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Musings on Online Community Governance - Lessons Learned (?) From My Electric Minds Experience

By Nancy White

Draft - amended 10/99 - send feedback and comments to Nancy

I was a player in "The Thrash." I was one of the wide-eyed, optimistic believers who thought that the design and implementation of a governance system for the floundering Electric Minds community was a prerequisite to our survival. As a result, I found myself unwittingly at the front of what started as a parade, and turned into what felt like a mob.

Since that time, even approaching the word "governance" in the Electric Minds community and in the circles that emanated and migrated away from Eminds, stirs up strong reactions. I understand and respect the tenderness and sensitivities involved. There are folks who would rather put The Thrash behind them. There are folks pointing to the damage incurred by forming governance, the ensuing member loss and weakening of the community.

I seek the lessons learned from that painful process, though perhaps not the ones flogged on the Town Square. In hindsight, everything is looking a bit clearer and simpler than I might have imagined. I'm struggling to articulate them for others, but I confess fear.

I was hesitant to bring up this sensitive, personal and very subjective topic in public, or in the Electric Minds community. The responses from some Electric Minds folks betray strong emotional reactions. I sometimes (half-jokingly) feel that if I even posit another point of view, I might be lynched (again).

But first, the confessions. I know my bias. This issue is not just about thoughts, but about feelings -- mine and other's. Take these thoughts in that context. It is the core of just about everything that follows. Read this in the context of good intent and in passionate faith and belief in this creature we call "online community."

The Context

In the spring of 1997 Electric Minds, owned by Howard Rheingold, was in financial trouble. Unclear/changing business models for online communities, withdrawn funding, and a host of other factors made very real the possibility that Electric Minds, the beloved conversation-focused community started in the fall of 1996, was going under. And we, the members, were not willing to accept doom without a fight.

Lesson I - A Community That Fills a Need For its Members Has Value

We found Electric Minds filling a need for us as a gathering point, a combination of connection and conversation. So we were, as a community, "worth" something, at least to ourselves. Therefor the community was worth fighting for.

As Howard sought potential buyers, he told the community that he put a condition on the sale that we had to be self-governing. I believe Howard's intent was to protect us, the members, from "being sold." You can sell the tavern, but you can't sell the customers. The tavern was bought, by Durand Communication (later sold to OSS). They agreed to the self-governing provision and from that point on, stayed clear of the governance discussions. They were watching, though, and maybe wondering what they had "bought."

But what of this governance? What were the parameters for our process of designing our governance?

Lesson II- Know What You Are Designing.

We thought we knew, but in hindsight, I'm not sure that we really did. We were essentially designing a process for a "roll-your-own, owned-by-the-members" governance modeled on the River and other communities. We were not designing for a community whose infrastructure was owned and controlled by a company. I believe this was one of our first missteps. When you roll your own, there are a host of administrative and financial issues which suggest specific governance structures related to financial accountability, and to assignment of tangible responsibilities. When infrastructure is not a priority, the driving set of needs is more related to the social structure -- the operating norms, "rules of the road" and policies relating to membership. But before the sale to Durand, it seemed like fiscal responsibility was about to necessitate more formality, so we may have started with that assumption.

To compound our confusion, we were also dealing with emerging factions within the group, some aligned with individuals, and some aligned on certain principals. The words "democracy," "free speech," and "power" took on some loaded but little-examined connotations, setting up waves of argument and misunderstanding, rather than dialog and alignment. Compromise was not the theme of the day. There seemed to be the need for each of us, in our own way, to be "right."

Is there a right?

Were individual egos parts of the issue? I am unclear here as to how much influence the manifestation of individual egos had in the unfolding drama. Were people using power to control the community and gain personal glory? I suspect the environment made it much easier for us to project these issues of ego upon each other. But from a realistic perspective, what possible form of personal value could one extract as a leader of the Eminds group? Where was the power to wield? I'm not sure the issues of ego and perceived power have been duly differentiated.

Some feel the Thrash was the result of governance discussions being held in private spaces, the organizing group retreating in disarray, but still willing to seek solutions. Some felt working in a private space was intrinsically a violation of the community. There was not a high level of trust. This is a very important factor in looking at the design of the process. Is trust a necessary element?

Others attribute the problems to a small bunch of agitators (fondly named butt-heads) who, in the peculiar environment of text based conferencing, can have a compellingly persistent and strong presence. My assessment is that these were ancillary factors, which exacerbated our fatal design flaw, but were not the main problem. They made the process difficult, though.

With in this context of uncertainty, little trust, unclear purpose and undefined expectations, a group of good, well-intentioned people failed to create the imagined "governance." It was an exhausting, hurtful, demoralizing failure for me. And what still grabs me now was our deep shock at our failure.

Individually and collectively we possessed skills that in offline space would have aced this project, so our failure to adequately assess and apply the right design principals in online space was even more difficult to bear. It left me with the big question: how can you successfully design online community governance, particularly self-governance?

