March 07, 2008

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.


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I really like the analogy of the bothy with a wiki. But I can't agree with the last few sentences - surely the communal nature of the bothy is a good example of the 'common people' looking after themselves and each other, rather than the top-down system suggested by 'the aristocracy'? I know you're speaking metaphorically, but the history handed down by the bothy users is qualitatively different to (and opposed by) the parallel history handed down by the aristocracy.

Paul, you're right, and this is me thinking things through. However, even in a bothy there is an unwritten hierarchy. The same as in a folk music session. You have a look and feel of people "doing it for themselves", but there are always leaders, always those who set the tone and set unwritten rules of acceptance or refusal to do or play certain things. It is these unwritten cores in the apparent bottom-up culture that I'm interested in exploring.

Ewan, maybe the metaphor of 'aristocracy' has too many components that don't map across (as well as the cultural connotations). For a start an aristocracy has their power as birth right - whereas nearly all successful communities are democratic in nature - your status and reputation is something you earn through your actions. You can never work your way in to an 'aristocracy'.
On the wider point of whether communities _always_ need a top down element, it depends on the type of community. In open source there is usually a founder/leader or initiating group, But in looser subject areas this isn't so. For instance, you might argue we (me, you, Stephen and all the other bloggers) constitute a community of edubloggers - this is particularly reinforced when we follow each other on twitter. There is no top down element here, yet I do feel part of this community.

The aristocracy word is probably (almost certainly) not the right word, but is very much a Jimmy Wales-ism (Hmm, Wales, aristocracy... there's something there!).

Many, though, have argued that even in the edublogosphere, though, that there is an unwritten hierarchy, encouraged by competitions, awards and "who is this person to say" type posts which hit my aggregator every day.

I think there are different things being mixed up here Ewan. The blogosphere has people with more authority, which is natural - some people's view does become more authoratitive through their actions, they gain more reputation. That's different from it being a top-down initiative though, or these people being leaders in any traditional sense. These people don't start or control the community. They may influence it, but equally they could disappear and the community would carry on. If Stephen Downes retired from blogging tomorrow, we might be sad (or not), but we wouldn't think the edubloggersphere would end.
And who has authority depends very much on the individual - for example I have more reputation within the OU blog readers than I do in the wider blogosphere.
So I don't think authority, reputation, or degree of community membership is the same thing as arguing that all communities need top down input or recognised leaders.

I'm seeing the greys much clearer now - it's far from being the black and white, bottom-up good, top-down not good, that we've seen as quite a prevalent belief in the schools sector edublogging at least.

What's interesting, though, is the emerging role of the 'host', both in physical (server) senses and metaphorical ones. It's something I would be keen on developing further as it affects so many of the projects that I (and you) are working on.

Don Ledingham's role in the growth of Exc-el and Edubuzz is absolutely pivotal. I only started reading Exc-el because I'd heard that the Head of Education was using it to keep a record of his daily activities. His leading example gave every teacher in East Lothian permission to blog about education. The fact that others were doing so before Don is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things - they weren't top dog, so their actions didn't provide the same validation of blogging as a worthwhile activity within our organisation.

Permission and validation are the key things that need to come from the top-down.

> For the hard of understanding...

I am not 'hard of understanding' and it's rather insulting for you to suggest that I am.

It wasn't hard to make the 'aristocracy' remark given that you actually used the word in your own post.

I think that it is reasonable to interpret your post as a 'defense of aristocracy'. No doubt you disagree, because you don't like the negative connotations, but it does not follow that the interpretation is invalid.

After all - where, in all of your examples, is there anything resembling an election or democratic process?

I would moreover make the wider critique that your defense of the need for 'leadership' in web ventures is also misplaced.

The examples mainly consist of (a) a person setting an example, or producing a resource, and (b) other people following the example, or using the resource.

These particular types of scenarios are no objection to the leader-less network model of organization.

To draw a parallel, first a person contracts the ebola virus, and then other people contract the ebola virus.

We would not say - and it would be absurd to say - that the person who first contracted the ebola virus is some sort of 'leader' (much less 'in charge' or having any power to control subsequent development of the virus).

The same is true of other activities. Every person generates examples or one sort or another, and every person produces resources of one sort or another. All are followed, to more or less a degree.

To anoint some of these people 'leaders' because their efforts happen to be more popular (ie., are used by 750 instead of 50 out of a user base of billion) is ridiculous.

