KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

New kids on the block meet law and order

with 5 comments

In UNICEF we’re working hard on fostering communities of practice, and I participate in a good number of more and less formal online communities. One thing that fascinates me about them is community culture.

Oft-believed myths about social media and online communities are that they are open, egalitarian, anarchic and transparent. They may be much more of these things than traditional collaboration structures, but even the most “liberal” of them are still much more structured than meets the eye, and often this structure is not explicit but is something that emerges over time as “culture”.

To give an example, I’m a member of the Adoption 2.0 Council a community of practitioners working on introducing social technologies (or in the group’s lingo Enterprise 2.0) into their workplaces. It is a really well run, dynamic community which has a rigorous selection process for members, fairly detailed guidance for newcomers on how to get started and what are the rules and expectations of membership. In this case, while it is “2.0” there are nevertheless a few “rules” and as I’ve been there a while I also noticed that there are unwritten “social norms” within the group, and there is a kind of unofficial hierarchy of members based on experience (partly reinforced by a points and ranking system to recognize contributions on the main online platform), and these are things you wouldn’t fully grasped without participating, and I suspect they have changed over time.

To take a very different example, look at twitter. It has few explicit rules, is very simple,  and is open to anyone to participate and engage with anyone else without any official guidance and there is no real moderation or management. Yet it wasn’t very long before conventions emerged (Retweeting, Follow Friday etc.) nor before “experts” started telling you how you should and should not be using twitter, and before twitter celebrities emerged, not only among actual  celebrities, but those people you must follow and must listen to but who before twitter you had never heard of.

I’m now curiously watching the evolution of Quora, which currently seems to be exploding on the web. Like Twitter, Quora is quite open with relatively few rules, although the Quora team have been posting some tips. That said experienced Quora users are already getting concerned about the behaviour of newcomers and are seeking to lay down the law. This post  ( was particularly strong but it also seems like it was very popular. At the same time other established users are also trying to take a softer more welcoming line with newcomers ( It’s going to be interesting to see where this goes, but rules, norms and hierarchies are clearly emerging and people are jockeying to get position and influence (or to maintain it).

When we were setting up our own communities we had a number of discussions around rules and norms, but in the end settled on very few, most of which are not explicit. A few conventions are built into the collaboration platform itself – you can’t contribute anonymously for example – because the system doesn’t let you. You can’t see past the homepage in a community unless you join, and each community decides whether to let anyone join or whether you need to be approved by the community facilitator. We also have an implicit hierarchy of membership between founders (organizational sponsors), facilitators and regular members. But we didn’t codify much in terms of rules and have been cautious in how we give guidance to give examples of how things can work rather than saying definitively how they should.

It’s interesting to see that each community over time has started to develop its own way of working, with its own norms. Some are much more formal than others, some much more centralized, some prefer blogging whereas some prefer discussion groups. I also wonder how newcomers find it when they join communities that have already been established – I think we might not be fully aware of how open things look to them.

A few general thoughts:

  • Every community establishes sets of formal or informal rules, social norms and hierarchies over time, whether or not they explicitly set out to do this and whether or not they formally “design” these. The actual norms of a community might well not be the ones you formally designed or what is written in the rules.
  • Technology influences these these norms (and good design can be used to help direct this) but only to an extent.
  • Norms and hierarchies evolve over time. Communities start out much flatter at the beginning when people haven’t yet established the norms and their positions within the group but inevitably some kind of “social order” is created over time.
  • The first active members of a community play a key role in establishing  the norms of the community. They set the tone, and get a natural “reputation boost” by virtue of having been around the block. New members must work much harder to get a foothold, to have their contributions accepted or to develop influence within the community. Old timers have a key role to play in welcoming newcomers – they can welcome, guide, advise and nurture – but they should also overcome the temptation to be condescending, or to dismiss the possibly legitimate questioning of the established wisdom and norms of the group by the newcomer.

So watch out you new kids on the block – even in the 2.0 world you need to respect your elders. And oldtimers – if you *really* believe in the ideas of 2.0 you might need to think about what sort of example are you setting: are you a good cop or bad cop.


Written by Ian Thorpe

January 7, 2011 at 1:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. […] reading here: New kids on the block meet law and order AKPC_IDS += "9142,";Popularity: 50% […]

  2. I would add the community must find a way to tame the egos that emerge when folks answer questions, and others refute their answers. This leads to rude behaviors, bullying, and eventual disenfranchised members who abandon the community

    Richard Rashty

    January 7, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    • Yes, it’s a good example of why communities actually need to develop social norms, even when they are not explicit.

      Ian Thorpe

      January 7, 2011 at 2:43 pm

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Susan Scrupski, Ian Thorpe. Ian Thorpe said: [new blog] New kids on the block meet law and order: […]

  4. […] It may have clear leadership or it may have highly decentralized leadership. As I mentioned in a previous post – even if a community emerges spontaneously, over time it will develop its own rules, norms […]

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