Category Archives: group membranes

Two Kinds of Clubs

I’m slowly rereading Olson’s “The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups”.  I find it pretty frustrating, but that’s another story.

In the section I was reading last night he gets to musing that there are two flavors of clubs: inclusive v.s. exclusive.  Both create club goods.  The default tendency of an inclusive club is to welcome new members, while members of exclusive clubs tend to prefer that the membership shrink.  For example a lobbying group seeking lower taxes on industry will be inclusive, the more the merrier; meanwhile a members of an industry will tend to prefer that the number of competitors shrink.  Thus, for example, the members of an industry standards body with associated patent pool may prefer to trend toward a smaller and smaller membership.  In another example a professional society who’s function includes granting professional status to it’s members will might tend toward exclusive; e.g. a profession with a 1o0 members can charge more for it’s services than one with a 10 thousand members.

I sense foreshadowing in Olson’s plot development.  Since any hint of  selfish motivation always excites economists  I’ve little doubt he will soon explain how an exclusive club is more sustainable.

The name of this blog is about this topic.  A club of enthusiasts will not casually ascribe membership in their club to others, in fact doing so would offend them.  The enthusiasm acts as a binding force for the group, and dragging in those who lack it is likely to weaken that.  Members of the local model rocket club may engage in outreach, striving to juice up other people’s enthusiasm for the hobby, but it would be quite odd for them to randomly pick people and anoint them as members.

Clubs labor to create club and public goods.  That is their primary goal, but other goals get piled on sometimes intentionally sometimes by happenstance.  An example of that is how members of some clubs often garner status.  To start the goal is to create the good, in support of that the club fiddles with the process that maintains the pool of members.  As an unintended side effect membership becomes selective, and hence elite, and hence confers status.  This status creation wasn’t the goal of the club, and in fact it’s a distraction from the goal.  Good members are engaged with the primary goal, creating the goods; further they are peeved at the way the status becomes a distraction from that.  Meanwhile, outsiders who are much less concerned about creating the good tend to see only the status.  How perverse is that!

Most clubs are actually a hybrid, of course, you want members who contribute to the goal but at the same time you want to extend a broad and enthusiastic welcome to any and all; since how else can you hope to search out the enthusiastic members.

No doubt there are scenarios where the agenda of a club is entirely captured by the status generation.  As an outsider it would be hard to know for sure; for example I know practically nothing about Mensa, which was the first club that came to mind as existing entirely to create status for it’s members, but for all I know if I was inside that club I’d know that it exists to provide a delightful pool of fraternal activities for it’s members.  The insider/outsider problem is fascinating.  For example I certainly feel that people who own Rolex watches are just buying status, but then you discover that lots of those are sold to people who own multiples and have special watch humidors for their collections.  It’s confusing.

Inclusive/Exclusive is not the only dialectics that can be used to sort clubs.  It’s probably worth starting a list.

  • Primary goal: create club goods v.s. create public goods.
  • Focus is inward facing (i.e. on some project (think barn raising)) v.s. focus is outward facing (for example on some threat)
  • Membership – is naturally inclusive v.s. exclusive; e.g. the existing members would naturally prefer more or less members going forward.
  • The club tends has high/low capacity to exclude others from access to it’s club goods.
  • Clubs that create a broad range of goods v.s. clubs that fix upon a single good
  • Clubs who’s principal good’s quality depends upon the quality of the members contributions such that the best contribution sets the quality v.s. those where the worst contribution sets the quality.

These are not entirely orthogonal, are they?

Community Stress Metrics

When dealing with communities it’s nice to have some frame works.  For example I like both the one from Collaborative Circles and  this one.  And I often highlight how the common cause that binds a community can be outward facing (defensive) or inward facing (building something).  Here is another one: a dozen metrics for sensing when a nation is going to hell in a hand basket.  The combination of a community of that scale with a failure of that magnitude means the list is full of exaggerated speech.  But clearly it’s useful for smaller communities, for lesser stressors.  It’s kind of amusing in fact to apply for more trivial things:  The death of the goldfish created the demographic pressure that lead to Debbie considering running away from home.

