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Preventing social implosions

Many social groups implode when their community reaches a certain threshold of growth. If the population continue to grow unchecked, without certain adaptations made by the community, they may collapse under the load of the growth -- something no group should have to go through. I've addressed some ways that groups can take advantage of the Internet to help survive these ‘growing pains’ without imploding under the weight of their members.

The growth rate of a given group is somewhat hard to map out ahead of time; predicting the results of decisions not yet made by the group can be tricky, sometimes; as such, the exact time at which to apply these rules is unclear to anyone outside of the group itself. When implemented at the right time in the group, they do seem to function effectively as a curative influence.

A community cannot exist on its own, in a petri dish; select a crew (of one or more) for ambassadorial communications with other groups -- both in your area, and farther away. You can tap the ‘net to locate the contact information for groups with interests that verge on your group's, using popular categorical sites like DMOZ and Yahoo!. Even two or three loose, social ties to other communities can infuse people with an amazing energy to do more -- and two distinct groups are more likely to find a solution to their problems working together.

The ‘net can be used to contact interested individuals, as well; it's not limited to groups, which has worked out perfectly for Howard Dean's campaign fund so far. As communication is established between individuals within and without the group, a kind of “extended family” is born of the people that are, in whatever small way, in touch with your group's consciousness. This is where the internet can come into play; communications between individuals can be facilitated easily using person-to-person and person-to-group communication software such as announcements, discussion lists, and instant messenger. By increasing the flow rate of conversation, the members of a group can retain a ‘connection’ to those within the group, without losing touch of the primary goal: to be connected to people.

Often times, a group is noticed by a much larger group of people; the subsequent influx of many new members can force groups to the threshold of collapse, if they're not prepared to deal with the unexpected growth. When initially forming, many groups find it healthier (and more conducive to interactions) to avoid imposing a rigid (if any) structure on their process; decisions are made when they need to be made, problems are addressed as they arise, members share responsibilities and power as they see fit.

Unfortunately, a model lacking an official process doesn't seem to scale well beyond a certain population; at some point, the decisions become complex, the people emotionally involved, the (lack of) structure incapable of supporting the weight of the members. Introducing structure into such a situation, even if just in a limited fashion, makes an enormous difference to how well things are handled. The introduction of a lightweight tiered structure of leadership (president, vice, board, committee chairs) can drastically shift the efficiency of the group's decision-making process; responsibilities can be broken apart and delegated to small portions of the group, without requiring the group as a whole to address them. The task load can be distributed across the group, taking advantage more efficiently of the variance in the individual skill-sets.

These are only a few of the advantages that can be introduced into the group-forming process; applied at the proper stage of growth, these changes can greatly increase the chances of a group's survival, while making them more capable of approaching their chosen tasks effectively. They're not appropriate without change for every group, but they seem to work for most; the key is to apply them at the right time, when the need has just made itself apparent, when growth is affecting the group's overall efficiency. At that time, targeted application of these principles can save a group from self-destructing, unlocking a group's ability to grow without collapse -- and continue to be successful.

Note: This post has been submitted as my term paper for SOC 204, and I've my teacher's permission to publish this; writing college essays is like writing a blog post, only with grammar, spelling, and just a teensy bit of structure — so why not combine the two?

References:

"Historically, what was originally QuantumLink and later America Online grew by attracting underserved, dispersed communities such as gays and seniors, and connecting them online."
-- Tim Oren, discussing the growth and success of AOL
"It was one app that did what CompuServe couldn't do: show me links between communities."
-- Robert Scoble, discussing the formation of the Web
"Weblogs are the cheapest way for an individual or organization to communicate," he says. "It's a more natural, human voice than what someone could generate with a press release."
-- Ross Mayfield, quoted in Wired News
"I simply wanted to revert to the old BBS days, where it was like Joe's Bar. If you go by Joe's rules, you have a great time. If you break the rules, you get thrown out. So I created just a simple barrier to this community, which was, E-mail me and tell me why you'd make a valuable contribution to it. And I found that just the simple barrier kept out 99.99 percent of the vandals whom you'd find in Usenet or in AOL chat rooms or on IRC."
-- Howard Rheingold, interviewed at PopTech

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