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.