Could a CoP Become a Gang

I have just watched an episode of “Get Real” on Channel News Asia where this week’s feature was on teenage gangs.  It was most disturbing to hear of how easily members could sign up with a gang but how difficult and life-threatening it could be to get out. 

Recounting his fight for freedom from the gang he joined, a young lad narrated how threats to harm his family members were made, how he was beaten up so badly he had to stay 4 days away from home so his family would not see his bruises and how he finally won his freedom. The challenge was that he had to run down 11 floors of an apartment block. The catch? On every floor there were gang members waiting to pounce on him should he stumble. He made it to the ground floor and then ran all the way home. The experience left him with a nightmare for days.

Another “redeemed” member shared that when members join a gang, they believe that it would give them independence, protection and the freedom to do as they please. What they soon find out is that you become very dependent on the gang, and you have to do what you’re told or you’re taught a lesson – so much for freedom and protection.

It made me wonder if the same could happen to a Community of Practice. Could members join a group to become more independent (read, self-reliant) only to find that they become very dependent on the community? While membership and participation is voluntary in a CoP, how do we handle the psychological dependence that could emerge? Is it harmless? Could people end up staying close to a community for the wrong reasons, like when they “hang out” with the stronger members to obtain “identity” with the group and be protected from otherwise harsh admonitions or criticisms from the outside? Could members be made to feel ostracized or really ostracized if they did not participate in the group conversations? What are the tell tale signs when a CoP becomes a gang?

3 Comments so far

Stephen Collins

Patrick, I see what you’re getting at here, and I’d like to believe it never happened, but I’m not that naive.

CoPs, like any notionally collaborative activity - social computing, SIGs, clubs and the like - ought rightly to be as flat as possible and group managed from the bottom up.  As soon as the ability to jockey for positions of power becomes available, either formally, or by the group acquiescing to pressure and not maintaining self-management, the risk of gang formation and cliques of “cool kids” is likely to manifest.  The newbies, or those with a tendency to blurt before thinking then risk ostracism or inability to break into the core.

I think efforts to maintain totally flat structures with as few power-based controls as possible (the need for moderation notwithstanding) can help.

The social networking mindset and model, which as you know is dear to my heart, is a good one.  Unfortunately, it’s probably no less likely to break unless the community itself is strong, inclusive and self-managing.

I’ve not really answered your questions, have I?

Posted on September 27, 2007 at 01:33 PM | Comment permalink

Paolina Martin

Stephen, not quite Patrick responding. smile Thanks for the insights.

Interesting, your take on the issue from the nature of structures and power perspective. I think it’s harder to detect these when you’re outside the community looking in. There are no “designated” positions to identify where the power lies.  So it’s very tacit, almost cultural knowledge, acquired from immersion within the community, I would think.

You’re right that flat structures are necessary although I am starting to think about how else, other than moderation, can that be maintained.

Posted on September 27, 2007 at 03:56 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

There is a good case study of a “successful” CoP that went sour by practising not exactly gang-like behaviours, but very introverted, exclusivist behaviours.

Posted on September 27, 2007 at 08:09 PM | Comment permalink

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