elizabeth lane lawley's thoughts on technology, academia, family, and tangential topics

Sunday, 27 April 2003

ridiculously easy group-unforming

The flip side of how easy it is for groups to form using (relatively) new social software technologies is how easy it is for them to unform—and not always in a way that the group wants.

A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail invitation to join a Yahoo! Group called “blogrollers.” The invitation was from Dave Winer, and it was based on the fact that I’m on a small distribution list that RageBoy occasionally uses to tell friends that he’s escaped his private demons for long enough to write something on his blog. Dave thought it would be fun to turn that ad-hoc group into a mailing list. I agreed, and accepted the invitation (as did about 15-20 other people whose ideas and writing I enjoy). Ridiculously easy. Straightforward merging of e-mail and web interfaces. One address in the to: field now instead of dozens. It’s all good.

Then I made the mistake of mentioning the new M2M blog I was involved with on Corante—and got slapped down pretty fast by Dave—on the list and on his blog. (Don’t think it counts towards my Winer number, though, since it wasn’t a personal attack.)

I responded on the list (gently, I thought), and left it at that. I did so thinking it was a small group environment, and that it was part of a discussion among friends. Silly me. I forgot that Yahoo! Groups archives are available publicly (unless the moderator deliberately turns them off.) Dave posted a link to my message on his blog, effectively turning it into a public rather than private response. Ugh. Good reminder of the shifting boundaries between public and private in electronic communication. I was more upset with myself, really, for not thinking about the public nature of those archives.

A series of messages followed, with a lot of support for the value of the SSA and the new blog, and some resistance from Dave. Not an ugly debate, I thought. But there wasn’t a lot of agreement from the group with Dave’s position.

This morning I woke up to a list message from Dave entitled “Taking a Break”:
I envisioned this list as basically a friendly place to exchange ideas among adults, away from the rudeness of XML lists. Unfortunately some of that is bound to creep in. When it does I’m going to smash it hard. I’m so tired of kid stuff. Looking to learn and share ideas. So I turned on moderation for the list, and won’t approve messages for a few days, to let things quiet down.

Wow. It’s the online equivalent of “I’m taking my marbles and going home.” But in this case, by taking the marbles, he takes the playground right along with him. I can understand wanting to take a break…I’ve needed to do that plenty of times in online communities. One of the things I like about Yahoo! Groups, in fact, is that you can so easily go to “No Mail” mode when you don’t want to read the messages, leaving yourself the option of reading them on the web site later if you change your mind.

Perhaps most importantly, I’m struck by the ease with which this technology allowed him to shut down everyone in the group. Enforced “break taking” for everyone. So I’ve taken a permanent break from that group by removing myself as a member. I’m not comfortable in an environment where the sole power can (and will) silence me—and the people I’m interested in listening to—so quickly. And I’ll go back to the lengthy cc: list approach—which, though inelegant, has the power of decentralization and individual control going for it.

Posted at 10:28 AM in: curmudgeonly | social software

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social circle balance beam from Leaky Faucet at Twentybelow on April 29, 2003 1:09 AM
Excerpt: mamamusings: ridiculously easy group-unforming Liz Lawley was part of a distribution list that lead to the invitation on a mailing...
groups from jill/txt on April 30, 2003 7:26 AM
Excerpt: In weblogs groups emerge and dissipate based on what's being discussed, whereas in a mailing list it's the other way round: the group exists first and discussions exist within the group. Because weblogs emerge, no one has the power to...
Comment from Marc Canter on April 27, 2003 2:50 PM (Permalink to Comment)

You go grrrl! You tell um!

I was all ready to respond to Danny's point - when, ooooops, the conversation was cut off.

Comment from Brendyn on April 27, 2003 3:00 PM (Permalink to Comment)

I think you have a lot of valid points there. The easiest and most detrimental part of technology today is the absolute control that is associated with it. Moderators, operators, administrators, root, they all denote absolute and total power. Because of this, I think the need is out there to develop something that allows for shared control of power.

I understand, from a personal view point, that it's hard to give up something as great as power over people, but socially it needs to be done. I think that's one of the greatest things about the SSA. There is the ultimate control of whoever set it up, but everyone has the ability to do what they want with the pages. There is no heirarchy, everyone is the same.

There are so many boundries when it comes to power struggles on the Internet. There has to be a creator to create others, it doesn't work like the real world. An owner adds administrators, and administrators add moderators. There has to be access to certain things when you're an admin that normal users don't have. Because of this, I think it's important to focus more on the social aspect of social software rather than the technical side. It's about finding the people who you believe can handle constroversy, rejection and criticism, and placing them in the key position of leading in a laisze faire (sp) manner.

Technology and humanity are never too far from each other, and that's so evident in situations like this, where the boundries of technology need to be overcome by the honesty and abilities of the human mind.

Comment from Dave Winer on April 27, 2003 3:12 PM (Permalink to Comment)

Hey this is nasty. The conversation wasn't cut off. I just didn't want to get into the crap that Mark Pilgrim spewed all over me. Danny Ayers is a famous nasty jerk. Elizabeth you took my comments personally, you still are -- but they weren't. Go back and read them. And post your thoughts on the Blogrollers list, just stay away from the Winer Number meme, and we'll be fine.

Comment from alan on April 27, 2003 3:21 PM (Permalink to Comment)

I was scanning through the "blogrollers" list, right up until Yahoo told me the list itself was unavailable, trying to come up with a non-acidic comment about this. There's a lot that's interesting about your own post, Liz, particularly about group forming and un-forming -- a conscientious approach to social software should take into account the way practices are influenced by the mode social organization takes.

