The Small Group

2020-05-02 • 1439 words

My recent research rabbit hole has been investigating what I would like to term the Small Group.

Lying somewhere between a club and a loosely defined set of friends, the Small Group is a repeated theme in the lives of the successful. Benjamin Franklin had the Junto Club, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had The Inklings, Jobs and Wozniak had Homebrew. The Bloomsbury Group was integral to the success of Virginia Woolf, Clive Bell, and John Maynard Keynes, while MIT’s Model Railroad Club spawned much of modern hacker culture.

The Small Group offers a private, close-knit environment in which members can share ideas freely. For Bloomsbury, this meant challenging norms on feminism, pacifism, sexuality and art. For the members of Homebrew and MIT’s model railway club, this was merely the experience of being your nerdy self amongst other like-minded nerds.

"The chief [reason to meet in a private space] seems to me to be that, as you say, we should have to eradicate politeness. We can get to the point of calling each other prigs and adulterers quite happily when the company is small & select, but its rather a question whether we could do it with a larger number of people who might not feel that they were quite on neutral ground"

Vanessa Bell, Member of the Bloomsbury Group

Twelve appears to be a magic number of members for the Small Group. Although The Cambridge Apostles (so named because, like Jesus’ followers, there were twelve of them) were one of the few groups that stuck explicitly to this number, The Junto Club, The Inklings and The Bloomsbury Group all had approximately twelve core members. Homebrew is the only real outlier with about 750 members, although it was still small enough in practice for members to meet in one another's garages.

Around a dozen members is the sweet spot of social motivation: small enough to know everyone, yet large enough that the group won’t collapse if one or two members’ enthusiasm wanes; small enough that you are not daunted by competing with the whole world, yet large enough that you still need to be on your toes to keep up.

It is common a Small Group to further enhance its motivational effects through clearly defined structures. Weekly meetings at the Junto Club, with a rota ensuring all members would give a talk, kept the intellectual bar at a certain level. Bloomsbury, meanwhile, split into a Thursday thinking group for writers, and a Friday idea and exhibition organisation group for artists.

However, structure is by no means a necessity. Amongst technology-based groups in particular, there is a general dislike of anything too organised. Hackers do not like being told what to do. For example, the hacker group w00w00, whose membership contained the founders of both Napster and WhatsApp, stated on its homepage that “there are no “members”” while Homebrew met raggedly in carparks to trade parts.

In place of structure, these groups organised around ability and commitment. w00w00 allowed new participants in if they had an invite from a pre-existing member or could independently show sufficient technical acumen. The Tech Model Railroad Club allowed free access to the train room, so long as you had proved your engagement by clocking-in 40 hours of work on the system.

The assistance members can give one another isn’t purely motivational, however. In-person communication is high-bandwidth and offers feedback that is difficult to replicate elsewhere. An ongoing relationship provides more effective advice, allowing the use of shorthand for concepts and a two-way conversation that autodidactic education lacks.

Reading about how good these groups can be has made me envious. I want one too. What does realising that want look like? What is the Small Group for the 2020s?

I know that there are many people out there who are excited about working on interesting projects, discovering new things and exploring the space of what is possible. Indeed, I’ve seen several other promising efforts in this area. Anna Gat is doing a great job at building a large, swirling, international community with The Interintellect. The recreation of the public salon is another intriguing attempt at solving this problem. I’m also a member of newly-created bookclubs, Slack groups, and Telegram chats full of people looking to get to know one other, be inspired and stay motivated.

But these examples aren’t quite what I’m aiming for. I want something smaller, more intimate, more regular. Not meeting someone you like and only managing to run into them once every three months, but creating regular, meaningful connections.

While I enjoy meeting people at one-off or quarterly events, these interactions don’t compound in a way that a more regular relationship with someone can. A single conversation may lead you down an interesting path, but a community keeps you on it.

The other flaw of many modern attempts at providing a community is that such attempts are often online-only, or at least online-first. Although online connections are a great thing to have in your life—I am writing this post during a global pandemic lockdown which would be far harder to survive with only IRL connections—there is something sorely missing when you don’t get to see someone’s face. As well as the body-language cues that make up so much of human interaction, online communities miss out on several other advantages.

First, they shift the emphasis towards consumption, not creation. How many tweets do you write versus how many do you read, for example? Communicating in real-life shifts the ratio of creation to consumption far closer to 1:1, thus forcing you to fully develop your ideas.

Online communities also don’t self-correct in the same way. A fixed time and place ensure that you will be missed if you don’t turn up. Dropping your commitments becomes harder by default. The omnipresent communication streams that dominate online life are far easier to opt-out of whereas if you drop out of a small, physical group you will be missed.

We are now at a place where we can define the Small Group a little more clearly. Some things are specific and easily mapped from historical examples. A group size of about a dozen people seems to translate well, for example. Other attributes are harder to pin down. Like the examples I have mentioned, the modern Small Group should have a strong sense of fun and playfulness.

The Small Group must strike a delicate balance between indirection and real progress. Pure business drive is not desirable. The goal here is not to invest more in the skills you use at work. Instead, it is to be truly exploratory for no immediate purpose. It is to waste time (yet to savour it), to wander off in the wrong direction (and to find an exciting new path). Indirection and exploration should not come at the cost of doing and building. Doing and building should not come at the cost of having fun.

What about subject matter? Historically, groups are a mixture of the specific (model railways, building personal computers, writing fantasy fiction) and the eclectic (art, culture, philosophy, general self-improvement). In a sense, I do not think it matters, and the potential landscape is broad.

From a purely personal perspective, however, I do not (yet) have any one thing that takes priority over my other interests. Therefore, my selfish bias is to create something under some kind of umbrella niche that is not too specific.

In summary, the format I can conceive of that seems most likely to succeed is along the lines of the following.

  • Unofficial membership status of around a dozen members.
  • Each member works on personal or collaborative projects and is held accountable through a combination of regular talks and presentations.
  • Members are unconstrained in what their project topics are, but they would fall roughly under the domain of ‘explorative technology’. Members are probably interested in some subset of Dynamicland, doing weird stuff with GANs, interesting data visualisations, Tools for Thought and Second Brains, tech-related art projects, reconceptualising programming, writing explorative essays, hardware experiments, and things that cannot be put in a list such as this.
  • Physical meeting space(s) that promote collaboration, spontaneity and deep work. A combination of members’ houses, libraries, coffee shops and co-working spaces may fulfil these needs.

Maybe this is all a symptom of me not quite yet managing the swirling, messy communities that do and should make up a modern city. But I’m not sure. I think I do want a Small Group.

I’d like this essay to be a form of action, not a pipe dream. So, if you are in London and into the themes I’ve talked about here, then put your email down below or email me directly and we shall see where it goes.

Thank you to El & Nibras for their thoughts and editing.

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