Open Governance week 1: Acting like baboons

September 27, 2010, [MD]

I signed up for my first P2PU course this term, Open Governance, facilitated by Philipp Schmidt (and a host of helpers). Although I've been deeply involved with P2PU from the beginning, this is actually the first time I am "whole-heartedly" taking a course (I have been following along on many though).

Probably the reasons I have for taking this course, and the reasons Philipp had for starting it, are similar - we are both thinking a lot about how we can support the development of the P2PU community as we go forward. A community is a very fragile thing, and it's certainly not something you can "build" or "construct", but you can nurture it, and provide the conditions for it to grow.

Personally, I have also created a bunch of different projects on the web, and wondered as I saw some projects gather a lot of users, an active committed community of people who eagerly contribute and discuss, etc. Whereas others, which initially looked just as interesting as attractive, slowly turn into grey corners of the web where nobody stops. In Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, stories slowly loose their colors and die when nobody tell them anymore. Maybe the modern equivalent could be websites that grow cobwebs, because nobody visit them, or online communities that decay because there isn't a vibrant community there.

In addition to initiating a project, and gathering enough interest to kick-start an initial community, the question is how to manage change, and growth. If the launch is successful, you might have a close group of people who all were there "in the early days", all share a certain history, a "founding myth", a certain in-language, etc. But as newcomers arrive, are they welcomed into the community, and made to learn and absorb the culture that prevails (while still being able to make contributions - the community should not be ossified and overly conservative), or do they overrun the community, and do old-timers feel like "it's not the same anymore"?

This question could be raised about many kinds of communities, whether it's a graduate program (I was just discussing with a fellow student today about how new doctoral students are "initiated" into the community), a start-up company as it grows, Wikipedia or P2PU.

You also have different kinds of participants. In a doctoral program, all participants will be doctoral students (although some may be part time, etc), but in P2PU, you have course participants, and course organizers. And people who are helping out with the running of P2PU. Do people who "just" take P2PU courses feel like part of a broader community, or are they just "students who come and go", whereas the "staff", the people who take a deeper interest, join one of the mailing lists, get involved in developing the project, are the real "community members'? (This is made more acute, compared to the situation of a traditional university, because our courses are just six weeks long - it's different with someone who is around for a four year undergraduate degree).

Here were the readings for this week:

In parenthesis, I really loved the WNYX Radiolab show, and subscribed to their podcast feed, very glad to have discovered this program. Much of the readings were about the work of Sapolsky, a scientist studying baboons in Africa. To make a long (and very well told story) short, baboons are known to be very aggressive animals with high stress levels, the males constantly struggling amongst themselves. In the particular case that Sapolsky studied, the alpha-males would go to fight another tribe each morning for access to a garbage dump outside a lodge. Through contaminated meat, they got tuberculosis, and all the strongest males in the flock died.

This caused a very marked behavioural change in the flock, with only the younger males, and the females left, and a very different male-female ratio, the behaviour became much more nurturing and supportive. Sapolsky wrote this off as the result of a freak accident, and decided nothing could be learnt about baboon nature by studying this tribe, so he left. A number of years later, when he returned (on his honeymoon I believe!), he was shocked. The key to understand his shock is that baboons leave their flocks when they get into their teens, and join another flock. So by now, all the males in the flock where baboons who had grown up in other flocks, with the "traditional" aggressive baboon behaviour as a norm. Yet, at that time (6 years later) and today (20 years later) the tribe still has this unique nurturing culture.

This means that the baboons who came into the flock actually learnt, or adapted these new cultural norms - that previously had seemed "contrary to baboon nature". When asked how this happened, the biggest difference that Sapolsky could find was how newcomers to the community were treated. In traditional baboon society, newcomers have to struggle for weeks before anyone will take notice of them, constantly fighting with the big boys, and with no females willing to groom them. In the new flock, newcomers were welcomed as equal members much more rapidly.

Of course, it is very difficult to transfer directly these lessons to human society in all its forms, but a focus on how a community welcomes new members, and initiates them into the community is very useful, both for P2PU and for other communities. The question of how to create community cohesion in an online community, where you lack a lot of the intimacy and shared experiences that you can create in meatspace, is also an interesting challenge.

I don't have anything very deep to say about all this yet, but I think it was a really great and fun start to the class, warming us up to think about these various topics, and I look forward to engaging with new readings, and guest lecturers, to think more deeply about these problems.


Stian HĂ„klev September 27, 2010 Toronto, Canada
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