Communities are built on consensus: they tolerate difference and thrive on diversity, but only within limits. Stretch them too far and there will be a break. I’ve been revisiting ideas around community, moderation and the creation of meaning this week whilst i’m reading a superb book, ‘Too big to know‘ by David Weinberger. Weinberger is interested in ‘rethinking knowledge‘, in exploring how meaning is created and the foundations on which we work. His arguments are eloquent and persuasive, too rich for me to capture here, but one thing he mentioned really caught my attention, “‘Many people are mostly hearing more and louder echoes of their own voices’, because the internet so increases the range of choices that citizens can find narrowly focused groups that precisely mirror their point of view.“
His point is this: the internet allows an infinitely scalable space for the branching of discussions, but that very space can terrify us: we form communities that are coherent. Instead of creating broad communities, we tend towards communities of consensus, spaces where we agree with a lot of what we say rather than be too challenged by it.
Now, to some extent, this is sensible: after all, communities that have too broad a remit never reach consensus and, within a social learning context, we are aiming for consensus, for transformative action. Talking is all well and good but, in the Social Age, it’s action that counts. Agility. The ability to listen to the debate, interact in community and frame a solution.
Our response to diversity is to include some of it within our community, allowing for energy and difference within the debate, but to exclude the radical voices, the ones that want to take the conversation in a different direction.
You can see the trap already: it’s easy to throw out the baby with the bathwater. When communities ‘fork‘, splitting to create new groups in that infinitely scalable space, they can leave the original group more coherent (around a static or narrow set of ideas) but all the weaker for it. Diversity within a group is a good thing (as long as it doesn’t fragment and lead to conflict), but too much diversity is hard to live with. We need the right kind of diversity!
Weinberger is quick to point out that we are not talking about ethnic or gender diversity here (whilst that is often the focus of corporate diversity approaches, and all for the good, we are actually talking about diversity of ideas, experiences and viewpoints. Simply having culturally diverse groups is not the issue: having diversity of thinking and experience is.
What i’m particularly interested in is moderation: the intervention of a nominated ‘authority‘ to shape the group. Often when people distract a conversation too far, when they are abusive or disruptive, we exclude them from the group. That’s fine. But what about when it’s their ideas that are disruptive? When we are working within established schemas, within existing knowledge and meaning, it’s easy to view ideas on the edge as crackpot, subversive or wrong. When, in reality, they may be exactly the type of challenge that we need to established thinking. We may need ever greater diversity in order to deliver the very agility we seek.
It’s a challenge, because, as a whole, the internet and our social learning spaces can cope with this diversity: they fragment, forming new communities, until we have multiple spaces, each one happily sharing and farming the same ideas with the same people. What we lack though are the marketplaces: the spaces for ideas to come to together, to challenge and grow.
So the role of the moderator may need to be broadened, beyond a single community and into the marketplace of ideas: maybe we need organisational curators who can cross borders and boundaries, bringing back the most diverse ideas of all, and shaping a space for the various communities to discuss them.
Whilst we need the comfort and support of our specialist communities, we also need the greater diversity and challenge of the broader ones: whilst these broad communities will not reach consensus (hence why they are often rejected as useful tools for debate within communities that seek to take action) and whilst they often won’t shift each others views (the outcome that competitive environments push us towards), it’s the very debate that can build respect and create shared stories that can formulate new ideas.
So sometimes the role of moderators is to exclude certain conversations, but sometimes it must be to bring those conversations back together. Organisations, ones that want to be agile, must find a way to create transient spaces for collaboration, marketplaces of ideas where we can cross the borders that are of our own making and expose ourselves to difference.
Sometimes agility is uncomfortable, but it’s only by creating these ripples that we can truly grow.