Trouble at the AOK Corral

The AOK Forum has been a distinguished discussion forum in KM for several years. Founded by Jerry Ash it uses a unique model: “star” moderators - experts on some aspect of KM - are researched by Jerry, and brought in for 2-week long discussions. The membership list of AOK includes the great and the good, and the quality of the discussion over the years has been really quite high. Indeed, Jerry has been using his fine journalistic hand and turned those debates into material for the series of KM reports he produces through Ark Group (good solid material but at extravagant prices).

One downside of the forum (and a major reason why I never felt enough at home to actively contribute) was the moderation and editorialising - you could not be sure that your post would get through, or if it did, it might get heavy snipping or editorial reworking… long timers might just get comments appended from Jerry “clarifying” or “rounding out” their posts, and the only things that seemed to come through unsnipped (all of this is perceptions of an experienced lurker without access to the snipping room floor) would be enthusiastic praise or innocent questions. A little bit too much candy floss for me, but nevertheless there it was on my radar for the odd flash of insight that might get through. Picture Jerry with his green editor’s eyeshade labouring for long hours to make sure the posts are all “just right” - truly a labour of love that should not be demeaned, although to my mind misplaced, because what is a community if not a variety of voices?

Some months ago, the first hints of trouble arose in a vigorous campaign to remove moderation and let discussions roam freely. Jerry, reluctantly, it seemed, acceded, and withdrew from the field of moderation (in fact later told the group he was pleased not to have to do all his time-consuming moderation, so could concentrate on turning the newly revitalised discussions into his Ark Group reports).

Roll forward to last week, when AOK’s current “star” moderator Steven Wieneke from GM withdrew in something of a hissy fit from the discussion he was supposed to be moderating. The insult? He’d been challenged robustly on how KM could be used to improve GM’s business prospects. Not my scope, I expected to be treated with more respect, he replied, packed up his materials and left. Jerry sent a nasty note to the forum scolding the bad manners of the challenger, which Jerry then apologised for. Smart people don’t like being slapped down when they are exercising their intellect and trying to get smarter.

Two sides quickly formed, for and against the matter at issue (polite discourse vs robust debate). As more voices came in, Jerry tried to cap the dissent by muzzling the member who had challenged Steve – a kind of public humiliation immediately visible from the subject lines of that person’s posts. Dave Snowden, one of the original champions of removing moderation and of robust debate, threatened to withdraw, and to explain his reasons to the membership. Jerry acted pre-emptively: banning Dave before he could address the assembled crowds.

I have left the group explaining my reason, amplified here, and have applied my newly released attention space to another new group. Hope springs eternal. I know some others have done the same. There will be plenty of people left in the AOK Forum, those for whom self-management by the community, vigorous probing and challenges are not especially important. I hope that enough folks of good sense remain to avoid it becoming the platitudinous echo chamber and mutual admiration society it threatens to become.

Of course, the good old days of being able to shut down unwanted dissent by banning somebody have long gone. The internet is leaky. Dave Snowden has blogged (brilliantly), AOK members have posted a link to his post, and pretty much anyone who wants to can find his arguments at the click of a mouse. The KM space is also richer, with other forums exercising less proprietary behaviours and somehow managing, bless them, to solve their interpersonal difficulties as mature communities can. It’s a great shame that Jerry cannot release control over something that he evidently holds dear, because he runs the risk of cuddling this child so tightly he’ll suffocate (or drive out) new ideas and enforce conformity. Dissent and the ability to manage it collectively is essential to mature communities and to the exchange of knowledge.

9 Comments so far

Dave Snowden

Thanks Patrick - latest episode in the saga is here

Posted on June 25, 2007 at 02:49 PM | Comment permalink

Nancy White

Hi Patrick and Dave (Dave, I have a half edited comment for your blog post),

Long comment warning… sorry

I suspect the discussion we *aren’t* having is what we mean by collectively managing, and how we share, or do not share, the experience of productive dissent. Alice M mentioned this on the AOK list - something about our ability to attend to the community aspect of our community, not just the domain (I thought her comment was brilliant and I hope it is OK mentioning it here out in the wild!)

