The Starfish And the Spider

I started a new book called the Starfish and The Spider- it’s all about the difference between top-down organizations and those that self-organize and mutate easily, like starfish. Since I am a biologist by nature, this whole analogy automatically appeals, but the underlying idea is most intriguing- how bottom up organizations can outcompete or just plain wear down top down ones.

Let’s assume that blogs, podcasts and other forms of new media are starfish. They are self- organizing communities, assuming there is any overarching sense of organization at all.  Can Starfish become spiders?  What happens if you try to organize starfish into even larger groups?  Can you turn a group of independent minded creatives into a more traditional, top-down organization? And even if you could, would you want to?

Bottom up organizations are fast and nimble. But there is little top down structure, which is a good thing, most of the time. But sometimes, you need to have some level of arrows, of pointers, of community rules, to make sure everyone gets along. A membership pass, perhaps, to this group of starfish. Joining entitiles you not only to benefits, but to responsibilities and an obligation to adhere to the mores of the larger group.

I am currently involved in a project (Podcamp NYC) that started out small and intimate, but is growing into something larger. And as it grows, we can enlarge the tent and keep it organic up until a point. Then we run into the ultimate barrier to all starfish- Governmental regulations and very real restrictions on how groups work in confined spaces. The Aquarium.

Things like fire codes are not things the most adept starfish can change.  It is the boundaries of the Aquarium Wall.   You can only have so many people in a small space. So you have to start making choices for the larger group, which feels very “spidery” or top down.  And most starfish dislike being labled, contained, and forced into something other than their native environment.  They like freedom and choice, and don’t want to do everything by The Aquarium’s rules.

Just like the old chestnut of “Never yell Fire in a crowded theatre”, * based on a very real case where people got trampled to death trying to exit a theatre quickly, when you have large groups of humans in a combined space, you have to start thinking about crowd dynamics.** How we start to act as a giant organism rather than individuals when we get together in large groups. The mass ameoba. Crowd mentality. Safety in Numbers.

Individuals and keeping an event individual oriented works very well in groups up to about 150. Malcolm Gladwell, in the phenomenal The Tipping Point, discusses how a company very near me, Gore Associates, works on this model.  Gladwell states that Gore works in many small buildings, scattered across Delaware and into Maryland, where the size of each working group is limited to about 150. They spawn off new groups all the time, because at 150, everyone can still know each other- the scientists, the secretaries, the janitors, all have a relationship, know each other at work and at home, and this breeds cooperation, not competition.  When the number of people gets beyond 150, things start to become less personal, and the communication becaomes less efficient, less frequent, and more impersonal.  Keeping things small means that the personal touch remains.  When you have a personal relationship with someone, there is a certain amount of intimacy and investment in the relationship, and that creates value for the people involved, and in turn, for Gore, value for the company.

Larger groups can maintain a certain one-on-one feel up to about 200, maybe 250. After that, I bet if you did the research and graphed it out, intimacy and relationships would get a little more tenuous. Competition versus cooperation would increase. People would start looking out more for themselves, and less for the greater good. Because you can no longer maintain the same connection, the same intimacy, with everyone, your brainstarts thinking about “how does this decision effect me?” rather than “How does this decision effect us?” We become less accountable to each other as the group expands.

Yet, conversely, moods stumble through crowds quickly. We may have less one-on-one connections, but we are easily led as a massive unwashed whole. Think of the crowds that get out of control after sporting events. Trust me, a drunken, angry crowd is one of the worst things to see, ever. I still have the willies, just thinking about it. Conversely, at the Super Bowl after 9/11, in a stadium that served hard liquor, (something we could NEVER do at the Eagles Stadium in Philly) I saw the best behaved large crowd, ever, in my entire life. It was amazing. Even the drunks were polite and kind and well behaved. It was a total shocker.

So if bad moods are contagious in an office, think about what happens when they spread through a really large crowd. Each unruly action gives “permission” to the next person to follow along, or take it one step further, and then the situation is rapidly out of control. We justify it as “they did it first” despite the fact everyone’s mother has lectured them about “If Fred jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?” since they were about 5.***  We act in ways no one would expect as a crowd, in ways we can’t seem to explain afterwards to ourselves.  “It just seemed to happen all at once” is the phrase you hear on the evening news after some sort of crowd violence.  Not about what your personal responsibility was, but what the “crowd”, what the “other” did.

