Communities of practice

I’m hard at work on revising my medical sociology syllabus, and I just came across a copy of this totally unrelated article: Integrating and Evolving a Mob: The Growth of a Smart Mob into a Wireless Community of Practice, by John Lester. I had meant to comment on a month or so ago, but never really got around to it until now.

Lester describes a scavenger hunt participated in by members of an online community online community of Hiptop Sidekick users. Organized to compete in the scavenger hunt, the “smart mob” of Sidekick users in the online community became a wireless community of practice, according to Lester. Interested as I am in both the development of practices and online organization of collective behavior, I think Lester’s paper raises some intriguing ideas.

However, while Lester’s attempt to categorize online-coordinated collective behavior is interesting, I also think his clean differentiation of ‘smart mobs’ from communities of practice is somewhat problematic. Studies of collective behavior suggest to me that the term “smart mob,” while attention-grabbing, is a little inaccurate; it brings to mind a distinct disorganization and the lack of goal-oriented behavior, when in fact most of Rheingold’s own examples of smart mobs are actually fairly organized. Movement scholars have long argued that the “mob” is a distorted and oversimplified depiction of collective behavior. Sociologists like Clark McPhail have repeatedly made the point that “crowds” are composed of goal-oriented actors whose behavior is distinctly normative, underscoring the contention that “collective behavior” is no less “evolved” than more manifestly-organized activity. Lester’s sharp demarcation between the smart mob and community of practice, then, seems a bit misplaced.

Second, I want to consider the utility of the community of practice concept in this case. While Lester’s argument that communities of practice need social capital, multiple weak network ties (argued by networky and organizational scholars to be key to innovation and effective information-seeking), and a sense of “place,” those conditions aren’t, by themselves, sufficient for a community of practice to form. Howard Aldrich emphasizes that communities of practice are marked by “patterned social interaction between members that sustains organizational knowledge and faciliates the reproduction of routines and competencies” (p. 128, my emphasis). From such a perspective, a single event isn’t adequte to demonstrate a community of practice. In fact, by seeking to illustrate an evolution from smart mob to community of practice, Lester seems to me to overlook the real community constituted by Hiptop Nation members, in which organizational knowledge is developed by repeated interactions.

From my perspective, the smart mob—that Lester argues is indeed critical for the successful mobilization of participants in the scavenger hunt—in this case is the community of practice. It’s far more marked by repeated interaction and the play of social capital than the scavenger hunt itself, and as Lester also argues, it’s the “place” where all this organizational capacity “goes” when it’s not being actively mobilized. This may seem like splitting hairs over a definitional issue, but I don’t think so. While Lester’s characterization of the hunt as a “crystallization” of a community of practice from a smart mob is a nice description of the way action emerges from a collectivity, it really overlooks the source of the knowledge being implemented, and as such, tends to promote the idea that the “mob” is just an underdeveloped community. Lester says as much, that “smart mobs typically lack specific, comples goals, and they do not typically grow into more sophisticated communities of practice.” The problem, as I see it, is twofold: First, the community of practice in this case is really rooted more in the weblog community than in the admittedly more visible activities that took place during the scavenger hunt. (The classic case studies of communities of practice, by authors like John S. Brown and Paul Duguid 1 and found in a great volume edited by Steven Barley and Julian Orr, underscore that organizational knowledge is maintained and transmitted both during work and in interactions that take place away from tasks.) Moving too quickly toward the actual short-lived behavior makes the community of practice a less useful concept, I think. Second, Lester risks sustaining what I think is an inaccurate distinction between concepts of activity and of organization. The terms he uses of “evolution” and “crystallization” are pretty strongly value-laden, and our understandings of the development of practices and communities should try to aviod such judgements.

So, where does this leave us? I don’t want to be too critical of Lester—I like his effort to apply these concepts to the community in which he participates, and Lester has sufficient experience to avoid the over-dramatization of the ways online organization works—that’s particularly valuable, I think. However, his article points to the need to very clearly understand the concepts we’re dealing with, so that we categorize phenomena in ways that are analytically useful. A good consideration of online communities of practice will be important for making sense of not only “smart mobs” but also communities like those of open source developers and online social movement entrepreneurs.

1 JSTOR link; non-hooked-up readers should look for “Organizational Learning and Communities of Practice,” by Brown and Duguid, published in Organization Science vol. 2, no. 1.