
thinking and judgments, understanding perfectly well
what that means, as to possible consequences.
One favorable consequence, which I hope will occur,
is that each member of every group will be able to
more easily and perfectly understand, the dynamics
of groups, and how moderation (in its various forms)
is a natural part of this whole picture. This understanding
will not occur, unless someone takes the trouble to involve
'anyone' who cares to pay attention. I hope, very sincerely,
that will include any and all who may otherwise take umbrage
with 'moderation'; if you see what I am getting at, that only
if 'moderation' becomes known as an expected 'norm', can
general users know what to expect, and thus, what to avoid.
top of page
Boundaries, barriers, moderation
Running a list means setting limits, and the article below by
Pema Chodron distinguishes between
boundaries and barriers as limits. It is part of a general discussion on running a list. --Jerry
Let me address this question of: What's the difference between dissolving the barriers and setting good boundaries?
This came up in some of the discussion groups, and this question also comes up - you won't be surprised - in many of the places where I do this teaching. I've given this some thought - and I've heard a lot of other people's views on this too, so I've been educated by other people's thinking on this. Currently, this is my answer, and I'm sure it's a work in process.
I feel that setting boundaries, good boundaries - the intention of that - is to allow for communication to happen. And, barriers are shutting down communication.
To set good boundaries takes a lot of courage. And you have to be going through this process of acknowledging your pain, and also what triggers you, and acknowledging how much you can handle and how much you can't handle. Theres already a lot of courage that's gone on in coming to the place of setting boundaries. But, the intention is to make communication clearer.
For instance, the classic situaton of you're in a relationship where you're beaten. And, all your friends are saying, "Why do you stay in that relationship?" Well, it's because of barriers, and turning away, and all of this stuff. Because, why do you to allow this to happen to yourself again and again? Well, it's very complicated, and it has to do with the ego structure and how we are afraid to actually to go into this, and we're hoping that this time the happiness that I'm seeking will come from staying in this destructive relationship.
A barrier is this turning away and staying stuck. There's ignorance involved in barriers. Maybe that's one of the main ingredients of the ego and the self-centeredness, or the barriers, cocoon - however you say it- is ignorance: not really looking at what's going on. So, then, usually with a lot of help from other people, and your own reservoir of courage beginning to come up, and your own reservoir of clarity and sanity and self-compassion getting stronger, you get to the place where you actually say: If you hit me again, I'm leaving, and I'm leaving for good, and I'm not coming back unless you do some work with a therapist, or whatever, around the fact that you keep hitting me. But, from my side, I'm out of here. And then you do it. That's an example of setting good boundaries. But it takes a lot of courage to do that, because that may mean the end of this relationship, which represents a lot of things.
Setting good boundaries is actually pushing you more and more towards going into it. And it's clarifying the situation. It is the most compassionate thing you can do for the other person and for yourself, because it's frightening because the other person is often not going to want to hear-- your boss, your spouse, your child, or whoever it is, is not going to want to hear your boundaries, and they're going to get angry with you.
If you've ever been on the receiving end of someone setting their boundaries, and it provokes you and makes you angry, but at least you know what you're working with. And you can even say, This doesn't work for me, I have to go-- or you decide to stay and work with it. But, at least, there's clarity.
Whereas, with barriers, and the whole way ego works, it just causes a lot of confusion - mixed messages are a sign of barriers - and so the suffering just escalates with barriers.
The idea of setting good boundaries is to provide clarity, communication, and it takes a lot of bravery to do it.
- Pema Chodron from Transforming Confusion into Wisdom, City Retreat, Berkeley Shambhala Center, Fall 1999
What I have noticed...
by Gene Poole
I have noticed that persons subscribed to
lists, generally object to 'moderation'...
This seems to be true, not universally, but
Is this the same, as licensed drivers,
who generally object to the patrolling
of police, who look for violators?
Or, is it more similar to some other
group of persons, who participate in
some other venue?
I am curious about this.
Jerry states, that lists need boundaries;
and this observation of his, depends on
his practical experience, instead of on
any ideal. In other words, Jerry has like
I, noticed the need for some form of
moderation; and this, based upon experience
gained from actual list participation.
Does anyone have experience, to the contrary?
If all subscribe to a list are indeed 'saints', then
no moderation is needed; does this ever occur?
And if some are not 'saints'... what is the best
way to proceed, for all involved;
-----> subscribers who care
-----> list owners
-----> rowdy, hell-raising members
What is your response?
Is it possible, to evolve a list membership,
which will take the care, to regulate themselves?
If not... why not?
If so... how so?
So, if you are one of those, who object
on 'principle' to list moderation; on what
basis do you object, given the 'reality' of
the above, by your own reading and responses?
top of page
Example of an application for joining a list
APPLICATION FORM - THE WORLD HAIKU CLUB MAILING LISTS
COMPLETE this form and RETURN to the LISTOWNER ADDRESS:
WITH COPY (Cc...)to: [email protected]
(Please copy a file for yourself for your own reference and future
subscriptions to other WHC mailing list fora)
The information you provide in respect of this application will be kept
1) Date of Application:
2) List all the names of WHC mailing lists for which you now wish to
apply (e.g. WHCworkshop or WHCsenryu. If you are not familiar with them,
please go to WHC website and find out at: http://www.worldhaikuclub.org ):
3) Your First Name:
4) Your Surname (with title: Mr/Mrs/Ms/Dr etc.):
5) Your Haiku Pen Name which you normally use, if any:
6) Your Postal Address (incl. your full name again, country name,
tel., fax, and e-mail addresses):
7) Your e-mail address by which you wish to be registered for WHC
8) Your Interest in Haiku and/or related forms (i.e., how it all
began, why you like it, what it means to you, history, societies, awards
received, publications etc.):
9) Do You Regard Yourself As a Beginner/Intermediate/Advanced? (Just
as a rough guide):
10) Your Specific Interests in Japan and/or in Things Japanese, if
11) Your Personal Background (including education, occupations,
interests, skills, avocations):
12) One or two references from persons who know you and who are
responsible members of the WHC, or of other respectable haiku mailing lists
or organisations, if possible:
13) Apart from posting haiku and comments etc., would you like to help WHC
by playing a positive (formal) role in its website, mailing lists and/or the
magazine "World Haiku Review", or in any other way? If so, how?
14) Any other points you wish to make, which have not been covered above:
15) (Optional) If possible, please show up to 10 examples of your recent
haiku (or poems relevent to the genre of poetry forum at WHC to which you
are subscribing, i.e., senryu, tanka, etc., published or unpublished)
NOTE: If you have not registered at YahooGroups with an ID (Profile) and
Password, please do so now. This will allow you to use YahooGroups online
features. This is very important in order for you to be able to access to
your YahooGroups personal administration page ("MyGroups"
http://groups.yahoo.com/mygroups), which will allow you to change your
settings at any time for receipt of e-mail, e-mail address, etc. You can do
this at http://groups.yahoo.com/ ; click the link and follow the
instructions for registration. Save your ID/profile and password in your
files for future reference.
Please familiarize yourself with WHC's mailing list guidelines, which may
be read at the WHC Official website:
Also, find WHC's online magazine, World Haiku Review at:
top of page
Private, semi-private, semi-public, and public lists
If a list has archives that are open to be read by "anyone," the list
If, however, a person must "join" the list (that is to say become a
member of the list) in order to read the archives, then the list is
not a PUBLIC list.
It is very simple, really. (I know some will disagree...)
Think of yahoogroups as real estate.
It is like a strip mall (in cyberspace), where there are businesses,
and the businesses use the amenities from the mall in return
In the case of a strip mall, that "something" is rent moneys. In the
case of yahoogroups, that "something" is paid not in rent moneys but
in the currency of "advertising" - you set up a business in the yahoo
strip mall in exchange for letting yahoo send advertising from their
clients to your members. So, advertising is the currency of
Now, my local strip mall has some restaurants and shops - all open to
anyone who walks through the door, no questions asked. They are
businesses open to the PUBLIC at large.
