Discussion groups with high barriers of entry

A few of my recent posts have talked about actKM, a Knowledge Management discussion list which originated in Canberra but has since attracted a number of high-profile names in the KM field.

Since I also participate in a few open-source software development mailing lists, I've noticed some similarities between these groups and actKM. Common characteristics include:

  • Comparatively small community struggling for broader acceptance;
  • Impatience with re-hashing of old questions and arguments when posed by newcomers;
  • Zealous advocacy of a Righteous and True Path; and
  • Strong exclusionary behavior shown to "unbelievers".

Of course, this is a caricatured picture -- the participants in these communities have a wide spectrum of opinion and by and large the community genuinely wants to help everyone, including newcomers. Unfortunately, "groupthink" occasionally blinds regulars to the impact of their behavior.

When the hostile environment created by the group clique is noticed, the problem of scaring off new contributors is inevitably raised. At this point various methods will be proposed to make veterans post less and give newer members more "air time" (at least temporarily).

The problem with these suggestions is that people subscribe to expert lists to, well, get in contact with experts. If all of the most frequent posters stopped posting (which
would substantially correspond with the most expert of the posters), then all that is left is comparative novices talking amongst each other.

To use a sporting metaphor, it would be like if the members of an elite sporting team sat down on the sidelines and said, go on, play amongst yourselves -- we'll just watch.

Unfortunately, just "sitting on the sidelines" may well have the opposite of the desired effect, especially if the junior players feel like the A-listers are making sarcastic comments behind their hands. My prediction is that without the strong voices provided by veteran posters, the discussions will dry up completely.

It's worth noting that with this and other 'clique-y' listservs, my experience has followed a fairly consistent pattern:

  1. Subscribe to a new group.
  2. Read a few posts, venture one or two posts and replies. In at least in one thread, someone will respond brusquely ("oh, we've covered this a dozen times already") or worse, the message will be ignored altogether.
  3. Retreat, slightly hurt, and proceed to lurk in the background.
  4. After a while learning the rules of the group, gradually post on new topics asking open-ended questions to try and engage the debate rather than imposing myself on it.
  5. Fully engage with the group.
        .
  6.     .   (eventually)
        .

  7. Become less involved in the group as life circumstances change or educational returns from participating in the group diminishes below the break-even point for time/effort.

While this process seems counterproductive, the system seems to work because of the rewards for being accepted into the group.

Specifically, placing a high barrier for entry to the group establishes the list as a meritocracy where sustained contributions increase your standing amongst other members.

Secondly, this system often produces better debate because people learn that asking interesting questions, making good points, and debating well with others well yields productive results. By giving lazy or thoughtless posters short shrift, the conversations can avoid being always dragged own to the lowest common denominator.

This process does leave genuine newbies on the outside for a while until they earn their stripes. For people who think this initial barrier is a problem, there are two simple solutions:

  • author a blog specifically for newcomers, establishing a teacher/student relationship where students can ask questions in the comments section;
  • set up a separate listserv group specifically to answer newbie questions without judgement -- which is then monitored by self-selected mentors.