Self-organizing and Collaborating Minds (and a hat tip to Stewart Brand for an old article!)

We’ve been thinking a lot about “social” organization at Collaborating Minds, because recent discussions have confirmed that our emphasis on the social interaction of the participants distinguishes us in a meaningful way from other collaboration approaches.  At the same time, we know a lot but still have a lot to learn about how to make a community social — or to create the kind of interactions we are hoping to have.

In this context, one idea that’s been on our minds a lot is “self-organizing” because “organizing” is energy-intensive (people’s energy, that is) and therefore hard to scale. We’ve also been told that our Collaborating Minds platform would be as a great tool for helping organizers of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) create a social network within their courses and structure the work people are doing. And then I ran across this article by Stewart Brand (from 1990!) about how self-organizing happened after an earthquake in San Francisco in which he found himself to be a volunteer.  Followers of Collaborating Minds will know that San Francisco earthquakes are a subject close to our hearts.

Brand’s article is long and action-packed, but the take-away lessons are all pulled together nicely. If you ignore numbers 3,4, and 5 that are very specific to an earthquake, you’ll see that there are a lot of lessons to learn that might apply in an online community where people were trying to figure out how to work together. Here’s the list:

      1. Right after an earthquake, nobody’s in charge.  You self-start, or nothing happens.
      2. Collect tools!
      3. If you can smell gas, turn it off.  (Earthquake related)
      4. After an earthquake, further building collapse is not the main danger.  Fire is. (Earthquake related)
      5. When you see a fire starting, do ANYTHING to stop it, right now. (Earthquake related)
      6. In any collapsed building, assume there are people trapped alive.  Locate them, let them know everything will be done to get them out.
      7. Searching a building, call out, “Anybody in here?  Anybody need help?  Shout or bang on something if you can hear me.”
      8. Give people who are trapped all the information you’ve got, and enlist their help.  Treat them not as helpless victims but as an exceptionally motivated part of the rescue team.
      9. Join a team or start a team.  Divide up the tasks.  Encourage leadership to emerge.
      10. Most action in a disaster is imitative.  Most effective leadership is by example.
      11. Bystanders make the convenient assumption that everything is being taken care of by the people already helping.  That’s seldom accurate.
      12. If you want to lend your help, ask!  If you want to be helped, ask!
      13. Volunteers are always uncertain whether they’re doing the right thing.  They need encouragement—from professionals, from other volunteers, from passers-by.

Several items are about just diving in and getting going, and several more are about “asking”.  I particularly like #6 — assume that there are trapped people alive.  That probably applies, metaphorically, everywhere one goes in life.

What do you think about these ideas?  What lessons should be drawn for groups of people trying to work together?



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