It also has a health club. The health club requires that a person
become a member before a person is allowed inside to access the
facilities. The fitness club requires membership and as such is NOT
open to the PUBLIC at large.
In the case of yahoo groups, just because someone puts up their list
in the yahoo strip mall does NOT mean that it is open to the public.
If they choose to set it up with archives that are open to anyone
without membership being required, then it is a PUBLIC list.
If they require membership, it is not PUBLLIC.
And if they "moderate" members, including new memebers, then it is
even more PRIVATE.
Everyone here as far as i can tell belongs to at least one list that
requires membership and that moderates members posts (even if only
posts from "new" members). A PUBLIC space would do neither of those.
There is no guarantee of free speech on a private list, but i imagine
there would be in a truly PUBLIC list. Everyone here as far as i can
tell belongs to at least one list where the moderator can remove
members. For exapmple, Mazie wrote here last year of how she removed
people from Adyashanti because of their postings. Adyashanti is not a
PUBLIC list, it is a PRIVATE list. It is not open to totally "free"
expression by the PUBLIC at large.
NDS is not a public space. Listcology, on the other had, is a truly
In the issue of the right to review lists that are not PUBLIC, i
think someone talked about freedom of the press... I think i am the
only one here who went to Journalism School... A person would need
approved press credentials to be able to legitimately argue freedom
of the press.
Well, that's a start.
The thing is that i am all in favor of inclusiveness on lists. I am
also in favor of small intimate places where one can speak one's
heart. Remember JPs erotic nonduality list? How many people were shy
about posting from their "real" IDs there? Not everyone, but some
There is a need on the internet for both sorts of lists, PUBLIC and
PRIVATE, in my opinion. And for people to enthusiastically embrace
them both... and to respect them both... and that is what has been
missing - respect for the nonpublic ones.
Notes on list privacy.
Private: Not listed on yahoogroups. Membership is by invitation. Existence
of the list is not generally revealed. Archives are for members only or
non-existent. No information volunteered on the Yahoogroups home page.
Semi-private: Restricted membership; members must meet certain
qualifications in order to join. Perhaps they have to fill-out an
application. Archives for members only. Listed or unlisted in Yahoogroups.
Some information volunteered on the Yahoogroups home page.
Semi-public: Anyone may join, though list may be restricted and new members
may be moderated in order to screen for spammers. Archives for members only.
Only members may post.
Public: Anyone may join though list may be restricted and new members may be
moderated in order to screen for spammers. Archives open to public. Only
members may post.
Extremely Public (not realistic, but mentioned in order to demonstrate the
extreme condition that is possible and to show that there's a measure of
privacy in all lists): Anyone may join, including spammers. Anyone may post
whether or not they are members. Archives and membership list open to the
public. All members automatically become moderators with powers to delete
In my opinion, any of these categories is open to being reviewed. Reviewers
must use discretion when reviewing lists that are private, semi-private and
semi-public. If list owners request in the list description that a list not
be reviewed or not become part of a compilation of email lists, reviewers
should respect that.
Now, what is meant by a 'review'? A review would include a statement of
fact. Such a statement would include whatever is on the home page of the
A review also states opinions and makes comparisons to other lists. In
private, semi-private and semi-public lists, members' names and their
writings shouldn't be revealed. The tone of the list, the general topics and
threads, how the list compares to others, could all be discussed. The main
consideration is to respect the privacy of the members.
However, the owner/moderator is the first line of protection. It shouldn't
be left to a list reviewer. In my opinion, to protect privacy, do not reveal
the name of the list to outsiders and do not volunteer any information on the
Yahoogroups home page. Invite people to join and don't talk about the list.
Take efforts to make it "Private" according to the description above.
top of page
Perspective on social
Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet Economics & Culture, Media & Community, Open
[email protected] A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy A speech at ETech, April, 2003
Published July 1, 2003 on the "Networks, Economics, and Culture" mailing list. Subscribe
to the mailing list. http://www.shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html
This is a lightly edited version of the keynote I gave on Social Software at the O'Reilly
Emerging Technology conference in Santa Clara on April 24, 2003
Good morning, everybody. I want to talk this morning about social software ...there's a
surprise. I want to talk about a pattern I've seen over and over again in social software
that supports large and long-lived groups. And that pattern is the pattern described in
the title of this talk: "A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy."
In particular, I want to talk about what I now think is one of the core challenges for
designing large-scale social software. Let me offer a definition of social software,
because it's a term that's still fairly amorphous. My definition is fairly simple: It's
software that supports group interaction. I also want to emphasize, although that's a
fairly simple definition, how radical that pattern is. The Internet supports lots of
communications patterns, principally point- to-point and two-way, one-to-many outbound,
and many-to-many two-way.
Prior to the Internet, we had lots of patterns that supported point- to-point two-way. We
had telephones, we had the telegraph. We were familiar with technological mediation of
those kinds of conversations. Prior to the Internet, we had lots of patterns that
supported one-way outbound. I could put something on television or the radio, I could
publish a newspaper. We had the printing press. So although the Internet does good things
for those patterns, they're patterns we knew from before.
Prior to the Internet, the last technology that had any real effect on the way people sat
down and talked together was the table. There was no technological mediation for group
conversations. The closest we got was the conference call, which never really worked
right -- "Hello? Do I push this button now? Oh, shoot, I just hung up." It's not easy to
set up a conference call, but it's very easy to email five of your friends and say "Hey,
where are we going for pizza?" So ridiculously easy group forming is really news.
We've had social software for 40 years at most, dated from the Plato BBS system, and
we've only had 10 years or so of widespread availability, so we're just finding out what
works. We're still learning how to make these kinds of things.
Now, software that supports group interaction is a fundamentally unsatisfying definition
in many ways, because it doesn't point to a specific class of technology. If you look at
email, it obviously supports social patterns, but it can also support a broadcast
pattern. If I'm a spammer, I'm going to mail things out to a million people, but they're
not going to be talking to one another, and I'm not going to be talking to them -- spam
is email, but it isn't social. If I'm mailing you, and you're mailing me back, we're
having point-to-point and two-way conversation, but not one that creates group dynamics.
So email doesn't necessarily support social patterns, group patterns, although it can.
Ditto a weblog. If I'm Glenn Reynolds, and I'm publishing something with Comments Off and
reaching a million users a month, that's really broadcast. It's interesting that I can do
it as a single individual, but the pattern is closer to MSNBC than it is to a
conversation. If it's a cluster of half a dozen LiveJournal users, on the other hand,
talking about their lives with one another, that's social. So, again, weblogs are not
necessarily social, although they can support social patterns.
Nevertheless, I think that definition is the right one, because it recognizes the
fundamentally social nature of the problem. Groups are a run-time effect. You cannot
specify in advance what the group will do, and so you can't substantiate in software
everything you expect to have happen.
Now, there's a large body of literature saying "We built this software, a group came and
used it, and they began to exhibit behaviors that surprised us enormously, so we've gone
and documented these behaviors." Over and over and over again this pattern comes up. (I
hear Stewart [Brand, of the WELL] laughing.) The WELL is one of those places where this
pattern came up over and over again.
This talk is in three parts. The best explanation I have found for the kinds of things
that happen when groups of humans interact is psychological research that predates the
Internet, so the first part is going to be about W.R. Bion's research, which I will talk
about in a moment, research that I believe explains how and why a group is its own worst
The second part is: Why now? What's going on now that makes this worth thinking about? I
think we're seeing a revolution in social software in the current environment that's
And third, I want to identify some things, about half a dozen things, in fact, that I
think are core to any software that supports larger, long-lived groups.
