What Happens To People Over Time When It Comes To Relationships?

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Sunday, 8.30am

Sheffield, U.K.

There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met. – William Butler Yeats

I’m reading Algorithms to live by by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths and it has some very interesting ideas. As an aside, I’ve started a shadow blog which is a simple site and you’ll find book notes for this book there.

One of the things we know about groups and friendships is that it really comes down to the amount of time you have free. When you’re a kid, there’s all the time in the world. If you meet another kid and you have something in common, anything really, you can play for hours. As you get older you have less time, the days are filled with important things and so you have to often decide whether you do something new and meet new people or spend more time with the people you already know well. And that time equation leads us to naturally select and focus our attention, over time, on the few people that we know well so that we have fewer people in our circles the older we get.

This problem falls into a category that Christian and Griffiths might term Explore vs Exploit – do you spend your time trying to find new people and connections or do you spend time with the ones you know. Getting the balance right is tricky and it does get harder as you get older. They point out that going to college is an exciting time for young people, because they get to meet new people. Going to an old age home is often a scary and unwelcome thing for older people, even though they will also get to meet new people. The newness is there, the only thing that’s different is how old the person is that’s experiencing the newness.

For a long time the relationships people had were within a few miles of where they lived. That’s still the case now, probably brought into sharp relief by the effects of the pandemic. When you can’t go anywhere the people closest to you geographically are the ones you are going to spend the most time with. At the same time the pandemic has also shown us how easy it is to connect with others a long way away using the technology we have now. That’s not new if you have been using the tech for a while – email really was the first major app to do this for us – but it’s brought this to general attention. But, of course, you have to think of the kind of change this is creating. Is it one way, where we get told stuff by one person or is it interactive, where we get to participate and engage with others?

The research in the area of friendships is sparse, but we know that having friends is good for you. There are differences in the way men and women approach friendships, with men often doing things together and women talking together. You have age-stage characteristics, as single people, young adults, families with young children, older adults and so on deal with the situations in which they find themselves.

Physical communities create opportunities for interaction – events, parties, balls. If you want people to meet and get on and create the friendships that form the network of a community you need to bring people together. And it’s the same with an online community or a community of practice. A regular cadence of meetings and interaction is required to get people involved. You usually need a core group of people that commit to making this happen and you need to make it easy for people to come and try it out and see if they like the vibe and then participate some more or move on.

One of the questions you have to ask yourself is whether you try and make this happen or whether you just let it happen. For example, if you have a blog do you actively comment and participate? Do you try and respond to everything and jolly people along until you get to a critical mass of comments and then it happens by itself? Or do you go the other extreme and turn comments off so that you can focus on your content and interact with people on your social media feeds or via email. Derek Sivers, for example, has a simple blog with a comments engine that seems to work pretty well.

I suppose really when you think about this topic it comes back to how you use your time. The more time you spend with someone the better you get to know them and the greater the chances that you will think of each other as friends. And that takes us back to the Explore vs Exploit conundrum. When you have time and a few friends then go and explore, find new ones. When you have less time and good friends, spend time with them and build those friendships.

There’s a lot of angst that comes with these situations. You have to decide when to engage, when to withdraw. You have to worry about how you’re perceived, how you come across, whether people like you or not. This Algorithms book is really quite useful because as I read it it’s giving me ideas and answers about how to approach these situations. If you’re wondering about new groups, for example, the answer is to try them out, early and often. Once you find a group that works for you, then stick with it. How long should you keep looking before you make your decision? The answer is 37% of the time you give yourself – say you give yourself a month – 30 days to find a group. After 11 days of participating stick with the next best one you find.

Now, let’s look at something a little different.

I’ve been working on book length projects since March this year – and this is the third project that I’ve started. I’m refining a process of writing, getting used to spending a certain amount of time circling around a topic and getting to grips with its complexity – rather than randomly writing about whatever seems interesting at the time.

I’ve giving myself permission to create “shitty first drafts”, which is really what these pages are. I’ve learned along the way that writing in paragraphs is important – because it makes life much easier when you’re later trying to pull stuff together. I’ve also been a little conflicted about the importance of writing versus research. You can write more when you’re working through an idea from first principles, but the research does give you a framework so you don’t repeat things that have already been done. But then again, a lot of research is behind walls and I’m not sure if it’s a good thing to use that but at the same time you’re not going to change the past and if there is good stuff locked away, does that mean you shouldn’t use it?

So, I was wondering whether the problem was my book topic this time – is community something that’s hard to get to grips with – or is it that I’m writing in a vacuum, at the limits of my knowledge and I really need the research to help me out? I was wondering whether I should abandon the idea or abandon the process.

So far, I think I’ve been writing on an important topic but without the structure that research gives me. So I’ll keep going but just with a bit more rigor and we’ll see where that takes us. My first two projects will probably stay unfinished until I can get the sentences sorted into paragraphs, but we’ll see where this one goes. Perhaps it’s a practice session to get things ready for the next one.

Okay, in the next post we’ll look at engagement. What makes the difference between an active, engaged community and a passive disengaged one?

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Getting The Mix Right

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Thursday, 9.28pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Diversity: the art of thinking independently together. – Malcolm Forbes

What do you really think? What is it that you believe? Have you even stopped to wonder why you believe the things you believe? Surely everyone thinks like you and has a similar view on life? After all, thinking in any other way must be unnatural, because you don’t do that.

You really have to build up an exposure to the unfamiliar if you want to appreciate it. And that makes it a little tricky because being comfortable with diversity is not something we’re born with. It’s something we pick up if we have a diverse environment around us.

Of course, when it comes to organizations and institutions there’s something you can do about the environment. And it makes good business sense to be diverse. Research from McKinsey suggests that companies that have high levels of gender and racial diversity perform better than average while those that are less diverse tend to be laggards. The reasons for this are complex, but probably come down to the fact that diverse companies also have forward thinking policies that attract and retain better talent and that leads to a “virtuous cycle” of increasing returns.

So diversity is a good thing but how do you go about increasing it at your organization? Well, a little like action on your climate impact it’s a top down thing – action from the top is needed if you really want things to change.

I’ve summarized my understanding of McKinsey’s recommendations in the diagram below.

