Norms of Membership for Voluntary Groups

Epistemic Status: Idea Generation

One feature of the internet that we haven’t fully adapted to yet is that it’s trivial to create voluntary groups for discussion.  It’s as easy as making a mailing list, group chat, Facebook group, Discord server, Slack channel, etc.

What we don’t seem to have is a good practical language for talking about norms on these mini-groups — what kind of moderation do we use, how do we admit and expel members, what kinds of governance structures do we create.

Maybe this is a minor thing to talk about, but I suspect it has broader impact. In past decades voluntary membership in organizations has declined in the US — we’re less likely to be members of the Elks or of churches or bowling leagues — so lots of people who don’t have any experience in founding or participating in traditional types of voluntary organizations are now finding themselves engaged in governance without even knowing that’s what they’re doing.

When we do this badly, we get “internet drama.”  When we do it really badly, we get harassment campaigns and calls for regulation/moderation at the corporate or even governmental level.  And that makes the news.  It’s not inconceivable that Twitter moderation norms affect international relations, for instance.

It’s a traditional observation about 19th century America that Americans were eager joiners of voluntary groups, and that these groups were practice for democratic participation.  Political wonks today lament the lack of civic participation and loss of trust in our national and democratic institutions. Now, maybe you’ve moved on; maybe you’re a creature of the 21st century and you’re not hoping to restore trust in the institutions of the 20th. But what will be the institutions of the future?  That may well be affected by what formats and frames for group membership people are used to at the small scale.

It’s also relevant for the future of freedom.  It’s starting to be a common claim that “give people absolute ‘free speech’ and the results are awful; therefore we need regulation/governance at the corporate or national level.”  If you’re not satisfied with that solution (as I’m not), you have work to do — there are a lot of questions to unpack like “what kind of ‘freedom’, with what implementational details, is the valuable kind?”, “if small-scale voluntary organizations can handle some of the functions of the state, how exactly will they work?”, “how does one prevent the outcomes that people consider so awful that they want large institutions to step in to govern smaller groups?”

Thinking about, and working on, governance for voluntary organizations (and micro-organizations like online discussion groups) is a laboratory for figuring this stuff out in real time, with fairly low resource investment and risk. That’s why I find this stuff fascinating and wish more people did.

The other place to start, of course, is history, which I’m not very knowledgeable about, but intend to learn a bit.  David Friedman is the historian I’m familiar with who’s studied historical governance and legal systems with an eye to potential applicability to building voluntary governance systems today; I’m interested in hearing about others. (Commenters?)

In the meantime, I want to start generating a (non-exhaustive list) of types of norms for group membership, to illustrate the diversity of how groups work and what forms “expectations for members” can take.

We found organizations based on formats and norms that we’ve seen before.  It’s useful to have an idea of the range of formats that we might encounter, so we don’t get anchored on the first format that comes to mind.  It’s also good to have a vocabulary so we can have higher-quality disagreements about the purpose & nature of the groups we belong to; often disagreements seem to be about policy details but are really about the overall type of what we want the group to be.

Civic/Public Norms

  • Roughly everybody is welcome to join, and free to do as they like in the space, so long as they obey a fairly minimalist set of ground rules & behavioral expectations that apply to everyone.
  • We expect it to be easy for most people to follow the ground rules; you have to be deviant (really unusually antisocial) to do something egregious enough to get you kicked out or penalized.
  • If you dislike someone’s behavior but it isn’t against the ground rules, you can grumble a bit about it, but you’re expected to tolerate it. You’ll have to admit things like “well, he has a right to do that.”
  • Penalties are expected to be predictable, enforced the same way towards all people, and “impartial” (not based on personal relationships). If penalties are enforced unfairly, you’re not expected to tolerate it — you can question why you’re being penalized, and kick up a public stink, and it’s even praiseworthy to do so.
  • Examples: “rule of law”, public parks and libraries, stores and coffeeshops open to the public, town hall meetings

