The Poverty of Communitarianism: Act-KM -- Incident Two
This post continues with my account of events in act-km in May 2004.
Just before my post and David Paterson's, recorded in my last blog post, Greg Timbrell expressed his great dissatisfaction with the course of interaction in the group, in a post entitled: "I Don't Think I Can Take It Anymore". He said that he had joined the group in 02/02, had participated in great discussions and had been fascinated by the dynamics of the group, he then said:
"But lately, I find myself becoming less interested mainly because I am
finding certain contributors too dominating and extremely boring.
So its time to turn off my automatic email delivery and take a break for
6-12 months or so. Maybe things will be different then
See you in a while."
On May 26th, Greg's post was supported by Larry Chait. Larry evidently objected to the length of many posts. He said:
"I believe knowledge is best and most effectively shared when done in transmissions of five sentences or less. And so I am almost done. And now my message is complete."
On May 27th, Mark Schenk, the moderator of the group sent the following off-line e-mail to Mark and I:
"Hi Joe and Mark,
The manner and level of your participation in the actKM group is causing considerable angst within this community. The main concerns are the frequency with which your posts contravene actKM netiquette in terms of posting length, and the prolific and dominating manner in which you are pursuing your agenda.
Due to the number of complaints regarding your behaviour and its impact upon the actKM community, and the dramatic rise in members unsubscribing (a number of whom having stated they are doing so as a direct result of your combined influence upon the group), the actKM committee wishes to advise that no postings from either of you will be forwarded to the list for at least the next two months (until August 2004).
I hope that during this period we can devise some model or agreement whereby you can continue to participate in the group in a manner that adds value to both the community and yourselves. I would welcome your suggestions as to how this might work.
This decision makes no judgement regarding either your opinions or agendas. It simply acknowledges that the manner in which you are pursuing them is having a serious negative impact upon the actKM community.
Mark Schenk also posted an announcement to the group, entitled "act-km Revisited", in which he said:
I hope that everyone takes time to read this message.
The ActKM Forum is a learning community dedicated to building knowledge about public sector knowledge management. It aims to provide an environment where members can create and share knowledge about public sector knowledge management issues. ActKM is a not-for-profit incorporated association that relies heavily on a small group of volunteers to moderate this group, organise our annual conference, manage the website and run our annual KM Awards.
We rely on the much larger group of people who participate and share with so much openness and goodwill on this list server to provide
the true sense of community that makes actKM what it is.
Our intent has always been for the list to self-manage, and self-moderate. This approach has proven very successful, until the last
six months, during which time list behaviour has been the cause of considerable angst for all (most?) concerned. We have continued
(with a few notable exceptions) the policy of letting the group self-moderate in the hope that 'things would sort themselves out'. This
has not happened.
Regrettably, we have today taken action to temporarily remove posting privileges for a number of list participants. We hope that
we can devise some model or agreement by which all can continue to participate. This action has been taken in response to overwhelming
input from members. I consider it a serious step, and one that will undoubtably attract criticism. In the end; however, the decision
reflects our belief that a vital community, albeit imperfect, is better than no community at all.
So, enough of the sombre tone, lets get some practical sharing happening...
Mark's post was greeted with some favorable comment by 8 members of the group (including many who had contributed to the lengthy discussions), between May 27th, and June 6th. For example, on May 28th, Stuart Kay contributed a Haiku:
"A sudden silence
Sense the quiet spaciousness
Gently to be filled"
And on the same day Natalie Andrews said:
you are our representative - we ARE self-moderating and self-managing. It is our Will.
BTW ... Love your work .... thank you :)" (Emphasis added)
And on May 31st, Greg Timbrell thanked Mark saying:
"For your emails of support and understanding
For exercising courage in your convictions
For relieving us of a heavy burden
For letting me be part of a community that I value
For informing me of what happened over the last week.
Now lets move on. . ."
Political Communitarianism in Act-KM in May 2004
There's not much doubt about the presence of political communitarianism in act-km in May 2004. Mark Schenk's post to Mark McElroy and myself spoke of the angst caused by our posts. He spoke of the excessive length of our posts and our prolific and dominating behavior. But what did we do?
