Small Work Groups Come And Go

Small Work Groups Come and Go --- RichardGabriel 30 Nov 2001

. . . you are designing a textual communication client and are working on how to address people . . .

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The people we work with changes over time both as our interests coincide and drift apart and as projects start, mature, and end. Who these people are and when such lists come and go are not part of a foreign infrastructure but a part of our private lives. We need to easily communicate with our colleagues.

A distribution or mailing list is nothing more than an alias representing a set of individual addresses, but such things happen to be difficult to set up, perhaps because someone had decided long ago that clients do one set of things and servers do another. The same is true of buddy lists, weblogs, and archives.

Or perhaps someone has decided that only a higher authority should be allowed to enable aggregations to work together. Or perhaps existing tools are too primitive to enable people to set up easily new mailing lists, buddy lists, and weblogs.

When a group disbands, the archives might need to be shared or disposed of, and sending to demised mailing lists needs to be handle with grace and care. When people come and go from mailing lists---at their own pace and timing---no one really knows about it, nor does the software act properly and without dumb failures. For example, vacation messages go to mailing lists.

People often stick with one form of conversation because they don't know another is available. For example, it is not easy to switch to a chat from an email discussion, and a person might not even know that all or most of the interested parties are online and could engage in more direct communication.

Mailing lists sometimes grow too large and need to fragment based on local interests, but tools are unable to help with this.


Make it easy for a regular user to setup and disband a small work group "mailing list" or virtual working space. Offer a small collection of tools that allow the group to interact in different ways. Partition the functionality so that different bits of it can be combined in appropriate ways.

Make it so that mailing list discussions can morph into chat rooms or instant messages, that archiving across discussion formats is continuous, that people can easily update their own best addresses without intervention by strangers, that distributions lists can be easily combined or split up, that temporary additions and removals can be done easily, and that control of who can talk to whom is handed back to the people who want to talk and not system administrators.

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Archives, annotations, and flagging need to be considered and blended with the client. The entire state of the client, address book, and mailing list state of a client must be easily maintained and transparent. Typing needs to be minimized in such maintenance.

Small Work Groups Come and Go --- ?RonGoldman 9 Feb 2002

. . . the nature of GroupDiscussions is that they start whenever several people have something to discuss and that they eventually end.

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As people we belong to many different groups. As our interests and projects change, so do the groups we care about, at work, at play and at home. Members of each group need to converse with each other and so need ways to get together either in person or through some technological means.

In the physical world a group discussion can occur just by several people getting together. Sometimes this requires advance planning such as choosing a time that everyone is available or reserving a room to meet in. For conference calls each participant must agree to a time and then call a prearranged number. Many group discussions occur spontaneously---a bull session in a hallway---or as a side-effect of other activities---sharing a lunch table in the cafeteria.

In the electronic world group discussion can be more problematic. All interaction is mediated by some technology that must first be mastered. The initial hurdle is to setup an electronic meeting space for the new group. This requires having access to tools not to be found on most personal computers that can support creating group mailing lists or chat sessions.

For an online chat session the group needs to locate some type of chat server that they can use to create a possibly private chat session, such as a chat room at some web site, an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel, an Instant Message service, or whatever.

For a mailing list a computer that allows the creation of new mailing lists must be available. Then everyone interested needs to add themselves to the list, or maybe the mailing list creator can sign them up.

For a newsgroup there is a somewhat lengthy process required to get approval to create an official new newsgroup, though "alt" groups can be set up at any time. Once created there is no guarantee if and when various news servers will carry the new group (especially one in the "alt" universe). Creating a new newsgroup may be too much overhead for a group with a limited life span. It may make more sense for short-lived discussions to use an existing newsgroup.

In addition to a channel for conversation, groups will want to know who is participating in the discussion and may want to prevent strangers from joining in. Moderated mailing lists and private chats can be used to preserve privacy. Most chat systems have commands to display current participants.

It is also very useful to have some way to preserve discussion for people to review or search later.

Some groups continue for long periods of time and may better be considered to be communities. Other groups disappear after some time and there should be a way to let people know that the group is no more.


Design electronic communications tools to support the entire lifecycle of group discussions. Make it easy for people to start a new discussion, be it via chat, email, newsgroups or the web. Plan for people to join and leave the discussion after it starts. Design a way for the group to gracefully end the discussion.

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An Archive (KeepArchives) can provide a history of the discussion. People often are engaged in multiple conversations so Threading (ConversationsThreading) can help keep the different discussions distinct. It should be EasyToUnsubscribe.


Last edited December 24, 2002
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