Clay Shirky (email@example.com)
H79.2518 -- Tisch 406 -- Friday 12:30 - 3:00 p.m.
Version 1.0 / August 21, 2005
OVERVIEW (Jump to Classes)
Social Facts centers on two questions. The first is, how do groups get anything done? As anyone who has ever run a business or even arranged a birthday party knows, groups present significant coordination problems, problems that have to be overcome even to do anything as simple as getting everyone in the same place at the same time. These problems are worse, much worse, for groups who want to have some effect on a world. Organizing birthday parties and book groups, challenging as those things are, are simple compared to organizing political parties or philanthropic groups, to say nothing of businesses, religions (at least proselytizing ones), and armies. Getting a group to accomplish anything means getting its members to set aside enough of their autonomy for the group to function as a relatively cohesive unit.
The cohesion necessary for coordinated group effort can be only be explained by reference to "social facts", those things that are true because everyone agrees they are true. Though it is tempting to regard such facts as weak or ephemeral, they are in fact both strong and persistent. You can take a car or a bus to work, but the fact that you get to drive your car but not the bus is a purely social phenomenon. Both the car and the bus have gas, steering, and brakes, but buses are governed by an elaborate, non-physical set of rules, ranging from the nature of property to the wearing of uniforms, rules that add up to your not being allowed to drive it.
An enormous number of often unstated rules are similarly necessary precursors to effective social effort. The concept of membership, for instance, is necessary to identify who can and can't be expected to do the work even in informal groups. Yet membership exists purely by social agreement; even in places where membership is tied to some objective attribute, like being a second-year, that membership creates certain requirements (Thesis) while forbidding others (you can't take Applications again), which are socially enforced. Thus any attempt to understand how groups get anything done has to take into account the structures of governance and group alignment provided by these social facts, and to understand how they get created or modified.
The second, related question core to the class is, what effects does, can, or should technology have on the way groups get things done? We are in the middle of a revolution in the creation of group value. The ability to use new technologies, especially communications technologies, are altering the way groups form and function. We are seeing everything from stay-at-home moms coordinating for social action using Meetup to the change in the strategy and tactics of political campaigns, because of these technologies. And much of the change is still to come; most technology, having been targeted for personal use, has been under-examined and under-optimized for its effects on groups and group dynamics.
The question of technological effect is partly descriptive (What is happening with group use of technology now?), partly predictive (What will happen?) and partly normative (What should happen?) Many of the changes created by new technology are double-edged -- our communications tools have the effect of making it much easier to form groups, for example, but harder to get them to take action. As tools like email and SMS free the participants from needing to gather in the real world, the groups that rely on these technologies have looser bonds and the members enjoy greater autonomy. The goal of the class is to uncover interesting but as yet unachieved possibilities in our increasingly mediated group life.
The course has three broad goals: at the end of the semester, a student should have a general understanding of the attributes and dilemmas of coordinating group effort; they should have an understanding of how technology, and particularly communications technology, does and can affect both the attributes and dilemmas of group action; and they should have experience making either predictions or imagining improvements in the way technology can affect group action.
The course will progress through 3 phases, each taking roughly a third of the course:
1. Introduction to Group Dynamics and Dilemmas
What is a group? What makes it special, and different from a mere aggregation of individuals? What is a social fact, and how do social facts provide the background for group cohesion and achievement? What dilemmas are particular to groups? What are some ways we can characterize or analyze groups to answer these questions.
The explosion in communal media and tools is changing the landscape in which groups set and pursue goals for themselves. What effects does technology have on the ability of groups to organize, set tasks, gather and expend resources, and govern themselves? What kinds of groups are we seeing form whose work would have been difficult or impossible prior to the last decade? In what ways is technology undermining our existing assumptions about group action, or making it harder to organize groups along older patterns?
3. The Shape of Things to Come?
There is always a gap between the possible and the actual; in the case of group activity, that gap is now quite large. What kinds of things are now possible for group action that have not yet been widely realized? What form would those changes take? New infrastructure, tools, techniques, social models? What normative goals can be brought to bear? What should be made available to groups, to advance larger social goals or benefits?
