Community-building - why bottom-up alone doesn't work
For the hard of understanding: this is not, as Stephen seems to think, a defense of some kind of 'web aristocracy', as very recent posts would make clear. It's expanding some metaphors in a bid to find out how even small 'bottom-up' communities thrive, and whether there is always a central 'core' who are pushing and directing things.
It's a myth to believe that purely bottom-up culture will lead to any form of truly successful community. Purely bottom-up communities are, ironically, difficult for newbies to infiltrate and, once in them, hard for anyone to have their voice heard.
Stuart, from the NCSL, left a really worthwhile and considered comment on my last post, where I was considering why people would want to join a state-administered community at all. He points out the vital role of the top-down working in harmony with bottom-up passions:
"Large, nationally-run initiatives are successful too if they influence the culture in a more ambient fashion, if they encourage people to learn from what can be found within them - creative tools and the opportunity to connect with like-minded people - and then they go off and build their own networks, spaces and connections online.
"There's a role for institutions modelling and supporting these tools and behaviours, giving teachers a kind of first class ticket into a network they don't have to build from scratch like lego. Isn't eduBuzz an example of just such an initiative to kick start a networking culture?"
Indeed, eduBuzz was built in both a bottom-up fashion by being invitational (you were invited to sign up and share, not ordered or expected to) and open door (our Board meetings were Open Meetings - anyone could come along, whether part of the Local Authority or not, teacher or parent...). But there was also a degree of top-down management of the community, which I catalogued in last summer's series of talks at BLC07. What kind of actions were top-down? Here are some:
- We provided a portal page, to let people know what the principle aims of the teaching and learning policy were.
- We provided one web address where people could go to learn why they might want to share online, find others doing so in their field or geographical area and start sharing themselves.
- We helped connect people who 'should' have known about each other, but maybe didn't, being teachers with busy schedules and not as much time to read the panoply of blogs, wikis and podcasts coming out of the local teacher population. (I guess this backs up Andrew Keen's point that innovation comes from individuals rather than the digital crowd.)
- The Head of Education (now Director of Children's Services and Education) had created his own blog: the messages from this are often top-down, managerial, decision-making related, but coupled with the bottom-up approach of seeking comment and accord.
- We provided training sessions on digital new media - podcasting, filming, photography, blogging, animation - and used these as a means to encourage people to share the results in the online community.
eduBuzz has experienced a level growth
(5000% a lot per year) well above more organic completely bottom-up communities with the same aim (for the previous 18 months the area's online community had stagnated), and was strongly linked to the image, vibe and ethos of a geographical place: East Lothian. It certainly offers all the advantages of being an essentially bottom-up community but with the direction and purpose of top-down.
Stuart's comment makes me think of what Charlie Leadbetter was talking about on Monday night (after I had written my previous post) in his tête-à-tête with Andrew Keen. In a chapter of his new book, We-Think, that wasn't published, he talks about cities, both those designed on a bottom-up settler tribal ethos (e.g. Lagos) and those designed on a purely top-down state-controlled basis (e.g. Shanghai). Neither extreme works particularly well, with one a chaotic, crime-ridden, slow-developing sprawl and the other a successful burgeoning but not particularly human-friendly concrete jungle. You can hear more of Charlie about the role of users and consumers in his TED Talk from 2005.
I'm waiting on my review copy of We-Think to arrive in the post, but I think it may provide some leads on where our various 'state-controlled' online communities might stand in the future, and how much of that leash needs to be slackened to ensure both the unthreatening and helpful intervention from 'them up there', to help those at the bottom get the most out of them and the people in those communities.
And where does this leave my analogy of the bothy as the enviable bottom-up community that we might want to emulate? Well, I guess there is actually a strong element of top-down in bothy culture: historical expectations. The people who use bothies are coming with a particular cultural and historical contextual baggage, expectations of how that bothy is used, how we treat others within it, and how we leave that community when we leave it. Likewise, those who choose to blog and stick with it come having done a little homework (reading others' blogs) and bring a set of expectations from history and culture that, ultimately, are top-down, coming from those who've been 'mastering' the art of writing or speaking through the medium. Blogs, wikis and bothies all have this hidden (or not-so-hidden) aristocratic history woven through them.
It's no mistake that Jimmy Wales has called 'his' wiki's Editors the 'aristocracy' of Wikipedia, with him as the Monarch. But it works. For him. Bottom-up, it seems, always requires a bit of state, monarch or Parliament, to make it work in the long term.