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Monday, June 28, 2004

Fisherman at Sea (J. W. M. Turner, 1796)

The Poverty of Communitarianism:

Act-KM -- Incident One: Part Two

This post picks up my analysis of the first incident in the act-km group with an analysis of the communitarian response.

Communitarian Response

As I've indicated above, there was always some level of disapproval for the exchanges over theory using detailed logical analysis, that were occurring in the group. Serena Joyner's post on 11/27/03 made clear her distaste for overly long posts and personal attacks, a description that certainly fit some of the theory posts. On 12/08/03 there were 5 posts expressing discomfort over the strong disagreements and personal tone being expressed in the theory posts. These ended with Sylvia Marshall's attempt to bring these posts to an end by "shushing" both Dave and Mark. Alongside these negative expressions there were some messages expressing positive support of the value of the theory posts for learning. Mark Schenk's comment on 12/10/03 reflected some of this positive view, but he also said: "We just need to ensure people are not discomfited by the passion descending to a level that attacks rather than analyses and critiques in a constructive manner." In this way, he expressed his view that he had to ensure that people were not too uncomfortable over what was going on.

On 12/16/03, the community erupted against the theory discussions. Serena Joyner led the way with post 3011 entitled "Drowning out the little Voices." This, ingeniously titled post described her "feeling a little swamped . . . drowned out by this incessant, highly theoretical, "your camp - our camp" style discussion". She also said:

"I support debate - I dislike long-winded, highly theoretical debate when it is repeated again and again. Make your case and move on! The battle won't be won here." (Emphasis added)

Serena Joyner's "little voice", which betrayed an assumption that differences of opinion in the group could not be resolved through critical discussion and logical analysis, was echoed by a chorus of 12 other "little voices", all posting on 12/16/03. There were a few posts that balanced positive and negative evaluations in their comments and four that supported the theory discussions. The favorable posts arrived later on the 16th, however, and the most favorable, not until the 18th. That post (message 3063) from David Hawthorne said:

"What happened in the McElroy/Firestone, Snowden debate? Everything that should have happened! No votes of closure, please. I found the exchanges illuminating even when they made me feel a bit uncomfortable. That's the way it's supposed to work. If I wanted to engage in shushing, I'd go back to the church I grew up in where there was no shortage of people with a penchant for enforcing their personal conceptions of permissible discourse. I liked the fire and fury and I liked how "the little voices" were provoked to action. I liked the denouement --the efforts at graceful extrication and the reluctant loosening of grasped lapels. My advice, let it roll. Go on and act out, and act up, or risk taking the "act" out of KM."(emphasis added)

Mark Schenk's reaction to the outpouring of negative sentiment was swift. He posted a note on 12/16/03, initiating a thread on "lessons learned from the debate". In his note he mentioned three lessons: (1) cooperation is better than the competition he saw during the period of the theory exchanges, (2) self-moderation -- did it work, should it be continued? (3) How about a cooperative effort to identify the points of agreement within the group? And he said:

"I think a list of concepts or principles that we agree on is much more valuable than tedious debate over issues that make me wonder if we can't see the wood for the trees." (emphasis added)

Basically, Schenk's post was a public effort to bring the community together and to moderate negative reactions. It was not focused on making knowledge, but on integrating the community, and it also implied a lack of faith in the ability of logical analysis to help in problem solving. Behind the scenes, Mark Schenk also took the following steps. (A) He asked Dave, Mark, and I to discontinue our postings on the topics we had been exchanging on. (B) He refused to post a message of mine in answer to one of Dave's posts. He didn't do this due to any characteristic of my post specifically, and he acknowledged that my posts were the most civil among the three of us, but simply because he felt he had to discontinue our exchange. In his words:

"But, at the end of the day, this discussion has deteriorated to the point where intervention was necessary for the continued health of the group (my assessment, for which I am accountable)." (emphasis added)

(C) Mark also blocked a second post of mine. This one answered "the little voices" posts. It quoted the passage from message 2975 I used earlier in this blog post, and pointed out "Now as far as I can see, this point has not even been the subject of discussion, much less refutation, by any voices, little or otherwise."

Mark objected to the tone of my note, specifically to its subject line which was: "Re: The Chorus of Little Voices" and to the salutation: "Dear Little Voices". He characterized my note as "condescending" because I used the same identifier to describe "the little voices" as they used to legitimize themselves. I agreed to revise the note and changed the subject to "Posts that criticize and theorize", and the salutation to "Everyone". It ended it with:

"Now as far as I can see, this point has not even been the subject of discussion, much less refutation, by anyone. So why should the moderator put a stop to posts that theorize and criticize?"

In spite of my revision, Mark Schenk never posted my response to those "little voices". In doing this he illustrated his own belief in the idea that posts that criticize and theorize are not very effective in making contributions to the community. In contrast, Mark let Dave Snowden's and Mark McElroy's responses through. Dave used his opportunity to renew his personal attacks, ad hominems, and labeling activities and to avoid substantive arguments (see message 3022). He even referred to unnamed "amateur philosophers" in his post, a labeling exercise that Mark saw fit to comment on in his response in message 3040. But most of Mark's final message was devoted to a heartfelt statement of disappointment over the negative reaction of so many in the group to honest theoretical exchange; and to the effort to seriously discuss the scope of KM, and difficulties with a framework (ASHEN) that some in the group were already using.

Communitarianism or Something Else?

