Saturday, 24 August 2013

ETC: Cliques Are Inevitable

Even though I'm going for another three parter here as summer winds down, you don't need to have read the first part, "We Fear Fame", in order to follow along. It's only referenced in passing.

Here's my second point: Cliques are Inevitable.

Note that by cliques, I'm referring to groups of like-minded people... except I chose the term "clique" deliberately, because such groups are not necessarily a good thing. Because I'm talking about groups with an agenda, or ones that appear closed to outside opinions. APPEAR. It might be deliberate, or it might be a necessity due to sheer size, or other related concerns. (Looking a bit at you there, MTBoS.)

If you can immediately identify this episode, you win.

I'll first explain why the groups are inevitable, then delve into why I'm calling them cliques.


Groups exist because as individuals, it's dangerous to stick your neck out. If you don't buy that, here's where I'll tag you at my We Fear Fame post from the other day. Again, I'm not saying we don't WANT to be noticed and appreciated (we do!), I'm saying it invites public criticism and other responsibilities when we do it all on our own.

Groups provide the necessary buffer. *I* didn't mess up, we ALL did. Alternatively, if I *did* mess up, the group can reassure me and help me to restore my confidence, so that we can all move forwards. (Assuming I haven't been a total jerk to them, at any rate.) Similarly, if the group succeeds, we all get to benefit from it, and the media can't turn that dreaded spotlight on only me. Heck, there may not even be a group spokesperson to single out.

"They can't ignore ALL of us... can they?"
Groups provide more than just a buffer or a sanity check though. I'll claim they're more likely to shake up the status quo in the first place. That one guy shouting on the steps of city hall, he looks a bit like a lunatic. That group of people, that's a media story. You write a letter of complaint to a company, or to the government, and they don't care. You post it to a message board with a decent following, and now they'll pay attention. Even superhero movies seem to be going for the "team up" angle of late.

One more benefit is that, unless there's a spokesperson, the outside negativity doesn't have a target any more. Politics in particular has become all about striking down the leader... at which point someone new gets appointed, and there's a new target, repeat ad nauseam. But if this is a fairly homogenous group, who can the opposition aim for? They'll HAVE to attack what the group STANDS for, and THAT'S a lot more difficult. Unless the group can be ignored (tricky), or - and here's what I think is becoming the norm - you are able to create your own group of like minded people to oppose them.

And now we're starting to run into problems.


I cry "clique!" because the group, after it's formed, will start to close itself off. In some cases, it's paranoid suspicion. Is this new guy someone from THAT OTHER GROUP trying to infiltrate? (Quick, take out a patent!) But really, it's more than that. It's an insidious effect called the "Ingroup bias". This results because oxytocin, a neurotransmitter, simultaneously helps us to forge tighter bonds with those we know, while making us fearful of those we do not yet know. Put another way "people tend to be more helpful to members of their own group, rather than to those of other groups".

That's a direct quote from this site: "Evolution of in-group favoritism", which has a lot of analysis that I admit I haven't fully read. I first came across the phenomenon in this io9 article listing reasons why humans fail to be rational. At the least, I'm thinking teachers might want to be aware of this phenomenon, if they're the type to use the same groups all semester long.

Printed in DC Comics. For the
hundredth time, what the hell, DC?!
I feel bad just having it here!
Now, I'm not saying new members CAN'T join the group. I'm saying it's almost like they have to PROVE themselves first, even though the group itself has no hierarchy. Oh, hello "geek girl phenomenon", this is partly why you exist! Because some short sighted individuals decided to actually illustrate the ingroup bias, after which their "Yeah, girls can't be geeks" implication was taken up by idiots. (Yes, I know the issue is bigger than one event. But seriously, how can people - male or female - still be arguing whether it's even a problem? It's a problem.)

Intermission. Go watch the Doubleclicks video "Nothing to Prove", and resolve to be more inclusive. Pretend for a moment like it's just that easy.

Okay, back to reality, where regrettably, there's other forces at work as well. Groups are empowering, and when people feel powerful, they ignore new opinions. Or perhaps worse, the individuals may NOT ignore the new ideas, merely undervalue the supposed outsiders to the extent of making microaggressions ('You don't look like a...'). Which, to be clear, is NOT an attack. Coming out of the "Fake Geek Girl" phenomenon again, "The person delivering [the remark] may be well-intentioned and non-threatening in nature, maybe not even aware of their own biases."

I dare say the problem is our own brains trying to sabotage us, to force us back into tribes. But hey, now that we know, awareness will help, right? We can eventually correct the problem and be less exclusive? Well, as The Doctor might say... "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."


"Hey internet! Stop talking all at once!"
How many people can you cram into a room before it becomes unwieldily? How long before "too many cooks spoil the broth"? 10? 20? 100? At what point does a peaceful demonstration get hijacked, becoming a mob? At what point does the outsider CALL it that, regardless of internal appearances?

I'm going to use Twitter as a concrete example here. What do you think is your max-out point, in terms of the number of people you would be able to follow? I've heard prior rumblings within the "Math Twitter Blog O' Sphere" (MTBoS) that it's 100. For me, it turned out to be 280. It became harder and harder for me to justify adding a new person, given I had gone from reading every tweet to scanning every tweet to scanning every tweet that stayed in my buffer. Is it really beneficial to add one more voice, no matter how brilliant, when it's just making the others that much harder to see?