But Back to the Story... Lesson III

Lesson III - the lack of formalized, codified governance did not "kill" the community. Did it drive away some members? I think so. Was the lack of codification the main cause the massive exodus that greatly diminished the numbers of Eminds? A factor, perhaps, but there were also real considerations of changes in platform, decreased marketing and visibility, and ending of staff and host pay.

The Outcome

It has been said that the governance Thrash killed Electric Minds. Well we know that as of 6/99, Electric Minds is still alive, so that rumor can be laid to rest. Did the "Thrash" negatively affect many of those intimately associated with process? It was painful but seminal learning experience for me. I hope to gather feedback from others to add to this story.

The Thrash did not kill Eminds, but it set the tone for it's second phase, July 1997 - July 1998. Electric Minds was small and in some ways self-limiting by it's recoil from the Thrash. There was some difficulty dealing with members who consistently crossed outside of the informal "norms" of the community. Eminders were hesitant to make changes for fear of being perceived as "power-mongers." They wanted to tread lightly, not too deep into problems or innovation and play it safe.

During this period, many members of the "original" Electric Minds migrated to Howard's private Brainstorms community where Howard set the rules, the gate ensured privacy, and members knew what to expect. I don't believe there were requirements of the members to manage the infrastructure, just to participate in the discussions. This might be perceived as a swing towards "let the owner worry about it" and avoid community governance. This is an area ripe for input from those who migrated to Brainstorms. I did not seek entrance, but still had the hope that a) Electric Minds would survive (I'm stubborn) and that b) we could find our way clear to some semblance of community self-management over time, especially in an open community. I was not ready to give up the dream. Pollyanna lives!

But there were other factors motivating departures. After all, it is very easy to leave an online community, especially one with a diffuse and morphing- purpose of "intelligent" conversation about technology and society.


  • There were no more paid hosts to stimulate and nurture the particular style of conversation that had begun to be associated with Eminds. Writers, both known and those seeking attention, left in droves when funding ended for promotions and support the editorial content and hosting. Cachet and visibility dropped. Media attention vanished.
  • Howard left -- and his friends followed him. (Human beings acting like human beings and sticking with the people they love and/or enjoy.)
  • Technology changes -- Eminds moved to a new software that was often unstable and under development. With due appreciation for the generosity of Durand Communications in hosting Eminds, many who had become accustomed to Well-Engaged found another excuse to leave when the interface changed.
  • The tone of conversations changed -- an emerging "playground" culture developed which alienated some previous users. So they left. Others were attracted and enchanted. The net flow? Who knows?
  • The novelty of Eminds was wearing off -- folks found other alternatives on other URLs. New types of communities offered other options. Roll-your-own became viable. Options, options, options.

The bottom line? Eminds changed with the change of ownership and with the evolving nature of online conversation communities. The Thrash was certainly a turn-off for many, but not the sole factor leading to departures. In fact participation was already dropping before the governance discussions gained steam. There are many who abandon ship even before it hits the iceberg.

Lesson IV - It is Easy to Blame the Thing You Don't Like.

Then there was the third phase of Electric Minds, where it lives today. Late adolescence perhaps? There is enough distance from the "tough times" (and some of the dissenting parties) to create change and try new things. There is a core of committed hosts, two very-part time staff paid by OSS. Despite the rumors of it's demise, Electric Minds is alive, and in many senses, "well," in that enough people still find value to stick around. It is not the same Eminds Howard Rheingold dreamed of. It is probably not the same Eminds we dreamed of when we tried to develop our self-governance. But it meets the needs of enough people so it still exists.

So What About Governance and Eminds Today?

Many will say the attempt at governance at Eminds was a total failure and some go as far as to say you can't do governance in online communities, particularly self-governance. Some will say, "don't go there" with absolute conviction. I'm not one of them and here's why.

A self-governance structure for Eminds did evolve. The "rules of the road" is still the reference for decision making on "problem" behaviors. People still try to operate on the dictum Howard set forth from day one, "Assume good intent." If someone steps out of line, someone else (not always a host) tries to get them back into the queue. The process does not hold great levels of formality or sanctions. Suggestions of individual power may seem arbitrary and at times, personality driven, but this form of benign governance seems to be "working" for the current members. As long as they are happy and OSS is willing to host the community, it happens.

It is governance of one sort. And it seems to be working fine. Look for the lessons there...

Is This the Sermon?

"Governance" in theory, in abstract, in intent, does not necessarily have to be the "evil thing." It is how we design it, what we do/do not choose to do about it, how we react to it. It is how we address the underlying issues of why we need or don't need any particular element of what constitutes "governance." It is about what values we do or do not share that drive these needs and wants. Alternately, it could be motivated by the dominance of a few over the rest.

We were designing governance that probably would never have served because our model had little to do with our circumstances or our needs, even though driven by information from well meaning and trusted people. It was not relevant.

I repeat. Governance is not the evil thing. Not understanding ourselves, our needs, our likes and dislikes, our being unable to define mutual purposes in the face of our diversity and our lack of ability to discuss, not advocate or argue, are likely the culprits. We cannot blame this "thing" we call governance. We could never even define the parameters of what kind of governance we wanted...

