All right, first off, if you don’t know Clay Shirky’s seminal “A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy”, go read it.
Now, what I’m going to talk about isn’t precisely the same as what Shirky’s talking about, but to use vague and general terms, the notion that the larger a group or community gets, the more likely it is to fracture or disintegrate or tear itself apart, is useful here.
Shakesville, one of the treasures of the progressive blagoweb, has been showing an increasingly worrisome number of stress fractures over the course of the campaign season. If I were to try to characterize the problem broadly, I’d say that there are different groups of commenters, and they have slightly varying ideas about what the blog, as a community space, is about; and those ideas are not always totally compatible either with each other, or with what Melissa McEwan — the founder and central figure — thinks the blog is about.
This came to a head just recently, after McEwan, whose attitudes toward now-President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Biden have been gradually and publicly shifting from mistrust to cautious optimism (and I hope, on the off chance she or anyone else from Shakesville read this they’ll forgive my oversimplification there), and whose growing stress and frustration with the unrelenting negativity of some of the comment threads, wrote a moving post on the need to be optimistic and push hard, even when that means pushing our ostensible friends, for the change we want to see. As has often happened, a lot of the comments were, or came across as, purely negative, offering anger, frustration and disillusionment — and not generally unfounded! — but little else. It’s a commonplace, it seems, with many Shakesville commenters, that there’s no particular reason to be excited or hopeful about last Tuesday’s election results, that nothing in particular (or nothing important) is likely to get much better. I think that’s absurd to the point of being an insult to the intelligence of anyone who reads it, but it’s not what I’m trying to address right now. McEwan, understandably upset by the utter failure of a community which professes to value her greatly to pay attention to her wishes, hasn’t posted on Shakesville since.
There’s much soul-searching going on at Shakesville today; McEwan’s co-bloggers have penned impassioned pleas for the commenters to pay attention, and the commenters are by and large experiencing a collective “my god, what have we done?” moment. I readily declare that I’m as guilty as anyone, when it comes to taking McEwan for granted.
I don’t know what the solution is. But that this is happening breaks my heart. What the hell is wrong with us? When did we forget that we’re in this together, that we’re on the same side?
Shirky points out that the same group-dynamics phenomena have been happening over and over again in the realm of social software for about thirty years. And yet, somehow, each time, the developers of the social software fail to anticipate those phenomena, and look at them and say (if they’re sufficiently detached), “Wow! What an interesting development! We should document this unexpected turn of events!” or (if they’re not), “Shit! Our carefully planned online community is collapsing! Whatdowedo??!?”
And, he also emphasizes, this is not just a software or just a social problem. “A Group…” was written five yeras ago, and the software end has shaken out somewhat and gotten more standardized; but the social problems will, I expect, always be with us. It’s troubling, however, that we don’t seem ever to get much smarter about dealing with them. And more troubling yet that we — the Shakesville community — in the process of being our own worst enemy may have pushed Melissa McEwan away from her own blog, and deprived political discourse on the Internet of a much needed, careful, thoughtful voice.