Guest Norms

  • The host can invite, or not invite, anyone she chooses, based on her preference.  She doesn’t have to justify her preferences to anyone.  Nobody is entitled to an invitation, and it’s very rude to complain about not being invited.
  • Guests can also choose to attend or not attend, based on their preferences, and they don’t have to justify their preferences to anyone either; it’s rude to complain or ask for justification when someone declines an invitation.
  • Personal relationships and subjective feelings, in particular, are totally legitimate reasons to include or exclude someone.
  • The atmosphere within the group is expected to be pleasant for everyone.  If you don’t want to be asked to leave, you shouldn’t do things that will predictably bother people.
  • Hosts are expected to be kind and generous to guests; guests are expected to be kind and generous to the host and each other; the host is responsible for enforcing boundaries.
  • Criticizing other people at the gathering itself is taboo. You’re expected to do your critical/judgmental pruning outside the gathering, by deciding whom you will invite or whether you’ll attend.
  • We don’t expect that everyone will be invited to be a guest at every gathering, or that everyone will attend everything they’re invited to. It can be prestigious to be invited to some gatherings, and embarrassing to be asked to leave or passed over when you expected an invitation, but it’s normal to just not be invited to some things.
  • Examples: private parties, invitation-only events, consent ethics for sex

Kaizen Norms

  • Members of the group are expected to be committed to an ideal of some kind of excellence and to continually strive to reach it.
  • Feedback or critique on people’s performance is continuous, normal, and not considered inherently rude. It’s considered praiseworthy to give high-quality feedback and to accept feedback willingly.
  • Kaizen groups may have very specific norms about the style or format of critique/feedback that’s welcome, and it may well be considered rude to give feedback in the wrong style.
  • Receiving some negative feedback or penalties is normal and not considered a sign of failure or shame.  What is shameful is responding defensively to negative feedback.
  • You can lose membership in the group by getting too much negative feedback (in other words, failing to live up to the minimum standards of the group’s ideal.)  It’s not expected to be easy for most people to meet these standards; they’re challenging by design.  The group isn’t expected to be “for everyone.”
  • The feedback and incentive processes are supposed to correlate tightly to the ideal. It’s acceptable and even praiseworthy to criticize those processes if they reward and punish people for things unrelated to the ideal.
  • Conflict about things unrelated to the ideal isn’t taboo, but it’s somewhat discouraged as “off-topic” or a “distraction.”
  • Examples: competitive/meritocratic school and work environments, sports teams, specialized religious communities (e.g. monasteries, rabbinical schools)

Coalition Norms

  • The degree to which one is “welcome” in the coalition is the degree to which one is loyal, i.e. contributes resources to the coalition.  (Either by committing one’s own resources or by driving others to contribute their resources.   The latter tends to be more efficient, and hence makes you more “welcome.”)
  • Membership is a matter of degree, not a hard-and-fast boundary.  The more solidly loyal a member you are, the more of the coalition’s resources you’re entitled to.  (Yes, this means membership is defined recursively, like PageRank.)
  • People can be penalized or expelled for not contributing enough, or for doing things that have the effect of preventing the coalition gaining resources (like making it harder to recruit new members.)
  • Conflict, complaint, and criticism over the growth of the coalition (and whether people are contributing enough, or whether they’re taking more than their fair share) is acceptable and even praiseworthy; criticisms about other things are discouraged, because they make people less willing to contribute resources or pressure others to do so.
  • Membership in the coalition is considered praiseworthy.  Non-membership is considered shameful.
  • Examples: political coalitions, proselytizing religions

Tribal Norms

  • Membership in the group is defined by an immutable, unchosen characteristic, like sex or heredity (or, to a lesser extent, geographic location.)  It is difficult to join, leave, or be expelled from the group; you are a member as a matter of fact, regardless of what you want or how you behave.
  • It’s not considered shameful not to be a member of the group; after all, it isn’t up to you.
  • Since expulsion is difficult, behavioral norms for the group are maintained primarily by persuasion/framing, reward, and punishment, so these play a larger role than they do in voluntary groups.  Important norms are framed as commandments or simply how things are.
  • Examples: families, public schools, governments, traditional cultures

Some comparisons-and-contrasts:

Honor and Shame

Kaizen and Guest group norms say that being a member of the group is an honor and comes with high expectations, but that not being a member is normal and not especially shameful.

Civic norms say that being a member of the group is normal and easy to attain, but not being a member is shameful, because it indicates egregiously bad behavior.

Coalition norms say that being a member is an honor and comes with high expectations and that not being a member is shameful.  This means that most people will have something to be ashamed of.

Tribal norms say that being a member is not an honor (though it may be a privilege), and that not being a member is no shame.


Civic and Kaizen norms say that it’s okay to protest “unfair” treatment by the governing body.  In a Civic context, “fair” means “it’s possible for everyone to stay out of trouble by following the rules” — it’s okay for rules to be arbitrary, but they should be clear and consistent and not so onerous that most people can’t follow them.  In a Kaizen context, “fair” means “corresponding to the ideal” — it’s okay to “not do things by the book”  if that gets you better performance, but it’s not okay if you’re rewarding bad performance and punishing good.