The record shows that we did nothing but express our views and then respond to the views of others directed at us. No proof is present in the record that our posts are longer than others delivered in response to us. No proof is present that we were any more dominating than Dave Snowden or Stuart Kay, or others presenting their views on these subjects. According to the record, summarized above, our language during this period is, with one exception, less personal, intemperate, and ad hominem than the language of others responding to us. Further, no mention is made by Mark Schenk of the effect of our interlocutors' posts on the group. As the old saying goes "it takes two to tango", and we had a lot of help from others in keeping those debates going. So why were we singled out?
Adopting a broader comparative perspective, if we consider the level of conflict present in the period leading up to Incident One, and the level of conflict present during the April 2004 exchanges, the May interactions, though very frequent, were not nearly as conflictful and far less uncivil. In fact, there is a progressive increase in civility when we move from the December exchanges, through the April exchanges, and on to the May exchanges, as if act-km was beginning to adapt to the new views and posting styles Mark McElroy and I were introducing into the group.
The answer lies in Mark Schenk's statement to Mark and I:
". . . Due to the number of complaints regarding your behaviour and its impact upon the actKM community, and the dramatic rise in members unsubscribing (a number of whom having stated they are doing so as a direct result of your combined influence upon the group) the actKM committee wishes to advise that no postings from either of you will be forwarded to the list for at least the next two months (until August 2004)."
And in his announcement to the group:
". . . This action has been taken in response to overwhelming input from members. I consider it a serious step, and one that will undoubtably attract criticism."
In other words, the sanctions Mark Schenk took were motivated by complaints about our posts (that is, the "behaviour" of others, and not our "behaviour") and by unsubscriptions from the group. And Mark Schenk responded to these and to the trigger of Greg Timbrell's complaint and unsubscription, with his sanctions toward us. In doing so, Mark Schenk was responding to what he thought the community wanted, not to anything we did, and he did this without any regard to any "individual rights" that we might be expected to enjoy as participating members of the group.
Mark McElroy provided a very good analysis of the situation when, in his off-line final post to Mark Schenk on May 27th, he characterized communitarianism as:
"a type of social system in which ideas are accepted or rejected, sanctioned or not, or tolerated or not, depending upon whether or not the community consensus goes along with them.
Now the role of the moderator in such a system is strikingly characteristic because the moderator is, of course, there to exercise a "moderation" ethic. Everything is held to a community-centric test of acceptability. In communitarian systems, this is viewed as normal and quite acceptable. This is because a higher value is placed on consensus and harmony in such systems than on reason or truth. Both are expendable. Thus, probing inquiry and dialogue in such systems can only go so far. As soon as the level of discourse exceeds a certain threshold of disharmony or disagreement, communitarian rules come into play with a vengeance. The pretense of genuine inquiry is dropped, and the heavy hand of the community enforcer comes out of the woodwork - your hand, in this case.
Indeed, why have "moderators" at all? Only communitarian systems require them. That is, they need to moderate deviations from the norm in order to keep things in conformance with the community, consensus point of view. They need to moderate! Anything that threatens the prevailing paradigm is destabilizing, unwelcome, and must be censored - must be moderated. Ideas that threaten the status quo must be stopped, their proponents excommunicated, and the harmony and moderation of the group restored.
. . . In addition to the authoritarian and capricious role conferred on moderators in communitarian systems, there is the unchallenged assumption that any list member can approach the moderator, declare a breach of the communitarian ethic by some other member, and legitimately expect that the moderator will bow to their wishes. Members are free to engage in capricious witch hunts with the full expectation that moderators will bow to their wishes."
And all this is justified and motivated by the idea that the ultimate source of legitimacy in communities is the community itself, that only it has rights, and that its will must always be realized. Natalie Andrews made my point well in her post supporting Mark Schenk's action:
you are our representative - we ARE self-moderating and self-managing. It is our Will.
BTW ... Love your work .... thank you :)"
Mark Schenk was only acting in accordance with "the General Will" in blocking our posts.
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: www.dkms.com, www.macroinnovation.com, and www.kmci.org. 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 www.bhusa.com.