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You need to start with data, and see what the current situation looks like. It’s unreasonable these days to have the top leadership of a company all look the same. But it’s the same thing at every level of society. If you have a panel at a conference where there is no diversity, it’s something that gets noticed now, commented upon. It’s hard to argue that there is no one other than the people on there that’s qualified to go on as well.

The thing, however, is that leadership in these issues comes from the top. There has to be buy in from the Chief Executive down otherwise nothing is going to happen. But when the executive team decide that they want to make a change and when they are visible and vocal in telling you what they want then the machinery of the organization starts to grind.

The next step is to set targets, clear ones, logical ones. And this is where we run into a conundrum. Top down targets are almost always a bad thing. If they could be met, then why haven’t they been met already? If they can’t be met, will people game the system, let in poor quality people because they need to hit their targets?

Well, the only way to deal with that is to understand how to manage variation, how to measure and monitor and understand the difference between doing things because they improve the situation and will therefore show up in the results, and doing things because they let you show that you’ve got the results. The difference is between making the numbers and making up the numbers and it’s very easy to get confused about the difference between the two things.

We might need to come back to targets another time, but it’s time to think about what you’re going to do differently. And it can’t be one thing done the same everywhere – that’s the whole point of diversity, you have to look at things differently. You need to go and talk to the kind of people you don’t see in your organization and understand why they don’t make it there and what you need to do to make a difference. You need ambassadors, interpreters, translators – because until you have people like that in your organization it’s a foreign language to you. So you probably need some help from people who’ve been there and done it before.

You need to be able to watch what’s going on, make sure there is activity of the right kind happening, because it’s only by doing stuff that you’re going to change anything. And if the data tells you that things aren’t changing that’s probably because there are barriers inside your organization, not visible ones necessarily, but the ones in people’s minds, the kind of things that slow down change, hinder movement, get in the way. Blockers.

If you do all these things, will things change? Well, it’s hard to say but it seems quite likely that if you don’t address these issues then you won’t change. And that could be a problem, it probably will be a problem – not one that you will see straight away but if change is being stopped in your organization rather than just not being actioned, then that’s a corrosive thing. You have people actively working to do the wrong thing and that’s not right – it’s more than not right, it’s tending towards being evil and that sort of thing eventually rots you from the inside.

That doesn’t mean you can’t go a long way by having no scruples and doing everything you can to maintain your power. History has shown many examples of people who have done just that. But the good news from history is that such regimes eventually end – not because great forces are arrayed against them but because small voices speak the truth and the truth can only be ignored for so long.

In our personal lives and communities there are no such top down mandates, nothing pushing us to do anything differently than we do now. So, it comes down to us to learn about these things for ourselves. We’ll be exposed to it one way or the other, through the news, the media and through increasingly diverse stories for children and adults. We can see that happening and it’s a good thing.

But some people are going to be scared by the changes and they are going to lash out and try and get things to be like they were before.

But that’s not going to happen.

Perhaps because as you get to know other people better you might even become friends. So how might that work in this day and age? What’s the difference between then and now?

Let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why You Need Different Approaches At Different Levels

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Wednesday, 7.53pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The Four Levels of Comedy: Make your friends laugh, Make strangers laugh, Get paid to make strangers laugh, and Make people talk like you because it’s so much fun. – Jerry Seinfeld

I’m discovering Seinfeld, like many other people, I’m sure, on streaming. He’s funny, he’s still relevant – because even though many things have changed people haven’t and we still have the same issues. And he explores them in a funny way. Is it witty, sardonic, a particular genre of humor? I don’t know… but it makes for good watching.

Now, decades later Seinfeld has made it to the Harvard Business Review. I point to McKinsey as the example of a consultancy firm, the people that invented consultancy as we now know it. I devoured their stuff on presentations and analysis five years ago. I still think they’re very good, I like what they’ve done with animating their visuals. But I also think that some of their approaches are still from the eighties, at least outwardly and there has been some stuff since then which might be useful to use in consultancy. The Harvard Business Review asked Seinfeld if he felt that hiring McKinsey would have helped him refine his business model.

He first asked who they were. Then he asked if they were funny. And no, if they weren’t funny he didn’t need their help.

Being funny is like having the power to look at things differently, using another lens, with a new perspective. And that’s valuable, incredibly so. Terry Pratchett had the power to do that, weaving everyday practical knowledge and management theory into his fantastical stories with a side of funny. Then again, if you’re funny, people take you less seriously and the really important stuff you’re saying passes them by.

Because things matter in different ways depending on context. For example, if you decide to do something different today – rearrange your room, for example, that’s fine. You’ll move your bed to the other side of the room, change the living room around and then get on with your day. If you charted the amount of disruption on a graph, there would be a little spike and then things would settle down.

Now, if you rearranged your team’s working environment there would be a bit more disruption, an argument or two perhaps, some unhappiness. If you did it to a group there would be a lot of discussion and angst and people would be worried about what this meant about them and their roles. And then with a community – what if you came along and decided to close down a few roads or build a bypass. That would bring out whole groups of people, supporting, protesting, complaining.

Now, would you use the same methods to resolve a disagreement with yourself about whether the radiator should go under the window or across the room as with a community working out whether a wind turbine should be in one location or another? You know instantly that the answer is no, but that doesn’t stop us thinking that because something works for us it will work for everyone else. Because we successfully did things our way it will work for the rest of society.

I think Margaret Thatcher was one of the people that was famous for saying she would run the business of government like her dad ran a corner store. But a corner store is not the same as the economy of a country and it took some time to work out the difference. From a country’s point of view some things matter more than other things. For example, right now people are stealing billions, it seems, from public funds designed to help people out. But at the same time the only thing keeping society going is the belief that things will be sorted out, that we’re still in control. The second people start to worry the toilet rolls sell out.

So what we’ve learned is this. You can make big, dramatic changes in your own life but at the level of government it’s much more about talking about what you will do than any real doing. And the doing you do is more in the way of nudging, about trying to make small changes because the ripple effects of what you do ricochet up and down the system – the bigger the system the less certain it is what will happen when that butterfly flaps its wings.

What we need to learn to do, as we engage with and try to build communities, is work out what works at different levels. Leaders go in and rock the boat, they want to bring in their approach, change everything, turn it around. And that often ends making things a little worse.

To really get a sense of what this means read these words from CNN’s analysis on the Biden transition.