Guest and Coalition norms say that it’s not okay to protest “unfair” treatment; if you get kicked out, arguing can’t help you get back in.  Offering the decisionmakers something they value might work, though.

In Tribal norms, protest and argument can be either licit or taboo; it depends on the specific tribe and its norms.

Examples of debates that are about what type of group you want to be in:

Asking for “inclusiveness” is usually a bid to make the group more Civic or Coalitional.

Making accusations of “favoritism” is usually a bid to make the group more Civic or Kaizen.

Complaining about “problem members” is usually a bid to make the group more Coalitional, Guest, or Kaizen.

Not A Taxonomy

I don’t think these are the definitive types of groups. The idea is to illustrate how you can have different starting assumptions about what kind of thing the group is for. (Is it for achieving a noble goal? For providing a public forum or service open to all? For meeting the needs of its members?)

I suspect these kinds of aims are prior to mechanisms (things like “what is a bannable offense” or “what incentive systems do we set up”?)  Before diving into the technical stuff about the rules of the game, you want to ask what kinds of outcomes or group dynamics you want the “game structure” to achieve.



14 thoughts on “Norms of Membership for Voluntary Groups

  1. Most chat groups that I have been a member of try to follow a Kaizen code, especially for making fictional languages and timelines. Since the product has to have some kind of quality, people can be banned for making products that do not fit the unwritten consensus of how complex it must be. The focus is on creating the product, and off-topic discussion is well, relegated to an offtopic forum.

  2. I just linked this article in the EA Discord that I moderate, and made the following comments:

    Posting this in #server-meta because it helps clarify a lot of what I, at least, have struggled to express about how I see this server as being supposed to work.
    Specifically, I feel pretty strongly that it should be run on civic/public norms. This is a contrast to a lot of other rationalsphere Discords, which I think often at least claim to be running on guest norms, though I don’t have a super-solid understanding of the social dynamics involved.
    The standard failure mode of civic/public norms is that the people in charge, in the interest of not having a too-high standard of membership (as this set of norms requires), are overly tolerant of behaviors with negative externalities.
    The problem with this is not simply that negative externalities are bad, it’s that if you have too many of them it ceases to be worth good actors’ while to participate, at which point they leave because the whole thing is voluntary. Whatever the goals of the space are, you probably can’t achieve them if there’s nobody left but trolls.
    Thus it is occasionally argued that civic/public norms are self-defeating. In particular, in the rationalsphere something like this has become accepted wisdom (“well-kept gardens die by pacifism”), and attempts to make spaces more civic/public are by default met with suspicion.
    (Of course, it can also hard to tell a principled attempt at civic/public norms apart from a simple bias towards inaction on the part of the people in charge. Such a bias can stem from aversion to social conflict. Certainly, I myself am so averse.)
    The way we deal with this on this server, I think, is to identify patterns that if left unchecked would cause productive people to leave (not specific productive people, but rather in the abstract), and then as principledly as possible tweak the rules to officially discourage and/or prohibit those behaviors.
    It’s a fine line to walk, but I don’t think it’s impossible to do well. And there are advantages; I suspect that insecure and/or conflict-averse people may have an easier time in this kind of space, especially if they don’t have a guest or coalitional space that happens to favor them and so makes them feel safe. (Something something typical mind fallacy.)
    Also, civic/public norms are the best at preventing forks and schisms. Guest norms are the worst at this. One can of course argue about whether it’s worth it, but these do very much have costs.
    The other thing I found especially interesting was this quote: “Asking for “inclusiveness” is usually a bid to make the group more Civic or Coalitional.”
    I found this interesting because recently I made an ex cathedra statement that almost used the word “inclusive” in reference to what this server strives to be. By this I meant civic/public. I took it out because the risk of misinterpretation seemed high, because in the corners of the internet that many of us frequent, “inclusive” more often means coalitional.

  3. One subtly important aspect of Civic/Public norms is that they may only be “open” inside the context of a larger group. For instance, a public library in a US city is only accessible by people who can get to it, which outsources some access filtering to the US Government, and borrowing privileges may only be open to people who can afford a permanent address nearby. There are often less legible class filters going on too, e.g. a coffee shop might kick out someone who looks like they’re in the underclass.