Once I hit 280, for every person I added, I began to remove someone else. The first few choices were easy. It's getting harder. It doesn't help that I don't only follow teachers, but also friends and writers. In fact, I fear the 280 itself is not sustainable once I go back to school. I'm reminded of Fawn Nguyen, who at "Twitter Math Camp" spoke about keeping her top 5 lesson ideas for a topic - and if something new and great comes in, it replaces an older one. Replaces. Still 5. Otherwise you go nuts. NOTE: If you're following over 300 people, I'd love to hear about your system in the comments!!

Twitter is additionally insidious in that, if you add a new person, you're not just adding their tweets. You're adding all the @ conversations your current followers have with them. Going beyond Twitter, I'll make a similar argument for joining a "Play by Email" (PBEM) roleplay group. You don't just get roleplay email. There's discussion about times people are away, character motivations, and other relevant "off topic" discussions.

I ask again: At what point do you have to cut yourself off just to stay sane? 100 people? 280? 500? 5,000? You can't include EVERYONE which means there ARE people you're excluding. The thing is, to those people, you now look like you're part of a clique. Someone in the "100 followers" group tweets, "Wow, so many posts in my reader! How am I going to catch up??"... and you feel a type of microinvalidation. Since if they're busy with all their internal reader posts, they're not going to have time to read what you just put up externally.

It's not about having to PROVE yourself. It never was ("Nothing To Prove")... it's about getting ACKNOWLEDGED. There's a huge chasm between acceptance, and actual acknowledgement. I wonder if minority groups know it all too well. The thing is, acknowledgement can't come from any one person, because it's a homogeneous group. So if it only comes from one or two people, is that enough?

Here's the kicker - the natural way for a group to include tons of additional people in their fandom/committee/community, without overwhelming the existing structure is (correct me if I'm wrong), to create offshoots/subcommittees/subcultures. But that means you have to acknowledge at least one of:
1) A hierarchy with some set of people at the top (granted the Head Geek may change over time) OR 
2) The fracturing of the initial set into equal subgroups. Creating cliques. Or at the very least, creating something that will be SEEN as cliques, whether that was the intent or not.

You can always shift into reverse.


Summing up! We don't want to be singled out, because notoriety is a problem. But we do want to be recognized. So in a world where STATUS QUO is God, we seek validation by becoming part of a group. However, groups that already exist are suspicious of us, or appear to be cliques. This means we either have to work at making inroads, or have to work at creating our own group (perhaps to fight against, or alongside, those cliques). Is there no other option?

There will be a third post. In the meantime, I invite your comments.


  1. One good thing about the MTBoS and all its self cheerleading and dissemination of information is that I found your blog. Thanks for posts that make me think.


    1. Thanks for commenting! Glad you found it worthy of thought. Not trying to criticize the MTBoS either, very good at what it does... yet perhaps it needs more self awareness.

  2. I'm slowly reaching 500 follows on Twitter. I do take into consideration volume of tweets before following; too many tweets means I'll be swamped. I tend to filter by general class of the Tweeter - celebrities get scanned at and skimmed; authors get read, friends are interacted with. If my feed explodes, I try to find out why. Causes in the past have included elections, conventions, and Sharknado.

    I think the "tall poppy syndrome" may be in play, both here and your previous post. The person who sticks his head up attracts attention, like the poppy that pokes up above the grass. But, if the poppies all grow at the same rate, none are singled out. (The metaphor is wonky.) And there's some psychology involved - pain shared is pain lessened. The group allows the individual to dissociate from bad news.

    At some point, though, someone needs to step up. Groups can work together, but a group can make a major mistake just as easily as an individual, and the dynamics of the group could very prevent the mistake from being avoided.

    1. I'm impressed. Volume is a consideration of mine, but (since I probably tweet too much myself) I also cave to sheer awesomeness. When you say you "filter", has that become a mental thing, or do you use lists?

      I got a response from someone who's successfully using lists as a management tool. You seem to need an app to do it though, otherwise you don't see ReTweets (which seems to make them simultaneously more manageable and less useful). I haven't had the patience to sit down and muddle through lists yet, though I've signed up for HootSuite.

      Interesting how you can track major events that way. It does sound like the syndrome relates to this, I hadn't heard of it before. As to the last point, if by "prevent a mistake from being avoided" you mean it's inevitable, I think that's my main concern. How do we find the balance between no management and overmanagement? (It's probably in different places for individuals!)

    2. The filtering is mental, usually by checking name then hashtags. When something gets weird, like last night's Video Music Awards, and things are tagged, it gets easier to skim. But I tend to use volume as a pre-follow filter; too many, tweets, even if useful, and I hesitate to follow.

      I don't want to deal with yet another app to manage something; too many programs make it difficult to actually do anything, at least for me. I have limited RAM.

      I wouldn't call Sharknado a major event, but it's a way to see that something's going to hit the news somehow. Back when I worked as Sympatico, I knew when an outage occurred long before the official word trickled down to the people fielding the calls from customers asking about an outage, simply through an increased number of calls from a location; normally, the calls were spread out through Ontario and Quebec, with more calls from cities because of their larger populations. When an outage happens, everyone in the area calls in and our queue explodes. Same thing works for me in Twitter; my follows are diverse enough that if I see something the same hashtag from a number of people, I know something is up. Typically, awards shows, playoff games, and major news events, but sometimes a Sharknado gets in there. (This weekend, Ben Affleck followed by Miley Cyrus caused waves.)

      With preventing mistakes, if a group comes to a consensus that is wrong, it takes more effort to change the group's mind that an individual's. "Someone else" in the group could have done something to stop it, but everyone is in agreement. good question about balance. I think you need a pessimist, a rules lawyer, or a skeptic in the group to toss in the speed bumps, just to cover all bases. (I think so, too, but I don't know where.)