“Multilateralism, diplomacy, quiet competence, scientific rigor, inclusivity, collegiality between top officials, respect for civil servants, the intelligence community and a welcome for immigrants are in.

Bashing allies, populism, nationalism, White House backbiting, despot coddling, ring-kissing Cabinet meetings, political hacks running spy agencies, and downplaying politically inconvenient threats – like killer viruses – are out.”

You can have a huge disturbance for a while and then people start to realize that it takes effort to keep the peace – and it takes effort whenever you have to deal with anyone other than yourself. After all, most of us can get into an argument in an empty room.

The thing that you have to see is that rules, policies, processes are a way of moderating the amount of action you take at different levels. Rules need to emerge to cope with the complexity of the situation you are in. You don’t need rules to decide what to do at home – although thinking about it, there’s a decent change that things like Feng Shui emerged to help large joint families live together with fewer arguments.

Rules that work at one level, for example at a family football kickabout, will not work at a higher level like a league game, which needs a referee to enforce them. And at national and international levels, rules are actually laws, and there is an entire profession that makes it their duty to try and sort things out.

This lack of understanding of levels is really what causes a problem between them. For example, you have to sign this huge license agreement when using any software. It’s just not appropriate because the level at which the corporation is acting is different from the level at which you, as an individual, are using the software. That’s why I personally, for anything I use that matters to me, don’t use commercial software. The copyleft of the FSF is what matters to me.

The takeaway here is really that you need to look at communities and the rules they operate and ask yourself if they are appropriate for the level at which they are operating. The smaller you are the fewer rules you need. The larger you get, the more you need but you also need to watch how you apply them because each time you make a change you disturb things and they need to settle down before you go forward. That’s why the law is slow, not because it doesn’t want to help you but because if it goes fast it could make things worse.

Okay… now that we can see that rules should emerge when needed rather than be imposed from one level onto another let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers, Karthik Suresh

The First Duty Of Government Is To Protect Its Citizens

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Tuesday, 7.51am

Sheffield, U.K.

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. – Benjamin Franklin

In my last post I was wondering about what drives people to gang up against others. What makes one group dislike or fear another, to the point where they take action and attack the other. And what can you do about this?

What’s happening right now?

The most powerful culture shaper we have is the power of story. And stories, these days, are told through media, film and TV and streaming. We hear about diversity in media, people bemoaning the lack of representation in what we see on our screens. Increasingly, however, what you do see is diversity. In fact, it probably makes you stop and think, perhaps even comment.

For some of us it’s a little strange seeing people like us on the screen. It’s odd seeing them in public life outside the confines of our own cultures. People making a difference, barriers breaking down, to the point where we notice and feel the need to comment.

And comment people do. There is a backlash from people who are threatened by this, by others daring to find a space, a place, to seek to be represented and shown to others for who they are and what they stand for and how they live – which, for the most part, is like most other people.

And so you have this phenomenon, something like two streams of hot and cold water mixing. But what’s happening is that the mixing happens where the two streams meet. And that’s a good thing – but then you also have this strange phenomenon of the hot water and the cold water further away rushing backwards, rushing to get away and seek its own kind.

Segregation happens all by itself too

This is not the best analogy, and a much better one is the Shelling Model Of Segregation that suggests that people naturally move to places where there are others like them. Over time this results in segregated societies. This has been demonstrated with taxi movement studies where taxis that serve one kind of population in a city rarely cross into another population’s territory. You often think of segregation as something that was imposed on another group by a dominant group – but it’s something that’s happened over time because of the way people are as well.

So that leads to an interesting thought. When media is diverse and you have a choice, then will people opt for diverse media or will they flip channels or streams to segregated ones? Will their implicit preferences come out in their choices of where to spend their attention?

Now, this will come out in the data, of course, because everything is logged. We know what shows are watched in what proportion. We know what books are read and so we also know what genres and profiles will make the most money and that will drive commissions and advances and the economy of the market for media and content.

People will complain about the differences, about how it’s not fair and that everyone should get a chance. And while you might think that they’re whinging and they should be grateful to be given a chance, these complainers, these people that ask for fairness are doing something very brave and something very important. They are standing up and asking for equality, something many of us will never have to do or have the guts to do. Their complaining, their noise is what makes others pay attention and then, often reluctantly, make changes that make life easier for the rest of us.

And that’s because it’s not really about good or bad, better or worse, one or the other.

It’s about familiarity

What people mean when they say something is intuitive is usually that it’s familiar – it’s something they’ve seen before and are comfortable with it. Your house seems intuitive to you because you know it inside out, you know where everything is and where to find what you want. To someone entering your house for the first time nothing is familiar, they don’t know where the bathroom is, where you keep the tea or how to turn on the heating.

It’s the same with culture. If you want to get comfortable with someone else’s culture then you have to learn about it. Immigrants know this, and that’s why they learn about football in the UK and baseball in the US – even if they think these are crashingly boring activities. And because you aren’t going to go out and find people who are different from you (remember that segregation is happening all the time) the media has to bring the culture to you. And eventually you will be comfortable and, if you’re not, your children will. And so will their children. And everyone will get on.

And that’s a scary thought

We have a long history of thoughts that tell us that if you want to get on with me you need to be like me. Historically it’s been about religion, more recently it’s been about race and even more recently it’s been about nationality – and religion again. Populist movements prey on people who still hold these ideas – they stoke up fear about how one group is losing its culture, how what they have is being watered down or lost to a new group who are taking over.

Because there is a very real challenge here. Most of us want to be left alone to do our own thing. We want to live our lives, free of strife, doing whatever we think is best for us – as Professor Higgins points out. If we could do that all would be well. And then here come these pesky thought police telling us what to think and how to live and how dare they.

And there is no answer really to this problem, for one simple reason. Society – this group of humans do not hold absolute values. There is no good or evil or true or false when it comes to people – there are always shades of gray and complexity and difficulty and what one government choose to do to keep its citizens safe is the opposite of what another would do and hopefully the better idea wins but sometimes it doesn’t.

Pirsig in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance points out that the values you hold often come down to what is convenient to hold. And that’s just life.

After all, even Google seem to have forgotten their injunction, Don’t be evil.

But that’s still a good mantra to have.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

p.s. This project is heavy going, far too much stuff that requires thinking. I’m going to keep wading through it anyway, because I said I would but I’m not enjoying it that much so far. In the next post, we’ll look at how rules emerge.

