Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Community or Communities? That is the Question.

In a recent post What is the Genealogical Community?, Marian Pierre-Louis discussed the apparent fragmentation of the genealogical community. She also pointed out some of the limitations of the blogging community's representation of genealogists a whole. Randy Seaver and many others commented on the ideas raised in the post.

As it turns out, strategic management, community associations such as the Chambers of Commerce and many other national and local organizations have been discussing this issue at various levels for many years. The current discussion centers around the concept of "self forming non-directed groups." There are various proposed explanations including Reed's Law which states:
[T]he utility of large networks, particularly social networks, can scale exponentially with the size of the network.
The reason for this is that the number of possible sub-groups of network participants is 2N − N − 1, where N is the number of participants. This grows much more rapidly than either
  • the number of participants, N, or
  • the number of possible pair connections, N(N − 1)/2 (which follows Metcalfe's law).
so that even if the utility of groups available to be joined is very small on a peer-group basis, eventually the network effect of potential group membership can dominate the overall economics of the system.
Metcalf's law states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (n2). These "Laws" set the upper limits for the number of groups that can be formed and their size in any defined pool of participants.

What all this boils down to is that groups of affinity interested individuals are forming and disintegrating all the time. Genealogy is mere one of the almost infinite number of affinity group possibilities. We all belong to a number of these self-forming groups all the time, whether we are aware of their existence or not. For example, the moment I decide to visit a Family History Center, I become a member of a huge group of people who have visited Family History Centers. We cannot identify all of them as "genealogists" as some of them may have merely come in from the cold or to use the restrooms, but they are automatically included in a sociologically defined group.  

The Internet has created a virtual basis for the formation of groups. Understand that the formation of groups is a natural consequence of human nature. Remember the groups that formed spontaneously in classes at school or the social clubs that form in any group of people. This idea of affinity extends from a global to a very local level. Nations are built on the idea of a shared affinity. Genealogy is not immune from these fundamental sociological forces. The Internet has merely provided another avenue for the creation of groups.

Once individuals begin to identify themselves as members of a group, there is an immediate accommodation of organization. Eventually, if there is time, availability and interest, the group will codify and form an organization. People develop a concept of self worth dependent on their participation in groups and status within the group. Whether virtual or physical, this internal structure becomes stratified with the leader of the group, tribe, corporation, or whatever achieving status because of the position within the group. We see this happening throughout society and it is mirrored in the so-called genealogical community.

Virtual groups merely make it a whole lot easier to join and feel a part of a group. For example, all I have to do is click to "join" a group on Facebook or Google+. No commitment, not even any participation. So the bottom line is this; there are practical limits to the size of groups and sub-groups but the upper limit to the number of sub-groups that can be formed is only limited by absolute number of potential members.

So we have genealogists who do not consider themselves as members of any group. We have genealogists who consider themselves as members of a group. We have informal virtual groups of genealogists such as the genealogical bloggers. We have formal genealogical groups or societies and other organizations. Where is the community? If you define a "community" as a group of genealogists that interact in some way either virtually or physically, then there are as many communities as there are there are people who consider themselves part of a "group." Any one person can be a member of an unlimited number of other sociologically defined groups. 

More later.

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