Ghost of Midnight

… about neighbors, community and Front Porch Forum

Lessons for Social Software

Posted on Wednesday, December 3, 2008 by No comments yet

I’ve admired Clay Shirky‘s work since first meeting him a couple years ago at a Personal Democracy Forum.  Somehow though, I had missed his excellent 2003 piece “A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy.”  So thanks to Rich Gordon for pointing to it this week.

Clay’s speech lays out commonalities across social software, pulling lessons from the past few decades… and pre-Web 2.0 explosion.  It reads, to me, like a text book version of the lessons we’ve learned “the hard way” in hosting Front Porch Forum.

My wife, Valerie, and I started FPF in 2000 as a stand-alone online neighborhood forum.  We leaned on our neighbors to help us develop the rules of engagement… some firm (e.g., no anonymity), others soft (like a generally civil and constructive tone).  In 2006, we launched a network of 130 online neighborhood forums blanketing our pilot area of Chittenden County, VT, and continued to evolve our rules based largely on member feedback.

Some of Clay’s points from 2003 that strike a chord…

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.

He cites some research too about groups defeating their own purpose by veering off course… three patterns…

Sex talk… the group conceives of its purpose as the hosting of flirtatious or salacious talk or emotions passing between pairs of members

Identification and vilification of external enemies

Religious veneration. The nomination and worship of a religious icon or a set of religious tenets… something that’s beyond critique.


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.

Clay’s tips for developing and running social software…

  • You cannot completely separate technical and social issues
  • Members (“super users”) are different than users
  • The core group has rights that trump individual rights in some situations (serve the group over the individual)
  • Design for handles (similar to identity) that the user can invest in
  • Design some way in which good works get recognized
  • You need barriers to participation. 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 capabilities.
  • Find a way to spare the group from scale. Scale alone kills conversations, because conversations require dense two-way conversations.

Posted in: Clay Shirky, Community Building, Community Management, Front Porch Forum, Local Online, Neighborhood, PDF2007, Social Media, Social Networking

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