Part One: How is a group its own worst enemy?
So, Part One. The best explanation I have found for the ways in which this pattern
establishes itself, the group is its own worst enemy, comes from a book by W.R. Bion
called "Experiences in Groups," written in the middle of the last century.
Bion was a psychologist who was doing group therapy with groups of neurotics. (Drawing
parallels between that and the Internet is left as an exercise for the reader.) The thing
that Bion discovered was that the neurotics in his care were, as a group, conspiring to
There was no overt communication or coordination. But he could see that whenever he would
try to do anything that was meant to have an effect, the group would somehow quash it.
And he was driving himself crazy, in the colloquial sense of the term, trying to figure
out whether or not he should be looking at the situation as: Are these individuals taking
action on their own? Or is this a coordinated group?
top of page
He could never resolve the question, and so he decided that the unresolvability of the
question was the answer. To the question: Do you view groups of people as aggregations of
individuals or as a cohesive group, his answer was: "Hopelessly committed to both."
He said that humans are fundamentally individual, and also fundamentally social. Every
one of us has a kind of rational decision- making mind where we can assess what's going
on and make decisions and act on them. And we are all also able to enter viscerally into
emotional bonds with other groups of people that transcend the intellectual aspects of
In fact, Bion was so convinced that this was the right answer that the image he put on
the front cover of his book was a Necker cube, one of those cubes that you can look at
and make resolve in one of two ways, but you can never see both views of the cube at the
same time. So groups can be analyzed both as collections of individuals and having this
kind of emotive group experience.
Now, it's pretty easy to see how groups of people who have formal memberships, groups
that have been labeled and named like "I am a member of such-and-such a guild in a
massively multi-player online role-playing game," it's easy to see how you would have
some kind of group cohesion there. But Bion's thesis is that this effect is much, much
deeper, and kicks in much, much sooner than many of us expect. So I want to illustrate
this with a story, and to illustrate the illustration, I'll use a story from your life.
Because even if I don't know you, I know what I'm about to describe has happened to you.
You are at a party, and you get bored. You say "This isn't doing it for me anymore. I'd
rather be someplace else. I'd rather be home asleep. The people I wanted to talk to
aren't here." Whatever. The party fails to meet some threshold of interest. And then a
really remarkable thing happens: You don't leave. You make a decision "I don't like
this." If you were in a bookstore and you said "I'm done," you'd walk out. If you were in
a coffee shop and said "This is boring," you'd walk out.
You're sitting at a party, you decide "I don't like this; I don't want to be here." And
then you don't leave. That kind of social stickiness is what Bion is talking about.
And then, another really remarkable thing happens. Twenty minutes later, one person
stands up and gets their coat, and what happens? Suddenly everyone is getting their coats
on, all at the same time. Which means that everyone had decided that the party was not
for them, and no one had done anything about it, until finally this triggering event let
the air out of the group, and everyone kind of felt okay about leaving.
This effect is so steady it's sometimes called the paradox of groups. It's obvious that
there are no groups without members. But what's less obvious is that there are no members
without a group. Because what would you be a member of?
So there's this very complicated moment of a group coming together, where enough
individuals, for whatever reason, sort of agree that something worthwhile is happening,
and the decision they make at that moment is: This is good and must be protected. And at
that moment, even if it's subconscious, you start getting group effects. And the effects
that we've seen come up over and over and over again in online communities.
Now, Bion decided that what he was watching with the neurotics was the group defending
itself against his attempts to make the group do what they said they were supposed to do.
The group was convened to get better, this group of people was in therapy to get better.
But they were defeating that. And he said, there are some very specific patterns that
they're entering into to defeat the ostensible purpose of the group meeting together. And
he detailed three patterns.
The first is sex talk, what he called, in his mid-century prose, "A group met for pairing
off." 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.
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.
If you want to make it better, there's a list of things to do. It's Open Source, right?
Just fix it. "No, no, Microsoft and Bill Gates grrrrr ...", the froth would start coming
out. The external enemy -- nothing causes a group to galvanize like an external enemy.
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.
So these are human patterns that have shown up on the Internet, not because of the
software, but because it's being used by humans. Bion has identified this possibility of
groups sandbagging their sophisticated goals with these basic urges. And what he finally
came to, in analyzing this tension, is that group structure is necessary. Robert's Rules
of Order are necessary. 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.
He said the group structure is necessary to defend the group from itself. Group structure
exists to keep a group on target, on track, on message, on charter, whatever. To keep a
group focused on its own sophisticated goals and to keep a group from sliding into these
basic patterns. Group structure defends the group from the action of its own members.
In the Seventies -- this is a pattern that's shown up on the network over and over again
-- in the Seventies, a BBS called Communitree launched, one of the very early dial-up
BBSes. This was launched when people didn't own computers, institutions owned computers.
Communitree was founded on the principles of open access and free dialogue. "Communitree"
-- the name just says "California in the Seventies." And the notion was, effectively,
throw off structure and new and beautiful patterns will arise.
top of page
And, indeed, as anyone who has put discussion software into groups that were previously
disconnected has seen, that does happen. Incredible things happen. The early days of
Echo, the early days of usenet, the early days of Lucasfilms Habitat, over and over
again, you see all this incredible upwelling of people who suddenly are connected in ways
they weren't before.
And then, as time sets in, difficulties emerge. In this case, one of the difficulties was
occasioned by the fact that one of the institutions that got hold of some modems was a
high school. And who, in 1978, was hanging out in the room with the computer and the
modems in it, but the boys of that high school. And the boys weren't terribly interested
in sophisticated adult conversation. They were interested in fart jokes. They were
interested in salacious talk. They were interested in running amok and posting
four-letter words and nyah-nyah-nyah, all over the bulletin board.
And the adults who had set up Communitree were horrified, and overrun by these students.
The place that was founded on open access had too much open access, too much openness.
They couldn't defend themselves against their own users. The place that was founded on
free speech had too much freedom. They had no way of saying "No, that's not the kind of
free speech we meant."
But that was a requirement. In order to defend themselves against being overrun, that was
something that they needed to have that they didn't have, and as a result, they simply
shut the site down.
Now you could ask whether or not the founders' inability to defend themselves from this
onslaught, from being overrun, was a technical or a social problem. Did the software not
allow the problem to be solved? Or was it the social configuration of the group that
founded it, where they simply couldn't stomach the idea of adding censorship to protect
their system. But in a way, it doesn't matter, because technical and social issues are
deeply intertwined. There's no way to completely separate them.
What matters is, a group designed this and then was unable, in the context they'd set up,
partly a technical and partly a social context, to save it from this attack from within.
And attack from within is what matters. Communitree wasn't shut down by people trying to
crash or syn-flood the server. It was shut down by people logging in and posting, which
is what the system was designed to allow. The technological pattern of normal use and
attack were identical at the machine level, so there was no way to specify
technologically what should and shouldn't happen. Some of the users wanted the system to
continue to exist and to provide a forum for discussion. And other of the users, the high
school boys, either didn't care or were actively inimical. And the system provided no way
for the former group to defend itself from the latter.
Now, this story has been written many times. It's actually frustrating to see how many
times it's been written. You'd hope that at some point that someone would write it down,
and they often do, but what then doesn't happen is other people don't read it.
The most charitable description of this repeated pattern is "learning from experience."
But learning from experience is the worst possible way to learn something. Learning from
experience is one up from remembering. That's not great. The best way to learn something
is when someone else figures it out and tells you: "Don't go in that swamp. There are
alligators in there."
Learning from experience about the alligators is lousy, compared to learning from
reading, say. There hasn't been, unfortunately, in this arena, a lot of learning from
reading. And so, lessons from Lucasfilms' Habitat, written in 1990, reads a lot like Rose
Stone's description of Communitree from 1978.
