It’s easy to observe that some voluntary associations of people (clubs, meetups, housing arrangements, churches) survive forever, while others explode or implode either permanently or on a regular basis. But what distinguishes groups of the first type from groups of the second type? I’m chewing on a theory in the back of my mind, while life hums around me and provides handy (and frustrating) examples as grist for the mill.

The essence of the theory is: in order to sustain itself through the years, a group needs at least three things.

  1. Shared ideology: the members must agree on a common purpose, intention, goal, mission, philosophy, or other intangible principle or set of principles. This can be as complex as a set of religious dogmas or as simple as deciding to get together once a month for a rotating dinner party
  2. Sustainable institutions: the processes, procedures, tools, and possessions that are vital to the smooth functioning of the group have to be maintained and held in common; if there’s only one person who knows how to keep the financials in good shape, for instance, and they’re hit by a bus, that’s bad for the organization
  3. Functional rapport: if members get along well enough to work together to carry out the group’s purpose, that’s great; if there are schisms, or cliques, or people hang out so much at meetings that nothing ever gets done, the group might be on the path to no longer functioning.

Of course I’m writing this because I have a handy case study of a group that may be in the process of imploding: a small makerspace in my area.

Shared Ideology

There is a significant disagreement about the purpose and focus of the space. A certain board member believes that the space should be run like a non-profit business, while most of the members I have personally spoken with on the topic believe that the space should continue to be community-focused. There are a few well-defined points of disagreement.

  • There’s a contingent of space members who spend a lot of their time there playing computer games together. This is partly a result of the origins of the space itself, and I believe there has been a strong gamer contingent for the entire lifetime of the space. The schisming board member wishes to eject this subset of the membership.
  • The space has a sizable chunk of the week set aside for open hours, during which the general public can come in and use our tools, provided that they know how to use them. We are able to run public hours because we have some number of members who volunteer to keep the space open. They are mostly gamers. The schisming board member believes that the volunteers aren’t really important, and that we should get rid of them and focus on aggressive marketing instead.
  • There are some computers available for use in the space. The schisming board member has reportedly said that he wants to get rid of the computers — which would, of course, get rid of the gamers.

For a while there was an active power struggle going on between this board member and a particular other board member, which resulted in nothing much getting done for the entire six months they were on the board together. The schisming board member has continued to do very little work related to their actual board duties. This does not endear them to the members I have spoken with, to say the least.

The primary harmful result of this fractured ideology, as far as I can tell, is that people become jaded, fed up, and don’t want to have anything to do with the space any more. Given that the space relies entirely on volunteer work and member enthusiasm, this is definitively harmful and trends toward implosion.

Sustainable Institutions

The space does in fact have bylaws and rules that people do care about and follow. There are also, unfortunately, a few things working against us in this corner. Note that physical things also fall into this category:

  • Although the space just moved locations, the previous location had a shitty landlord who might have been trying to drive us out. The plumbing was terrible, and multiple people quit due to the persistent smell of sewage, about which we could do nothing.
  • The old location was also underground and not accessible to disabled people, which dissuaded some potential members.
  • There is, to the best of my knowledge, one person who knows how the website, the mailing list, and the board-member emails all work, and administrates all of them. I would like to know that if he were hit by a bus tomorrow the space could recover easily in terms of systems administration, but I am not certain of this.

Functional Rapport

The aforementioned pissing contest between two board members did a lot to hurt the space. The feud was complicated by the fact that a certain employee of the schisming board member made life unpleasant in many small ways for many other members, but the schisming board member refused to allow this employee to be banned on the grounds that several of the employee’s vital job tasks could only be performed in the makerspace. The series of incidents damaged a lot of people’s ability to give a shit or willingness to be engaged.

Looking Forward

It is possible that the space can recover from this collection of difficulties. Indeed, I hope it does. There’s a lot that is still good, and some number of people who are more engaged and involved than they were before all this went down. But I think that in order to recover from the low level of member engagement that I observed just a month ago, more people have to step up and put their hands on the wheel — and then agree where to steer. We have been restoring the functionality of our physical institutions by moving to a space that, while underground, has sunlight, and with working plumbing. We need still to resolve the rapport and ideological issues, however we can. If you’ve read this far, you can probably guess what solution I am leaning towards. Since I’m one of the members who’s lost the ability to give a fuck, though, I won’t pretend like I get a say. Here’s hoping it gets interesting again, fast.