A certain thread initiated by Zbigniew Lukasiak at On-Fac mailing list got my wheels grounding. He’s mentioned the theories of French anthropologist Rene Girard as relevant to the social setting of online communities. While those theories are many and require books to explain, there is a core called “mimetic conflict” positing that the desirability of something comes from imitation of the other, not from the goodness of the thing; that such imitation of desire leads to conflict; that further imitation by others propagates the conflict and its focus, until the object -or possibly the first rival- are destroyed, or beyond.
On the list, Rosanna Tarsiero has made some useful reflections on envy in those communities.
Going back to the concept (as much as one can from reading excerpts) it does seem to play a role, in several ways:
Holier than thou. People who come to cherish the community mores (rules, ways), first helping the moderatores, then pushing further and further and finally attacking the moderators or even seriously damaging the community in order to push the “reformation”. You may remember a case recently described of a forum member (a graphic designer) who manifestly cared about the community but maimed hundreds of threads as a negotiation tactic.
All for the people. In the same vein, people who have been working in furthering the social or face-to-face aspect in coordination with the leadership occasionally see themselves as personifying the “real community” and can protagonize coup d’etat crises or (failing that) split attempts. We’ve had three of those in ten years.
The good of the community. Finally, at times people who have been giving their effort to supporting or helping members of a certain group (“community” in a wider sense, “conversation space” in a more realistic term) within a specific project, strike out on their own to start something with the same goals, usually very similar resources, and strikingly similar ways… thus splitting the community and weakening the original initiative.
All three cismatic processes can be driven by many causes, either personal or practical; they can be fully justified indeed. There are ways to see them coming, to minimize the eventual impact, to manage it when it comes. The striking aspect is that, in my experience, there does seem to be something else involved (and here I’m not just looking at Macuarium, whose ten years give ample scope for most things, but to many other online communities whose evolution I’ve seen or participated in).
For one thing, the “desired object” is the very same than before the split, but now it’s desired for oneself, not for the old group.
But also, there is often a very intense conflict. The new project does not strike out to raise its own tribe: it almost always is cannibalistic, at least to start with. It fights the other for possession of the (perceived) good, which can be the moral high ground but can be much more concrete. And as Gerard predicts, succesive newcomers and others can imitate not just the longing for that good, but also the animosity against the original rivals.
I remember one extreme case, a couple of years ago. A tiny splinter group of “rebotados” (can’t easily translate that -rejected, disillusioned…) ex members of Macuarium had came to roost on an old Macuarium initiative, long since sent to live its own life. Besides turning it into an attempted clone of our forums, they infected it with such paroxistic hatred that they sported mottoes such as “To win or to die” against the “cortijo”. They failed both in driving the initiative and in consolidating an alternative, but (at least in the second aspect) they keep trying. They foam just a bit less at the mouth.
I had usually viewed such things (especially the bile) as just expressions of envy and bad character. Gerard puts them right in with human nature, which is a bit disturbing.
We have tended to deal with this with quiet and work, although any of them is extremely tiring and painful. We assume that most projects in our domain will come from people who know or have participated in ours (you can hardly help that when you reach 80% of your target public). We assume there will be splits. We assume there will be some artificial rivalries (with some bitter words and aggresive behaviours thrown our way) and that many new projects will attempt to feed off our resources and teams. Let’s say we adopt a rather relaxed view to being the “rival” by default. We just hope to regrow the tissue.
That’s not saying we don’t fight back against cannibals (and we do indeed use the “scapegoat mechanism” that Gerard describes). We just don’t play the rivalry game, but rather stick to doing our own work in our own way (in other words, making sure that the object of our desire is not imitative but as original as possible), rebuilding fast, burning the scar closed, getting over it – and occasionally rejoicing when we see them imitate or fail. And seeing how many efforts in our domain have failed, I can’t help thinking that ours is a healthy option. But also, that we’ve been managing by the seat of our pants something that could be done in a more rigorous, systematic way.
Must try to read Gerard :-).
PS – And yes, I can see mimetic conflicts within communities too. But those are a different issue.