On Open and Closed Communities, and the Ephemeral Nature of Networks

There’s an interesting discussion going on in one of the KM forums I belong to about the nature of community, how it differs from a network, and the perils and advantages of ‘open’ vs ‘closed’ communities.

If you look at the origins of the words ‘community’ and ‘network’, neither describes a group of people. A community is defined as a place shared equally . Each sharer is a ‘member’ (= a part, in the sense of both distinct and co-dependent, belonging). Implicit to the concept of community is deep mutual love and trust. A network is actually a fabrication of knots (nodes) designed to trap, rather than connect. Our use of the term to describe n-to-n connectedness of a group of people through multiple degrees of separation is novel, I suspect because such connection does not occur in nature. That’s not to say nature is hierarchical — it is, rather, organic (= instrumental, ‘how things are done’). Communities and organisms are ‘tight’ and integrated, while networks, as we now use the term to describe certain groups of people, are ‘loose’ and confederated (= in treaty together).
These definitions put the lie to the hierarchical corporate wishful thinking behind formally defined ‘communities of practice’ (practice = to become capable) and ‘organizations’, as the former are not communities and the latter are not organic. Likewise, the so-called neighbourhood ‘communities’ in which we live are settlements of convenience, groups of houses, not communities at all. Those with wealth and power consistently misuse these terms, perhaps in the hope that if you lie to people often and long enough they’ll start to believe it’s the truth.
Real, self-selected and self-managed peer-to-peer communities of practice do exist impromptu in and between corporations and other hierarchical constructs, principally to work around the inherent dysfunctions of these constructs. They are antithetic to the power structure of the hierarchy, but they are tolerated because they work and prevent the hierarchy from seizing up entirely ( e.g. in a true hierarchy, bad news never travels up, so management is always oblivious to what’s wrong, and consequently usually makes poor, uninformed decisions). And so we muddle along.
What management establishes as ‘communities’ are in fact workteams (= pairs of livestock) and workgroups (collections of individuals assigned to work on a common task). Since they have no self-chosen bond of membership, they are not authentic communities.

The de facto authentic communities in corporations (and in our society as a whole), being self-selected, are ‘open’ or ‘closed’ at the discretion of their current members. Whether or not they are more effective if they are mostly open or mostly closed depends on the nature and purpose of the (real or virtual) “place they share”. They may choose to admit new members if they are too small or lack diversity (if diversity is something they perceive they need and want). They may be closed if they are happy (rightly or wrongly) with their current membership.

The danger of an ‘open’ community is that, if there is no scrutiny of and agreement on membership, it can become unwieldy or unable to pursue its purpose. When intimate knowledge of the other members is lost, with it goes the love and trust that are essential to its existence. It then ceases to be a real community at all, and just becomes a group of people with some affinity, a ‘club’ (= thick mass).
The danger of a ‘closed’ community is that it can become a cult, an isolated echo chamber whose cohesiveness depends more on what members hate or distrust about ‘outsiders’ than about love and trust and common purpose of its members. It can also become a hierarchy, dominated by a few members who exploit that isolation and distrust, and hence no longer in any sense “a place shared equally”.

So a community that becomes too open or too closed ceases to be a community. You can’t prevent this from happening. Communities are complex dynamic entities and they evolve. When communities cease to be of value to their members those members withdraw and/or the community collectively disbands.
What about ‘networks’, then? If we were to be honest, most of us (except perhaps for aboriginals and those living in intentional communities) are probably members of just a few small real communities, or even none at all (This absence of community probably accounts for the emergence of the family as the principal, improbable, unit of social cohesion in our modern society). But we are all ‘members’ of ‘networks’, right? We have hundreds or thousands of names in our address book, our rolodex, our club roster, our ‘friends’ lists (and now some social software even allows us to select ‘top friends’ — hierarchical communities!)
We all want to belong. And given how fragmented our society has become, there is no question of the importance of the ‘weak ties’ that ‘networks’ offer: They are probably the means through which we will get our next job, find our spouse, and make some of the most critical decisions of our lives. They are comforting and useful. And when the small groups with which we make community fracture, these weak ties can sometimes become a ‘network’ in the true sense — they can catch us when we fall.
Unlike communities, which are held together by love and by place, these ‘networks’ are really just ordered lists of people who may provide us with future opportunity or insight (and in return, we invest in them to provide opportunities and insights to the people in them). But they are largely illusory — my guess is that many of the people we consider to be in our networks do not consider themselves so, and many others who consider themselves part of our networks are not to be found in our lists. If it is not perceived to be such reciprocally, then, how can it be considered in any sense a ‘network’?
This is perhaps why there is no long-standing English word for such a vast list of fragile connections — it is not something that occurs in nature, but is rather an artifact of our modern, socially fractured (yet technologically enabled) civilization. People in our ‘network’ are not even ‘acquaintances’ (that word means literally to know perfectly).
The implications of all this for those in IT or KM in large corporations:
  • We shouldn’t try to ‘establish’ communities in workplaces. We need to recognize authentic communities where they have emerged, understand that they are inherently subversive (and probably not looking for a lot of publicity), and, if we’re in IT or KM, show them how our (simple, intuitive) products and services can help them work peer-to-peer around the dysfunctions of the workplace. We should not expect a lot of recognition for doing this, but if we do it right the communities will thank us.
  • We should recognize networks as the fragile, opportunistic creations they are. That means we should beware of mapping them, tapping them, or complicating them with over-engineered ‘social networking applications’. All most people really need or want is one simple-to-maintain and powerful annotated contact list. If we’re in IT or KM we need to give ’em that, in portable form.