For me collectively having productive dissent means caring not just about ideas, but about people, including their feelings. (Yes, I recently wrote about love and communities on my blog, so you can see where I’m coming from! )

I recognize that this focus on caring about people as well as content is my style and preference, and not everyone’s. But it may be worth examining the distinction between caring for our intellectual domain - in this case KM - and caring for each other.

I think groups find it difficult (painful, boring, etc.) to discuss their social practices. Maybe it is because practice in a group has some level of negotiation. I may have to give up something to gain something else. Or I have to convince you to do otherwise. Power via control! This invariably hits upon style as well. The dynamic duo: power and style! I believe we naturally prefer styles closer to our own. What is “right and acceptable” for one may not be for another and poof, we’re all off in a huff.

In a blog, it is easier to ignore these practices of group interaction. In many ways, that is for the good. I think blogs really do facilitate the free flow of ideas. I’m not sure how good they are at helping us learn to live with each other, particularly in finding ways to productively work with dissent. We route the network around the node of dissent. As blog owners, we have what we feel is the last word - which is of course a complete delusion, but it feels good, no? Even if we leave the comments of our critics in tact, our choice to respond or not to them gives us control in some small measure. They may go and blog about us till they are blue in the face, but it is not on OUR blog. wink

However, I don’t believe that honoring the value of blogs and networked ways of interacting means rejecting groups nor rejecting learning how to have productive practices in groups. They are good for different things. The question is, do we have the time, attention and interest in figuring it out for our online groups? When is it worth it?

Perhaps there are a number of issues to tease out:

1. Is this about Jerry’s control, and/or how each member of a group decides just how much control they want to exercise and how much they want to give up. Our control is about our decisions to join, participate, stay or leave. To want or not want moderation. To ignore posts that annoy us or to respond passionately (or dispassionately? grin ) (Again, remember, we have control in our blogs – is that comparable or not to Jerry’s wish to control in some measure his group? What is same? Different? Worth exploring?)

I exercise my control by rarely posting on AOK. I am relationship centric in my habits, not content centric. I agreed with the critique on the list of the “star” (I have to say, I hate that name) but I had trouble with how it was done.

I stay one step removed because I can’t parry and thrust like many of the more vocal members; I recognize my thin skin, nor do I enjoy the style. I also work intuitively, so that often means I need to think out loud, sound and act incoherent and *then* get it figured out. In other words, I often look stupid! This sort of stupidity is attacked on the list as evidence of not being able to put forth a good argument. I can be pretty crappy at putting forth a good argument. Interestingly, I don’t find myself attacked for such behavior on my blog. Ha! So I read the list, glean what I can and save my participation for other places. I engage with members one-on-one where I can create a bit of a more comfortable space for myself. And I learn a lot in both ways, so it is productive lurking.

2. Would AoK be a more productive forum if it were a blog (s), with comments and perhaps benefit from more openness? (I think the business value for Jerry could still be created, btw. Jerry, are you reading? If you want to talk, give me a jingle.) In other words, would an environment where it is easier to route around the friction actually help us be more open about working WITH the friction? (an interesting experiment, eh?) Is it the very walls that cripple our behaviors?

3. Do we know how to get to the stage of mature communities online? You write: “Dissent and the ability to manage it collectively is essential to mature communities and to the exchange of knowledge.” Do we have the desire to get there? What would it look like? Would we share a vision of what it would look like?

Alas, I don’t know very many mature online communities… wink wink. Because people don’t stick it out to really get there in most cases. I see it offline - for sure. But much, much less online. Even in our online groups we often route away from conflict, leaving those (few?) who will always dig right in, create scenarios that we see over and over again, and have situation like we have now on AoK. Yet, when we do figure it out, the community either ends, or emerges stronger. Now that is a place I like to be – at the stronger end of things.

It is never as simple as it looks. But I do think it has something to do with love.