What Is The Purpose That Joins A Community?

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Sunday, 9.30am

Sheffield, U.K.

The purpose of life is a life of purpose. – Robert Byrne

It’s impossible not to think about one side and another at this time. Opposing factions, good versus evil, diversity versus conformance, the differences that lie between sections of society and sections of humanity. This duality is so much a part of the lives we live that it’s hard to imagine an alternative, consider any other way of doing things.

What really, when it comes down to it is the difference between the extreme left and the extreme right? I don’t know enough about either to really dig into this but that isn’t going to stop me having an opinion. After all, it never really seems to stop anyone else.

For one reason or another I’ve been exposed to more of the left/right worldview than I would normally come across. I think it boils down to the collective versus the individual – equality for everyone versus your right not to wear a mask if you don’t want to. I’m aware that it’s never really that simple but these two big categories seem to capture a lot of the angst that’s floating about these days.

Start with principles. End with games

At the start of each movement is someone with an idea, Marx with communism, Adam Smith with the invisible hand. And then people build on these ideas, commenting, believing and acting, until eventually you have another movement, something happening, a new belief system. And then, over time, the belief system gets guardians, rituals, temples and then one day the belief dies and the shell, the carapace remains, looking like it did the day before but hollow inside.

It’s impossible not to comment on a certain election and individual, so I’m going to have to point in that direction. Here is a story of a person who came to power promising to help the forgotten many, the people progress had left behind. The people who had jobs and security and lost it when the world moved on to new ideas and different ways. And he surfed on a wave of anger because people who had something and then lose it feel the loss and pain more than people who never had it at all.

He had his time, did things his way, focused on the people that put him in power and said the things that they wanted to hear, flattered and pleasured his audience and did things others wouldn’t. And some people love him for that and others hate him and I don’t know who is right and wrong but you cannot deny that he is popular with his group.

But all of it has been about games, playing games to get things done. And now playing games to keep going, to regain territory, to look alive, to build resources for the next game. Principles are easy to state, easy to come up with and then the game starts. And eventually, very quickly, players forget the principles and focus on the rules and what they have to do to win and at one point, one time they have to decide whether they step over the line; whether they play to play well or play to win and whether the principle matters or whether the winning matters and when the winning wins, that’s when you lose your soul and the principle at the core, the belief rots away and dies.

Flames have to be relit

When you look at large, established groups then – the big parties, the big religions, countries and counties and states – what is it that holds them together? The one thing they all have in common is ritual, they know the importance of conditioning, of socialization, of songs and anthems and texts – the pillars that hold up the structure of belief, the walls that keep out the others.

The history of these movements is that of a flame, a burning torch that first gives light, which is then interred in a holder. Unless the flame is fed it eventually goes out and all that is left is the holder. That’s why all movements need recruits, new people who can hold and pass on the flame. And there is always a battle within each individual, a battle between their belief in the flame and their desire for power and, over time, the desire for power tends to win.

What do people do?

Well, they speak out or they stay silent. Or they use the process. Games are not a bad thing because they also allow those people who do not have natural advantages, the charisma, the charm, the patter of some, to create rules that give them an equal voice. That is the purpose of politics, to give you a chance to express your views and make your case and appeal to the voters, to the people. And you agree to abide by the will of the majority. Or do you?

One of the most visible failures of a recent coalition government was of the party that chose to compromise in the larger interests of the nation. They went back on their promises to their core voter base because they thought they were doing the right thing for the country as a whole and they were eviscerated in the next election. Politics is not about doing what is right for everyone. It’s about making the case for your group and working to advance its interests. If you go into coalition and there are things you fundamentally disagree on with your partner – the thing to do is not change your beliefs but focus on the smaller list of things you do agree on. The rest will have to wait until the next time you all go back to the polls.

There are no trump cards

As I think through this situation what seems increasingly clear is that there is no real resolution, there is only reality. The reality is that if you believe in something you have to make your case, go out there and make your point, and you will need all the skills needed for any other kind of organizing activity, resources, people, opportunity. Running a movement, being in politics, holding a belief – these are all matters of business, about worth and value and resource and cost. If you’re not willing to pay the price don’t do it.

Most of us don’t. Which is why we’re the floaters, the people who the core believers have to attract to their ideas.

This leads to an important lesson for community builders. There are people who will agree with what you have to say. Direct most of your efforts at helping them work together, with resources, communication and knowledge. Spend some time helping people that are interested and open to your ideas learn more and help them decide if they want to work with you. Ignore everyone else, especially those that have a go at you. Push only your message. If you start to attack others you’re giving them oxygen.

In the end your community’s value will be judged by what it does. Think of the communities you know – political, religious, commercial, philosophical. They are all based on ideas. Some have survived for centuries and enriched the world. Others have drenched it in blood. What made the difference was what people were willing to do for their group.

Why are people willing to do things in the name of their group, their organization? Does it have something to do with safety?

Let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why Is The Act Of Connecting So Important To Us?

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Saturday, 8.24am

Sheffield, U.K.

I believe that life is chaotic, a jumble of accidents, ambitions, misconceptions, bold intentions, lazy happenstances, and unintended consequences, yet I also believe that there are connections that illuminate our world, revealing its endless mystery and wonder. – David Maraniss

I wonder if our information processing capabilities are no longer relevant, whether, in fact the peripherals we have are increasingly redundant, much of the time. They’re still important when it comes to the matter of survival but for everything else they seem rather unfit for purpose.

That seems vague, so let me explain.

We are visual creatures, taking in the vast majority of information through our eyes. The other senses, hearing, smell, touch, taste complement and support eyesight – but being able to see is hugely important. When it comes to survival, anyway. If you can see your food from a long distance or spot a predator then you’ve just increased your chance of living longer. If you interact with another person and can read their expression clearly, including the micro-expressions that tell you how they feel, then you know what to do next – run, fight, find a room. Our senses have evolved over time to help us tackle the basic business of finding food, avoiding danger and reproducing ourselves. They have not evolved to deal with other kinds of information.

Our brain has, however, in the meantime been busy building the processing capacity to deal with things like language and abstract thought. But it has had to work with the peripherals connected to it – your eyes and ears in particular. Since we can’t change those, what humans have done is create technology to augment our senses. Children don’t realize this but that first time they picked up a book was the first time they became augmented by technology, joining a race of augmented humans.