There is still lots of other work for IT and KM people to do, at the individual, personal level, improving personal work effectiveness — helping people find information, make sense of it, and add value to it, to make better decisions, and to innovate more effectively.

The implications of all this, I think, for everyone:

  • We need to be careful of how much time and energy we invest in our ‘networks’. Better, I think, to invest most of that time in communities we belong to, and in finding new people we want to live with and make a living with in authentic community, and nourishing those communities. Otherwise we can easily spread ourselves too thin. Networks are potential, communities are kinetic, real. They do things.
  • When someone in our ‘network’ should be in our community, we instinctively know. I’ll bet you could easily pick out, from all your address books and contact lists of people in your ‘network’ you barely know, a half dozen or a dozen that you really want to know well, people you know you could love.
  • When one of our communities languishes, or gets too ‘open’ or too ‘closed’, we should let it go. Things happen for a reason, and nothing lasts forever. As Neil Young says, “it’s easy to get buried in the past when you try to make a good thing last”.

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7 Responses to On Open and Closed Communities, and the Ephemeral Nature of Networks

  1. B.w.Curry says:

    Are you familiar with Jeff Vail’s “A Theory of Power,” Dave? His blogs links to yours; though I haven’t found the reverse link, on your blog, I suspect you are. He formalizes the current discussion of hierarchical complexity, inefficiencies inherent to such complexity, and the optimality of its antonym: the “rhizome.” There would seem to be some beneficial overlap between his work and the fragrant waters you’re treading.Also, is it right to assume that you are squarely in the anarcho-primitivist camp, at this late point? That is certainly nothing to be ashamed of; much the opposite, I think. I feel that you’ve been tending – with steady, whispered footfall – that way, but have yet to hear you make your formal position.Perhaps, you don’t have a formal position. Such agnosticism is applaudable, too…Humbly yours,Brian

  2. Christopher says:

    These are links I wouldn’t have made on my own for a looong time. Thanks, Dave.

  3. Ed says:

    “peer-to-peer communities of practice do exist impromptu in and between corporations and other hierarchical constructs, principally to work around the inherent dysfunctions of these constructs”Nice :) So if this is the case then any ‘created’ community from an org is chasing that serendipity and can’t ever be authentic, and is a new word for a team, albeit with different stuctures?

  4. Earl says:

    Great post, Dave. However, not sure what conclusion to draw. Sounds like both have advantages and disadvantages (pros and cons) depending on what one is trying to accomplish. Is there a way to combine desirable qualities from both the network and the community to create a kind of “networked community”?

  5. Jim says:

    I just started reading about Urban Tribes with Ethan Watter’s book. Interesting and related to what you are talking about here. http://www.coolcities.com/whatyoucando/resources/reading/#Ethan_Watters

  6. Theresa says:

    Thanks for this post. It explains a lot of things that didn’t quite make sense to me before. One of the things that jumped out at me was your point about communities being joined by love and place. I’d also add the love of place. I’ve always experienced shared feelings about a place as being a stronger bond than shared causes or goals. I’m not so sure about a network and a community being such different concepts. It begins to take shape in my mind as an outer and an inner circle. The community – the inner circle – is a living breathing thing that contracts and expands depending on the amount of love and the nature of the circumstances. Sometimes when something bad happens – a flood, natural disaster or other crisis of that kind – the community expands to include some of the network. Other times it contracts and becomes an angry mob but its still a community. The idea of open and closed communities doesn’t work for me so well. I prefer to think of it in a more organic way, as a living breathing thing with a life of its own that grows and disintegrates according to a rythmm. Also, I don’t think that hierarchical structures emerge from “closed” communities, I’d rather think of it as being a quality of overly mature and rigid communities. Don’t all communities have equal participation when the are in their infancy? Anyway, that’s how I understand it. Again, thanks for this post. It explains a lot of things that didn’t make sense to me before.

  7. Paulr says:

    Dave, what you have said resonates with the difficultly I have had in getting ‘communities of practice’ operating…in a conservative, hierachical organisation. There is a growing practice of communicating with colleagues via social networks (Facebook seems to be popular). Management reaction to these networks varies from participation to banning them. It would be interesting to compare organisational social networks with personal networks – to see how they differ in meeting social needs.

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