Here’s hoping I don’t regret wading into the fray....


Posted on June 26, 2007 at 09:38 AM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Hi Nancy, thank you for this very full and thoughtful set of comments. I guess my perceptions of maturity in the online community, which involves learning how to get better at managing dissent and conflict, are conditioned by my experience on actKM, which has survived several bumpy periods with a much lighter moderation touch, and where seemingly irreconcilable parties have continued sharing the discussion space and even - over time - found themselves less far apart from each other than they originally supposed.

Conflict and dissent online are very tricky because we’re in stripped down text mode - the full range of human conflict handling affordances are not there and all the emotional content of what we’re thinking and feeling is channeled through clumsy sentences.

Text makes our conflicts more primitive and very human - when I analysed one particular conflict on actKM for example there was a clear gender difference in the participation activity - testosterone in the fray, oestrogen in the social reflection on what was going on.

And actKM does seem to have got into a cycle of becoming more reflective on the participation styles and the relationships aspects, whenever there’s a period of over-aggressive behaviour (I liked your referenceto Alice’s observation). It also seems to me that actKM (which is by no means a “perfect” community) is getting better at handling conflicts as a coherent social entity. For example, I have noticed that when there’s an extended period of dominant alpha male behaviour engaging in tit for tat behaviour, lurkers emerge from the woodwork and start civil side conversations, as if to model to themselves what they would like to see happening. I’m sure this is not conscious or planned.

But this can only happen where a community is free to respond in more than just the ways you listed - ie what happens to the community is completely a function of how the community responds, not dominated by how a single individual responds. Of course we have the power of the law of two feet, to stay or go, to participate or not participate, but this is a very primitive set of choice-options. I for one much prefer more sophisticated and varied choices, and more constructive options.

Conflict, when it flares, excites the power instinct in all of us. Suppressing conflict via power-relations as in a moderator’s unilateral decision, doesn’t suppress conflict at all, it amplifies the negativity, partly because it restricts the channels through which it can flow.

And it disenfranchises the group from learning how to live together - as families do, likes, dislikes, foibles and all. Dave’s schoolmaster parody in his blog post on the banning is exactly right. The instinct to suppress and dominate is completey understandable but a very parent-child one, and my choice was that I have better and more constructive places to spend my attention and time, where I can be confident of being treated like an adult, where I do have a chance to play a role, and my participation is not at the whim of someone else.

I realise I haven;t answered all your questions, but it should be clear at least that avoiding conflicts in my book is not the most constructive way to go, partly because it simply defers the maturity-process, and partly because big differences in belief and conviction are extraordinarily strong signals of learning opportunities.

Posted on June 26, 2007 at 10:11 AM | Comment permalink

Actually Nancy I think this misses the point completely.  There is a legitimate debate, which takes place on all listserv’s as to the balance between criticism and relationship building (I don;t think its content).  That debate will take place elsewhere.

The issue in AOK is the arbitary censorship of one member, and the subsequent explusion of another (me) for challenging the right of one person, wihtout consultation with the group or any justification other than their own feeling, to carry out that censorship..  If you check the material (especially the comments between myself and David Hawthorn here, you will see that Jerry rejected any cooling off process or discussion.

Posted on June 26, 2007 at 11:53 AM | Comment permalink

Nancy White

Patrick, thanks for the very specific and useful example of ActKM. It reminds me how sorry I am that there are not enough hours in the day to participate in it. Sigh.

I agree that conflict avoidance as the sole strategy is a dead end for a community with any hope of a forward moving trajectory. I’m interested in the options. I’m very interested in hearing more from this graf where you wrote:

“But this can only happen where a community is free to respond in more than just the ways you listed - ie what happens to the community is completely a function of how the community responds, not dominated by how a single individual responds. Of course we have the power of the law of two feet, to stay or go, to participate or not participate, but this is a very primitive set of choice-options. I for one much prefer more sophisticated and varied choices, and more constructive options.”

Can we talk about the other options? (I would guess that these are ways of participating vs the yes/no simplification I posted).

