Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Dark Side of Community Indicators

For a while Nancy White has been blogging about Community Indicators - "patterns of group member behavior that help us pay attention to the emergence and life of a community".

In that post she says,
Indicators are not all strength-based. Like anything, there is the light and dark of community and light and dark of a community’s indicators. This is not the utopian view. Dark indicators might include signs of exclusion, power and control struggles, banning and red-lining.
In other words, "lynch mobs are emergent behavior too". (And profound apologies to the well spoken sociologist who blogged that about two years ago, I can't seem to find the reference.)

I'd like to propose a few community indicators that, on the surface, might seem to counter idea of community, but if we back off from the light/dark binary descriptions, we may see people working together to foster community among themselves.

Community Indicators: Petitions
Online petitions have a bad reputation as not only futile but dangerously becoming a substitute for action. In a large context, they may best serve as raising awareness of an issue, but in a smaller context, they can help strengthen the ties of individuals and their group identity even when they are unsuccessful.

Community Indicators: Protest
Protest is about a group of people coming together with a unified purpose to join their voices and actions to affect change. This one is from my personal archives:
In February 1996, users on Worlds Away got so riled over delays in getting private spaces ("turfs") that they staged a sit-in. Fed up with many delays from WorldsAway's then owner, Fujitsu, avatars filled the locales where new users first arrive in the world, standing and chanting, "No turfs, no peace . . ." (the words scroll up above the game's window)-while paying per-minute online charges. To Kollock, that protest was a sign of WorldsAway's success as a community. "The simple fact that they had a protest speaks volumes about the space-the commitment and collective action."
-From Chapter 2 of From Anarchy to Power: The Net Comes of Age by Wendy Grossman,

Community Indicators: Mass abandonment
How can leaving a group be an indication that there is a community? When it's done by a group:
"So many of us don't have a gathering place that feels comfortable and communal," [Sherry Turkle] said. "For those who found that on, its transformation into a 'service' on Yahoo is a loss; they are losing something important to them.

In this case it's the loss of community feeling that is prompting some to protest against. I think the true test if this really is a community indicator is if those who leave, group together again somewhere else.


  1. Beatiful stuff, Scott, and right on. Thank you for adding to this emergent set of thinking.

    With Katrina, and the massive unsettlement of community in the Gulf Coast region, I think we see more signs. And I don't want to imply this as judgement (right/wrong), but as manifestation of what happens when things tear and rend. What desperation and hopeless does, both at the moment of trauma, but also what has built up prior.

    For example, what charactarizes those who stayed in New Orleans? I bet some of them had no money or no place to go. Disenfranchised even before the water rose.

    How do we pay better attention to those indicators? What do they look like in different online groups (I loved your examples!)

  2. Thanks, Nancy. I think it's instructive to observe how people react as a group to disasters such as Katrina. You are spot-on that many people left behind literally could not afford to evacuate towns in the path of Katrina.

    Your questions remind me of another question I'd like to try answering: what causes people to return and rebuild in an area of such loss. In the case of New Orleans, I think the opportunity for wealth is still there (the port, the entertainment industry), but what of the outlying towns?

    One case of extreme town devastation that I thought might be instructive was a small town in the midwest that was utterly destroyed by a tornado about 8 years ago. Not only houses, but city government buildings, all power, water and other infrastructure and even the trees that might serve as landmarks were ripped out. The mayor and town council considered the situation hopeless and officially dissolved the town charter and abandoned it. However, there were determined residents who wanted to rebuild. I always wanted to know what motivated them. There was nothing from their lives that materially existed and many of their community were abandoning the place. Who came back, why and how has it been these last 8 years? I'll have to dig out my notes with the town name and see if I can find out what happened.

  3. Hey Scott, excellent post.

    A related indicator is a lack of criticism or negative feedback. A lack of negative feedback is a sign of failure. If your community doesn't complain when something's wrong, you better find out why and find out fast.

    Interestingly enough, you might find the lack of criticism is not due to apathy. It might be because a culture of non-confrontation has emerged on your site. In the case of Social Edge, the community almost never criticizes one another (in fact, I can only think of two threads where this occurred). I believe this is an unfortunate carry-over from the field of philanthropy in general.

    Another potential reason is the "house guest" culture. The community feels like they are a guest in the site owner's house, and thus consider it rude to say anything that might be considered offensive to the host.

    Because Social Edge is owned by a foundation, members are unwilling to criticize the site for fear of sabotaging a potential grant, no matter how unfounded that fear is.

    I've experimented by purposfully making changes that should anger (or at least annoy) the community to no avail - they just won't complain.

    It is an interesting issue that I haven't completely resolved yet.

    The converse is obviously also true; As annoying as it can be to get a bunch of people bitching at you, it's a definite sign of community strength. (Our first lesson in that was "No Turfs, No Peace", like you already mentioned.)