But now that the entire blogrollers list is unavailable for review (another discussion is buried there, about the public/private nature of comments there and the consequences thereof), I'm mostly struck by the sense that Dave's objections are about boundary maintenance. His writing suggests a belief that "the promoters of social software" are thoughtless hypesters, a premise that seems rather false on its face. It's not hard to identify a lot of thoughtful people who have pretty sophisticated approaches to all this stuff. And, frankly, invoking "rudeness" as a way to shut down a mostly-civil discussion is pretty cheap.

Comment from Liz on April 27, 2003 3:23 PM (Permalink to Comment)


Don't think I said anything "nasty" here, really. Only that I was very uncomfortable with participating in a forum where discussion would be cut off so quickly and without consensus.

Since you raise the Mark Pilgrim "crap," however, let me tell you how that looked to me. You wrote a piece expressing frustration with CSS and people who support it. Mark wrote a gentle parody showing how the same language could be used to express that frustration with those opposed to standards. Nothing about you specifically that I could see. Next thing I knew, you (or someone using your name) were calling him an asshole in Sam Ruby's blog, and the whole thing got out of control. His "numeric" response to that was more personal, true...but he still wasn't calling you names. Just noting that people who disagree with you on technical topics often _do_ get called names.

If I'm reading that wrong, tell me. But not on blogrollers--I'm not there anymore.

Comment from alan on April 27, 2003 3:30 PM (Permalink to Comment)

Oops -- I have to revise and extend just a bit, because the blogrollers list is available again. I didn't intend to make the implication that it was shut down to short-circuit this kind of discussion. I do still think this disagreement is largely about boundary maintenance, but with the list available again it also seems apparent that it's also just about personalities that clash. What that means for the future of social software, I dunno.

Comment from Dave Winer on April 27, 2003 4:17 PM (Permalink to Comment)

I didn't raise the Mark Pilgrim crap, Danny Ayers did. It was so hurtful. My experience has been that once someone enters the flame realm, others will hop in right awy. As you saw, that happened, with Marc Canter and Shelley Powers. So I tried to head it off.

About Mark Pilgrim, I definitely said he was an asshole. I think that's what his "gentle" post said about me. And if you read the rest of my post, I explained why. And then Don Box and others took the edge off, and then Mark went on a jihad.

This is not the first time he's jumped on me with knives in both hands. I've forgiven him each time. I will forgive him again, but I doubt if I'll ever work with him, and if he ever writes an article about my work, I'm going to challenge his objectivity.

Comment from Frank Paynter on April 27, 2003 4:28 PM (Permalink to Comment)

Like my friend Michelle, I came for the Tupperware, but I stayed for the dish. I intend to buy enough Tupperware to assure Liz' place at the table in Duh Moyn in July. But also...

The private/public boundary issues and the implicit threat of censorship in a moderated list are topics (individually and jointly) worth pursuing. A lot of what we do when we work or play together, when we "socialize," requires tolerance and a respect for (gag, forgive me for the PC locution) diversity.

Right now the people whom I wish would drop an occasional comment on my blog don't, and there's a guy who's a complete stranger to me who reflects in ways I find a lttle bizarre. I've thought of turning off comments entirely and displaying an email link for comments. It may come to that, but ultimately I hope to post the kind of material (like Liz here) that others find interesting enough to discuss in the comments section. So I won't turn down the service because of one guy's ramblings. But it's my blog....

This brings up the concept of proprietary web-space... blogs, lists, whatever. In a social setting, sometimes we drop into proprietary space, someone's house, someone's party, but we also organize around common goals, beliefs, intentions. Volunteer organization committee work is the stuff that maps closest to what I'm getting at... we might select a chair for our committee and we might meet at her house, but we could always meet at the neighborhood center and we could always find a new chair if the leadership proved onerous in some way.

So there's a difference between Dave creating a list and me signing up to attend his party, and Dave doing some committee work that results in a list that he has volunteered to maintain but that belongs to all of us at large. And lack of clarity about just who's party was it is part of what lent a bad odor to the recent "blogrollers list" silliness.

Comment from Frank Paynter on April 27, 2003 4:34 PM (Permalink to Comment)

Okay, after this I'll preview and get my whosis "'" straight.

Comment from tom m on April 28, 2003 9:11 AM (Permalink to Comment)

As the discussion about social software has, in one place at least, been derailed by what some might call certain anti-social behaviors, it might be worth raising, vis a vis SS as a means and end, whether the software is imagined by designers and theorists as neutral to (or transcendent of) personality and socially obtuse gestures or acts? If so, is it still "social" software?

Comment from Dave Winer on April 28, 2003 1:39 PM (Permalink to Comment)

Weblogs work and mail lists don't. That's about all I've learned in umpteen years on mail lists. I can list the things I've gotten done on my weblog, lots of good stuff, but I can't remember ever getting any work done on a mail list.

Comment from allan karl on April 29, 2003 1:57 AM (Permalink to Comment)

wow. a bit politics, clique, wining (sic) and plane old craziness. what's next ;-)

Comment from The Happy Tutor on April 30, 2003 9:54 PM (Permalink to Comment)

I am just so glad that this thread is not about my own anti-social behavior. Every blog soiree needs at least one leader with emotional intelligence, and good humor, as well as a keen wit. I nominate Ms. Liz. Hope she will keep all the experts talking in public so those of us who know nothing about social software (except what we learn from doing a blog) can learn.

On a free associative note -- does anyone remember Dave's early postings on Lessig? Dismissive. Now, they have forged, it seems a friendship.

Some of us (imcluding me) play with emotion, maybe too much of it. But you know how they make diamonds? They subject carbon to repeated explosions.

Given the explosions, I will return to mamamusings, Scripting News, and M2M to look for the diamonds.

Liz sipping melange at Cafe Central in Vienna