  • Social
  1. Demographic Pressure
  2. Displacement
  3. Group Grievance/Paranoia
  4. Flight
  • Economic
  1. Changing Inequality
  2. Decline
  • Politics
  1. Club losing it’s legitimacy
  2. Deterioration of club services
  3. Arbitrary rules and abuse of member rights
  4. Failed oversight/auditing of those who enforce the rules
  5. Polarization of Elite members
  6. Loss of the club autonomy, intervention by outsiders.

All these pressures ebb and flow in communities.  You get demographic pressure when every you hire or fire employees, or when the students come and go.  Bureaucracies often fall back on arbitrary or abusive enforcement.  Oversight is always spotty.  The elites are rarely always on the same page.  These are always a matter of degree.

When the going get’s rough these all get tangled, so a list helps to tease them apart.    But they certainly reinforce each other.

For example.  Harvard, about whom I have zero personal knowledge, has suffered a substantial decline in it’s economics.  I gather there has been a decline in the services (no hot breakfasts) the university provides to it’s students.  Is talent in flight?  I’ve no idea if any of the other metrics have taken a hit.

Actors seeking to increase the level of discontent, i.e. violence entrepreneurs, can talk up all these to create an impression of pending failure.  For example talk up fear of foreign influences, immigrants, police abuse, battling elites, reduction of public services.  Sounds like the insurance industries and it’s right-wing agent’s battle against healthcare, eh?

Community out reach – lurkers

I got a spam-ish email today from a web site I signed into once years ago, A standard product management kind of thing, an attempt to entice me to come back.  I get such things all the time from my assorted dormant credit cards.  Thinking about it I’m surprised I don’t get more email like this.  My password wallet has hundreds of accounts in it.    They don’t even send me a Christmas card!  But then I don’t send them one either.  My parent’s generation had a suite of social norms about how to maintain long lived low intensity relationships.  Christmas cards played a big role in that.

If I scroll down through the list of things in my password wallet it’s quite nostoglic.  There dozens of mailing lists and web forums which I have warm memories.  For example I used to lurk on the tornado chasing list server back in the late 1980s – good times!  I particularly remember a long thread about some product they would all buy and spread over their wind sheilds; apparently once applied you didn’t need to turn on your wipers.  They all swore by it.  Rain-X I think it was called.

The impressive thing about this spam I got this morning was it worked.  They successfully reminded me of why I enjoyed hanging out at that site and drew me back for a visit.  This was the key: what do you call that thing where an egg is cooked in a hole in a slice of bread?

Lots of organizations have huge peripheral networks of related parties.  Alumni networks for example.  Community networks.  Product owners. etc. etc.    When I think about the kind of communications I get from various groups targeted to me as a member of this or that peripheral network it’s just sad.  They are so heavy handed, over done, and often kind of needy.    As the example above illustrates that doesn’t need to be the case.

So, something to think about.  Why do community organizers do such a lousy job of this kind of sustaining of the long term low key relationships.  Why do we all do such a lousy job of it.  Shouldn’t this internet thing should make it a lot easier?

Cascades of Surprise

We build monitoring frameworks like the one I outlined in “Listening to the System” for at least four reasons.  Their maybe legal requirements that we keep records for later auditing and dispute resolution.  We may want to monitor the system so we can remain in control.  We may want to collect data in service of tuning the system, say to reduce cost or improve latency.  And there there is debugging.  Audit, control, tuning, and debugging are, of course, are not disjoint categories.

Good monitoring will draw our attention to surprising behaviors.  Surprising behaviors trigger debugging projects.  The universe of tools for gleaning out surprising behavior from systems is very large.  Years ago, when I worked at BBN, the  acoustics’  guys were working on a system that listened to the machine room noise on a ship hoping to sense that something  anomalous  was happening.

I attended a talk “Using Influence to Understand Complex Systems”  this morning by  Adam Oliner  (the same talk performed by his coauthor  Alex Aiken  is on youtube) where I was again reminded of how you can often do surprisingly effective things with surprisingly simple schemes.

Adam and Alex are tackling an increasingly common problem.  You have a huge system with  numerous  modules.  It is acting in surprising ways.  You’ve got a vast piles of logging data from some of those modules.  Now what do you do?