Since then what has evolved is a basic set of norms that is loosely enforced by a paid host at one level and by the other volunteer hosts at another. You go too far, and someone cuffs you. Expulsion is controlled by the paid host. It seems to suit the core, so it works. In a sense, Howard used the same model, just in another set of clothes. His was more codified, but in essence, the same thing. That is a form of governance.

  • If You Like It, You Stay.
  • Love it or leave it... or ignore it. It is easy to walk away in a conversational community like Eminds. For most people, it is not a huge big deal, but for the core, it is way more than a big deal. For some, the fact that it matters so much creates one set of dynamics. For those with loose affiliations, maybe it is not even interesting.
  • But the point is the current governance structure is ENOUGH for Eminds' size and situation. That could change tomorrow but...
  • It is not evil.
  • It is not all-beneficent.
  • It is not some dream of "democracy" or "free speech."
  • It is make-do and practical.

Governance (including other more structured forms) is working on other sites where it is reflective of the needs and values of the community. More often than not, most of the "governance" structures are by the owners of the site with minor participation by the members.

Where the site is composed almost exclusively of the members (and not just "owners" -- or the members are the owners) there are structures for input and group decision-making. Where there is strong, shared purpose, the systems can work. Think of the gaming worlds. Some of the MUDDS and MOOs have very complex governance systems. The governance is "part of the game" in fact, and is very successful.

I think we are short sighted to say that governance online is a bad thing and we do disservice to disparage it. It is also a cop out to blame the departure of a large part of our online population solely on the governance issues. That too, is only part of the picture.

There were schisms beyond governance, personality clashes, and cliques. Some people, once Howard stopped being owner, did not see the same value in their participation (writers looking for an audience to put it crassly). They left long before (in terms of very active participation) the governance "thrash" climaxed. There were system problems that drove away casual participants. There were people who still think Eminds died when Howard sold it. They don't even know there was a thrash.

Like any community, Eminds is multi-layered, complicated, human, fallible and messy. Like any community, it exists as long as it serves its members. For many people, when Eminds stopped serving as something motivating, the attraction was gone. For others it continued like a strong flame, despite the thrash, attractive and important. And like any community, Eminds has done what it has needed to in order to survive today. Governance included.

We need to look into the mirror of the past and the present with freshened eyes for other interpretations, hear different stories and different endings. I would love to hear how some outsiders who either witnessed or read our history would interpret it. Why? Because we each live with the consequences here, but probably more importantly, we take the lessons of our online struggle wherever we go.

We don't have all the answers, but we went through something very big and hairy together. We deserve, and I mean DESERVE to come out richer and stronger and wiser from it. I'd like to get there.

What I Would Do If I Ever Did It Over Again?

There are actually two questions. If I had it to do over again, would I? My favorite answer, "it all depends," jumps to my rescue. If I could know more clearly what the community wanted, I would. If it were as diffuse as I now perceive it was in the summer of '97, I would say no. I would turn to OSS and say "state your conditions" and then let the community unfold. The glue of the community is the members' shared purpose. General conversation and play is diffuse, diverse and changeable by nature. It mostly needs housekeeping structured around some basic rules of the road. It is nurtured by the members themselves, be they called hosts, members, or whatever. It is fed by interaction that is both delightful and maddening in its randomness.

If there were a stronger nucleus of purpose, I might ask the community for some basic guidelines, go off in private (yes, in private) with a small group and design a proposal. Note the word "design" and "proposal." The goal would be just enough structure to meet the needs of the community, whatever combination of purpose and business resulted. Then I would bring it back to the community and let them decide. Again, depending on the community, that might mean voting, consensus, input, revisions -- whatever. That might mean a business plan that supports the needs of the site owner. It could mean many things, but it would be focused on the needs.

I would use more tools like voting to help make the process more visible in this text dominated world. I would work to make process explicit.

I'm starting to think about online community governance design patterns and criteria. Here are a few that are emerging:

  • Make it as simple as it can be
  • Make sure the needs and purpose of the community (and community owners) are articulated
  • Consider that structures may need to be fractal in nature giving the most control at the smallest group units
  • Consider that sometimes benevolent dictatorships are good solutions
  • Consider that listening is probably the most important skill for any player, site owner, staff or member
  • Consider that it is easy to leave an online community so why make it easier?
  • Avoid time-unlimited circular conversations (know when to fold-em!)
  • Define and use decision-making processes.
  • Put up or shut up. Cook or get out of the kitchen. Fish, no bait cutting here.
  • When a group process is used, consider the power of words and seek some alignment on definitions the minute people fall into advocacy modes as opposed dialog
  • Keep it in perspective. Life is short and precious
  • Eat more chocolate!

So What Do You Think?

I've been pondering. I would love to hyperlink together the experiences of more of the folks who were involved with the Electric Minds governance issue and look across the threads to see the similarities and differences. How do our perceptions vary? My individual learnings are thin compared to what we could learn as a group. If you were involved or were an observer, and are willing to add your thoughts, please let me know. Email me at nancyw@fullcirc.com.

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