group cohesiveness

A couple days ago, I had my mind blown by this Clay Shirky talk from 2003. It was like someone was sitting in the room where we had the women’s BoF at OSCON. He lists three group patterns: sex talk, vilification of outsiders/enemies, religious veneration. We managed to skip over the sex talk (although I did make a joke about auctioning off tickets to the women-only conference to men). But we dove right in with the other two.

It got me thinking about another project we’re working on – a programming group whose goal is to get more women involved in open source, and allows men. I’m not in leading it, but I really want it to succeed. I want to avoid the negativity and baggage that seems to follow women-specific groups.

There’s a list of things at the end of the talk “to design for.” Shirky’s talking about social software, but I think that a couple of the ideas apply to RL as well.

Having barriers to entry for groups, for example, helps strengthen the group identity. You need an identity before opening up participation – so that the group can protect itself when the inevitable attack-on-identity comes. Either in the form of subversion of purpose, or “you suck and shouldn’t exist”.

Hey, there was lots of good stuff in there. If you haven’t read it already, take a few minutes and enjoy.

And more about the new group — something cool already happened in the discussion. A participant pointed out that we should really be thinking about projects in terms of 2-4 person teams. I love that someone piped up with that right away. Deep communication, particularly about code, won’t happen without breaking up into small subgroups.

4 thoughts on group cohesiveness

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  1. Glad you liked that talk, thanks.

    Interestingly, one of the great documents of group life came about while discussing movements designed to get more women involved in society at all levels. It’s called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, by Jo Freeman, and it discusses the feminist movement (then called the women’s movement), ca 1970.

    In particular, one of the things I learned from it (and tried to echo in A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy) is that in the absence of official structure, you don’t get a harmonious world of structurelessness, you just get an unofficial, and often ugly structure instead. Freeman concludes that formal structure, done right, frees a group’s better nature.

  2. Thanks for reading and thanks for the link.

    My wheels started turning where she talks about the difference between talking and doing, and the role of structure in a “doing” organization.

    “Unstructured groups may be very effective in getting women to talk about their lives; they aren’t very good for getting things done.”

    We’re trying to accommodate both talking and doing by having structured and then unstructured time in the meetings.

    But, to be effective, I think that we may need two identities, separated into two events – one event for encouragement and support (and venting), and another that just *is* the change (lots of women working on F/OSS).

    Anyway, great food for thought. Thanks.

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