The principal work of the class is in understanding and synthesizing your observations from the readings, in-class exercises, and field observations. You will demonstrate your understanding with your participation in class discussions, in two short papers, and in a final project, which can either be a larger paper or an attempt to study and document some aspect of mediated group function.
Class participation 50%
Mid-term Project 20%
Final Project 30%
CLASSES - SECTION ONE: Group Dynamics and Dilemmas
Week 1. Introduction to Group Dynamics
The basic problem in considering the behavior of groups is that they have a dual existence: both as an aggregation of the individual members, and as a whole unit, to be analyzed on its own terms. What is special about groups? What challenges does group effort create above and beyond individual effort? What sorts of tensions can arise between individuals in a group? How does governance affect a groups view of itself, and its ability to get things done?
"What is a Social Fact"; Durkheim, Emil; http://www2.pfeiffer.edu/~lridener/DSS/Durkheim/SOCFACT.HTML
The Construction of Social Reality (Handout); Searle, John; ISBN: 0684831791
The Social Life of Information (Handout); Brown, John Seely and Paul Duguid; ISBN: 0875847625
Week 2. Three is a Magic Number
More is different; when you gather three or more people, the dynamics move from the personal and psychological to include the social as well. What group dynamics can't be explained by simply analyzing the behavior of individuals? What is a social fact, and how does it create expectations that guide both individuals and the group?
The Evolution of Cooperation (Handout); Axelrod, Robert; ISBN: 0465021212
Paradoxes of Group Life (Handout); Smith, Kenwyn and David Berg; ISBN: 078793948X
Small Groups as Complex Systems (Handout); Arrow, Holly et al.; ISBN: 080397230X
Week 3. Dilemmas of Group Life I: Founding Dilemmas
The moment of founding is an especially tricky one -- a mere aggregation of people have to agree to set enough of their autonomy aside to join together in a group that, by definition, doesn't exist yet. What are the possibilities and perils that are presented to a potential or nascent group at the moment of its founding? How do choices about founding affect the subsequent life of the group?
Logic of Collective Action (Handout); Olsen, Mancur; ISBN: 0674537513
Experiences in Groups (Handout); Bion, Wilfred; ISBN: 0674537513
"The Nature of the Firm"; Coase, Ronald; http://people.bu.edu/vaguirre/courses/bu332/nature_firm.pdf
First Paper Assigned: Observe and describe an existing group in terms of its founding characteristics, and describe how the group is affected by the moment of its founding. 750-1000 words.
Week 4. Dilemmas of Group Life II: Continuity Dilemmas
Once started, the ongoing life of a group presents several opportunities and dilemmas. How do groups balance the tension between group and individual goals? How do groups handle, or even detect, members who are not pulling their weight? How do groups take in new information, and make binding decisions based on that information? How do groups decide to fundamentally alter their makeup, or even to cease existence?
Bowling Alone (Handout); Putnam, Robert; ISBN: 0743203046
"Social Capital"; Smith, Mark K.; http://www.infed.org/biblio/social_capital.htm
"Social Capital and Civil Society"; Fukayama, Francis;
First Paper Due
Week 5. Social Capital and Social Networks
With the previous work as background, we are now in a position to ask how technology, and particularly communications technology, affects group life. What is a social network? What is social capital? What effect can communications tools for groups have on social capital, both good and bad?
"Internet Paradox Revisited"; Kraut, Robert et al.; http://virtualcommunity.haifa.ac.il/papers/ParadoxRevisited.pdf
"Lessons from Lucasfilm's Habitat"; Morningstar, Chip and Randall Farmer; http://www.fudco.com/chip/lessons.html
"My Fiendster Experience"; Terbo Ted; http://www.somalit.com/Fiendster_Experience.html
Week 6. The Internet's Effect on Group Life
Group dynamics are highly variable, even within controlled situations. The historical recounting of participation in groups is equally variable. What observations can be made about the nature of group life, based on first hand accounts? What forces or effects are common to the variable experiences of mediated group life?