Before reaching a conclusion on whether or not communitarianism was at play in act-km during incident 1, I think one needs to evaluate behavior and claims expressed in the group in the context of possibilities other than communitarianism. In the area of politics, I believe the alternative possibilities are (1) managerialism, the idea that sole legitimate authority resides in the group managers, and (2) constitutionalism, the idea that the authority of neither the managers nor the community can abridge certain individual rights of the participants, even though legitimate authority to manage day-to-day affairs may reside in either the managers, the community, or both. So which alternative fits incident 1 in act-km? Is constitutionalism, communitarianism, managerialism, or some possibility I've not been able to specify reflected in this incident.

Obviously I leave the last possibility of incompleteness in my typology for others to specify. Moving to constitutionalism, Act-km has no "constitution" written or unwritten, that guarantees the right of free expression on substance to each individual member. In fact, individual members have no rights, only privileges to post to the group. Dave Snowden, Mark, and I were required to stop posting on the threads we were discussing in accordance with the administrative decision of Mark Schenk, based on his view that continued postings by us were endangering the "continued health of the group". Our privilege to post on those threads was removed. That could not have happened in a group with a constitutional right of free expression.

Was act-km reflecting managerialism in this incident? I don't think so. Of course, in all yahoo groups, "the owners" have the formal authority to specify what the rules of the game of interaction will be, and therefore act-km could morph into a managerialism-based group at any time by fiat. However, the managers of act-km appear to view themselves as serving and representing the members, and view their job as expressing the will of the members and facilitating its direct expression. Therefore they look to members' self moderation, and to the expressions of members for guidance, and don't believe that they have the right to do anything that would oppose the consensus of the group. Faced with the choice of imposing decisions against the will of the group or resigning, I think that the managers of act-km would resign their leadership rather than do anything they believed the community was against.

Was political communitarianism at play in act-km during the incident? I think it was. In the events I've recorded above, there is no evidence of constitutionalism. Moreover, Mark Schenk's note of caution on 12/10/03 doesn't appear until after a number of expressions of concern about the conflicts expressed in the theory posts had occurred. And his post on learning from the debates doesn't appear until after most of the "little voices" posts have appeared on the 16th.

It is ironic that Mark, in post 2973, says: "We have almost always let the group self-moderate in the interests of freedom of expression .  .  . ", because "self-moderate" has more than one meaning. It can mean that the individual self-moderates her own posts, or that the community self-moderates through the social sanctions it imposes or attempts to impose on its individual members. In the above record, the moderators in act-km enabled individual members to express (and with a fair amount of rudeness, in my view) their desire for other individual members to cease posting simply because they did not like the theory posts. The moderators relied on these expressions in hopes that they would "moderate" the theory posts. When the theory posters continued to express themselves, however, and the "self-moderation" escalated to a high level of intensity on 12/16 with the expressions of all "the little voices", Mark Schenk intervened to end the theory posts. Why did he do that?

I think the record indicates that it was not because theory posts were really so conflictful as all that. I've indicated above that there were some personal attacks, ad hominems, and instances of labeling in these posts. But they were relatively few, primarily restricted to exchanges between Dave Snowden and Mark McElroy, and could easily have been controlled by placing theory posters under moderation and requiring them to revise their posts to delete inflammatory remarks. His decision to stop the theory postings was, I believe, based on his view that the community consensus (expressed in "the little voices") was that they should not continue, and he felt that the health of the community was dependent on his acting in accordance with that expressed consensus.

But in allowing his perception of community consensus to provide the basis for his elimination of the theory posts, he violated the rights of Dave, Mark, and myself, in the name of the community and its continued health, as if we had "shouted 'fire' in a crowded theatre". But the act-km group is not a crowded theatre, and there is no reason to restrict the rights of individuals to express themselves for the sake of what the community wants, unless, of course, the moderator and many members of his community are political communitarians.

What about epistemological communitarianism? Is that at work in act-km? Based on the record of this first incident, I think the answer to that question is not clear. Certainly, during the period leading up to and encompassing the incident, there was no strong emphasis in the group on the importance of critical evaluation and testing in knowledge making, though a few members of the community were supportive of it. In fact, Mark Schenk's message on "learning from the debates" emphasizes both the importance of cooperation and the idea of coming up with a list of things everyone agrees with. He says nothing about the importance of critical testing and evaluation as a lesson to be learned from the debates. Nor do more than a few in the group in their various posts on theory, standards, tools or any other subjects. In addition certain posts critical of the theory exchanges exhibited impatience with the close logical analysis used in the theory posts.

This absence of concern with criticism, suggests that in the area of epistemology, the ideology of act-km may either be unformed as yet, or may be some form of justificationism, rather than criticalism. But which form of justificationism is present, or whether there is an emergent epistemology characteristic of act-km, is not clear from Incident One alone. In my next blog, I'll discuss the next period of troubled participation in the act-km group.


I'd like to thank Mark McElroy, my continuing close collaborator and sounding board for contributing to this and the other blog posts in this series on communitarianism. His insights have been of tremendous help in accounting for whatever quality these posts may have. And while he does not bear responsibility for my specific views, he has said that he wishes to associate himself with the general critique of communitarianism in KM list serv groups expressed in this series.

In addition to the books and classes referred to in the margins on this page, you’ll find much more information on the theories and models underlying this post at three web sites:,, and Many papers on The New Knowledge Management are available for downloading there. Our Excerpt from The Open Enterprise  .  .  . may also be purchased there. Our print books are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or

10:09:15 PM    comment []

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