Clustering is not Coping

This paper by Steve Johnson is wonderful. I spend a lot of calories thinking about how groups form, but also about how groups create shape the membrane around them. I’m less interested in the organizational problems inside the cell, in part because there is so much liturature about that. Using the Dean campagn as a case study this paper notices that clustering is not enough. At some point a group will need to pile on the means to cope. Coping is not the same as clustering.

The paper suggests a kind of race condition developed in the Dean campaign. It’s clustering drivers ran real fast; too fast for it’s coping skills to build out. That’s not unlike a syndrome we see in Internet systems that catch fire. Friendster for example grew faster than it’s owners could cope with. Slashdotted, or the more venerable flash-crowd, is another name for the syndrome of a group forming event that blows up thru fad, crowd, and into riot.

There are a number of great one liners in the paper.

“…One of the funny things about the literature of emergence is that it is strangely obsessed with slime. Slime mold, to be precise…”

When I speak to an audience about Open Source I’m often asked by a middle aged quiet guy in the audience; “but what about managers.” I love that one liner because it is asking just that question. I might begin to reply by talking about the kind of coping methods you find in these groups.

Clay has an essay about the inevitable constitutional crisses that comes upon groups as they mature. Some organizers try to put the cart before the horse; they write the constitution before they have the revolution. Constitutions are distilled coping skill. It’s a kind of cargo cult confusion of cause and effect. Surely, they think, many groups have constitutions so constitutions must create groups. We can reframe that idea using the insights of this paper; sure it can be fatal for a group to lack coping skils, but first they need to have a driver to form them, e.g. clustering skills.

In the terms of my preferred three legs that a community stands on (common cause, common ritual/narative, and loyality) I tend to emphasis the aspects that drive the clustering. I leave the coping skills are packed up inside the common rituals and loyality. I’ve tended to think of the clustering as more interesting; mostly because the Internet keeps enabling more of that – more gathering, more rondevous, more group forming.

Like “coordination” or “membrane”, the word “coping” provides a nice addition to the vocabulary around groups.

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