This pattern has happened over and over and over again. Someone built the system, they
assumed certain user behaviors. The users came on and exhibited different behaviors. And
the people running the system discovered to their horror that the technological and
social issues could not in fact be decoupled.
There's a great document called "LambdaMOO Takes a New Direction," which is about the
wizards of LambdaMOO, Pavel Curtis's Xerox PARC experiment in building a MUD world. And
one day the wizards of LambdaMOO announced "We've gotten this system up and running, and
all these interesting social effects are happening. Henceforth we wizards will only be
involved in technological issues. We're not going to get involved in any of that social
And then, I think about 18 months later -- I don't remember the exact gap of time -- they
come back. The wizards come back, extremely cranky. And they say: "What we have learned
from you whining users is that we can't do what we said we would do. We cannot separate
the technological aspects from the social aspects of running a virtual world.
"So we're back, and we're taking wizardly fiat back, and we're going to do things to run
the system. We are effectively setting ourselves up as a government, because this place
needs a government, because without us, the place was falling apart."
People who work on social software are closer in spirit to economists and political
scientists than they are to people making compilers. They both look like programming, but
when you're dealing with groups of people as one of your run-time phenomena, that is an
incredibly different practice. In the political realm, we would call these kinds of
crises a constitutional crisis. It's what happens when the tension between the individual
and the group, and the rights and responsibilities of individuals and groups, gets so
serious that something has to be done.
And the worst crisis is the first crisis, because it's not just "We need to have some
rules." It's also "We need to have some rules for making some rules." And this is what we
see over and over again in large and long-lived social software systems. Constitutions
are a necessary component of large, long-lived, heterogenous groups.
Geoff Cohen has a great observation about this. He said "The likelihood that any
unmoderated group will eventually get into a flame-war about whether or not to have a
moderator approaches one as time increases." As a group commits to its existence as a
group, and begins to think that the group is good or important, the chance that they will
begin to call for additional structure, in order to defend themselves from themselves,
gets very, very high.
Part Two: Why now?
If these things I'm saying have happened so often before, have been happening and been
documented and we've got psychological literature that predates the Internet, what's
going on now that makes this important?
I can't tell you precisely why, but observationally there is a revolution in social
software going on. The number of people writing tools to support or enhance group
collaboration or communication is astonishing.
The web turned us all into size queens for six or eight years there. It was loosely
coupled, it was stateless, it scaled like crazy, and everything became about How big can
you get? "How many users does Yahoo have? How many customers does Amazon have? How many
readers does MSNBC have?" And the answer could be "Really a lot!" But it could only be
really a lot if you didn't require MSNBC to be answering those readers, and you didn't
require those readers to be talking to one another.
The downside of going for size and scale above all else is that the dense, interconnected
pattern that drives group conversation and collaboration isn't supportable at any large
scale. Less is different -- small groups of people can engage in kinds of interaction
that large groups can't. And so we blew past that interesting scale of small groups.
Larger than a dozen, smaller than a few hundred, where people can actually have these
conversational forms that can't be supported when you're talking about tens of thousands
or millions of users, at least in a single group.
We've had things like mailing lists and BBSes for a long time, and more recently we've
had IM, we've had these various patterns. And now, all of a sudden, these things are
popping up. We've gotten weblogs and wikis, and I think, even more importantly, we're
getting platform stuff. We're getting RSS. We're getting shared Flash objects. We're
getting ways to quickly build on top of some infrastructure we can take for granted, that
lets us try new things very rapidly.
I was talking to Stewart Butterfield about the chat application they're trying here. I
said "Hey, how's that going?" He said: "Well, we only had the idea for it two weeks ago.
So this is the launch." When you can go from "Hey, I've got an idea" to "Let's launch
this in front of a few hundred serious geeks and see how it works," that suggests that
there's a platform there that is letting people do some really interesting things really
quickly. It's not that you couldn't have built a similar application a couple of years
ago, but the cost would have been much higher. And when you lower costs, interesting new
kinds of things happen.
So the first answer to Why Now? is simply "Because it's time." I can't tell you why it
took as long for weblogs to happen as it did, except to say it had absolutely nothing to
do with technology. We had every bit of technology we needed to do weblogs the day Mosaic
launched the first forms-capable browser. Every single piece of it was right there.
Instead, we got Geocities. Why did we get Geocities and not weblogs? We didn't know what
we were doing.
top of page
One was a bad idea, the other turns out to be a really good idea. It took a long time to
figure out that people talking to one another, instead of simply uploading badly-scanned
photos of their cats, would be a useful pattern.
We got the weblog pattern in around '96 with Drudge. We got weblog platforms starting in
'98. The thing really was taking off in 2000. By last year, everyone realized: Omigod,
this thing is going mainstream, and it's going to change everything.
The vertigo moment for me was when Phil Gyford launched the Pepys weblog, Samuel Pepys'
diaries of the 1660's turned into a weblog form, with a new post every day from Pepys'
diary. What that said to me was: Phil was asserting, and I now believe, that weblogs will
be around for at least 10 years, because that's how long Pepys kept a diary. And that was
this moment of projecting into the future: This is now infrastructure we can take for
Why was there an eight-year gap between a forms-capable browser and the Pepys diaries? I
don't know. It just takes a while for people to get used to these ideas.
So, first of all, this is a revolution in part because it is a revolution. We've
internalized the ideas and people are now working with them. Second, the things that
people are now building are web- native.
When you got social software on the web in the mid-Nineties, a lot of it was: "This is
the Giant Lotus Dreadnought, now with New Lightweight Web Interface!" It never felt like
the web. It felt like this hulking thing with a little, you know, "Here's some icons.
Don't look behind the curtain."
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.
Third, in David Weinberger's felicitous phrase, we can now start to have a Small Pieces
Loosely Joined pattern. It's really worthwhile to look into what Joi Ito is doing with
the Emergent Democracy movement, even if you're not interested in the themes of emerging
democracy. This started because a conversation was going on, and Ito said "I am
frustrated. I'm sitting here in Japan, and I know all of these people are having these
conversations in real-time with one another. I want to have a group conversation, too.
I'll start a conference call.
"But since conference calls are so lousy on their own, I'm going to bring up a chat
window at the same time." And then, in the first meeting, I think it was Pete Kaminski
said "Well, I've also opened up a wiki, and here's the URL." And he posted it in the chat
window. And people can start annotating things. People can start adding bookmarks; here
are the lists.
So, suddenly you've got this meeting, which is going on in three separate modes at the
same time, two in real-time and one annotated. So you can have the conference call going
on, and you know how conference calls are. Either one or two people dominate it, or
everyone's like "Oh, can I -- no, but --", everyone interrupting and cutting each other
It's very difficult to coordinate a conference call, because people can't see one
another, which makes it hard to manage the interrupt logic. In Joi's conference call, the
interrupt logic got moved to the chat room. People would type "Hand," and the moderator
of the conference call will then type "You're speaking next," in the chat. So the
conference call flowed incredibly smoothly.
Meanwhile, in the chat, people are annotating what people are saying. "Oh, that reminds
me of So-and-so's work." Or "You should look at this URL...you should look at that ISBN
number." In a conference call, to read out a URL, you have to spell it out -- "No, no,
no, it's w w w dot net dash..." In a chat window, you get it and you can click on it
right there. You can say, in the conference call or the chat: "Go over to the wiki and
look at this."
This is a broadband conference call, but it isn't a giant thing. It's just 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.
And finally, and this is the thing that I think is the real freakout, is ubiquity. The
web has been growing for a long, long time. And so some people had web access, and then
lots of people had web access, and then most people had web access.
But something different is happening now. In many situations, all people have access to
the network. And "all" is a different kind of amount than "most." "All" lets you start
taking things for granted.
