Norms of Membership for Voluntary Groups

Epistemic Sta­tus: Idea Generation

One fea­ture of the in­ter­net that we haven’t fully adapted to yet is that it’s triv­ial to cre­ate vol­un­tary groups for dis­cus­sion. It’s as easy as mak­ing a mailing list, group chat, Face­book group, Dis­cord server, Slack chan­nel, etc.

What we don’t seem to have is a good prac­ti­cal lan­guage for talk­ing about norms on these mini-groups — what kind of mod­er­a­tion do we use, how do we ad­mit and ex­pel mem­bers, what kinds of gov­er­nance struc­tures do we cre­ate.

Maybe this is a minor thing to talk about, but I sus­pect it has broader im­pact. In past decades vol­un­tary mem­ber­ship in or­ga­ni­za­tions has de­clined in the US — we’re less likely to be mem­bers of the Elks or of churches or bowl­ing leagues — so lots of peo­ple who don’t have any ex­pe­rience in found­ing or par­ti­ci­pat­ing in tra­di­tional types of vol­un­tary or­ga­ni­za­tions are now find­ing them­selves en­gaged in gov­er­nance with­out even know­ing that’s what they’re do­ing.

When we do this badly, we get “in­ter­net drama.” When we do it re­ally badly, we get ha­rass­ment cam­paigns and calls for reg­u­la­tion/​mod­er­a­tion at the cor­po­rate or even gov­ern­men­tal level. And that makes the news. It’s not in­con­ceiv­able that Twit­ter mod­er­a­tion norms af­fect in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions, for in­stance.

It’s a tra­di­tional ob­ser­va­tion about 19th cen­tury Amer­ica that Amer­i­cans were ea­ger join­ers of vol­un­tary groups, and that these groups were prac­tice for demo­cratic par­ti­ci­pa­tion. Poli­ti­cal wonks to­day lament the lack of civic par­ti­ci­pa­tion and loss of trust in our na­tional and demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions. Now, maybe you’ve moved on; maybe you’re a crea­ture of the 21st cen­tury and you’re not hop­ing to re­store trust in the in­sti­tu­tions of the 20th. But what will be the in­sti­tu­tions of the fu­ture? That may well be af­fected by what for­mats and frames for group mem­ber­ship peo­ple are used to at the small scale.

It’s also rele­vant for the fu­ture of free­dom. It’s start­ing to be a com­mon claim that “give peo­ple ab­solute ‘free speech’ and the re­sults are awful; there­fore we need reg­u­la­tion/​gov­er­nance at the cor­po­rate or na­tional level.” If you’re not satis­fied with that solu­tion (as I’m not), you have work to do — there are a lot of ques­tions to un­pack like “what kind of ‘free­dom’, with what im­ple­men­ta­tional de­tails, is the valuable kind?”, “if small-scale vol­un­tary or­ga­ni­za­tions can han­dle some of the func­tions of the state, how ex­actly will they work?”, “how does one pre­vent the out­comes that peo­ple con­sider so awful that they want large in­sti­tu­tions to step in to gov­ern smaller groups?”

Think­ing about, and work­ing on, gov­er­nance for vol­un­tary or­ga­ni­za­tions (and micro-or­ga­ni­za­tions like on­line dis­cus­sion groups) is a lab­o­ra­tory for figur­ing this stuff out in real time, with fairly low re­source in­vest­ment and risk. That’s why I find this stuff fas­ci­nat­ing and wish more peo­ple did.

The other place to start, of course, is his­tory, which I’m not very knowl­edge­able about, but in­tend to learn a bit. David Fried­man is the his­to­rian I’m fa­mil­iar with who’s stud­ied his­tor­i­cal gov­er­nance and le­gal sys­tems with an eye to po­ten­tial ap­pli­ca­bil­ity to build­ing vol­un­tary gov­er­nance sys­tems to­day; I’m in­ter­ested in hear­ing about oth­ers. (Com­menters?)

In the mean­time, I want to start gen­er­at­ing a (non-ex­haus­tive list) of types of norms for group mem­ber­ship, to illus­trate the di­ver­sity of how groups work and what forms “ex­pec­ta­tions for mem­bers” can take.

We found or­ga­ni­za­tions based on for­mats and norms that we’ve seen be­fore. It’s use­ful to have an idea of the range of for­mats that we might en­counter, so we don’t get an­chored on the first for­mat that comes to mind. It’s also good to have a vo­cab­u­lary so we can have higher-qual­ity dis­agree­ments about the pur­pose & na­ture of the groups we be­long to; of­ten dis­agree­ments seem to be about policy de­tails but are re­ally about the over­all type of what we want the group to be.

Civic/​Public Norms

  • Roughly ev­ery­body is wel­come to join, and free to do as they like in the space, so long as they obey a fairly min­i­mal­ist set of ground rules & be­hav­ioral ex­pec­ta­tions that ap­ply to ev­ery­one.

  • We ex­pect it to be easy for most peo­ple to fol­low the ground rules; you have to be de­viant (re­ally un­usu­ally an­ti­so­cial) to do some­thing egre­gious enough to get you kicked out or pe­nal­ized.

