communities

I’ve been trying to read some of the social science about communities. Some of it is awful, some of it is interesting. It tends to be the kind of science that when you look carefully it’s interesting, but then when you look very very closely it seems to evaporate in your hands.

I liked this list of the three things a community needs to have:

  • Ascription: members ascribe community membership to themselves and they know when to ascribe it to others. You might call this idenitity. You might call this “consciousness of kind”.
  • Rituals and traditions: The community has ritual behaviors, the members know what these are. Sometimes they call these traditions or sometimes they have stories they tell about how these behaviors arose or what purpose and value they generate. This is something the comunity shares, they are it’s public goods.
  • Duty or Loyality: Members of the community feel a sense of moral responsiblity to the their community. They will help each other, they will band together against a common threat.

One very casual example: an open source community might have the ritual of proof reading others source code commits. That act has an element of duty associated with it, the proof reading guards the quality of the code. members of the commuity know that those who do this deserve to have community membership ascribed to them.

This three element model goes a good distance toward explaining why people in a community can become quite committed to defending the rituals of the community. Those rituals may be the key defining element of the community for them. When you displace the rituals, or practice them in a new manner, you are toying with the commuities definition of it’s self.

In one open source project I’m involved we organize the work around a dialog in a on a mailing list. Members of the community ritually read and refined this dialog to polish the work of the commuity. As the community grew other ways of discussing the work emerged: instant messaging, sub-committee mailing lists, even actual conversations at conferences, bars, even phones. All these other channels confounded the community concensus about what our rituals are for organizing the work. Where is the heart of the dialog? Some members, highly loyal to the traditional community rituals, campaigned against these “innovations” while others found these new techniques a fun innovation.

That dispute is not just about what is effective. It is about the definition of our community. Our sense of what the community we subscribe is. For example if a new forum for discussing the project emerges when must a loyal community member climb on board? If he doesn’t is he failing his own personal sense of moral duty to the community?

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