Wednesday, April 23, 2003

What are Groups?

For a couple of years, I've been asserting the following statement: "Groups are first-class objects." I suppose that at some point, I should have explained what I mean by that, and listening to Howard "Smart Mobs" Rheingold's keynote seems like a good time.

"First-class object" is computer science techy-speak for an idea or construct that can be directly addressed or manipulated by a program. More formally, first-class objects are those that can occur on the left-hand side of an equals (assignment) statement. Less formally, people use it to mean something of importance, or a central design element of a system. And "group," here, means a group of people.

So when I say that groups are first-class objects, I mean that groups of people have a solid reality to them just as equivalent to individual people. Some scientists actually imply that groups have more reality than individuals. Certainly, groups have more reality than many of the formal, legal entities that recognize or define a large number of people, such as corporations or countries.

To expand on that, I argue that our abstractions and legal code work at the wrong level. Right now, our laws, our social networks, our vocabulary work at two levels: individuals and large, formal organziations. But the real action, the real activity, the place where the real work happens, is at some harder-to-define-but-I-know-it-when-I-see-it intermediate level of a group of people.

So what is that group? It can't just be a random selection of people, and it can't just be what people call "social networks" of people-who-know-other-people.

I think (but I'm not sure) that a useful idea here is what graph theorists call a clique, which is the maximal set of nodes that are all connected. So in a clique of friends, every friend knows every other friend. Some other person that might be known to only one member of that clique, or even most members, isn't a member. Of course, cliques have a built-in, if soft, size limit.

Social group psychology tells us that those cliques will tend to amplify and reinforce opinion and standards of action, although of course this will happen different in different cultures.