  • If you dis­like some­one’s be­hav­ior but it isn’t against the ground rules, you can grum­ble a bit about it, but you’re ex­pected to tol­er­ate it. You’ll have to ad­mit things like “well, he has a right to do that.”

  • Penalties are ex­pected to be pre­dictable, en­forced the same way to­wards all peo­ple, and “im­par­tial” (not based on per­sonal re­la­tion­ships). If penalties are en­forced un­fairly, you’re not ex­pected to tol­er­ate it — you can ques­tion why you’re be­ing pe­nal­ized, and kick up a pub­lic stink, and it’s even praise­wor­thy to do so.

  • Ex­am­ples: “rule of law”, pub­lic parks and libraries, stores and coffeeshops open to the pub­lic, town hall meetings

Guest Norms

  • The host can in­vite, or not in­vite, any­one she chooses, based on her prefer­ence. She doesn’t have to jus­tify her prefer­ences to any­one. No­body is en­ti­tled to an in­vi­ta­tion, and it’s very rude to com­plain about not be­ing in­vited.

  • Guests can also choose to at­tend or not at­tend, based on their prefer­ences, and they don’t have to jus­tify their prefer­ences to any­one ei­ther; it’s rude to com­plain or ask for jus­tifi­ca­tion when some­one de­clines an in­vi­ta­tion.

  • Per­sonal re­la­tion­ships and sub­jec­tive feel­ings, in par­tic­u­lar, are to­tally le­gi­t­i­mate rea­sons to in­clude or ex­clude some­one.

  • The at­mo­sphere within the group is ex­pected to be pleas­ant for ev­ery­one. If you don’t want to be asked to leave, you shouldn’t do things that will pre­dictably bother peo­ple.

  • Hosts are ex­pected to be kind and gen­er­ous to guests; guests are ex­pected to be kind and gen­er­ous to the host and each other; the host is re­spon­si­ble for en­forc­ing bound­aries.

  • Crit­i­ciz­ing other peo­ple at the gath­er­ing it­self is taboo. You’re ex­pected to do your crit­i­cal/​judg­men­tal prun­ing out­side the gath­er­ing, by de­cid­ing whom you will in­vite or whether you’ll at­tend.

  • We don’t ex­pect that ev­ery­one will be in­vited to be a guest at ev­ery gath­er­ing, or that ev­ery­one will at­tend ev­ery­thing they’re in­vited to. It can be pres­ti­gious to be in­vited to some gath­er­ings, and em­bar­rass­ing to be asked to leave or passed over when you ex­pected an in­vi­ta­tion, but it’s nor­mal to just not be in­vited to some things.

  • Ex­am­ples: pri­vate par­ties, in­vi­ta­tion-only events, con­sent ethics for sex

Kaizen Norms

  • Mem­bers of the group are ex­pected to be com­mit­ted to an ideal of some kind of ex­cel­lence and to con­tinu­ally strive to reach it.

  • Feed­back or cri­tique on peo­ple’s perfor­mance is con­tin­u­ous, nor­mal, and not con­sid­ered in­her­ently rude. It’s con­sid­ered praise­wor­thy to give high-qual­ity feed­back and to ac­cept feed­back will­ingly.

  • Kaizen groups may have very spe­cific norms about the style or for­mat of cri­tique/​feed­back that’s wel­come, and it may well be con­sid­ered rude to give feed­back in the wrong style.

  • Re­ceiv­ing some nega­tive feed­back or penalties is nor­mal and not con­sid­ered a sign of failure or shame. What is shame­ful is re­spond­ing defen­sively to nega­tive feed­back.

  • You can lose mem­ber­ship in the group by get­ting too much nega­tive feed­back (in other words, failing to live up to the min­i­mum stan­dards of the group’s ideal.) It’s not ex­pected to be easy for most peo­ple to meet these stan­dards; they’re challeng­ing by de­sign. The group isn’t ex­pected to be “for ev­ery­one.”

  • The feed­back and in­cen­tive pro­cesses are sup­posed to cor­re­late tightly to the ideal. It’s ac­cept­able and even praise­wor­thy to crit­i­cize those pro­cesses if they re­ward and pun­ish peo­ple for things un­re­lated to the ideal.

  • Con­flict about things un­re­lated to the ideal isn’t taboo, but it’s some­what dis­cour­aged as “off-topic” or a “dis­trac­tion.”

  • Ex­am­ples: com­pet­i­tive/​mer­i­to­cratic school and work en­vi­ron­ments, sports teams, spe­cial­ized re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties (e.g. monas­ter­ies, rab­bini­cal schools)

Coal­i­tion Norms

  • The de­gree to which one is “wel­come” in the coal­i­tion is the de­gree to which one is loyal, i.e. con­tributes re­sources to the coal­i­tion. (Either by com­mit­ting one’s own re­sources or by driv­ing oth­ers to con­tribute their re­sources. The lat­ter tends to be more effi­cient, and hence makes you more “wel­come.”)

