Must. Not. Post.

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I've been fighting the urge to elaborate on my rant for the past couple of days, and I think I've nearly got it beat. In what I'm hoping will be the final nail in the coffin, I wanted to link to a post over at Will's that isn't directly related, but ends up connecting in my head.

Will takes the kernel of James Surowiecki's talk at ETech:

"Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible."

and connects it to the ways that we teach collaboration to our students, namely, the way that we encourage them to seek consensus (and there's a whole horde of evidence, both theoretical and empirical, to suggest that this is the case).

One of the places this resonates for me is at the level of discipline. One of the notions with which I've increasingly lost patience over the years is what I'd call the leap to community, the fact that we don't really have a vocabulary to describe what happens when we go beyond a random network (a crowd, mob, etc.) but before we get to a fairly ordered network of the sort I envision when I hear the word "community."

You could say that I'm a member of the composition & rhetoric community, or the computers & writing community, but that suggests a unity of thought and/or purpose that I'm not sure I'm completely on board with. My ties to the people similarly identified are certainly stronger than the ones that connect me to, say, Anthropology departments, but they're not nearly as strong to the ones that connect me to my colleagues (both faculty and grad students) at Syracuse, or the ones that connect me to my cohort from grad school.

There are literally thousands of people in the comprhet "community" whom I will never meet, which seems to me to stretch casuistically the word itself almost beyond recognition. And certainly, I feel that community far less than I do the one that Will talks about. He and I have never met, and yet, in the past couple of days, each of us has cited and referred to the other's ideas and writings, lending the tie between us much more reality and immediacy than those connecting me to thousands of people who may never even know my name.

And maybe it's because I just came off a good, long conversation with Lori, partly about the topic of virtual collaboration, that I'm thinking that there's something to collaboration that involves working alongside or in parallel that's just as collaborative (and easily as valuable) as the consensus model. Maybe I'm just thinking that community can be a result of collaboration more broadly defined, whereas we tend to think of community as a prerequisite.

There are other dots to connect here, but that is all from me for the moment.


The processes you're trying to work through here--what leads us to engage in certain kinds of working relationships, and the stages of ccnnection along the way--is one reason I tried to use Barabasi's Linked in my workplace writing class. I wanted to find a vocabulary for talking about collaboration in all its stages and forms, about the social processes that lead to and maintain teams.

That experiment was a dismal failure. Perhaps what we need next is some of the theoretical and practical work done by folks who are interested in teams and organizational processing.

I appreciate your comments in this post, so I'm glad the urge to resist writing gave way just this once more. Though I hadn't read Will before you linked to him here, he speaks to the essence of an idea I've been working through ... that the strength of every individual in a group insures the well being and prosperity of the group itself. I described it recently to a friend as a game of catch being played between the drivers of cars (I'm thinking low, fast, and sporty models here) traveling the Autobahn; and since it's my imagination, I'm thinking that the Autobahn is all mine for this game. The point I was making to my friend is that the game can go faster when each of the drivers is better and better at what they do. ...thinking that edges closer to the idea of being able to "read well" ... balancing between the need for enough information to predict/anticipate what's coming next from the other drivers and a delighting in a liberty to flow with invention ... sweet poetry when it comes together and always the possibility of crashing, which of course keeps the game a thrill and all the fun that it is!

"I'm thinking that there's something to collaboration that involves working alongside or in parallel that's just as collaborative (and easily as valuable) as the consensus model."

This has me wondering about your definition of consensus. As I have seen it used (eg Quakerly), consensus is a way of deciding, not a way of working. When decision is by consensus rather than vote or fiat, roles and tasks are self-selected. In consensus, there's no identified position that the whole community takes. Rather, consensus recognizes as tenable a position that's articulated by someone, with which others are not too violently opposed to be able to collaborate, working independently or together toward whatever each perceives the goal to be.

It seems to me that you are nudging the definition of "consensus" toward "groupthink" in your description of a "consensus model".

Who's defining it in this way? Ick!

Carolyn, I don't know that I hold a particular definition of consensus, but while I don't want to trot them out publicly, I can think of plenty of situations where in fact it does function operationally as groupthink, where it serves as a drag on innovation rather than assistance.

I don't know that there's anyone who would actually want to define it this way, or that it's even a conscious decision when it happens, but I find it no less plausible that even the consensus you describe can be used as a way of muting opposition or excluding it. Maybe it's cynical of me to say, but I feel like I've seen it happen much more often than not, even when the ideal of consensus is actively professed.


ps. Susan, that's exactly what Lori does, and I'm hoping to learn more about it...

pss. Mary, one of the things your analogy gets at that I really like is the idea that it's not all controllable, which is something that I think we forget all too often...

I was active on The WELL in the early 90s, my first experience in an on-line "community." One notion that developed there was the "hive mind." The metaphor is that each bee makes its own specific contribution, but in a structure that produces a greater whole.

And I agree that collaboration is probably a precursor to community. My most vivid experience on The WELL came when Time magazine published a cover story about a Carnegie-Mellon student who claimed to have developed a program to measure the amount of pornography on the Internet. Ted Koppel did a Nightline report the same day Time came out.

Several people on The WELL were suspicious, especially since this work had not been peer reviewed. It was published in the Georgetown Law Review, with endorsements from a couple anti-porn feminists.

The upshot was that over a three-day period, about a dozen of us shot holes in the Time story. An AP stringer in New York dug up stuff about the students earlier escapades in New Jersey. A Vanderbilt professor who was expert in Web measurment research found problems with his claims. A criminology professor in Chicago dug up some useful statutory material. A lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation dug up useful material. My role was mostly as a summarizer and restater of what we knew and what we didn't.

Once we got the stuff documented and out, we embarrassed Time's science editor, who was on The WELL. And it created a minor scandal at Carnegie-Mellon about supervision of fake scholarship.

After all this went down, I invited a number of the participants who were in the Bay area to the house for a social gathering. Thus, only after we'd worked together online did we try to create some social networking.

I think this model happens with increasing frequency, but it doesn't fit our conventional model of networking so it's not recognized.

A more trivial example: I've gotten to know you (Collin) through this blog. So when I was riding the escalator up at Moscone Center at CCCC and read a name tag with Collin on a guy on the down escalator, I made the leap and called out to you. That was not exactly a bonding experience, but it could only happen if we'd first made a connection in an electronic environment.

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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on April 8, 2005 12:56 AM.

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