Now, the Internet isn't everywhere in the world. It isn't even everywhere in the
developed world. But for some groups of people -- students, people in high-tech offices,
knowledge workers -- everyone they work with is online. Everyone they're friends with is
online. Everyone in their family is online.
And this pattern of ubiquity lets you start taking this for granted. Bill Joy once said
"My method is to look at something that seems like a good idea and assume it's true."
We're starting to see software that simply assumes that all offline groups will have an
online component, no matter what.
It is now possible for every grouping, from a Girl Scout troop on up, to have an online
component, and for it to be lightweight and easy to manage. And that's a different kind
of thing than the old pattern of "online community." I have this image of two hula hoops,
the old two-hula hoop world, where my real life is over here, and my online life is over
there, and there wasn't much overlap between them. If the hula hoops are swung together,
and everyone who's offline is also online, at least from my point of view, that's a
different kind of pattern.
There's a second kind of ubiquity, which is the kind we're enjoying here thanks to Wifi.
If you assume whenever a group of people are gathered together, that they can be both
face to face and online at the same time, you can start to do different kinds of things.
I now don't run a meeting without either having a chat room or a wiki up and running.
Three weeks ago I ran a meeting for the Library of Congress. We had a wiki, set up by
Socialtext, to capture a large and very dense amount of technical information on
long-term digital preservation.
The people who organized the meeting had never used a wiki before, and now the Library of
Congress is talking as if they always had a wiki for their meetings, and are assuming
it's going to be at the next meeting as well -- the wiki went from novel to normal in a
couple of days.
It really quickly becomes an assumption that a group can do things like "Oh, I took my
PowerPoint slides, I showed them, and then I dumped them into the wiki. So now you can
get at them." It becomes a sort of shared repository for group memory. This is new. These
kinds of ubiquity, both everyone is online, and everyone who's in a room can be online
together at the same time, can lead to new patterns.
Part Three: What can we take for granted?
If these assumptions are right, one that a group is its own worst enemy, and two, we're
seeing this explosion of social software, what should we do? Is there anything we can say
with any certainty about building social software, at least for large and long-lived
I think there is. A little over 10 years ago, I quit my day job, because Usenet was so
interesting, I thought: This is really going to be big. And I actually wrote a book about
net culture at the time: Usenet, the Well, Echo, IRC and so forth. It launched in April
of '95, just as that world was being washed away by the web. But it was my original
interest, so I've been looking at this problem in one way or another for 10 years, and
I've been looking at it pretty hard for the a year and a half or so.
So there's this question "What is required to make a large, long- lived online group
successful?" and I think I can now answer with some confidence: "It depends." I'm hoping
to flesh that answer out a little bit in the next ten years.
But I can at least say some of the things it depends on. The Calvinists had a doctrine of
natural grace and supernatural grace. Natural grace was "You have to do all the right
things in the world to get to heaven..." and supernatural grace was "...and God has to
anoint you." And you never knew if you had supernatural grace or not. This was their way
of getting around the fact that the Book of Revelations put an upper limit on the number
of people who were going to heaven.
Social software is like that. You can find the same piece of code running in many, many
environments. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. So there is something
supernatural about groups being a run-time experience.
The normal experience of social software is failure. If you go into Yahoo groups and you
map out the subscriptions, it is, unsurprisingly, a power law. There's a small number of
highly populated groups, a moderate number of moderately populated groups, and this long,
flat tail of failure. And the failure is inevitably more than 50% of the total mailing
lists in any category. So it's not like a cake recipe. There's nothing you can do to make
it come out right every time.
There are, however, I think, about half a dozen things that are broadly true of all the
groups I've looked at and all the online constitutions I've read for software that
supports large and long- lived groups. And I'd break that list in half. I'd say, if you
are going to create a piece of social software designed to support large groups, you have
to accept three things, and design for four things.
top of page
Three Things to Accept
1.) Of the things you have to accept, the first is that you cannot completely separate
technical and social issues. There are two attractive patterns. One says, we'll handle
technology over `here, we'll do social issues there. We'll have separate mailing lists
with separate discussion groups, or we'll have one track here and one track there. This
doesn't work. It's never been stated more clearly than in the pair of documents called
"LambdaMOO Takes a New Direction." I can do no better than to point you to those
But recently we've had this experience where there was a social software discussion list,
and someone said "I know, let's set up a second mailing list for technical issues." And
no one moved from the first list, because no one could fork the conversation between
social and technical issues, because the conversation can't be forked.
The other pattern that's very, very attractive -- anybody who looks at this stuff has the
same epiphany, which is: "Omigod, this software is determining what people do!" And that
is true, up to a point. But you cannot completely program social issues either. So you
can't separate the two things, and you also can't specify all social issues in
technology. The group is going to assert its rights somehow, and you're going to get this
mix of social and technological effects.
So the group is real. It will exhibit emergent effects. It can't be ignored, and it can't
be programmed, which means you have an ongoing issue. And the best pattern, or at least
the pattern that's worked the most often, is to put into the hands of the group itself
the responsibility for defining what value is, and defending that value, rather than
trying to ascribe those things in the software upfront.
2.) The second thing you have to accept: Members are different than users. A pattern will
arise in which there is some group of users that cares more than average about the
integrity and success of the group as a whole. And that becomes your core group, Art
Kleiner's phrase for "the group within the group that matters most."
The core group on Communitree was undifferentiated from the group of random users that
came in. They were separate in their own minds, because they knew what they wanted to do,
but they couldn't defend themselves against the other users. But in all successful online
communities that I've looked at, a core group arises that cares about and gardens
effectively. Gardens the environment, to keep it growing, to keep it healthy.
Now, the software does not always allow the core group to express itself, which is why I
say you have to accept this. Because if the software doesn't allow the core group to
express itself, it will invent new ways of doing so.
On alt.folklore.urban , the discussion group about urban folklore on Usenet, there was a
group of people who hung out there and got to be friends. And they came to care about the
existence of AFU, to the point where, because Usenet made no distinction between members
in good standing and drive-by users, they set up a mailing list called The Old Hats. The
mailing list was for meta-discussion, discussion about AFU, so they could coordinate
efforts formally if they were going to troll someone or flame someone or ignore someone,
on the mailing list.
Addendum, July 2, 2003: A longtime a.f.u participant says that the Old Hat list was
created to allow the Silicon Valley-dwelling members to plan a barbecue, so that they
could add a face-to-face dimension to their virtual interaction. The use of the list as a
backstage area for discussing the public newsgroup arose after the fact.
Then, as Usenet kept growing, many newcomers came along and seemed to like the
environment, because it was well-run. In order to defend themselves from the scaling
issues that come from of adding a lot of new members to the Old Hats list, they said
"We're starting a second list, called the Young Hats."
So they created this three-tier system, not dissimilar to the tiers of anonymous cowards,
logged-in users, and people with high karma on Slashdot. But because Usenet didn't let
them do it in the software, they brought in other pieces of software, these mailing
lists, that they needed to build the structure. So you don't get the program users, the
members in good standing will find one another and be recognized to one another.
3.) The third thing you need to accept: 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 early Nineties, a proposal went out to create a Usenet news group for discussing
Tibetan culture, called soc.culture.tibet. And it was voted down, in large part because a
number of Chinese students who had Internet access voted it down, on the logic that Tibet
wasn't a country; it was a region of China. And in their view, since Tibet wasn't a
country, there oughtn't be any place to discuss its culture, because that was oxymoronic.
Now, everyone could see that this was the wrong answer. The people who wanted a place to
discuss Tibetan culture should have it. That was the core group. But because the one
person/one vote model on Usenet said "Anyone who's on Usenet gets to vote on any group,"
sufficiently contentious groups could simply be voted away.
