Communities, Audiences and Scale

Clay Shirky was the moderator at this year’s PC Forum, and his article titled Communities, Audiences and Scale provides a very interesting argument about the sustainability of communities. He compares the viability of audiences (one-way communication model) to communities (two-way communication model), and identifies weblog software (like Radio) as transforming the traditional Internet model away from an Internet audience to an Internet community.

But at what cost? Shirky comments:

[C]ommunities have strong upper limits on size, while audiences can grow arbitrarily large. Put another way, the larger a group held together by communication grows, the more it must become like an audience — largely disconnected and held together by communication traveling from center to edge — because increasing the number of people in a group weakens communal connection.

I’d be interested in what Prof. McGee has to say about this – as the implications for a KM-oriented weblog community are quite stark. If Shirky is right, then it means that the problem with a KM initiative (at least one based on the weblog metaphor) will necessarily migrate from a community to an audience. Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose?

I’m not sure I agree with Shirky’s ultimate conclusions. For starters, he cites just two examples of web-based communities hitting the upper limit of their sustainability. Though I haven’t done much writing on it lately (my second post to this weblog was about the topic), Shirky seems to be arguing the polar opposite of Reed’s Law. Interesting.

One could make the argument that the Radio Community is a more vibrant, sustainable community. I think Shirky’s argument supposes that it’s a binary environment: you’re either two-way or you’re one-way. What if you could have both? Tools like the Radio aggregator permit me to have an audience, while my own aggregator makes me an audience member of other blogs I monitor. Tools like the Radio Community Server in turn tell me which sites are most popular – and from that I can self-select to which audiences I want to belong. It’s pretty symbiotic actually.

Closing the loop (and going to bed): John Robb has been talking about the inefficiencies of e-mail as a collaborative tool. Perhaps part of Shirky’s complaint is that too many communities have tried to coalesce around the e-mail model? Maybe the technology has simply not arrived to deliver on the promise of a true scalable community?

BTW: can’t help but point out the circuitous route that got me to Shirky’s article: a mention at of Kevin Wehrbach’s weblog, which led me to EDVenture’s site, which mentioned the e-mail newsletter The Conversation Continues, which mentioned Shirky. Talk about a community.

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