Group As User

I have been a fan of Clay Shirky's writings for a while now. His "A Group is its Own Worst Enemy" was responsible for one my most memorable 'Aha' moments regarding how people interact in informal situations (including mailing lists and software projects):

Political structures are inevitable. Further, the dynamics of business and project structures are not different from the forces of 'politics' in the large.

This sparked the slew of historical and political reading I've been doing lately. I would like to recommend a few articles in particular (as well as Clay's writing which I am trying to tell you about): First, The Tyranny of Structurelessness (thanks Tim), is an insightful look at how informal (i.e. "unfair") organizational structures are inevitable, and avoiding explicit structure simply makes the clique the only decision making entity. Second, Coase's Penguin is actually a study of the economics of open source, but it includes a fascinating discussion of how organizational structures help us answer the question "What should I do next?" Third, several articles related to LambdaMOO, one of the earliest Multi-User Dungeons (MUD's): LambdaMOO Takes a New Direction (mentioned by Clay in 'Enemy') describes the birth of government in a previously 'unstructured' world, while A Rape in Cyberspace details the (disturbing but fascinating) incident that led to that birth.

Many people see 'politics' as simply a nasty game that some people (not them) play. Accordingly, they generally seek to avoid structure in the groups that they are a part of because they either wish to avoid "playing politics" or because they want everyone to be treated equally, fairly etc.

Yet, it always seems that the dynamics of these situations lead inexorably to clashes of interest that result in the need for guiding rules and protocols. At the same time, the ebb and flow of the situation creates an informal organizational structure anyway (if you particpate in mailing lists you know what I mean -- some people are generally considered authoratative, some notorious, some transient, some sycophantic, and so on).

Having a background in political science, I see politics (i.e. the dynamic forces I just described) differently: As the inevitable interaction of people's interests and actions and the never-ending attempt to balance them. Politics can be 'played' but in the end, its simply what happens when people interact. Thus, understanding poltical structures and why they exist (both informally and formally) helps me to understand what is happening around me in organizations and on project teams.

Clay writes about the design of social software and how it enables or restricts such interactions of the group. In doing so, he touches on this 'inevitability' and provides wonderful insight into how the dynamics of social interaction (i.e. politics) informs -- and interferes -- with the design of multi-user software.

Clay's latest essay continues this theme:

When we hear the word "software," most of us think of things like Word, Powerpoint, or Photoshop, tools for individual users. These tools treat the computer as a box, a self-contained environment in which the user does things. Much of the current literature and practice of software design -- feature requirements, UI design, usability testing -- targets the individual user, functioning in isolation. And yet, when we poll users about what they actually do with their computers, some form of social interaction always tops the list -- conversation, collaboration, playing games, and so on. The practice of software design is shot through with computer-as-box assumptions, while our actual behavior is closer to computer-as-door, treating the device as an entrance to a social space.

For the rest of Clay's latest essay 'Group As User' go here. I hope you enjoy it.