Imagine today if, in the United States, Internet users had to be polled before any
anti-war group could be created. Or French users had to be polled before any pro-war
group could be created. The people who want to have those discussions are the people who
matter. And absolute citizenship, with the idea that if you can log in, you are a
citizen, is a harmful pattern, because it is the tyranny of the majority.
So the core group needs ways to defend itself -- both in getting started and because of
the effects I talked about earlier -- the core group needs to defend itself so that it
can stay on its sophisticated goals and away from its basic instincts.
The Wikipedia has a similar system today, with a volunteer fire department, a group of
people who care to an unusual degree about the success of the Wikipedia. And they have
enough leverage, because of the way wikis work, they can always roll back graffiti and so
forth, that that thing has stayed up despite repeated attacks. So leveraging the core
group is a really powerful system.
Now, when I say these are three things you have to accept, I mean you have to accept
them. Because if you don't accept them upfront, they'll happen to you anyway. And then
you'll end up writing one of those documents that says "Oh, we launched this and we tried
it, and then the users came along and did all these weird things. And now we're
documenting it so future ages won't make this mistake." Even though you didn't read the
thing that was written in 1978.
All groups of any integrity have a constitution. The constitution is always partly formal
and partly informal. At the very least, the formal part is what's substantiated in code
-- "the software works this way."
The informal part is the sense of "how we do it around here." And no matter how is
substantiated in code or written in charter, whatever, there will always be an informal
part as well. You can't separate the two.
Four Things to Design For
1.) If you were going to build a piece of social software to support large and long-lived
groups, what would you design for? The first thing you would design for is handles the
user can invest in.
Now, I say "handles," because I don't want to say "identity," because identity has
suddenly become one of those ideas where, when you pull on the little thread you want,
this big bag of stuff comes along with it. Identity is such a hot-button issue now, but
for the lightweight stuff required for social software, its really just a handle that
It's pretty widely understood that anonymity doesn't work well in group settings, because
"who said what when" is the minimum requirement for having a conversation. What's less
well understood is that weak pseudonymity doesn't work well, either. Because I need to
associate who's saying something to me now with previous conversations.
The world's best reputation management system is right here, in the brain. And actually,
it's right here, in the back, in the emotional part of the brain. Almost all the work
being done on reputation systems today is either trivial or useless or both, because
reputations aren't linearizable, and they're not portable.
There are people who cheat on their spouse but not at cards, and vice versa, and both and
neither. Reputation is not necessarily portable from one situation to another, and it's
not easily expressed.
eBay has done us all an enormous disservice, because eBay works in non-iterated atomic
transactions, which are the opposite of social situations. eBay's reputation system works
incredibly well, because it starts with a linearizable transaction -- "How much money for
how many Smurfs?" -- and turns that into a metric that's equally linear.
That doesn't work well in social situations. If you want a good reputation system, just
let me remember who you are. And if you do me a favor, I'll remember it. And I won't
store it in the front of my brain, I'll store it here, in the back. I'll just get a good
feeling next time I get email from you; I won't even remember why. And if you do me a
disservice and I get email from you, my temples will start to throb, and I won't even
remember why. If you give users a way of remembering one another, reputation will happen,
and that requires nothing more than simple and somewhat persistent handles.
Users have to be able to identify themselves and there has to be a penalty for switching
handles. The penalty for switching doesn't have to be total. But if I change my handle on
the system, I have to lose some kind of reputation or some kind of context. This keeps
the system functioning.
Now, this pulls against the sense that we've had since the early psychological writings
about the Internet. "Oh, on the Internet we're all going to be changing identities and
genders like we change our socks."
top of page
And you see things like the Kaycee Nicole story, where a woman in Kansas pretended to be
a high school student, and then because the invented high school student's friends got so
emotionally involved, she then tried to kill the Kaycee Nicole persona off. "Oh, she's
got cancer and she's dying and it's all very tragic." And of course, everyone wanted to
fly to meet her. So then she sort of panicked and vanished. And a bunch of places on the
Internet, particularly the MetaFilter community, rose up to find out what was going on,
and uncovered the hoax. It was sort of a distributed detective movement.
Now a number of people point to this and say "See, I told you about that identity thing!"
But the Kaycee Nicole story is this: changing your identity is really weird. And when the
community understands that you've been doing it and you're faking, that is seen as a huge
and violent transgression. And they will expend an astonishing amount of energy to find
you and punish you. So identity is much less slippery than the early literature would
lead us to believe.
2.) Second, you have to design a way for there to be members in good standing. Have to
design some way in which good works get recognized. The minimal way is, posts appear with
identity. You can do more sophisticated things like having formal karma or "member
I'm on the fence about whether or not this is a design or accepting. Because in a way I
think members in good standing will rise. But more and more of the systems I'm seeing
launching these days are having some kind of additional accretion so you can tell how
much involvement members have with the system.
There's an interesting pattern I'm seeing among the music-sharing group that operates
between Tokyo and Hong Kong. They operate on a mailing list, which they set up for
themselves. But when they're trading music, what they're doing is, they're FedExing one
another 180-gig hard-drives. So you're getting .wav files and not MP3s, and you're
getting them in bulk.
Now, you can imagine that such a system might be a target for organizations that would
frown on this activity. So when you join that group, your user name is appended with the
user name of the person who is your sponsor. You can't get in without your name being
linked to someone else. You can see immediately the reputational effects going on there,
just from linking two handles.
So in that system, you become a member in good standing when your sponsor link goes away
and you're there on your own report. If, on the other hand, you defect, not only are you
booted, but your sponsor is booted. There are lots and lots of lightweight ways to accept
and work with the idea of member in good standing.
3.) Three, you need barriers to participation. This is one of the things that killed
Usenet. You have to have some cost to either join or participate, if not at the lowest
level, then at higher levels. There needs to be some kind of segmentation of
Now, the segmentation can be total -- you're in or you're out, as with the music group I
just listed. Or it can be partial -- anyone can read Slashdot, anonymous cowards can
post, non-anonymous cowards can post with a higher rating. But to moderate, you really
have to have been around for a while.
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.
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, because you've got the Necker cube
flipped in the wrong direction. The user of social software is the group, not the
I think we've all been to meetings where everyone had a really good time, we're all
talking to one another and telling jokes and laughing, and it was a great meeting, except
we got nothing done. Everyone was amusing themselves so much that the group's goal was
defeated by the individual interventions.
The user of social software is the group, and ease of use should be for the group. If the
ease of use is only calculated from the user's point of view, it will be difficult to
defend the group from the "group is its own worst enemy" style attacks from within.
4.) And, finally, you have to find a way to spare the group from scale. Scale alone kills
conversations, because conversations require dense two-way conversations. In
conversational contexts, Metcalfe's law is a drag. The fact that the amount of two-way
connections you have to support goes up with the square of the users means that the
density of conversation falls off very fast as the system scales even a little bit. You
have to have some way to let users hang onto the less is more pattern, in order to keep
associated with one another.
This is an inverse value to scale question. Think about your Rolodex. A thousand
contacts, maybe 150 people you can call friends, 30 people you can call close friends,
two or three people you'd donate a kidney to. The value is inverse to the size of the
group. And you have to find some way to protect the group within the context of those
Sometimes you can do soft forking. Live Journal does the best soft forking of any
software I've ever seen, where the concepts of "you" and "your group" are pretty much
intertwingled. The average size of a Live Journal group is about a dozen people. And the
median size is around five.
But each user is a little bit connected to other such clusters, through their friends,
and so while the clusters are real, they're not completely bounded -- there's a soft
overlap which means that though most users participate in small groups, most of the half-
million LiveJournal users are connected to one another through some short chain.
