Schism Begets Schism

by Davis_Kingsley2 min read10th Jul 201925 comments



Related: On the importance of Less Wrong, or another single conversational locus

One thing that seems to be a pattern across the history of human organizations, projects, and even social scenes is that schism begets schism. In other words, if there is a large and central space, once people start splitting off from it this can often lead to the "floodgates opening" and lots and lots of new groups forming - often in a way that even those who initially wanted to change things dislike!

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Protestantism. Martin Luther did not want to start his own church, told people not to call themselves "Lutherans", and disagreed quite aggressively with many of those who are now lumped in with him as "Protestant Reformers". However, once challenges to the authority and unity of the Church got started, they were hard to stop, and Luther soon found that those around him had at times gone in directions he did not want -- and now there are over 40 different Lutheran denominations in North America alone, to say nothing of all the other Protestant groups!

However, such a trend is not only limited to religious groups. Political movements sometimes have a similar scenario befall them -- for instance, the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War was substantially harmed by internal schisms, subfactions, and disputes. To use a less consequential example, I've been a part of online communities that have been hurt by repeated schisms over moderation policy -- once people get fed up with the moderation in one place, they start another with much the same purview but different moderators.

Once schism gets going, it can be hard to stop - and once things get split, much of the benefit of a single conversation locus begins to degrade. Indeed, the "LessWrong diaspora" quite harmed this project -- we still haven't fully recovered from having the community split as much as it did, even though things have been improving a bit on that front more recently.

Now, some will say that perhaps splits are good -- perhaps one space isn't right for everyone, and it would be better to have a diverse range of norms that can appeal to different interests. Hence we see things like the archipelago model of community standards, which aim to set up a situation where one broader community contains many subgroups with their own rules and systems.

In practice, though, I claim this doesn't work, because schism begets schism. People say "if you don't like it, go make your own space" -- but they say that because it's an easy dismissal, not because it would actually be better! In point of fact, if everyone who was told such did go and make their own space, the central body would not survive -- "if you don't like it, go make your own" works as a dismissal precisely because it won't be followed! The world where everyone "goes and makes their own" at the drop of a hat is substantially worse and it is substantially harder to form a productive coalition and get things done under those norms.

In point of fact, doing important things often requires coordination, teamwork, and agreeing to compromises. If you insist on everything being exactly your way, you'll have a harder time finding collaborators, and in many cases that will be fatal to a project -- I do not say all, but many. Now, it's possible to get around that by throwing a lot money at the problem -- people will agree to a lot of eccentricities if you pay them enough, as they did with Howard Hughes -- and it's possible to get around that by throwing a lot of charisma at the problem -- Steve Jobs was able to be extremely perfectionist thanks to his personal charisma and (in?)famous "reality distortion field" -- but if those options aren't available, you're going to have to make some compromises, and if the norm is "if the way things are locally doesn't work for you, leave and make a new space!" that's going to be very difficult.

Indeed, once you start allowing this sort of "take my ball and go home" behavior, where does it stop? First you have one person who thinks they are being mistreated, and they go and start their own group to work with their rules. Then they try to enforce their rules, and now they drive someone else off, and so on and so on. Pretty soon you have lots and lots of petty little fiefdoms, each composed of just a few people and none of which are getting all that much done. It is better in my view to try to prevent even the first schism and keep things unified.

Yes, this means you'll have to work with people who don't fully agree with you at times, and yes, this means that there will have to be some agreements on how best to use shared institutions and spaces -- but the way I see it, the history of schisms indicates that that is far better than the alternative!