And from there the technological opportunities to augment ourselves only increases, until we can now capture and reproduce increasing amounts of sensory information. We’ve got the hang of sight and sound, and people are busy working on touch and smell, and taste isn’t that far away either. What this eventually means is that there is no need for us to go to Mars, no need to leave our rooms, when we can experience everything that is everywhere simply by transferring the sensory experiences to where we are rather than transferring ourselves to where the experiences happen to be. Which sounds dreadful but convenient – in the end we’ll all be fat, but happy.

I was listening to a session on Bogdanov, a Russian thinker I hadn’t come across before, whose idea of a perfect society seemed to include the concept that all humans would think the same way if they lived more equally. In practice, we seem to end up with extremes. Many people go with the easy route and adapt the world they are in. Others go to the opposite extreme and go to where the experiences are. So you end up with one group entertaining the other, the daredevils climb the mountains and go to the Arctic and the rest of us sit on our sofas watching they do that.

But life lived alone in a room is no life at all – as humans we are desperate for connection, we crave community. Can you imagine the excitement of people in the 80’s when they first had a blinking terminal in front of them – where they could connect and interact with people anywhere in the world? That era is history but you can still experience it. You can connect to bulletin boards (telnet dura-bbs.net 6359) or connect to a Usenet group (slrn –nntp -h olduse.net) and get a flavor of what it’s like.

We are a world away from that, free from concerns about bandwidth and data transfer and eager to pass on more and more. And this creates a problem – one of sensory overload. When a flood of information hits your senses you have to start filtering, blocking out what’s not necessary to you can focus on what’s important. You have to start selecting tools that help you amplify or dampen information without letting those filters getting in control of how you think.

The failure to manage those filters or, more precisely, the lack of knowledge on how to use them is leading to an interesting, perhaps dangerous shift in the way people form communities today. We need to watch what’s happening in the US, as the most visible phenomenon of community building through filters – where you have a cult of personality building around an individual that will be sustained for years, perhaps generations by self-sustaining communities of interest. In plain English, people who believe what’s being put out there will cluster and share information that supports what they believe, whether it’s true or not and make decisions and react in ways that are consistent with their beliefs. In more authoritarian states this process is also happening, just under state control rather than naturally.

When this happens, when people are fed a diet of information that is unchecked, unchallenged and untrue, what option to they have other than to believe what they get? Where are the opposing views, the critical reflections, the evidence or the facts? Well, there’s no capacity left to deal with that information. If you receive audio, video, textual information on all your channels telling you one thing, with algorithms recommending more things similar to what you looked at before, then how do you find anything new, anything else at all?

There are two things you can do.

Stop stuff getting in – retreat, turn off the inputs, go back to the basics, pick up a book, write without being connected to the Internet, think instead of being told what to thing.

Actively look for diverse views – search out alternative discussions, opinions, look for facts and evidence and make up your own mind.

These things are hard to do. We are wired for survival, wired to take in information and decide whether to fight or flee. That’s our natural reaction to things.

Then again, our brains have evolved, being human is also natural. Living in communities, accepting diversity, being able to resolve differences is something we have to do. It’s something organisms in ecosystems evolve to do, to find a niche and a place and a space – and it’s something that humans choose to do. We can choose to live together or choose to fight.

I wonder what we’ll choose to do?

Let’s look at that next – what reason might we have to accept differences rather than fighting them?

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

The Way Media And Community Shape Each Other

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Wednesday, 6.21am

Sheffield, U.K.

Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture. – Allen Ginsberg

There are a couple of thoughts I want to explore in this post, one on media in general and one on the history of technology.

Let’s start with media.

What’s off the mainstream?

I’ve been experimenting with non-mainstream media for a couple of days – looking at options for content that isn’t on YouTube, searching for material that’s isn’t a famous, well known shot on a streaming platform.

One of these options is Peer Tube, a decentralized video sharing service. So what can you come across there? Well, its less than you can find on YouTube but it’s different. And that’s good, because you can stumble across stuff that’s not what you usually see.

I came across a video on Noam Chomsky’s five filters of the mass media. Chomsky argues that the media is influenced by factors of ownership, advertising, the media elite, flak and the common enemy. Now, I’m not entirely sure how to take this and I am not sure filter is the right term but then again, Chomsky is a linguist, and probably chooses words very carefully.

Then again, I want to look at these filters, or really what I’d rather term characteristics of the media and evaluate them. This list is presented as a critique of media, in particular media in the US. So, how should we think about them?

What’s the news?

News is simple organized gossip, with a helping of opinion on the side. And some people make it their profession to peddle the news. When you decide that you’re going to write down what’s happening and send it around to your friends you’re starting on a journey to becoming a media mogul. You own your little newsletter and it tells people about the things that you think are important.

As we speak, people are using newsletters to try and build their reach, figuring that if they bring you something useful you’ll want to hear more from them and possibly subscribe to their material. Which they own.

Ownership is not a bad thing. You can look at media and see that some people own large, profitable corporations that deal in the news. The question is not really one of ownership of the news, but of who owns the news. Can anyone own it, does it come down to competition, economics and freedom? Or is it controlled by the state, a cartel, a cabal, a shadowy force? And the answer is yes, to all these in different places because that’s the way life is. But then again it isn’t, because we have access to news from everywhere these days, and it’s hard to argue that ownership of a property equates to control of people’s minds.

I think similar arguments can be advanced for most of Chomsky’s other points. Perhaps it’s a function of time and things have changed. Advertising pays for resources, stars and elites pull in the interest, and if you can’t stand criticism then you shouldn’t be in this business in the first place. And of course, a common enemy pulls us all together. Is there anything in this list of factors that is abnormal?

One way to test this is to look at the inverse of each point. Instead of ownership by individuals you have ownership by everyone, which in practice means ownership by the representatives of everyone, which means the state, which means the only news you can have is the official state news. If there is no advertising, you have to make to with state resources, which means taxes. There are no elites, so all the news is about the lives of everyone, farmers, office workers, social workers, but of course all the stuff that makes stars needs to be thrown away. There is no flak, because there is no opposition, nothing critical is voiced and because all this is so boring you have to see everyone doing anything else as an enemy.

That describes what one imagines the media of North Korea looks like.