IRC channels and mailing lists are self-moderating with scale, because as the signal to
noise ratio gets worse, people start to drop off, until it gets better, so people join,
and so it gets worse. You get these sort of oscillating patterns. But it's
And then my favorite pattern is from MetaFilter, which is: When we start seeing effects
of scale, we shut off the new user page. "Someone mentions us in the press and how great
we are? Bye!" That's a way of raising the bar, that's creating a threshold of
participation. And anyone who bookmarks that page and says "You know, I really want to be
in there; maybe I'll go back later," that's the kind of user MeFi wants to have.
You have to find some way to protect your own users from scale. This doesn't mean the
scale of the whole system can't grow. But you can't try to make the system large by
taking individual conversations and blowing them up like a balloon; human interaction,
many to many interaction, doesn't blow up like a balloon. It either dissipates, or turns
into broadcast, or collapses. So plan for dealing with scale in advance, because it's
going to happen anyway.
Now, those four things are of course necessary but not sufficient conditions. I propose
them more as a platform for building the interesting differences off. There are lots and
lots and lots of other effects that make different bits of software interesting enough
that you would want to keep more than one kind of pattern around. But those are
commonalities I'm seeing across a range of social software for large and long-lived
In addition, you can do all sorts of things with explicit clustering, whether it's guilds
in massively multi-player games, or communities on Live Journal or what have you. You can
do things with conversational artifacts, where the group participation leaves behind some
record. The Wikipedia right now, the group collaborated online encyclopedia is the most
interesting conversational artifact I know of, where product is a result of process.
Rather than "We're specifically going to get together and create this presentation" it's
just "What's left is a record of what we said."
There are all these things, and of course they differ platform to platform. But there is
this, I believe, common core of things that will happen whether you plan for them or not,
and things you should plan for, that I think are invariant across large communal
Writing social software is hard. And, as I said, the act of writing social software is
more like the work of an economist or a political scientist. And the act of hosting
social software, the relationship of someone who hosts it is more like a relationship of
landlords to tenants than owners to boxes in a warehouse.
The people using your software, even if you own it and pay for it, have rights and will
behave as if they have rights. And if you abrogate those rights, you'll hear about it
That's part of the problem that the John Hegel theory of community -- community leads to
content, which leads to commerce -- never worked. Because lo and behold, no matter who
came onto the Clairol chat boards, they sometimes wanted to talk about things that
weren't Clairol products.
"But we paid for this! This is the Clairol site!" Doesn't matter. The users are there for
one another. They may be there on hardware and software paid for by you, but the users
are there for one another.
The patterns here, I am suggesting, both the things to accept and the things to design
for, are givens. Assume these as a kind of social platform, and then you can start going
out and building on top of that the interesting stuff that I think is going to be the
real result of this period of experimentation with social software.
Thank you very much.
Published June 30, 2003 on the "Networks, Economics, and Culture" mailing list. Subscribe
to the mailing list.
top of page
Groups: Oneness and me-ness in the bag?
"...the group is often used to achieve a
sense of vitality by total submergence in the group, or a sense
of individual independence by total repudiation of the
Wilfrid Bion, Experiences in Groups
Wilfrid Bion spent only a fraction of his long
and creative career actively working with groups and writing
about them, but it was in this arena that he made his first
original contributions (which continue to spur our thought
today), and there is a sense in which he never left the group,
because as we know for him psychoanalysis was primarily the study
of how we think, and for him how we think is in relation to the
His conceptualization of groups as sharing
unconscious, as well as conscious, purposes and patterns of
interaction is taken for granted by us today, as if groups had
always been studied from this point of view. His description of
group members unconsciously cooperating in a few characteristic,
repetitive patterns which give the impression that they share a
basic assumption about their purpose still informs not only our
observations of group interactions that do fall into the patterns
he identified, but also our efforts to comprehend others we
discern which apparently do not. As a result, his way of looking
at groups has led on to the description of other basic assumption
states beyond those he identified as Dependency, Fight/flight and
Pairing (familiarly known as baD, baF and baP). Specifically, in
1974 Pierre Turquet described a fourth basic assumption which he
called 'Oneness' , in which members 'seek to join in a powerful
union with an omnipotent force' or 'to be lost in oceanic
feelings of unity' (baO). And two decades later, W. Gordon
Lawrence, Alistair Bain and Laurence Gould described a fifth
basic assumption which they named 'Me-ness' , in which the
assumption is that there is to be no group at all -- just
unaffiliated individuals, whose only joint purpose will be to
thwart the formation of a group out of fear that they might be
submerged in it or persecuted by it if it did form (baM).
Though Lawrence, Bain and Gould proposed Me-ness
as a separate, fifth basic assumption, they also used this
language: "To state this over-neatly, baM equals
not-baO." I don't remember being particularly struck by this
brief sentence when I first read their paper after it was
presented at the 1995 conference of the International Society for
the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations in London, and they do
not elaborate on that hint of complementarity in their paper, but
it seems it must have stuck in my unconscious and given me a clue
to some puzzling behaviors in groups I was working with then and
over the following year, and even groups I had been involved with
in past years.
Most of my observations have been of workplace
organizations, where I saw basic assumption Fight/flight as most
common when the primary concern of the group was competition,
basic assumption Dependency when it was about caretaking,
security and supplies, and basic assumption Pairing when it was
future planning or exploration and discovery. These challenges
seem to occur with varying frequency and degrees of prominence in
different kinds of workplace groups, and sometimes I felt as if I
could have detected what kind I was in just by determining the
nature of the most prevalent basic assumption. Fight/flight
seemed endemic where today's highly competitive, not to say
cut-throat, economic marketplace was the arena in which the group
had to act, Dependency when health and welfare were its charge,
and Pairing when the group was there to come up with something
new and visionary and redemptive in whatever field (my fantasy
was that Pairing would be particularly characteristic of
political campaign organizations, but I never consulted to any of
These are abbreviated descriptions of experiences
in three diverse groups, two of them workplace groups and the
other that recent upstart the on-line 'virtual group', in all of
which certain patterns were observed, including:
1. preoccupation with the formation,
reformulation or dissolution of the group,
2. seemingly random oscillations between Oneness
3. with the same leaders spearheading both
Oneness and Me-ness indifferently,
4. and both leaders and members displaying a high
incidence of attacks on linking.
In these fours ways they are representative of
experiences with other groups not described here, including a
religious organization, a consultation team, and a sales group.
My inclination, after reviewing not only the rationally
identifiable similarities but the emotional experience of being
in these situations and attempting to do work, was to think of
this combination as representative of one basic assumption. I
think of it as ba Grouping (or baG), tending to arise in response
to situations where the formation, reformulation or dissolution
of a group is in question; a basic assumption in which Oneness
and Me-ness function alternately and indifferently much as fight
and flight do in basic assumption Fight/flight; one where
fantasies of total union or total independence take the place of
achieving realistic interdependence, which is averted or
obliterated by attacks on linking. This is my hypothesized answer
to what the "something else" was that I saw happening.
