David Snowden in an interesting post titled Aggregative or emergent identity? Rethinking Communities

(thanks for the pointer Stephen Downes ) argues that we need more discussion on the aggregations of individuals to note the emergent capacity of aggregations – beyond those of individual members being connected. He notes the confusion and multiple meanings around aggregations such as communities, networks, groups, teams. crews, collectives, cliques etc. etc. While acknowledging the need for further discussion, I don’t think his suggestion of adding ‘crews’ to the lexicon of aggregations helps us much.

According to Snowden a crew’s unique features are:

  • When the crew assembles the individuals go through a set of rituals (for example the pilots checklist) which instantiate the requirements of that role in the individual. They also frequently wear uniform which adds another ritual to the process.
  • The crew is only expected to perform for a limited period, and then moves into a layoff period before it reassembles (but almost certainly with different individuals). This limited period is key to the success of the collective capability of the crew and the subordination of individual qualities to those of the role and the role interactions.

According to the taxonomy of groups, networks and collectives developed by Jon Dron and myself, a ‘crew’ is just another name for a group, much as ‘team’ is often used for a group in business contexts. I like the nautical inference of ‘crew’, but think the distinction implied by the two criteria above fit as well for many of the forms of ‘group’ that Jon and I (and others) have addressed. For example, the classic education group – called a class, also goes through a series of rituals (from first meeting introduction, to the end of class party), members may well wear uniforms or some type of identification, and is usually time bound.

So I don’t think that Snowden’s use of the term crew to define a subset of groups really moves us forward. One could ask if naming and categorizing is of significant value itself. Unlike the creation of formal taxonomies and especially those based on physical differences as found in biology, developing language to differentiate social aggregations is only useful of it helps us to understand and create interventions for some purpose. In education, I usually think of the creation of meaningful, effective and efficient learning activities that can be devised for learners. Our group classification is a familiar one to educators, having developed long ago in the archetypal ‘class’, but we wanted to underline the notion that groups consist of members who know each other, have expectations for cooperation, know that they are members of that group and are comfortable with organizational structures such as chairpersons, teacher etc. Obviously groups exist both on and offline, and many ‘blended groups” operate in both domains.

Networks are different in that membership flows and ebb, leadership and organizational structure is emergent and networks are not bound by time, in that they exist as long as interaction among network members persist. Collectives are even less personal and are created by aggregation, analysis and exploitation of information generated by us as we engage ion both individual, group and network activities.

W e have argued that dividing the social into these three categories is useful in creating activities and interventions that facilitate learning at all three levels. These three aggregations could be broken into finer designations or aggregated, but I think they are distinct enough to help us sort out the hundreds of Web 2.0 tools being created and hopefully provide conceptual clarity as we harness these tools to support useful learning activities.