Their scheme works as follows.  For each of the data streams convert the stream into a metric that roughly measures how surprising the behavior was at each interval in time.  Do time series  correlation between the modules.  That lets you draw a graph: module A influence B (i.e. surprising behavior in A tends to precede surprising behavior in B).  You can also have arcs that say A and B tend to behave surprisingly at the same time.  These arcs are the influence mentioned in their title.

If you add a pseudo module to include the  anomalous  behavior your investigating, then the graph can give you some hints for were to investigate further.

At first blush you’d think that you need domain expertise to convert each log into a metric of how surprising the log appears at that point in time.  But statistics is fun.  So they adopted a very naive scheme for converting logs into time series of surprise.

They discard everything in the log except the intervals between the messages.  Then they keep a long-term and a short-term histogram.  The surprise is a measure of how different these appear.  The only domain knowledge is setting up what short and long-term means.

The talk includes a delightful story about applying this to a complex robot’s naughty behaviors, drawing attention first to the portion of the system at fault and further revealing the  existence  of a hidden component where the problem actually was hiding out.  Good fun!

I gather that they don’t currently have a code base you can download and apply in-house, but the system seems simple enough that cloning it looks straight forward.

They would love to have more data to work on, so if you have a vast pile of logs for a system with lots and lots of modules, and your willing to reveal the inter-message timestamps, module names, and some information about when mysterious things were happening.  I suspect they would be enthusiastic about sending you back some pretty influence graphs to help illuminate your mysterious behaviors.

It would be fun to apply this to some social interaction data (email/im/commit-logs).  I suspect the histograms would need to be tinkered with a bit to match the distributions seen in such natural systems better.  Just trying various signals as to what denotes a surprising behavior on the part of the participants in the social network would be fun.  But it would be cool to reveal that when Alice acts in a surprising way shortly there after Bob does; and a bit later the entire group  descends  into a flame war.


Reading recently that as Microsoft was selecting the sites for their new cloud computer’s data centers they had 31 variables as input.  I assume they plotted those on heat maps like this one showing the price of electricity across the United States.

Back in high school I Jane Jacob’s books on the economics of urban regions schooled me in a cynical attitude about these stories about site optimization.  I recall learning that the most powerful predictor of where a large firm would sight it’s new office park was the distance from the CEO’s wife’s horses.  So I wasn’t terrible surprised that one of Microsoft’s big data centers is in the country side of east of Redmond.

FYI – the drawing above is terribly misleading.  For wholesale power West Texas is a steal right now, wind power.  For a residential power consumer per month cost to connect to the grid tends to be a large additional cost.  I wrote about that under the heading of “micro-utilitity coops” using the gas company as an example.  Since then I’ve learned there is a nice term of art in the utility industry “islanding.”  That’s worth reading about if your want yet another way to look at the issues around localism.

Islanding is one of the themes that runs thru the discussions of cloud computing.  But it goes under various guises (security, control, specialization, cost or ops, capital equipment, bandwidth, latency).  That I continue to presume that anybody who can make a credible case for building their own island will be able to  negotiate  a pricing deal with their cloud vendor means I’m starting to think that people who run their own data centers feel like fellow travels with other the off-grid enthusiasts.  You gotta love ‘em.

Groups and Value

Thinking here about group forming and group forming networks; here’s one of those typical B-school 2D drawings:

Presuming we have solved both the problem of aggregating the group and extracting the value then points on that surface more valuable per size-of-group * value-of-member.  This is the calculation that any site with an audience makes, or any shop with regular customers, or any club.  The definition of value varies a lot.  A knitting group wants something different from it’s members than does a standards body.  The word authentic get’s tossed around to label the miss-match between what affiliate  marketing platforms (like Amazon, or Google ad-sense) value in site visitors v.s. what makes a site attract an authentic membership with some particular enthusiasm.  A lack of appreciation for how diverse of value is goes a long way toward explaining how dismissive people are of sites with narrow  enthusiasms.  People dismissed open source for years because they were blind to the values that attracted it’s participants, people are no less blind today even if they are less dismissive.  It really pull my cord to watch observers rapidly dismiss sites of other enthusiasms just because they can’t be bothered to puzzle out what might be the value those members (or the site operator) has managed to find in there.

