Crew cuts

An interesting discussion has been developing around notions of groups, communities, aggregates, crews, teams, collectives, etc etc. Terry Anderson responded to Dave Snowden's post on aggregative and emergent identity to which Dave has given a very full reply. I guess it's my turn now, as Dave mentioned me a few times!

First, my take on Dave's original post:

I like the notion of the crew. I think it is a helpful metaphor. There are, of course, many other kinds of 'crew' – many project teams are brought together to perform research, development and so on in a very similar way, for instance, as do some medical teams, programme boards, councils and clubs. I think it is a useful to distinguish formal, relatively transient groups of specialists as a particular type of group. I'm not sure that I would want to call all such groups 'crews' (I agree with Christian Hauck's comment on the post there) but I see the point and I can see how it helps to talk about one of the ways we classify groups and to help differentiate some sorts of groups from others.

I totally agree with Dave that we should get away from talking about communities and networks as though they were just one kind of thing and even more with the absurd notion that people are one of a small range of kinds of thing. This sort of thinking about people is one step removed (maybe not even one step) from racism, sexism and other forms of unhelpful and counter-productive prejudice. Most of it (including the 'evil' Myers-Briggs but equally Belbin) is unscientific nonsense on a par with astrology. Yes, it can be useful when designing things to be aware that there are different ways of being, and it can be helpful to have a coherent and all-encompassing framework to help reflect on your actions and behaviour (even astrology has a role) and the results of using such ideas can be provably beneficial. But, big BUT, as soon as we start believing in the truth of this hogwash then we are on a slippery slope to unwarranted and potentially harmful conclusions.

I like Dave's systemic approach and understanding of the abilities of teams (or crews) to adapt. I don't think I would call it emergent – there is nothing going on here that is different from the sum of its parts. It is more about good management practice and group dynamics. It is not an aggregate identity – it is just that the group is a recognisable entity with a focus on achieving particular tasks and patterns of activity. This is interesting and important, but not emergent.

Now, to answer some of Dave's objections to Terry's post: 

Dave is a little inconsistent – he doesn't believe that you can' classify groups/community or whatever' – er…crews? Of course you can, and he does! Terry and I do not believe that we are talking about mutually exclusive categorisations. Quite the opposite. There are fuzzy borders between them (e.g. wikis could easily be seen as fitting with all three at once, depending on context and perspective). They are more like a palette of primary colours that can and should be mixed. An individual's perception may make the results appear different from one point of view to another, and a particular computer system to support one or more aspect may shift between them or be used differently in different contexts. So, 'what's the point?' I hear you wondering! The point is that we can make mistakes if we try to apply approaches and methods to education (maybe to business?) that work in one mode to a system that is operating in another. In much of the educational literature on social software people have attempted to apply the principles that relate to what we call groups to systems that are much more network or collective in nature. It is no surprise that this leads to incongrous and sometimes negative results. You can't take the ideas that worked in a closed discussion forum and transfer them to Facebook. So we need a richer vocabulary and a different set of ways of dealing with these emerging forms.

Dave thinks that we are simply distinguishing between formal and informal groups. Not so. That distinction is useful, but it is a different kettle of fish altogether. Again, he is a bit inconsistent. In fact, we agree entirely with Dave's point: "In saying that I am pointing to the obvious fact that to exist as a community some form of network has to be in place, but that a commercial network or other transaction network, does not have to be a community." Precisely so. They are different.

Neither Terry nor I would want to suggest that further subdivisions of our three primary divisions of the Many should be discouraged. Precisely the opposite in fact. This is an area that interests me greatly as there are many different kinds of network, group and collective and they are far from equally useful in an educational context – which is where we are coming from, of course. In fact, I think that some varieties of each form are positively pernicious, and all work very differently in different contexts. 

Finally, some clarification: Dave is dismissive of the term collective and I fully understand this as we had a lot of discussion about the use of the term ourselves in which Terry raised exactly the same objection. Dave associates collectives with cooperatives and the like, whereas we have a very different meaning in mind: it's perhaps a little whimsical and non-academic, but our collective is more of a cybernetically-enhanced super-entity inspired by Star Trek's Borg. Collectives are connected to each other because their behaviours are aggregated algorithmically. A collective shows its face in the tag cloud, or the suggestions of a recommender system, or the ordering of search results in a search engine, or the visualisations of networks that show us clusters we never saw before, or even (less purely and more controversially) the growth of a large-scale wiki. The computer system makes use of the behaviours of the many, applies an algorithm and presents the results back to help guide us. In itself aggregating behaviour is quite interesting but it gets really interesting when we consider the systemic effects caused by this feedback. For instance, at least part of what keeps sites near the top of Google's search results is the fact that they are at the top of Google's results. I think that there are several ways of subdividing the classification further in useful ways, not just by technology but most interestingly in the delay between information gathering and system feedback. I would hate to think that this was the ultimate classification (no such thing), but it is a useful way of looking at one of the main ways that social computer systems operate.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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