So with large groups in confined spaces, there are very real world reasons to impose a bit more “top down” order. Safety. Crowd Control. Keeping the mood positive. Keep frustrations to a minimum. Keep people engaged and busy. (Large numbers of people milling around without clear direction is a bad thing, too.) This means planning and less organic, grass roots-ness than starfish are comfortable with.

In the Aquarium, there is limited space and resources, and even starfish in an aquarium will start competing for resources when they start to become scarce. Abundance means cooperation, scarcity means competition.

When you inject abundance into a scarcity driven world, things change. The ecosystem is disrupted. You Tube is abundance driven, traditional media outlets are driven by scarcity.  When you have everyone creating their own content, you create abundance where this form of self expression and entertainment was once scarce.  And if your whole existance is built around scarcity, you get nervous.  If there was an Aquarium on every corner, the tickets would be cheap, or free.  If you run the Aquarium, this is bad.
For example, let’s take the whole stupid paparazzi and media star phenomena.  Gossip columnists trade on the fact that we all don’t get to hang with hollywood stars- if we all got to be best friends with Madonna, or Julia or Brad or George, there would be no cache left to their brand. The scarcity factor would be gone. The value of gossip would decline, because everyone would just know (and no longer care) and therefore, there would be no secrets to uncover- hence the whole new media transparancy issue.

So as we grapple with the very real problems that arise when someone starts getting noticed- when popularity breeds contempt, so to speak-we have to start looking at allocation of scarce resources.   Podcamp is becoming popular.  Resources are not infinite.  How do you make good choices that preserve the sense of sharing and abundance in this Aquarium?

I hate the lack of abundance, of  struggling with enlarging the Aquarium, while placating the predators. I am not good at playing favorites, choosing who gets and who does not. If we only have so much for resources, do we feed the penguins or the jellyfish?  Do we feed the goldfish to the sharks?  New media is fundamentally about abundance, and it seems so counterintuitive to impose scarcity or heirarchy in any way shape or form on this group.

But safety and numbers and scarcity means this has to happen.  Choices have to be made, and allocation of resources in our aquarium has to happen. When 250 becomes a thousand, things change.

When we divide people up, to make the individual session tracks, to try to keep this sense of intimacy and level playing field, we’ll achieve this abundant nature of things.  Separate tanks in our Aquarium.  But to deliver the “lagnappe” or something extra- whether it’s meals, or handouts or whatever, other scarce resources come into play- money, logistics, and the like. We may not be able to do it all. But we can do what we can with great love and respect.

This means needing to have some Spider stuff. We can’t rely solely on the wisdom of crowds. We have tried to make things easy to understand, navigate, and predict as best we can, to try to accommodate every starfish who attends. We’ll screw it up. we’ll guess wrong. We’ll learn and do it better next time. But I owe it to every Starfish I know to make this event as much about abundance and as little about scarcity as possible, without adding too many predators to the mix.

*My favorite has always been the Steve Martin twist on this- “Is it ok to yell MOVIE in a crowded fire house?”

** This is also the whole reason why fire codes exisit- large number of deaths when crowds panic in confined spaces.

*** It comes in the Mom’s Popular Lecture Series kit we receive when kids are born, along with the other chestnuts like “How many times do I have to tell you” “I’m only your mother, what do I know?” and “Wait until your father gets home.”

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Starfish And the Spider

  1. It took me a few times to get through the post, but I believe your point is that it’s tricky to make big things feel flexible and small. Funny you mentioned Starfish. I love that book, and love Ori Brafman, one of the authors.

    Know how nature deals with the above-mentioned experience? Divesting and diversifying.

    Break up the herd. Move some to other pastures. Take them out of the resource contention and give them micro environments that still sustain and nourish them.

    How would that apply to your event? No idea. But it’s what Nature would do.

  2. I wonder- does not the tracking idea serve the diversifying need? Does it create niches and microenvironments to really meet the needs of the whole? We’ll see, that’s for sure.

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