It is an effort to ascribe to some an intrinsic property of leadership based on luck and happenstance - and, in some cases, more than a little self-promotion and pushiness.

This is exactly how the aristocracy was formed, and why the analogy between the web 'leaders' and the actual aristocracy is apt.

To make the same point another way:

Tim Berners-Lee is not the 'leader' of the web.

Yes, he founded the web. Yes, he wrote a nifty application that made the web possible. Yes, he pushed and promoted the concept.

But even for all that, the web has no leaders. The web develops independently of any particular guidance or control. Each website develops as an independent entity.

The web - taken as a whole - is rather larger than any leader-driven entity. Indeed, the web, taken as a whole, is rather larger than the capacity of any given entity to 'lead'.

You'll find the same is true of other networks.

The 'Scottish people', for example, did not require in the past and does not today require a 'leader' to exist. This network is made up of the interconnections of geographically related families over the years.

Yes, Scotland has had leaders. But these are people who come after the fact and who place themselves into a position of leadership. But the entity they purport to lead (they actually have little sway) already existed, and will continue to exist.

People who attack the 'network' view of thing tend to do so by thinking small. They look at tiny entities, like companies, and then they say, 'there is no network this large'. And it appears not, because we have restricted our gaze to tiny company-sized entities.

The networks tend to be much larger than the leader-led entities.

Note: you cannot identify, describe or locate networks by the same criteria as leader-led entities (which I would characterize as 'groups').

For example, networks don't have clear boundaries. It is silly to look for a 'company' or an 'organization' that is a network. Those are leader-led group-like properties.

Thanks, Stephen, for adding to the reasoning behind what you were saying before. It *is* beginning to make more sense.

I hope you can also see that this is part of a series of posts, each suggesting a different take on the groups/networks/leaders theme. Not a very coherent one, you might argue ;-), but I'm just using the space to reflect at the moment, and try to come to an understanding. Your words are helping me in that. Thank you.

The final phrase of this blog post betrays the driving desires and differences in this debate. First I want to say I appreciate the trying-out-concepts (testing) spirit of the original post. Secondly Ewan McIntosh’s replies to the comments show an unfixed position and a desire to learn. I'm slowly getting at something with these comments. Something about the tone of Stephen Downes' OLDaily note… Did you see Half Nelson? The scene where the female teacher/dinner guest asks (was it?) Dan if he’s a communist, because the Communist Manifesto is on his bookshelf, so he asks, "If Mein Kampf was on my bookshelf would you think I was a Nazi?" She replies, "Yes." Funny stuff. We need to give each other the freedom to play with ideas. George Orwell writes in The Prevention of Literature, "Even a single taboo can have an all-round effect upon the mind, because there is always a danger that any thought which is freely followed up may lead to the forbidden thought." I'm not saying criticism isn’t necessary. Criticism is essential, but criticism as a means of engaging and enlivening thought. Beware the tendency toward conformity, toward drawing each other back into the herd. With that said, if Stephen Downes was a camp I’d pitch my tent on its boundary. That's a round about way of saying I'm in general agreement with the line he’s taken. So yes, the blog posts final phrase: "to make it work in the long term." Maybe I'll comment on a few comments and I'll get to where I’m going that way.

I’ll write on the following comments together.
Robert Jones says: "Permission and validation are the key things that need to come from the top-down."
Martin says: "The blogosphere has people with more authority, which is natural…"

The key words in these comments are "natural" and "need." Downes wasn’t the only one to read the aristocratic defense in the original post. And yes, if we want things to "work in the long term" we “need” authority to appear "natural." If we would just do as "nature" intended and follow those "this authority" grants authority everything would "work in the long term." I read a "maintenance of the status quo" into this phrase. I, for the underclasses, am an advocate for change, and this means I see authority as given not natural. I am also critical of the democratic process Stephen Downes seems to be advocating when he writes: "After all - where, in all of your examples, is there anything resembling an election or democratic process?" I want to put it out there that it’s possible to run in opposition to totalitarianism, and be critical of Democracy. Maybe I’m critical of the formalized aspects of Democracy. All institutional change has come from people acting with out permission; self-validating people who speak and act with authority. Ultimately leadership is a gift. One final comment: teachers, when thinking about community building, should differentiate between capitalistic leadership organized by wages, and community leadership given by friends. (brothers-and-sisters-hood)

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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