  • Mem­ber­ship is a mat­ter of de­gree, not a hard-and-fast bound­ary. The more solidly loyal a mem­ber you are, the more of the coal­i­tion’s re­sources you’re en­ti­tled to. (Yes, this means mem­ber­ship is defined re­cur­sively, like PageRank.)

  • Peo­ple can be pe­nal­ized or ex­pel­led for not con­tribut­ing enough, or for do­ing things that have the effect of pre­vent­ing the coal­i­tion gain­ing re­sources (like mak­ing it harder to re­cruit new mem­bers.)

  • Con­flict, com­plaint, and crit­i­cism over the growth of the coal­i­tion (and whether peo­ple are con­tribut­ing enough, or whether they’re tak­ing more than their fair share) is ac­cept­able and even praise­wor­thy; crit­i­cisms about other things are dis­cour­aged, be­cause they make peo­ple less will­ing to con­tribute re­sources or pres­sure oth­ers to do so.

  • Mem­ber­ship in the coal­i­tion is con­sid­ered praise­wor­thy. Non-mem­ber­ship is con­sid­ered shame­ful.

  • Ex­am­ples: poli­ti­cal coal­i­tions, pros­ely­tiz­ing religions

Tribal Norms

  • Mem­ber­ship in the group is defined by an im­mutable, un­cho­sen char­ac­ter­is­tic, like sex or hered­ity (or, to a lesser ex­tent, ge­o­graphic lo­ca­tion.) It is difficult to join, leave, or be ex­pel­led from the group; you are a mem­ber as a mat­ter of fact, re­gard­less of what you want or how you be­have.

  • It’s not con­sid­ered shame­ful not to be a mem­ber of the group; af­ter all, it isn’t up to you.

  • Since ex­pul­sion is difficult, be­hav­ioral norms for the group are main­tained pri­mar­ily by per­sua­sion/​fram­ing, re­ward, and pun­ish­ment, so these play a larger role than they do in vol­un­tary groups. Im­por­tant norms are framed as com­mand­ments or sim­ply how things are.

  • Ex­am­ples: fam­i­lies, pub­lic schools, gov­ern­ments, tra­di­tional cultures

Some com­par­i­sons-and-con­trasts:

Honor and Shame

Kaizen and Guest group norms say that be­ing a mem­ber of the group is an honor and comes with high ex­pec­ta­tions, but that not be­ing a mem­ber is nor­mal and not es­pe­cially shame­ful.

Civic norms say that be­ing a mem­ber of the group is nor­mal and easy to at­tain, but not be­ing a mem­ber is shame­ful, be­cause it in­di­cates egre­giously bad be­hav­ior.

Coal­i­tion norms say that be­ing a mem­ber is an honor and comes with high ex­pec­ta­tions and that not be­ing a mem­ber is shame­ful. This means that most peo­ple will have some­thing to be ashamed of.

Tribal norms say that be­ing a mem­ber is not an honor (though it may be a priv­ilege), and that not be­ing a mem­ber is no shame.


Civic and Kaizen norms say that it’s okay to protest “un­fair” treat­ment by the gov­ern­ing body. In a Civic con­text, “fair” means “it’s pos­si­ble for ev­ery­one to stay out of trou­ble by fol­low­ing the rules” — it’s okay for rules to be ar­bi­trary, but they should be clear and con­sis­tent and not so oner­ous that most peo­ple can’t fol­low them. In a Kaizen con­text, “fair” means “cor­re­spond­ing to the ideal” — it’s okay to “not do things by the book” if that gets you bet­ter perfor­mance, but it’s not okay if you’re re­ward­ing bad perfor­mance and pun­ish­ing good.

Guest and Coal­i­tion norms say that it’s not okay to protest “un­fair” treat­ment; if you get kicked out, ar­gu­ing can’t help you get back in. Offer­ing the de­ci­sion­mak­ers some­thing they value might work, though.

In Tribal norms, protest and ar­gu­ment can be ei­ther licit or taboo; it de­pends on the spe­cific tribe and its norms.

Ex­am­ples of de­bates that are about what type of group you want to be in:

Ask­ing for “in­clu­sive­ness” is usu­ally a bid to make the group more Civic or Coal­i­tional.

Mak­ing ac­cu­sa­tions of “fa­voritism” is usu­ally a bid to make the group more Civic or Kaizen.

Com­plain­ing about “prob­lem mem­bers” is usu­ally a bid to make the group more Coal­i­tional, Guest, or Kaizen.

Not A Taxonomy

I don’t think these are the defini­tive types of groups. The idea is to illus­trate how you can have differ­ent start­ing as­sump­tions about what kind of thing the group is for. (Is it for achiev­ing a no­ble goal? For pro­vid­ing a pub­lic fo­rum or ser­vice open to all? For meet­ing the needs of its mem­bers?)

I sus­pect these kinds of aims are prior to mechanisms (things like “what is a bannable offense” or “what in­cen­tive sys­tems do we set up”?) Be­fore div­ing into the tech­ni­cal stuff about the rules of the game, you want to ask what kinds of out­comes or group dy­nam­ics you want the “game struc­ture” to achieve.