Now perhaps all this has to do with the media landscape of the seventies where you had to own presses to print and so ownership wasn’t available to everyone.

While now it is, with the advent of the Internet the cost of publishing has dropped to the cost of your access to bandwidth. Everyone has a voice. Rather than the state owning media, every single one of us has access to platforms, ones we can own ourselves like a website or blog or a voice on other people’s platforms like social media. Isn’t this a good thing? Millions of voices talking about what’s going on, singing in gossip?

Technology and mediating the news

The way to see this chorus of activity is not as an organized, planned thing but rather as an emergent, chaotic thing. The roar, the hubbub of online news has more to do with chaos and complexity theory than it has to do with planning and control. Voices will rise and fall, they will coalesce around points of stability, rise to a crescendo and fall away again. Like starlings flocking the behavior of people online resembles motorway traffic and the movement of schools of fish and you can see the broad sweep of what’s going on but not the individual judgments of individual elements or what the group as a whole is going to do next.

And all this is a good thing, it’s the opposite of control by a few. The eventual result emerges from the actions of many, too many to control. And that’s perhaps the fundamental signature of a free society – you don’t know what they’re going to do next because they don’t know themselves yet, but they’ll figure it out when it comes because they can adapt and change.

What’s important, what’s always been important is not control or money or power but knowledge, knowledge of the medium, of the technology – because if you have knowledge you have the ability to take control of your own thoughts and ideas, rather than having them placed in your head for you. I’m not sure if I’m making myself clear here, but it seems to me that a society where an extremist can voice their views and be challenged in public is better than one where they hide and do what they do in secret. A free society is surely better than a non-free one? And doesn’t the technology we have now lend itself to promoting openness and freedom rather than control and submission to corporations or the state?

Isn’t all this a bit heavy?

As a reminder, I’m trying to work through some ideas on community and I’m being challenged by conflicting objectives. On the one hand, there is the light, business like stuff. Which comes down to what kind of stuff should you send out if you want to build a community. Send out news, stuff people want to share and you’ll get interest. Work with a group of supporters, people with a common interest. That seems to work well, as others amplify what you put out there.

All these thoughts about the underlying structure, the tensions and threads holding it all together, the technology and the systems and the corporations – are any of these relevant to the discussion of community? Why does it matter?

And I have to say, I don’t know. I find myself going down these paths because I want to understand the underlying structure. Yes, given what we have now, the platforms and technology that exist, you can do certain things that make you popular and help you build a business. But the chances are that as you try and appeal to people you’ll choose an approach, you’ll be extreme and confrontational, in order to stand out, you’ll be sweetness and light but most of all you’ll be different from average because who is really interested in average? But then you get everyone being different in the same way, whether it’s trying to provoke or shock or stand out. Everyone’s trying to get an edge.

I don’t really have a conclusion for this post, because it’s such a big thing to chew on. I suppose you have to finish by saying that news brings us together, just like gossip does. But you have to be critical, you have to think about what you’re being told and that’s obvious really, isn’t it? One way of doing that is to build some diversity into your news gathering processes.

But how did this first start to happen? How did we transition from mass media in the Chomsky critique to the options we have today. I think I’ll look at that tomorrow.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Manage The Process Of People Entering And Leaving Your Group

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Sunday, 7.37am

Sheffield, U.K.

I am contracting continually a debt of gratitude which time will never see canceled. There is a treasury from which it will be repaid, but I do not dispense its stores. – Dorothea Dix

I sometimes wonder what the point of doing all this is. Why do we work, why do we create stuff, what drives us to do the things we do? It can’t just be survival or money because after a certain point the effect of having stuff seems to plateau. We do things because they matter to us, and get involved in activities and causes that seem worth spending our time on.

What underpins the thinking we do in those situations? How do we determine what seems a good use of our time, a worthwhile endeavor? Right now, sitting where you are, what are the things you do that matter to you? And why do you do them?

One of the reasons I think about this is because I spent a lot of my early life moving around, living out of suitcases. That meant always entering situations where people knew each other and I had to find a place in a new space. The easiest way to do that was to find and join groups that were interesting, that offered a way for new people to get involved and engage with others. Although I have been in one place for a long time now, I still like to work with groups. In the midst of a pandemic, where we can’t go out, many of us are probably rediscovering the magic of online group social activity and trying to get involved.

So what do you need for something like this to work?

Being clear about your contract with each other

I joined a university led program which started by emphasizing the idea of contracting. We were contracting with each other, the leader explained. They were contracting to support us, give us information, operate a program. And we were contracting to engage with the material, do the work, do our part in learning and participating.

It’s an interesting word, “contracting” when used in that context. It clearly has a very specific academic definition. Now, if you’re going to approach it in an academic way the first thing to do is find every instance of the word as it’s defined in various papers and create a table listing all of them.

With the help of Webster, then, we have the following that seems appropriate in this context:

“To enter into, with mutual obligations; to make a bargain or covenant for.”

In some of my other posts I’m a little dismissive of lawyers. I wanted to be one, but I failed to get into law school and what I’ve see of lawyers makes me wonder how good some of their work is. But, the realization I’m coming to is that what lawyers do – their function in helping us contract with each other – is perhaps absolutely fundamental to human society. It’s actually so important that perhaps we cannot leave it to the lawyers. Maybe each of us has to take responsibility for ensuring that contracts work for the benefit of humanity rather than for the protection of the powerful.

Terry Pratchett captures this, with his usual wit and insight when he talks about how nobles, the ones who own everything, once had to use swords and fight to get what they have. And then they realized that instead of all the fighting they could just hold pieces of paper that declared their ownership and the sword fighting stopped and they used the processes of law to protect their interests. But, as Terry points out, the nobles have a contract to own the land but they also have a contract with the people that live on the land and nurture it and that contract is just as important and, even if it’s not written down, breaking it will result in consequences.

You can call this a psychological contract and, in an ideal world, the written down contract and the psychological contract will mirror each other. But you have to get there first.

Talking it through

The place where it all starts is by talking it through, by having a discussion and getting ideas out and shared with the others that are part of your group. There are tools and approaches that you can use when you do this. You can run a brainstorming session, get on a whiteboard and draw it out, write letters to each other.

Let’s take an example of a specific community, the Internet Engineering Task Force or IETF.

Here is a quote that sums up their approach.