It seems useful to be clear that value-of-member has at least four aspects.  There is the member’s value the members see in each other (a p2p network scoped by the group).  The value the members contribute to the common cause of the group (a sarnoff kind of value to the groups barn raising).  The value the site owner (or steward) values in his members (i.e. a site for lawyers wants the lawyers who are highly respected and well networked to participate).  The value that feeds clearly into value extraction (i.e. the lawyer site values those who click thru on the ads or regularly subscribe to premium services).  Value is messy.

Presumably the universe of groups, the population, is distributed on that chart such that most groups are down near the origin.  Again it frustrates me how people are dismissive of those.  [Apparently I’m easily peeved :)]  So they complain about the how github’s fuzz of forked projects is confusing, or how google code and source forge are cluttered with tiny projects; or how the numbers yahoo groups or ning has are inflated by groups with little or no traffic.

Which brings us to the question of aggregating groups.  We can visualize this as regions on that chart.  Consider the local Dayton Business Journal, it’s got an audience that is valuable in a particular way and when rolled up into a company like American City Business Journals (see the select city pulldown on one of their sites).  Or consider this set of  local newspapers  around Boston.  In both cases the set of groups aggregated is some range of distances from the origin the definition value-of-member axis has been narrowed down.  That narrowing is in part tied to the cost of rolling up the aggregate, which presumably involved negotiation and money.  Sourceforge is a different story.  They rolled up their groups organically which goes to explain why they have a lot of groups close to the origin.  Sourceforge’s value-of-member  definition  isn’t very broad spectrum.  But there are platforms where you see extremely broad spectrum value-of-member definitions.  Plenty of examples: Yahoo groups, Meetup, NingvBulletin, WikiSpaces or Acquia are all  examples.  I’ve often thought that Yahoo’s strategy was to roll up these kinds of companies; and it’s a puzzle why that aggregate hasn’t turned out to be more valuable.

Well, it’s all food for thought.

The No Carrot, No Stick Zone

This talk by Clay Shirky is a basicly the first bit of his book performed live.

He cut from the book the suggestion that the phase transition we are going thru is going to lead to chaos.

I don’t recall hearing before the delightful idea that Institution rely of carrots and sticks, but that if you want to tap into the the long tail of one off contributors you can’t do that, making the long tail a no carrots, no stick zone. That is very line nice. While it’s probably not true, since systems that work by filtering value out of that thin soup of long tail contributors can to a lot to manage their incentive structures, it is a very good rough approximation of the right mindset.

Man’s work – depolarization

barfight.jpgThis is a long, interesting, carefully written article by Alex Kotlowitz about a program to change community behaviors in service of decreasing violence. It is nice to see a discussion of how to reduce polarization. There is so much entertainment value in polarization that the media revel in it. It is further to the article’s credit that it doesn’t play the card of Chicago’s most recent violent troubles into the text.
If I was to be critical of the article it would only be how it leaves the impression that the means being used here were entirely gin’d up by the folks involved. I certainly hope that many of these were imported from other violence reduction efforts, and most of the methods outlined I’ve read about in other venues; particularly the negotiation handbooks.

Given my interest in group dynamics I was interested by the story about a kid who wanted to resign from a gang. Much negotiation through various possible outcomes, “no”, “well, maybe, after a beating,” until they settled with the kid paying a fee. Not unlike getting out of your cell phone contract, eh? Joining a group often involves a hazing, and I suspect leaving often involves a beating – or at least a standing debt.  You can’t make the books balance in such situations. They never balance between members inside a club, that’s the point, so you can’t make them balance when you exit.

That groups are a sources of violence is clear. You get discipline inside, and polarization between, but I hadn’t noticed before that movements of members across the group member boundaries can also generate violence.

