10 Rules That Govern Groups Online


Psyblog recently shared 10 rules that govern groups in the physical world.  Interesting stuff for sure and raises the question – how many of these 10 are true on the web?  My sense is all of them, as the way we function online in collaborative settings is not all that different from how real-world groups interact.

Let’s look at the rules in brief and consider how they apply to digital groups:

1. Groups can arise from almost nothing

The desire to form and join social groups is extremely powerful and built into our nature. Amongst other things groups give us a most valuable gift, our social identity, which contribute to our sense of who we are.

Spot on, this is the very nature of organizing without organizations.  The web enables this to happen at rates not possible in physical settings – we’ve removed all the barriers and made connecting an effortless process.

2. Initiation rites improve group evaluations

Existing groups don’t let others join for free: the cost is sometimes monetary, sometimes intellectual, sometimes physical—but usually there is an initiation rite, even if it’s well disguised.

Think of how bloggers interact with each other – there is a rite of passage to get into the conversation, with respected, trusted sites and get all the benefits that come along with that (links, attention, subscribers).  It may be acquiring a reputation, proving yourself through dedicated effort, reaching a certain level of visibility or social proofing,  but there are always initiation rites.

3. Groups breed conformity

After joining a group and being initiated, we have to get a feel for the group norms, the rules of behavior in that group. Group norms can be extremely powerful, bending our behaviours in ways we would never expect.

This is true in nearly all circles and niches online.  It’s due to the fact that people within any industry spend time reading other industry content, and we’re all influenced by the material we read whether we realize it consciously or not.

4. Learn the ropes or be ostracized

Group norms are extremely pervasive: this becomes all the more obvious when we start breaking them.

This is not only true, it can be used to your advantage.  If everyone in a group on the web is conforming to certain norms, a powerful strategy is to break those norms and go against them entirely.  You can guarantee that while many appear to follow the leads of others, there are always plenty of silent dissenters just waiting to align themselves behind the opposing viewpoint.

5. You become your job

Although groups have norms—rules that apply to everyone in the group—people have roles within groups and corresponding rules that apply to just their position.

This holds true, of course – consider the example of how PR pros and reporters/bloggers function symbiotically, yet no one can deny there is a power struggle here and roles/rules apply heavily.

6. Leaders gain trust by conforming

A high-profile, high-status role in any group is that of its leader, but where do leaders come from? In some groups, they are appointed or imposed from outside, but in many groups leaders emerge slowly and subtly from the ranks.

The web enables this even more than in-person, which explains why sometimes new influential people seem to “come out of nowhere.”  As I noted in my post on learning from social media power users and influencers:

I’ve witnessed the rise of many talented people in the last several years who seemed to come out of nowhere.  However, to those of us who had followed them from the beginning, we saw them work hard to get to that point.

7. Groups can improve performance…

The mere presence of others can make us perform better.

This is far more true on the web than it is in person.  Just look at the collaborative efforts of Wikipedia where a paltry 75,000 contributors have created a staggering 13,000,000 articles in more than 260 languages.

8. …but people will loaf

In other circumstances, though, people in groups demonstrate a tremendous capacity for loafing.

This is Jakob Nielsen’s participation inequality, which explains that in most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.

9. The grapevine is 80% accurate

Intelligence, rumour, gossip and tittle-tattle is the lifeblood of many groups.

A good example of this is the Twitter community, and how the group as a whole is able to break astonishingly accurate news before mainstream media.  Twitter is essentially a massive, connected grapevine if you think about it (and all of these things too).

10. Groups breed competition

While co-operation within group members is generally not so much of a problem, co-operation between groups can be hellish.

Message board rivalries are as old as the Web itself.  The fact that they happen between sites like Digg and Reddit at a high profile is not new, they’ve been around since the days forums and boards reigned supreme.

Do you think there a difference between our physical group interaction/participation and digital?

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