The IETF community works mostly online, guided by the informal principle: “we believe in rough consensus and running code”.

The IETF uses Requests for Comments (RFCs) as a way to set out their approach to a new standard.

Here’s an example of one: RFC 2549 – IP over Avian Carriers with Quality of Service, although I assume you get the joke…

And there are hundreds more. The point is that these folks worked out a way to work across huge distances and text, written words that set out how to do things were hugely important. They had a process, a secretariat, mailing lists, forums, discussion groups and all the other elements that allow a group to engage and converse and chat. Importantly, the conversations are documented and retrievable and that’s again a sign of the good functioning of a group – that someone takes on the responsibility and effort to document what is going on and what decisions have been reached.

So, one of the questions you have to ask when you want to set up a community is how people are going to engage with each other, how are they going to have discussions, debate different points of view and come to an agreement on how to move forward? The mechanism you choose and the technology that’s involved will influence who joins you and how they participate. That’s probably why the basic requirement for politicians is to be able to speak – we can all, in theory, say we want to say and so speeches and debates are a normal form of political contracting. For those of us that prefer to write rather than talk, the Internet offers different groups and choices.

But when it comes down to it, you have to be able to engage and then eventually put it down in a contract.

Capturing it in words

At this point I have a slight tangent to go on. I go a lot of visual thinking work and there are various groups involved in this space. Many focus on the art and the style of visual thinking, and there are a range of applications of their work, from documenting proceedings to helping a group work through a complex problem. But many of these approaches stop when the art is done, as if that is the final product and now it’s over to you, the group, to do what comes next.

What comes next, I’m starting to realize, is the contract. The tools we use in visual thinking help us to talk things out using another medium. In addition to speech and text, we can use images and space and geography to document and link and test ideas and connections and come up with a firmer conception of what we want to happen. Eventually, we need to write this down in text, in a contract that clearly spells out what we have uncovered during the talking out phase of our work. Again, this is not a contract in the legal sense, where a lawyer gets involved but a contract in the sense of a bargain or covenant, a promise to each other to make and keep mutual obligations.

But, of course, between the talking and the contract are a few more steps. These are the proposals, the requests for comments, the intermediate documentation that is considered and negotiated and which eventually becomes a contract.

All this has to happen before you can add and remove people to your group, beyond the core group of founders. The founders will debate and discuss and create the initial contract and then set it out in a way that new members can engage with. These are the rules of engagement, the code of practice, the community rules. Of course, you need ways for people to debate and discuss and change them over time but you do need them. And they need to be simple, especially if money is involved.

The longevity of a group is perhaps directly related to how these rules work. For a long time the rules were unwritten, unsaid, managed by a group of elders. Once they started being written down more people could relate to them, work within them and challenge them if they were unfair. Few clubs would dare to put a discriminatory process in writing and that’s a good thing. Shining a light causes evil to scuttle away.

Here’s my conclusion from all this. If you want to build a community make some rules, write them down. Try and balance things, aim for a rough consensus and working operations. And then get on with it.

As a friend of mine says about why this is worth doing. Go alone, and you can go fast. Go with others and you can go far.

In the next post I want to talk about news and how news can help hold your community together.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Prevent Infighting And Self-Destruction In A Community

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Saturday, 7.36am

Sheffield, U.K.

Last century we needed lawyers; this century we need big, broad coalitions. When extremists decide to attack all our communities, they must hope that there will be infighting. But we have stood all for one and one for all. That is how we will win. – Benjamin Todd Jealous

It’s funny how certain quotes roll around in your brain, making you wonder whether their time has come again. One of those is from Benjamin Graham, the father of value investing, who wrote that the stock market is a voting machine in the short term, but a weighing machine in the long term.

There are differences of opinion about what is short term and what is long term but I’m starting to wonder whether this statement applies more generally. Do you think that communities, businesses, societies are destined to always follow the popular vote or do they have periods of instability within longer periods of overall calm? Are things going to go the way they seem or are we going to find that things settle down eventually, when all is done, when all the votes are counted, when cooler heads prevail.

Now, I’m not referring to a particular election, although that’s clearly something that might fall within this area of inquiry. Instead, let’s look at a different period and ask what is going on, then and now, and whether things are changing, or whether they are the same but different.

A code of communication

In the early days of the Internet, when email was invented and we had Usenet, group emails and forums and all those things, people got very excited about these new modes of communication and piled into conversations with thoughts and opinions and energy. You had the invention of flame wars, long drawn out arguments between people and all the other things you see happening on social media today. You knew an argument stopped being useful when people started making comparisons to Nazis when talking about others.

This led to the development of rules about how you should act in these groups, and eventually started to be known as “netiquette”, a combination of network and etiquette. Just good, polite behavior online so that we could have a conversation, get along, have robust debates but end up in a better place than before. It’s hard to police this as well. All too often, posts pointing out spelling errors seem to be riddled with spelling errors themselves. Eventually, many communities find that it’s just easier to set out what’s expected in writing, so that people know what’s right and what’s wrong in the community they are thinking of joining. Free speech needs to be balanced with civil speech.

Is it hard to write these rules? Well, you could do worse than to start with looking at RFC 1855 – Netiquette Guidelines. This is from 1995 and you can adapt many of the rules to whatever community you’re building now. There are some interesting ideas in there, such as the economic impact of communication. The cost of communication is paid about equally, it argues, by sender and recipient. Spam, trolling, multi-posting may take up time for you if you’re doing that sort of thing but you’re also causing recipients to spend their time and resources on them as well.

What this also means is that if you want to join a community you will probably need to agree to support its declared position on various topics. That’s obvious when it comes to political parties. If you sign up, you sign up to their policies as agreed and communicated through their processes. You may disagree with some of them but if you want to be part of that community you work within the processes they have to voice your views, address your differences and abide by the eventual decisions.

What happens when there are no rules?

In my experience, perhaps your own too, there are two situations I see when things start to fall apart. The first is where people get together and no one really has the knowledge needed to put the basic administrative structure in place to enable civil conversations. People have a go at doing it and you end up with various permutations. Groups that encourage fewer rules find themselves constantly setting meetings to talk through things. Groups with detailed rules end up spending all their time interpreting rules and following processes, so that the only way to get things done is to game the system, understand and use the rules to your advantage.