One other thing that caught my interest, because it’s analogous to atomization effect we see in other systems these days. “Many of the interrupters seem bewildered by what they see as a wilder group of youngsters now running the streets and by a gang structure that is no longer top-down but is instead made up of many small groups – which they refer to as cliques – whose membejoebenadam_ahd.jpgrs are answerable to a handful of peers.” When the middle scale systems die off you left with nothing but long-tail, and elites in their walled-gardens.

The skills these “interrupters” have are skills that we all should have. Skills the media should model. A culture rich in these skills can tolerate a lot more diversity. That there is honor in turning the other check. It is man’s work to intervene in a fight. The article is here.

Attention Economy?

I like to talk about leveraging the talent on the other side of the Internet, or talent scraping. That talent is only just recently discovered. We are in a kind of gold rush to figure out how to mine it. I’ve called that mining industry talent-scrapping, in part to suggest how it’s like a whale filtering plankton from nutrient rich waters.
Talent is usually considered scarce. But now it’s abundant. But now it is different in form than in the past. More diffuse. We used to concentrate it into locations, universities or cities, but now it’s just out there; on the other side of the net. So most of our intuitions are wrong about how to manage it or accumulate it.

We are in a curious situation where you have a choice between abundant talent v.s. scarce talent – but where we have very refined craft knowledge about how to mange scarce talent (think standardized testing, university diplomas, publication pipelines) v.s. very immature craft knowledge about how to tap diffuse talent pools.

That combo scarce-but-skilled vs. abundant-but-unskilled must be a common situation when a new option space break open. It is notable that their is scarcity on both sides of that equation; but they are of a very different nature. One is a resource scarcity, and the other is a lack of expertise – an information good.
When people talk about the attention economy I’ve tended to presume they were saying that attention is scarce. Certainly my attention is a limited resource. I certainly have a whole bag of tricks for managing that scarce resource.

Clay Shirky takes a run at this problem in a most excellent recent essay where-in he introduces the delightful term “cognitive surplus.” He gets there in a most marvelous way that is just hip slapping funny.

The idea of an attention economy is that there is some gross national product of talent out there. That it’s like the water supply of a big city, a pipe flows into the city of skill, and there is only a certain amount to be had – so you really ought to be careful what you spend it on.

I recall how when back in the 1960s there was a drought around NYC and people started talking about water conservation. We used to get a glass of water automatically when every you sat down in a restaurant and they stopped that. I recall hearing how silly that was since meanwhile the water authority came to discover that rivers of water were leaking from the system; entire pipelines were flowing hundreds of miles only be dumped into the Hudson.

To adopt Clay’s term cognition is the water of the attention economy and his point is that we just maybe we are pouring most of the talent on the planet into the abyss.

Talent isn’t scarce anymore, the real question is where the hell has all the talent been going all these years. Clay has some suggestions, and possibly most interesting to me was the hint that society in the past has struggled with this very same question; it’s “the idle hands – the devils playground” problem. And for God sake don’t miss the punch line at the end of his essay!

talk about the weather

Over at 43 things, a site where people can clot together around random common goals, I see that two thousand people have revealed thier desire to “become better at small-talk.” The “learn to make polite empty chit chat” group has only 59 people. I’m a bit distressed that only one person wants to learn how to banter.

The books on small-talk advise one to talk about the weather. Though they rarely mention that it’s critical to avoid being drawn into the ongoing dispute about why nobody does anything about it. Even the origins of that particular dispute remain contentious: Mark Twain or Samuel Clements?

Talk about the weather is one of the seed crystals of group forming. It’s surprising how far you can go. When ever I’m trying to explain how much I enjoy lurking in esoteric enthusiastic groups on the internet I always mention Tornado chasers; since I was lurking in that group back in the 1980s.

All this is really preface to a shout out.

Some folks in Iowa have created Jabber chat rooms for each national weather service office. What’s sweet about these chat rooms is that they pump real time weather alerts into the rooms. So even if nobody else in your area cares to join the room this is still the best way to get real time weather alerts for your area.

For example is the Jabber ID for the Boston area weather office, who’s mnemonic is BOX. Just replace that mnemonic with the appropriate one for your area.

This is easy, well it’s easy once you puzzle out a) how to find your area’s weather office, and b) how to join a jabber chat room.