I think this might be a productive path. The thing I’d really like to learn more about is that line between the moment when a few individuals dominate in the process and when it becomes more of a community act. Again, your ActKM examples, I think, lead us in that direction.


Dave, I’m not sure I’m tracking what part of my ramble you are referring to that misses the point. Can you be a bit more specific? (My confusion could be chalked up to a long day and insufficient chocolate, but I’m not following)

Where will the debate take place? Interesting word choice. Is it always a debate? (Again, this is my style showing up but I can’t resist.)

Posted on June 26, 2007 at 12:29 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Other options:

Having an open discussion about what’s going on, allowing people to state their views about style and substance (it was starting to happen before Jerry decided to take charge); starting other conversations to take the spotlight off the sparring parties; making contributions to broaden, introduce different (non-binary) perspectives, or take the heat out of the conflict; engaging in back channel mediation; suggesting that heated parties retire for a while and cool off before getting down to the core of the difference; discuss etiquette and expectations. Lots of options.

The decision to publicly impose selective moderation and banning effectively reduces those varied options to “play according to my current view of what’s right or risk censorship/banning” or “stay quiet” or “get out”.

Posted on June 26, 2007 at 12:37 PM | Comment permalink

and I haven’t had my first coffee yet ....

I think there are two issues here.

Firstly - has Jerry the moral right (legal is another issue) to remove people from a group, or selectively censor them simply on the basis of his own opinion, and to do so without any support from the group, or dialogue with it.

Secondly issues (I will avoid debate) over whether criticism is legitimate.

In respect of the first, while Jerry started AOK several years ago all of the participants have invested in its growth.  In this respect I think he is morally wrong (aside from my general opposition to censorship)

In respect of the second, I specifically proposed to Jerry that some “stars” be designated as criticism free to accomodate the different styles.  However he was so exercised by the need to take control/exert power he completely ignored that suggestion.  If you check the reference I gave you will see he moved in a classic exercise of power.  I am in charge, this is MY group etc. 

Also in respect of the second - traditional debates managed this well.  THe main protagonists presented ideas and summed up, but inbetween times the floor exchanged, and learnt.  I have long argued that a similar strucuture should be adopted in on line communities.

Posted on June 26, 2007 at 12:42 PM | Comment permalink

Nancy White

Ah, here at the end of the day, my eyes are falling closed. But thank you to you both. The specificity is very helpful. Especially BEFORE the first cup of coffee!

Dave, I really liked your suggestion for optional ways of styling the “star” (still hate that word) guests. It would have been a really useful experiment to compare and contrast the level of learning for different people. (My bias is for learning something).

I’m resisting suggestions of reconciliation between you and Jerry, but it is on my mind - I confess. Even using your idea as an experiment. But I won’t be maternalistic and meddle there! wink

Your description of debate is interesting. Gotta chew on that. I may have some limited models and need to expand.

Patrick, your options suit me - in fact they describe an ideal. They also take a significant committment of people to make them happen. I see them show up in communities with pretty high levels of commitment (time/attention). What do you do to encourage those behaviors in your groups and communities?

I find it easier in smaller groups (i.e 20 or less) and find it increasingly difficult in the 20-150, and then it gets easier because it seems people in large communities exercise more personal filtering of stuff they don’t like/care about. When things get “network like” the dynamic of relationship shows up much more lightly too. (The blog effect I mentioned above.)

Now I can let all of this percolate in my sleep and see if I have anything constructive to add tomorrow.

Thanks again and good night (because this feels almost real time)

Posted on June 26, 2007 at 01:06 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

I don’t “lead” or facilitate any online communities, I’m just a variously active citizen in a few. So any encouragement I can give is by choosing how I exercise my options and taking some responsibiity for the quality of the discussion myself. I think you’re right that things get a little easier in the larger scale communities, perhaps also because there are more opportunities for diverse inputs.

Sleep well!

Posted on June 26, 2007 at 01:13 PM | Comment permalink

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