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Size and Process

Growing pains

Recently the esangha has been thinking a lot about our own structure / process. It started when the group grew to a size that was, I believe, too large. I had continued to propose new members, and the group had admitted them, without our talking about what a reasonable maximum would be.

I know many email lists have hundreds of members, and have heard reports of a large list where a certain degree of intimacy developed — but on a social level, and only in subgroupings of the whole. ( I would be very interested to hear other reports!) In real-world support groups I have observed that when it gets up near twenty, it's hard for everyone to pay good attention to everyone else. Since email lacks communication cues available in face-to-face encounter, it seemed reasonable to assume that the maximum effective size for an intimate group in email would be smaller. I guessed fifteen would be a reasonable maximum, maybe one or two more if there were "lurkers" (Internet slang for non-posting members).

Since we kept getting applicants, I was planning to assemble more groups. It bothered me to make the new people wait until there were enough for a new group. We use an informal screening process to admit members. I would spend a few weeks getting to know each new applicant, getting into conversation on topics that would be great for the group — and then I should just tell her "OK, you're simpatico, but you have to wait now for several weeks" —?

I hit on the idea of having the prospective members of the new group join the existing group: then when we reached twenty, we could split into two groups of ten each. So the membership grew, and as I had expected, some people started being unable to read all the messages. I found I could get them read, but sometimes didn't have time to really ponder them or make any contribution on the subject. I didn't have the time to make sure I knew how everyone was doing in their lives, to really keep in touch. Still I thought a little of this straining at the seams was worth the introduction that a brief membership in the original group would give new people, into what we were trying to do.

The group differs with me

Unfortunately I failed to let everyone know I was thinking this way, and just assumed they would see the desireability of reducing the number when I suggested we split. When I did, most of the group were vehemently against splitting. By succeeding in creating intimacy, we had also created bonds that were too strong for most to consider breaking.

After struggling with whether I should dissent (see Consensus), I consented to remaining all one group. I would work for other ways to relieve the pressures created by size. I proposed several ideas, but none of them seemed to catch hold. Our connection with each other became less mindful — unhappy about that, a couple of members left. I started asking for more attention to the situation. But several were fed up with process, structure, dealing with problems.... More left; others decided they were simply not going to participate in threads on process, structure, etc.

A breakthrough

Although it has been a struggle to get to this point, I think it's a creative and healthy development — and a new idea in how to do esangha. I knew when we started the group that we would be inventing a totally new thing, and that there would be problems to solve. I think that what these members have done is define a new kind of membership in the group. We already had agreed it was ok for some to be lurkers. Now we also have non-process members.

New group startup

Though I'm still uncomfortable with putting new people on hold til enough collect for a new group, I certainly have learned that splitting a group doesn't work. Any other ideas, anyone?

© Copyright Catherine Holmes Clark 2000 Last updatedd 26 February 2000