  4. This is a good post.

    I would add one small but distinct type of group is the Secret – any group of people united by a shared secret or shame. An affair, a conspiracy, a set of people with a stigmatized interest (for good or ill.) In this case, being a member is shameful, and not being a member is more honorable – but once you have become a member you can’t leave it. Rules are usually enforced through mutually assured destruction – any member has the ability to destroy the entire group by exposing them all.

  5. > Asking for “inclusiveness” is usually a bid to make the group more Civic or Coalitional.
    That says a lot about conflicts over inclusiveness, given that civic norms and coalitional norms are extremely different. If someone’s pushing for “inclusiveness”, it matters a *lot* to the current group members whether they’re actually pushing for civic or coalitional norms.

  6. I’m a moderator of an IRC channel (much like moderating a Discord, but old-school, for those unfamiliar.) It’s a chat room for a group of people who more or less know each other in real life (we went to school together), so in that sense it is Tribal. I would say we started out with ostensibly Civic norms, followed by arguments over Tribal versus Civic as people unrelated to the original group tried to join and were largely refused, and then underwent a transition to like, “Civic Authoritarianism”, somewhere between Civic and Guest? In which the ideal is Civic, but the moderators have burned out and are unwilling to be argued with anymore over their decisions.

    The tension between Tribal and Civic really speaks to me here — the ostensibly Civic norms come into conflict with the underlying Tribal norms when it’s really past time to kick someone out, except that some people feel strongly that the offender is a member of the tribe.

    • Oh, I also meant to say: I think this also gives me a good description of what attracts me to the Bayesian Choir as a group, over e.g. LessWrong meetups: since the choir has a clear goal, it operates mainly under Kaizen norms, which removes a lot of the problems that crop up in social groups operating under civic norms. (I have said this general kind of thing to people before, but the terms are new to me.)

  7. This is excellent,and I’m tempted to revisit some work that I did several years ago listing some of the reasons that deliberate groups tend to fall apart. I’m wondering now, if I revisit that theory work, which kinds of group norms I am tacitly assuming apply to the groups I’m describing.

  8. For what it’s worth, most churches of which I have been a member (which you might want to count as Coalitions, based on your examples?) seem to aspire more to something midway between Kaizen norms and Civic/Public norms, despite using the language of Guest norms. Of course there is talk about resources, desire for growth, and sometimes (though not often) shame directed toward non-members, but the Coalition norms rarely seem to apply in the specific cases I’ve seen. Tribal norms might also apply in some regions (ie. in a parish system, either official or de facto, where you just go to whatever church is closest).

    Vague puddle of thoughts: monasticism almost always requires some group of non-monastics to support the monastery and those non-monastics still pursue some diluted variant of those monastic norms; various voluntary groups were formerly non-voluntary (establishment churches, for example) and these may retain artifacts from that non-voluntary past; I wonder to what extent scale requires or precludes certain models (ie. maybe Civil/Public works for larger institutions than Kaizen could) and what this means for groups that desire to grow.

    • Ah, I think I wasn’t quite fair by implying that churches go in one bucket. I’ve seen the coalitional stuff in the kinds of youth groups that are all about bringing in new converts. (as well as non-Christian stuff like cults and MLM systems.)

      • Oh, it certainly happens; the big American televangelists come immediately to mind. I think a fair response would be, “Well, those mainline churches aren’t really proselytizing!”
        But it’s interesting to me because just yesterday I was engaged in a Twitter discussion about tithing expectations… and the person who was most in favour of having clear public norms about donating money was talking about it in a really Kaizen way.

  9. I like this format. I’ll also take a stab at articulating an additional category, which I find is fairly common and distinct from the above:

    *Project Norms*

    —Members of the group are expected to be committed to carrying out a particular group project or mission.

    —Membership in the group may be easier or harder, depending on whether the task requires special skills or complex coordination. For people with the relevant skills and willingness to put in the required work (which will vary case to case), we expect it to be easy to follow the rules and remain a member in good standing.

    —People can be penalized or expelled for not contributing enough, or for doing things that have the effect of preventing the project from moving forward (like causing lots of distracting arguments.)

    —Conflict, complaint, and criticism over the progress of the project (and whether people are contributing enough) may be acceptable and even praiseworthy; criticisms about other things are often discouraged.

    Examples: Parent-teacher organizations, open source software projects, fundraiser bake sales.

    Upon writing that out, the similarities to coalition norms are pretty striking. It’s interesting to think about coalitions as a special case of project, albeit a very common case that people gravitate towards naturally regardless of a group’s explicit mission.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s