Saturday 30 November 2002

Showboating and grandstanding

“We are inclined to think that genuine innovators are loners, that they do not need the social reinforcement the rest of us crave. But that’s not how it works…” writes Malcolm Gladwell (link via Arts & Letters Daily) using Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live and Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men (about five 18th century inventors) to show that innovation most commonly arises from groups:

…those who depart from cultural or intellectual consensus need people to walk beside them and laugh with them to give them confidence. But there’s more to it than that. One of the peculiar features of group dynamics is that clusters of people will come to decisions that are far more extreme than any individual member would have come to on his own. People compete with each other and egg each other on, showboat and grandstand; and along the way they often lose sight of what they truly believed when the meeting began. Typically, this is considered a bad thing, because it means that groups formed explicitly to find middle ground often end up someplace far away. But at times this quality turns out to be tremendously productive, because, after all, losing sight of what you truly believed when the meeting began is one way of defining innovation…

Uglow’s book reveals how simplistic our view of groups really is. We divide them into cults and clubs, and dismiss the former for their insularity and the latter for their banality. The cult is the place where, cut off from your peers, you become crazy. The club is the place where, surrounded by your peers, you become boring. Yet if you can combine the best of those two states—the right kind of insularity with the right kind of homogeneity—you create an environment both safe enough and stimulating enough to make great thoughts possible.

Isn’t Gladwell’s image of artists and inventors competing with each other and egging each other on, showboating and grandstanding, an equally accurate description of blogging, at its best?

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At its best and its worst as well, I think.

Posted by stavrosthewonderchicken on 1 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Yep, Stav, you're right. I guess I was seized by a momentary flash of optimism.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 1 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I'm sorry, Jonathon, I've read this three times and it still sounds like the worst way to bring out the best in anyone. For anything.

Group competitiveness isolates you until you're worse than being alone -- you're fighting battles alone, but with the illusion of group support.

If you're in a group that believes they're one big happy family, pure cooperation, you're made aware, overtly and covertly, that you've stepped out of line when you challenge the status quo.

A person is far, far better off being alone than to be in a group.

But an interesting post and premise. Thank you.

Posted by Burningbird on 1 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Perhaps in my post, Bb, I failed to convey the essence of Gladwell's premise -- that groups can be supportive as well as competitive. He suggests that it was membership of a group that made it possible for the SNL comedians and the Birmingham inventors to challenge the status quo.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 1 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour