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revised and expanded August 26, 1998. Yes, I've added some fairly extensive suggestions. :->
Some Notes on Small Group Dynamics
or, why things fall apart
by Kay Shapero
Specifically, I want to talk about what may be described as subcultures, or hobby groups; groups of individuals bound together by a common interest or theme, in which membership is voluntary. Such things as chess and bridge leagues, folk dancing clubs, the SCA, science fiction fandom in general, and furry fandom in particular. This as opposed to cultural enclaves, where members from a completely different culture can be found living inside of the territory of another culture but paying as little heed as possible to the imperatives of the other culture, or ghettoization where members of a particular culture are forced into a subculture by some characteristic or characteristics which are seen by the larger culture as forming an obvious bond, and as being strange at best, unsavory at worst.

Now there are all sorts of motives for joining a hobby group, but they can be divided rather loosely into
(1) intrinsic interest in the theme,
(2) social (a friend or mate is part of the group),
(3) political (membership in the group may be of help to achieve ends in the larger culture), and sometimes
(4) out and out powerseeking; the search for a small enough pond in which one can be a large frog. There may also be a bit of overlap, especially between the last and the first. But one thing seems clear members of one category frequently cannot understand, or even recognize the motives of those of another. We shall now explore a few of the problems this can lead to...

With any relatively recently created hobby group, people of the first category predominate and include the people who created the hobby group in the first place. If there are any recognized leaders at all, they are of the first group, but unless there's some overwhelming reason for a rigid formal structure, they tend to be somewhat anarchistic in nature, especially when viewed from the outside, or by people of the fourth category (about which more later). Every one of the other categories at this point has potential dangers, some more than others.

Category two people will come and go (case in point, the girl/boyfriend of the roleplaying gamer who comes to a few sessions, is bored silly, and either breaks up with the gamer or pries him/her away from the game) and unless they're particularly vindictive, they will not be a problem. If they are, and can't pry the friend/mate away from the hobby, they go forth and give interviews of the "Golf ruined my life!" variety or go on talk shows explaining why Dungeons and Dragons is a tool of Satan. This can be a nuisance, and does not do your hobby group's public image any good. Accordingly, the smart club does not simply sort of ignore category two members; it tries to find something to interest them instead.

Category three people will be kind of rare in a new group unless the other members are politically important already. For example, a golf club started by professional movie makers might well attract wannabe actors; a fishing league begun by Congressmen might attract anyone who wants to influence one. Of course what the lions are famous for may be the same thing as what the hobby group deals with, such as famous cartoonists starting a cartoonist's club. In any case, if the group and the fame are for two different things, category three folks will act much like category two, while if they're the same thing they may well resemble category one. Herein lies the danger; in their efforts to be noticed by the "big guns", category three people can do some pretty strange things and not all realize just how far it is safe to go. So you get the "fanboy from hell" syndrome, to use an example from comics/anime/furry fandom, and before long all the "big guns" may be forgiven for an assumption that the average fan of category ONE is a fanboy from hell. This pisses off no end of people, and again can really wreck the image of your hobby group.

OK, here we go with category four... At first glance, it is tempting to simply award this one the G. Gordon Liddy award en masse ("The population of horse's asses outnumbers the population of horses."), but that wouldn't be fair. In fact category four people who are in this category because they cannot achieve the power over others they desire in the outside world for reasons OTHER than lack of competence, and either also belong to category one, or are at least not bored with the topic may be true assets to a club. Witness the caliber of staff many a volunteer charity club has gained in the past from people who for reasons of sex, age, or race were actively prevented from wielding any authority elsewhere. A true benevolent dictatorship can be wonderful for keeping the rest of the world out of the hair of the vast majority of the club (category one) while they enjoy their hobby. After all, one gets enough aggravation in the "real world", and despite rumor, most folks who partake in any hobby, be it bridge, the SCA, or furry fandom DO "have a life" besides their favorite pastime.

The real trouble comes when you get someone who is either not QUITE competent to run even a small hobby group, or just plain too selfcentered to take into consideration the feelings of the members of the hobby group. It is from THIS category that most direct challenges to the original leadership of the hobby group tend to come. And this confuses the heck out of the category one folks, who can't understand why this newbie seems to think that they are running some sort of Horrible Dictatorship. It's actually fairly easy to take the leadership away from someone who doesn't really want it in the first place. Which means you can wind up with someone nominally in charge who doesn't quite know what he is doing, and worse, is unaware of this fact. This doesn't necessarily mean disaster, if the newbie is willing to learn. If, however, he isn't, doesn't realize he simply doesn't know everything he thinks he does, and is also of the mindset that assumes that all people everywhere are primarily actuated by power seeking, and that all actions must be explained in that light, Katy bar the door! As soon as it becomes obvious that the group is not running in the style in which either it did, or in which the category four leader WANTS it to, the search is on for the political enemy who must be trying to take the club away from it's rightful king..er leader. If the new leader is the only category four member, this can damp down pretty quickly once everyone else appoints him designated twit and ignores him. But if there are any other category four types about THEY will all promptly start attempting to seize power and SAVE THE CLUB. At this point your best bet is to sneak out the back, lock the door, tiptoe off down the street and start a new club...

Continuing on, let us consider power struggles and power seeking in a bit more depth. One classic way to gain power in a small group setting, is to find one or more other people who agree with your opinions, and start up a clique. For examples of this, consider the stereotypical handful of highschool kids who set up the "in group", in which members must wear the "right" clothes, go the "right" places, shop the "right" stores, and think the "right" thoughts. Now most folks have a small group of friends with whom they are comfortable and have fairly similar outlooks, but in a classic clique, conversation among the "in group" tends to focus on the (vital to it's existence) "out group" and why they are "out". With one of these cliques found within a hobby group, discussion between the core members and their hangers-on may consist heavily of what's wrong with the hobby group, which, however it's stated REALLY boils down to the fact that includes the "out group". All members of the "in group" are of course constantly reinforced in their opinions of the "out group" by sheer repetition. (You now know why I avoid "war boards". But I digress.)

Mind you, the opinions are not stated directly as "they're not like US", but usually follow characteristics that exist OR ARE ASSUMED TO EXIST in the "out group". The net result, should the clique be left alone for awhile, can be a lot like a cyclotron. Let's take an example from a writer's club, and a clique within the club. Round one: Individual one: "That guy puts too much sex in his stories." Individual two: Y'know, you're right that guy is practically writing pornography.", "Individual three: "Yeah, I never did like that guy's writing." Wait two days while individual one talks to individual four, individual two talks to individual five, individual three talks to individual six. Round two: Individual two: "That guy's latest story is a bit steamy don't you think?" Individual four :"Yeah, I heard somewhere that he writes pornography on the side." Individual three: "Hey, that's just what I heard too!"

Keep this up for a few more rounds and you'll have all parties firmly convinced that the guy in question is a professional pornographer, and that EVERYBODY knows it.

Mind you, this can happen by accident; if someone's TRYING to do that it can get even worse. Especially if he decides that the only way to get control is to convince everyone else in the whole hobby that they're all in Terrible Danger from the Outside and only following His Plans will Save The Hobby From Destruction. And figures out the easiest way to do this is to create rumors about the hobby group in the next cultural group up the stack (aka "the outside world", though in the case of furry fandom this could be SF fandom in general) and about how horrible it is because of certain factors and people, then tell everyone to clean up their act so the outsiders will not think bad things about them any more. Mind you, this almost never works; what this approach usually does, if sufficiently successful, is kill off the group.

The pattern repeats itself over and over; it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the subject of the hobby group. Whether or not there is a cure is a good question - it may be possible to avoid or delay it with one of the following strategies.

1) Minimize your infrastructure. Founders ask yourselves honestly - how much organization do you really need? What, precisely, is this club being founded for? Tradition may call for a president, vice president, secretary and treasurer... but do you really NEED any of them?

For example, LAFA, the Los Angeles Filkers Anonymous is a group of filk musicians who get together for "filksings" on a monthly basis. Group requirements are as follows:

a) a suitable filksite
b) a suitable date and time
c) an announcement of the site and time issued early enough that everybody knows where and when.
d) Refreshments
e) A method of determining whose turn it is during the sing itself, so that nobody gets left out.

Now - what officers does the LAFA need? At first glance you might think there would have to be a president to decide where to meet, a vice president to back up the president, a secretary to issue the announcements and a treasurer to handle club dues to pay for site, refreshments, copying of announcements and so forth. However...

Questions a and b are handled by the group as a whole. Sites are members' homes, date and time are determined at the same meetings (held during sings) as sites, on a strictly volunteer basis. Question d is handled by the host, and by attending members who either bring food, or give the host money. Question e is handled by the host. Question c is handled by a volunteer who keeps track of the calendar as determined at the aforementioned meeting, provides fliers to hand out at sings, mails them to those who provide stamps or mailing costs, and posts them to the Internet.

So the only officer the LAFA really needs is a secretary. And that's what it's got, though it doesn't use that term.

2) Pay as you go. Possibly the biggest problem for any organization is money. The minute you start collecting dues, someone has to keep track of them, to make sure they only get used for what they're supposed to be used for, that due economy is observed in the acquisition... One major can of worms. The amount of money is immaterial: I've seen problems break out over a dollar or two a person per month paid to help defray the costs of a host bulletin board system getting in the mail for the rest of the net. If you can avoid collecting money at all, you're ahead of the game.

3) In general, avoid creating power positions. The more power inherent in a position, the more damage the inhabitant can do to your organization if they decide to take advantage of it for their own purposes, and the more likely that sooner or later the position will attract the very person you least want in it. Avoid fancy titles, make sure someone besides the secretary knows what's on the agenda and can place things thereon. (A smart and sufficiently unscrupulous secretary can invisibly control any number of committees...don't let this happen to you.) Money and property are tricky - on the one hand you don't want to get so bogged down in procedure that nothing happens, on the other you don't want someone to sell the clubhouse out from under you and decamp to Tahiti on the proceedings. If you've got to have them, think of them as necessary evils, and plan accordingly.

And if that doesn't work...

4) Distraction. There has to be a certain amount of power in any club position you create, or there's no point in creating it, even if it's only the power to cause problems for everybody else. (For some reason, the California Legislature's habit of being late with the budget every frippin' time comes to mind.) Power is like gravity; even a weak field will eventually attract those susceptible to it, and you can't always predict who can actually handle it. Indeed, achieving a weak power position frequently frustrates the holder into grabbing for more (I'm sure you all know of examples). So... GIVE them more, but in such a fashion that it does not damage the central purpose of the club. For example, if the purpose of your club is birdwatching, and the only officeholder you have keeps track of birding trips, institute a Yearly Club Picnic. Now obviously this is not a birding trip; not unless you're chiefly interested in pigeons and sparrows (substitute your local avian freeloader here). So it's not in the purview of the secretary. Nope, this is a job for the Picnic Autocrat/Coordinator whatever (pick something colorful enough to be interesting, but don't overdo it just because someone's desire for power is causing you problems doesn't mean they're stupid.) Give the person in question full authority to pick the site, the date, to choose a small staff, and a reasonable budget, and turn them loose on the picnic. If it comes off, it's a win for everybody; have fun! If it doesn't, don't let it bother you just think of it as the price you've paid for an entire year of unobstructed, enjoyable birding trips.

And finally, to all the Men (and Women) Who Would Be King - there are few things sillier than sinking the ship just because nobody will let you be captain... and one of them is sinking the ship because they DID. In the long run, the best path to power in a voluntary organization is making yourself so useful to the group as a whole that the others find you worth consulting.

One final note - for a Horrible Example of some of what I've been talking about in the above, see here. My thanks and condolences to Joe Bethancourt and the Kingdom of Atenveldt.