Life on the Screen (Handout); Turkle, Sherry; ISBN: 0684833484
The Psychology of the Internet (Handout); Wallace, Patricia; ISBN: 0521797098
MID-TERM II: Work with a group of your classmates to imagine ways the functioning the group you have chosen could be altered, for better or worse, by technological changes.
Present and discuss your observations in class.
"Rape In Cyberspace"; Dibbell, Julian; http://www.juliandibbell.com/texts/bungle.html
"Kaycee Nicole (Swenson) FAQ"; Adam@Rootnode.org; http://www.rootnode.org/article.php?sid=26
"Autistic Social Software"; boyd, danah; http://www.danah.org/papers/Supernova2004.html
MID-TERM III: Write up your conclusions about the group you observed.
Week 8. Membership and Identity
The paradox of groups is that there can be no group without members, but there can also be no members without a group, because what would they be members of? This problem is more acute online, because so many of our cues about identity are truncated online. How is identity formed and managed online? How is membership managed? To what does membership attach, in an environment where identity is poorly defined?
"Slashdot FAQ"; Malda, Robert et al.; http://slashdot.org/faq/com-mod.shtml
Republic.com (Handout); Sunstein, Cass; ISBN: 0691095892
"The Internet and Democratic Debate"; Pew Charitable Trusts; http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/141/report_display.asp
Week 9. Moderation and Debate
"Shut up!" "No, you shut up!" Because mediated conversation lacks the real-world cues and scarcities we rely on to preserve decorum, such conversation tends towards the uncivil. This especially matters in deliberative environments, where the conversation helps groups come to a sense of shared purpose. What tools and techniques exist for allowing groups to self-moderate?
"A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace"; Barlow, John; http://homes.eff.org/~barlow/Declaration-Final.html
"The Open Compact"; Greenfield, Adam; http://www.v-2.org/displayArticle.php?article_num=339
SECTION THREE: The Shape of Things To Come?
Week 10. Governance and Contracts
At some point, deliberation and agreement has to be backed up by something stronger, if a group is to take significant action. In place of moderation and debate comes governance and contracts; rules for coming to binding decisions, and specifying negative outcomes for not abiding by those decisions. How do or can relatively ephemeral groups take on the structure necessary for governance or contracting?
"Netz Netz"; Monochrom Arts Collective; http://www.monochrom.at/english/2005/08/netznetz.htm
"Come Together, Right Now"; Teachout, Zephyr; http://www.personaldemocracy.com/node/152
"Exiting Deanspace"; Shirky, Clay; http://www.corante.com/many/archives/2004/02/03/exiting_deanspace.php
FINAL I: Write a short paper detailing an area of group dynamics you'd like to explore.
Week 11. Money and Politics
Money is the most flexible source of power we have; awesome in its fluidity, and a required input for many other forms of group effort. Political institutions have made better use of the fund-raising capabilities of the new technologies than any other institutional form. What tools allow a group to collect money? To disburse it? What issues does money create for group dynamics? How have political campaigns used these tools? What alternate ways might exist for them to gather or use fundraising to attain their goals?
Assigned Readings TBA, related to the guest
Week 12. Guest Lecturer
Guest lecturer from an organization working to make mediated groups more effective.
Federalist Papers (#10- Handout); Madison, James; ISBN: 0140444955
"The Accountable Net"; Johnson, David et al.; http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=529022
FINAL II: Select the area of group dynamics you will explore, and detail how you will approach the problem.
Week 13. Open Problems in Group Dynamics
We are just getting started. Although mediated support for group interaction has been around for a few decades, it has only become ubiquitous in the last several years, and the generation of people who understand it well enough to take it for granted are only now coming into positions of power. What challenges are emerging for mediated groups? What will happen when individual groups begin to collaborate or compete?
FINAL III: Write up your findings, and prepare a presentation to the class.
Week 14. IN-CLASS CRIT OF FINAL PROJECTS