Tragedy of the commons

Are professional associations going the way of bowling leagues? I don’t think so. And I certainly hope not since my employer, ASI, provides software for non-profits which includes professional associations.

But it is certainly an interesting premise that there are fewer mechanisms for casual introductions because of a shared activity like bowling or bridge. Robert Putnam wrote an article in 2000 called “Bowling Alone” that turned into this book, Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community. It’s a fascinating premise and I’d like to read more just based on this quote, “Our growing social-capital deficit threatens educational performance, safe neighborhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty, and even our health and happiness.”


Technology – part of the solution?

If you’ve read my book, Conversation and Community, you might think I’d advocate for online activities like Scrabulous (now Lexulous) for casual introductions and getting to know people. And there are certainly stories where Twitter has introduced people to each other in new ways, such as Michael Hughes discovering common interests with others unexepctedly through Twitter and Facebook  interactions. In his post, Social Web: This old dog finally gets it, he says:

As an officer, I’ve taken quite a bit of heat over some unpopular decisions and problems lately from well-meaning and articulate critics. Twitter and Facebook have given me the opportunity to interface with some of these critics at the level of home-brewed beer and love of musical instruments.

A strong personal touch

Yet, there are some technologies that can make group work more difficult. As Clay Shirky eloquently explains in “Group as User: Flaming and the Design of Social Software,” mailing lists can have the most difficulty with signal-to-noise ratio. You know you’ve seen it happen on lists over and over again. Someone writes something that everyone needs to respond to, and then the responses don’t add to the original discussion. Even the best-behaved list members have difficulty obeying rules of conduct set forth. Naturally, the problem is more difficult when the list is large, because people who crave the “upset” attention will get more drama on a larger list.

On the other hand, blogs and wikis have built-in rules of engagement that assist with this problem. Clay Shirky outlines many assistant design decisions in the essay referenced above. But you still have to be willing to moderate comments when you are a blogger or a wiki administrator. And you have to be willing to work hard to build a community that uses the technology in a productive way.


  • September 22, 2009 - 5:52 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that everyone today is talking about ‘filter design’.

    Are we starting to take responsibility for building the social spaces that we miss so badly?

  • Cindy Pao
    September 22, 2009 - 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Bowling leagues are alive and well in Katy, Texas – as is STC Houston! Coincidence? I don’t think so 8-]

    I agree with the quote from “Bowling Alone…” about our social-capital deficit, but I think the online communities are important.

    How about some sort of middle ground?

    Or am I missing the point?

  • September 22, 2009 - 9:55 pm | Permalink

    I agree that online communities are important and do important work – and I think that additional in-person interaction is vital to ensure that a community can function and meet its goals. So yep, I definitely think there’s a middle ground – and you do get the point, Cindy. 🙂

    This post sort of meanders, but I wanted to get back on my more blog-like “just publish it already” twice-a-week schedule. So, I’m glad you both commented! Thanks for commenting.

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