And why? Whether it appeared in the form of a
fantasy of seamless union or of a fantasy of self-sufficient
individualism, this "something else" pattern often
seemed to serve the group as a whole in avoiding (or as an
unconscious preliminary to?) dealing with the great stress and
practical difficulty of conscious, rational, practical wrestling
with the formation, reformulation or dissolution of an actual
group of anxious, struggling individuals. At other times it
seemed to serve to buffer the individual member from the risk of
investing energy and emotion in a group threatened with the
vicissitudes common to formation, reformulation or
~Diane Hatcher Cano
Bion, W.R. (1961), EXPERIENCES
IN GROUPS, Tavistock Publications, London
Turquet, Pierre M. (1974), "Leadership: the
Individual and the Group", in Gibbard, G.S. et al, eds, THE
LARGE GROUP: THERAPY AND DYNAMICS, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco and
Lawrence, W.G., Bain, A., and Gould, L.,
"The Fifth Basic Assumption," paper read at the 1995
Conference of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic
Study of Organizations in London
Bion, W.R. (1967), "A Theory of
Thinking", in his SECOND THOUGHTS, Heineman, London
Bion, W.R. (1967), "Attacks on
Linking", in his SECOND THOUGHTS, Heineman, London
top of page
Psychological Applications on
A Discipline on the Threshold of a New Millennium
Azy Barak, PhD
Department of Psychology and Department of Education
University of Haifa
"The rapid developments in computers and information technology in the past decade has had their impact on psychology, which has moved in this context from local computer applications to network applications that take advantage of the Internet. The current article critically reviews various psychological applications in use on the Internet, with special emphasis given to their promises and advantages as well as to their shortcomings and problems. Specifically, ten types of psychological Internet applications are reviewed: information resources on psychological concepts and issues; self-help guides; psychological testing and assessment; help in deciding to undergo therapy; information about specific psychological services; single-session psychological advice through e-mail or e-bulletin boards; ongoing personal counseling and therapy through e-mail; real-time counseling through chat, web telephony, and videoconferencing; synchronous and asynchronous support groups, discussion groups, and group counseling; and psychological and social research. Following a discussion of ethical and related concerns, a call is voiced for intensive research and international brainstorming.
The emergence of information technology in the past decade, its widespread use at a reasonable price throughout the world, and the relative success in "user friendly computers" that allow more people to use computers are significantly reflected in the field of psychology. The technological advances initially affected local and individual operations in classes, laboratories, and clinics (e.g., teaching aids, storage of information, editing of documents, local experimentation); this quickly changed to include group and community activities through the introduction of computer networks. The formation of the Internet-a global computer network that connects ever-growing numbers of local networks and computers-has indeed created a "global village," where people communicate and interact on-line with ease.
Computer-mediated communication, using utilities such as electronic mail (e-mail), open virtual discussion groups (e.g., newsgroups), forums (which usually refer to specified or restricted groups), real-time text correspondence (e.g., chat rooms), voice exchange (telephony), and face-to-face video communications (videoconferencing), has now become routine and a normal part of everyday operations for business, education, and pleasure alike. The evolution and success of multimedia-aided commerce, telemedicine, distance education, newspapers, and play, all using rapidly developing communication technologies that reach out to many individuals, families, and communities, have created an ever-growing, self-reinforcing "magic circle" (Garton, Haythornthwaite, & Wellman, 1997; Jones, 1995; Morris & Ogan, 1996).
Psychology (and related professions) joined this trend modestly toward the end of the 1980s (see Zgodzinski, 1996, for a brief historical review) as a normal extension of the previous use of local computers for multiple functions (Ishak & Burt, 1998). Apart from e-mailing among professionals, psychological applications using the Internet, especially the World Wide Web (WWW), have appeared only relatively recently. Psychology is now discovering the great opportunities inherent in this medium, such as the use of the Net for approaching people more easily to initiate social change (Sampson, 1998), consulting with youngsters and adults (Casey, 1995), providing school counseling (Gray, 1997; Hartman, 1998), training and promoting team decision-making (Kruger, Cohen, Marca, & Matthews, 1996), sexuality education (Barak & Safir, 1997; Cooper, 1998), and generally contributing to mental health care by means of consultation and supervision (Smith, 1998; Stamm, 1998).
The purpose of the present article is to critically review the literature on different psychological applications used on the Internet and to point out their strengths and weaknesses. At the present time, research is very limited in both the number and scope of studies. Consequently, this review is descriptive and practical-oriented in nature. It is hoped that additional reviews will soon complement this one to present a more scientific evaluation of these state-of-the-art psychological endeavors. "
top of page
The internet: philosophical inquiry
Word of Mouse Issue 26
"Regular readers of this column will have noticed that I make frequent reference to Gordon Graham's book, The Internet: a philosophical inquiry. I originally reviewed this book in the Winter 2000 issue of TPM. I liked it, but thought that he didn't know quite enough about his subject matter for it to be a really good book. I stand by that judgement, but in retrospect think that I underestimated the significance of at least one of his arguments, namely, his analysis of "pure confluences of interest".
Graham's argument is that the internet is a medium which enables people to seek out exclusively kindred spirits and to avoid ever being exposed to views which are contrary to their own. He claims, for example, that:
"the self-made philosopher with a grand but completely vacuous 'theory of everything' will sooner or later find a coterie of people whose knowledge and critical acumen is even less, but who are willing to be impressed." (p. 99)
He thinks that this is a bad thing, because it encourages moral fragmentation, a descent into a kind of moral anarchy.
My objection to this argument was that it rested on a misunderstanding of the internet. The internet, I claimed, is a critical and self-reflexive community, and I noted that whilst it is possible to find self-proclaimed philosophers on the net, it is also the case that when they venture onto public forums they tend to be chased away mercilessly. I now think that this objection is mostly wrong.
At first thought, it seems obvious that the internet is an aggressively argumentative place. If you have a look at the various newsgroups, for example, you'll find that peace only rarely breaks out. And even the myriad special interest discussion forums which have sprung up in the last few years are characterised as much by dissent as by agreement. However, what I failed to recognise when I originally reviewed Graham's book is that the simple fact of dissent is not enough to guarantee that people's preconceptions and prejudices are properly challenged. The reason why has to do with the nature of group dynamics, and particularly with a kind of virtual world "groupthink".
The term "groupthink" was coined by psychologist Irving Janis to describe how decision-making in groups can be distorted by various pressures to conform. He argued that groupthink is characterised by a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment. Specifically, groupthink can result in: shared stereotyping; a denigration of non-members of the group; intolerance of dissent; moral certitude; a reluctance to examine preconceptions; and a resistance to new and countervailing ideas.
Janis was interested in the specific question of how groupthink can result in bad policy decisions, as in the case, for example, of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. However, it is quite possible to see a kind of groupthink at work in internet communities. For obvious reasons, this is most evident in those communities dominated by people who share pre-existing religious, moral or political beliefs. In such communities, one does find dissent and argument, but it tends to be circumscribed in two important ways.
First, amongst the most active members of the group, whilst there might be disagreements over matters of detail, there is normally very little disagreement about fundamental beliefs. For example, if you visit the discussion board of the extreme right-wing UK political party, the National Front, you'll find that whilst there are arguments about how the repatriation of non-white people should be achieved, there is no disagreement that repatriation is a good thing.
Second, on those comparatively rare occasions that somebody does question the more fundamental beliefs of the community, it provides an opportunity for its core members to reaffirm their commitment to the group by means of their condemnation of the interloper. Moreover, it is in their responses to this kind of challenge that group members will most often manifest the characteristic signs of groupthink.
It is primarily for these two reasons that the ubiquity of argument on the internet is no guarantee that people's preconceptions and prejudices will be properly challenged. Does this matter? On occasions it probably will. For example, consider the case of the "Heaven's Gate" cult. Thirty-nine of its members committed suicide seemingly because they believed that the Hale-Bopp comet was a sign that it was time for them to "leave" the Earth to be transported by means of a spacecraft to another world. The interesting point about this cult was that its isolation was facilitated by the internet. It was financed by a web design business, which meant that members had no need of contact with anyone but other members. Indeed, as Martin Rees points out in Our Final Century, the core beliefs of the cult were continually reinforced by selective transcontinental electronic contact with other adherents of the cult.
Of course, this is an extreme case, one that might not ever be repeated. Nevertheless, there is something slightly disturbing about the idea that the internet allows people to filter the kinds of inputs which they receive so that they largely avoid material which challenges their worldview. Although the internet is trumpeted as a great force for bringing people closer together, it might yet turn out that in many aspects it tends to encourage moral fragmentation and group polarisation."
top of page