(The lack of) person to person storytelling

The world is a mess, and we want to work together to make it better. We can probably all agree on that much. But we need to come up with a plan we can agree on, and that plan will depend on what kind of a world we think we live in.

We live in a globally connected world, and are accustomed to getting both products and information from all over the globe. However the exchanges of products and information are not peer-to-peer exchanges from one normal person to another normal person, they are controlled by the powerful elites who run corporations and government.

We still get most of our information from media outlets run by corporations, and this information is necessarily coming from a very narrow viewpoint. We get the picture of the world that corporations want us to see.

Furthermore, while direct peer-to-peer communication, such as tweets, Facebook statuses, blog posts, etc, are becoming more important in our lives, these usually happen in a bubble: we see posts and tweets from friends and friends-of-friends and people whose opinions we find interesting, but we don’t communicate with people who are very different from ourselves. That means that everything we know about people who we haven’t met in our own lives comes from the corporate-controlled traditional media.

What all this amounts to is that we know a lot less about the world than we think we do, and our world-views are a lot less universal than we think they are.

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Collective intelligence, leadership, and dynamics of non-hierarchical groups

Leaders and followers

I’m going to suggest that in our society, whenever two or more people work together, each person takes the role of either leader or follower. (This is a gross over-simplification, but I believe it’s a useful one.) This is not intrinsic ‘human nature’, but a consequence of growing up in our particular society.

Leaders: Decide how the group’s chosen task will be done, delegate sub-tasks, and feel responsible for making sure the task as a whole is successful. They may feel stressed-out and over-worked (especially in voluntary groups). They likely feel personally invested in the task: if it goes well they will feel justifiably proud, while if it goes badly they will feel bad about themselves. If they or the project are criticised they are likely to feel angry and hurt, even if the criticism is gentle and well-intentioned.

Followers: Help complete the task as instructed by the leader. They probably won’t speak up if they think the task is not being done in the best way possible. They don’t feel responsible for the outcome of the task, but they want it to go well. If they dislike the leader’s decisions they will likely resent the leader silently or complain about the leader when they are not around.

In most situations in our lives these leader-follower roles are overt and official: for instance, parent-child, teacher-student, employer-employee, politician-citizen.

As Jo Freeman pointed out in the famous pamphlet The Tyranny of Structurelessness, feminist groups are often officially non-hierarchical, yet unofficially people still fall into the leader-follower pattern.

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The best free mailing list: Nabble

In my experience, most campaigning/activist groups don’t pay a lot of attention to the quality of their online communication tools. Virtually all the groups I’ve been involved with used mailing lists as the main way of communicating online: either Yahoo Groups or something similar, or an activist email provider such as Riseup. Riseup is very good on security, but there isn’t much focus on useability.

Email discussions, involving a group of people talking about subjects they feel passionate about, can be incredibly frustrating. There can be misunderstandings, people sometimes respond too quickly and thoughtlessly, sometimes angry words fly back and forth. I’ve found this often leads people to say ‘online communication doesn’t work, we just have to meet face to face’. However the reality is that there is a limit to how often groups can meet in person, and some communication will take place on the mailing list.

All of this has been a long and rambling build-up to the point that it makes a difference what kind of mailing list you use, and it’s worth spending some time looking at what’s available and choosing the best one. Except you don’t have to because I’ve done it for you 🙂

The best kind of mailing list is Nabble.

– You get very fine-grained control over who can read, post, add or remove users, etc.

– When you create a mailing list you also automatically get a forum, where emails to the list automatically go to the forum and vice versa. The forum is brilliant for more involved discussions – rather than clicking from one email to another you can see the whole conversation at once.

– People can choose to receive all the emails, or a daily or weekly digest. This is great for busy times when there might be ten or twenty emails per day, and some group members might be feeling annoyed or put-off at having such a full in-box.

– The forum website has a clear, uncluttered layout.

– Nabble doesn’t do anything sleazy, like adding your information to a gravatar profile without telling you, or trying to get you to sign in with your Facebook account. There aren’t a billion social networking icons on the website, and unlike Google or Yahoo they don’t automatically sign you up for “a range of products and services”. They show ads, which you can pay to get rid of, and that’s it.

Do you disagree, or have something to add? Have you also searched for a discussion-friendly mailing list? The comment form beckons.

A post-script on the (lack of) security of activist mailing lists:
Riseup does everything they can for security: only allow HTTPS connections, store the minimum possible amount of data, encrypt their data, and, unlike pretty much any commercial ISP, won’t give up a user’s data just because the police and/or a corporate lawyer asked them to nicely. Despite all this, for many reasons, these lists can’t really be considered secure – an easy example is that you send an email to a Riseup list, your friend replies to it from her Gmail account, quoting the original message and your email address – all of which is now stored on Google’s servers.