Monday, January 01, 2007

The Homogenizing Effect of Groups?

Today over at Bud Hunt's blog, his raises the issue of whether or not we need more groups on the internet. He notes the proliferation of some seemingly closed door groups, such as tech women or young teachers*. He wonders...
At what point does joining a group mean closing a door, rather than opening one?

This is, of course, a complex issue. Many moons ago, the Utne Reader devoted an issue to the topic of salons. If I am remembering correctly, they made the argument that instead of fostering diversity, the easier technology made communication, the fewer diverse opinions we were exposed to.

In the past, we often lived in communities that were diverse because they were comprised of people of different ethnic backgrounds, different occupations, etc. Sitting on the front stoop at night, they were exposed to a variety of opinions. Now, given a variety of factors such as more free time than 100 years ago, more people having cars, etc, people are leaving their neighborhoods to find like-minded communities of people who share their values and interests. They may be talking to people from all over the city but they are hearing less variety of ideas. The Utne's answer was to create a series of salons to put people back into heterogeneous groups to expose them to wider opinion, making them better informed.

In a similar way, online groups can be networks of like-minded people, or they can be doorways to new ideas and view points. In my opinion, the best online groups are both. Most of the online education or tech groups that I have stumbled across are trying to be both.

So then, why the gate? I don't know, but I have a few ideas:
  1. Seven years ago I read an article about a survey that was done. Even back then when the Internet was much smaller, and less widely- used, 80% of teachers surveyed were more likely to seek mentoring and assistance online that from the teacher in the next room. Of course, after all this time I don't remember the source and I didn't know the methodology, such as maybe it was an Internet survey which would have slanted the results. In any case, that article has stuck with me all this time because of what it says about schools and about the power of the internet.

  2. My first year in Malaysia, I was invited to be part of a women's group. The coordinator brought together eight women from our pre K-12 school. We met once a week to do something. We took turns leading, so that something ranged from discussions to feasts to flower arranging. The coordinator intentionally limited the membership to eight because that is an effective group size for discussions. She hand selected the members because she wanted diversity. The group was pure delight and I looked forward to it each week both for the fun of it and for feeling that I belonged somewhere. The group was small enough that I mattered and I was known as an individual.

  3. I think most of us have had the misfortune to be on a committee whose membership was too diverse and its charge too poorly defined. Committees like that lack the common ground needed for clear communication, and there is often too little trust among member for them to be comfortable delegating. As a result, everyone slogs through all of it together, and the differences of opinion become paralyzing.
My point? The world is big. We all need to feel we belong somewhere. Ideally, the groups we join stretch and challenge us while also making us welcome. Hopefully these new online groups that are arising will be of that best sort. I hope they are focused enough to meet their goals, and diverse enough to stretch their members. I wish them success.

*[NOTE: I said seemingly closed door groups because the women's tech group allows men to join, and possibly the age-defined group actually allows people of any age to join.]