Recently Stephen Downes released an updated version of a graphic outlining how groups and networks differ in what he proposes as ‘The Semantic Condition,’ a network design principle. He helpfully explains how the diagram was produced in this video:
In addition to the criteria he uses to distinguish between the two ways in which people might organise or aggregate, what attracted my attention was the appearance of Twitter within the arguments. One of the aspects coming through in the data from my research, is how educators on Twitter describe the ways in which they come together. The most common term people seem to use is community, but group, tribe and network also appear. Although these terms are conceptualised differently, I suspect in most cases, a particular term is used simply because it happens to be the favoured choice, rather than having an awareness that there is a distinction between it and the others. If I was to explore this more carefully, I might be able to tease apart the ways in which people see these different terms, but suspect that what for one person is a community, could just as easily be what a tribe is for another. It was from wondering how these different groupings are distinguished from one another in the literature, that I was attracted to Stephen’s graphic.
Rather than in general terms, my interest is more in relation to how people perceive themselves associating with others on Twitter. I was interested therefore to see Stephen locate Twitter over to the left under ‘Groups,’ which then made me think how that frames the situation. To summarise, Groups are collectives formed from a homogenous mix characterised by sameness (‘unity’) and co-ordinated action. They have leaders who direct action and groups are closed, at least in the sense that they have identifiable boundaries (i.e. it’s relatively easy to identify the members – who is in, and consequently who is out). They are also ‘distributive’ which means that information flows from a few in the centre outwards to the masses i.e. broadcasting. These are arguably, the characteristics commonly found in schools where a headteacher is the figure of authority, or a teacher controls the flow of information to students, and people for the most part are gathered in clearly defined groups – classes, years, subject disciplines etc.
Stephen proposes that Networks are increasingly becoming a preferred alternative to Groups, particularly with the connectivity afforded by the Internet. The constituents of Networks are far more diverse and heterogenous, partly as a result of the open structure which enables (encourages?) participation and involvement. Networks might also be called communities where hierarchies are less visible (or present?) and participants are more autonomous. Information is exchanged along multiple pathways in a more democratic or equitable fashion.
Twitter is classified by Stephen as a Group, based on the fact that power is centralised and held by the platform, rather than being in the hands of the participants. Membership is closed by dint of the requirement to create an account and there are rules which members are obliged to follow. These rules are specified by Twitter in the Terms of Service and the Twitter Rules, but also in the architecture and functionality of the platform. I couldn’t help feeling however, that there were some things I’d seen that gravitated more towards the right-hand side of the graphic and into Networks. Educators on Twitter often talk about belonging to a community, and when we look to the right of the graphic, some of those indicators have appeared within the data emerging from my research. People regularly refer to their experiences being self-directed and they enjoy, they claim, the autonomy and degree of personalisation. There is plenty of evidence of co-operation, and exchange of resources, to each other’s mutual benefit. Although posting a tweet may be an act of broadcast, including an @mention can initiate a conversation, one which if conducted in the open twitterstream, does not exclude others from joining. Connections are forged when the ‘Follow’ button is pressed, and boundary objects like the hyperlink can connect outwards to spaces beyond Twitter. Perhaps then, Twitter can be framed as Group-like when discussing it at the platform level, but from a Twitter user’s frame of reference, can enable community/network behaviours? Peering more closely into self-proclaimed Twitter communities, might reveal the hierarchical structure more closely associated with groups. Are there communities around which have ‘stars’ or ‘gurus,’ as Stephen calls them? Does the power conferred upon these individuals by their followership place result in a more group-like, rather than community-like aggregation? Does the profile, bio statement and tweeting behaviour of these individuals position them in a more corporate, top-down, transmissive framing?
The graphic shows that membership of a group is established through ‘sameness,’ whereas one becomes part of a network/community as a result of ‘affinity.’ It’s important for the former to have like-minded people who will maintain the status quo, which naturally leads to the production of an echo chamber. Communities on Twitter worry about this, but provided the community attracts people with an affinity for what is stands for, rather than being obliged to subscribe to that particular stance, somewhat divergent views may also be accommodated.
The one aspect of the diagram I felt worked less well was in distinguishing groups as metallic/elemental versus networks as organic/biological, however I accept that the scientific baggage I bring might be causing my discomfort here. If I wanted to talk about the structure of groups versus networks, I might illustrate that using crystalline verus amorphous. Or if I wanted to discuss growth or expansion, then I might set artificial against biological; one is designed, the other evolves. I guess there’s also a sense of rigidity within a group; a fixity which the hierarchy maintains. In a network or community however, the structure is more fluid and connections shift and transform as activity unfolds. Perhaps in the same way a liquid can solidify under certain conditions, a network or community might ‘solidify’ and become a group, for example if a ‘star/guru’ began to emerge as result of their activity?
Recently, I’ve been exploring the #mfltwitterati, which self-identifies as a community. Although aggregated together largely through the hashtag, Twitter Lists also play a part. Joe Dale maintains the ‘MFL Twitterers’ list, so perhaps the MFL Twitterati should be more correctly termed a group, since membership is ‘managed’ by Joe? In the case of the MFL Twitterers Members, that is indeed the case, however, Twitter Lists can also have ‘Subscribers.’ Here, people choose to join by subscribing to the list; the power to join or leave shifts to them, so perhaps the MFL Twitterers Subscribers is closer to a community? Information in the form of tweets produced by the MFL Twitterers only comes from members, not subscribers, so therefore one information stream is determined by Joe’s choices of who constitutes a member; we’re back to a group. On the other hand, people may participate in the MFL Twitterati and receive (and transmit) information, not by following the List, but by following the #mfltwitterati hashtag. Does this shift the balance back towards community, or is this still group-like because the hashtag itself determines information flow? Use the hashtag and your tweets will be visible in a hashtag search; miss it out and your tweets will never appear.
By positioning Twitter to one side of his graphic, Stephen provoked me into thinking more about whether aggregations of people on Twitter are better conceptualised as groups, networks, communities, collectives, or whatever. I’m not yet convinced however, that I would follow Stephen’s lead and position Twitter in this way. I think things shift, depending on what is being performed; sometimes activity might generate a group, and at others a community. Which it is depends on what people and other nonhuman actors do. So as a consequence, I think I will continue to resist attempting my own classification and leave that in the hands of the participants themselves. If one participant in Team English considers themselves a member of a group, that’s fine. If another sees themselves in a community, then for me, that’s fine too. Or am I letting myself off too easily?