And then there is power, the ever present pursuit of power. You have situations where someone new comes in and wants to make a difference – and the first thing they need to judge is loyalty, who is loyal to them and who is not. And then you have a purge. It happens quite organically, sometimes. People see the new person come in and decide to leave.

The thing with power is that it’s a faithless thing. The moment you get power is also the moment where it will start to drain away. The people beside you feed off you and so you have to be strong. The minute you show any weakness, the wolves start circling. Having power is not the same thing as being a leader. Perhaps the single biggest difference has to do with who is in control. A person who wants power wants control. A leader wants to set out a vision, a strategy, and then get out of the way of capable people who can execute.

And that means that an effective leader is also an effective communicator and, to do that, they must first be an effective listener. You need to listen to what is going on so that you can talk fluently about what needs to be done. But, of course, you can’t tell the difference between a leader who will leave a legacy and a power-mad crazy person who will leave a trail of destruction. Such conversations eventually take us to Hitler, and that marks the point at which this post should stop – as it’s reached the natural end.

The unhelpful conclusion, really, is this. The best you can do if you want to build a community that doesn’t implode is to set out some rules for the people who want to join your community. Create an environment where they can debate and argue and work to change the rules. If they can’t, they can choose to leave or choose to accept the rules. If you’re in charge, then get out of the way, support and help them to get thing done and spend your time removing obstacles.

Try and do the right thing.

It’s not really that hard to do…

In the next post, I want to look at members, how they flow into and out of a group and what we can do to make this process work well.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

The Secret To Building Your Community

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Friday, 5.22am

Sheffield, U.K.

Most men today cannot conceive of a freedom that does not involve somebody’s slavery. – W. E. B. Du Bois

As we get older it becomes harder for us to imagine doing anything other than what we’re doing right now. We’ve dropped more than one anchor, and these commitments keep us in place, constraining our freedom to move around. Of course, we get certain things in exchange; money, security, family, associates, so it’s not a bad thing by any means. As long as we are where we want to be and are happy there.

In my last post I looked at rituals and their role in community creation and preservation. In particular, they create opportunities for engagement helping people to connect for all kinds of reasons, from looking at working together to meeting your future partner. But is that all there is, creating an event, or is there more to creating your community than that?

Going to a show

Many, many years ago at university I was active in student societies. You might be familiar with the scene that happens – used to happen – at the start of a new year. An open day for all the societies to set out their stalls, a chance to engage with potential new members and get them to come along.

The objective is to promote yourself, to get members in. Having a membership is the most important thing for a student society because membership brings in revenue and lets you put on activities. The larger your membership the more things you can do for them.

But is it just about numbers? After all, students also have the chance to go to events, and hundreds of them go along to the various club nights. Does that make them members or are they customers? After all, they go along, pay their money, listen to someone playing and maybe have a dance. They are there with a host of others and they may be fans and have interests in common with everyone else there. But is there a difference?

I think there is. When you go to a show you are a fan, part of a group of people who all like the same thing, the act, the band, the feel of the place, but you’re on the outside, looking in. Watching a performance is a little like going to the zoo. You’re there, separated by glass, bars or moats from the action. The scene is in front of you and you may be thoroughly enjoying yourself, but you’re very definitely separate from the action. You’re an onlooker.

Being part of something

One particular society I was part of could handle a very large number of people and I think that was because of one thing. We had a committed group of volunteers. Other groups that did a similar thing usually had one leader, supported by one other person. But, in general, that one person was the center of attention. The participants came to learn from that person and he or she could only handle a certain number of people and sessions. So, people came and learned but the event didn’t scale and there was always a sense of the “teacher” and the “students”.

But why did we have volunteers? Thinking back, it was because the group of volunteers went through a training session together, a sort of boot camp, that got them to work closely together and form bonds of friendship and professionalism. There’s a sort of magic that happens when you involve people, when you go beyond just letting them see what is going on and have them experience it for themselves. When you turn them from passive observers to active participants you create the conditions for volunteers to come forward.

I participated in a couple of online sessions yesterday which brought this difference into focus. The first session was a performance, expertly facilitated, video introductions and then discussions between experts. You had participation, with questions from the viewers and it all went very well. Most people, I suspect, watched it. Perhaps thought about it a little and then went on with the next thing they were doing.

The next session, later in the day, had a different structure. It started the same way, with a guest lecture but then it moved into an activity, where all the participants were split into groups and we went off to work on a task together. Before the task I was listening, but also a little distracted with other things that I was doing. Once we had the task, though, and there were a couple of other people and we got through the introductions and started to work on something together, it felt like something changed. I was much more involved, engaged and interested. And I finished the session feeling like it had gone well, I had really enjoyed it.

And the thing that made the difference between the two sessions was how the second session helped us to really get involved, by setting a task we worked on with others. That’s different from asking you to put in questions that are answered by an expert. The act of working together, of learning together, is a very powerful tool to get people to engage and really get into what you’re trying to do.

Harnessing the power of volunteers

The most powerful thing you can do if you want to build a community is to get intentional about growing your volunteer base. When people do things because they want to rather than because they are paid to do it you create a powerful, unstoppable force. But you need a way of doing this that helps you build a community rather than a power struggle. Creating a program people have to go through before they can contribute is a good idea, it helps them go through a shared experience with others that sets them apart, as a group, from everyone else. That is, I think, the single purpose of a military boot camp. It’s an induction process that is designed to take a group of people who don’t know each other and forge them, in a few weeks, into a cohesive unit that can then be trained in specialist skills over time.

The thing with involving others, however, is that you are put into a position where you may have to give up control of your project, and you may be very attached to it and not want to do that. And that’s okay, it’s possible to keep control and stay a certain size. Or you have to figure out how you can keep control of certain things while still enabling the growth of the community as a whole. This is hard to do and there will be splits and schisms and falling outs and groups will break up and go their separate ways.

I think the groups I was part of first started to see a split developing over attitudes to money. There was money coming into the societies and people wanted a bigger share of it rather than keeping it for the future community. That was a problem, and it led to differences of opinion and a falling out. The thing that ended the community, however, was losing the space where we operated. That was the end, but after a decade of involvement it was good to be able to walk away.

I think it’s worth looking in a little more detail on why communities split or fail or go their separate ways. Are there any factors that could help predict the failure of an organization?

Let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh