Filtered for small groups

20.16, Tuesday 18 Aug 2020


James Mulholland has been investigating the small group:

Lying somewhere between a club and a loosely defined set of friends, the SMALL GROUP is a repeated theme in the lives of the successful. Benjamin Franklin had the Junto Club, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had The Inklings, Jobs and Wozniak had Homebrew. The Bloomsbury Group was integral to the success of Virginia Woolf, Clive Bell, and John Maynard Keynes, while MIT’s Model Railroad Club spawned much of modern hacker culture.

It’s a crucible for exploration and creation… but this isn’t a team on working on a single project together. It’s about independent work and feedback. Says Mulholland: An ongoing relationship provides more effective advice, allowing the use of shorthand for concepts and a two-way conversation that autodidactic education lacks.

He asks: What is the SMALL GROUP for the 2020s? – and gives some boundaries: around a dozen members; mutual accountability on personal projects through regular presentations.

It’s a powerfully engaging question.


Here’s Kevin Kelly on Brian Eno’s concept of Scenius, or Communal Genius: Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.

Kelly lists some success factors:

  • mutual appreciation (scenius as peer pressure)
  • rapid exchange of tools and techniques
  • network effects of success (successes are claimed by the scene, not the individual)
  • local tolerance for novelty (the scene doesn’t have to fight its environment)

Kelly is, as ever, incredibly smart. And goodness, I recognise those factors from various communities and even small and big companies.

To use slightly different terms, mutual appreciation is a healthy jealousy without envy – a drive to achieve the same but without wanting to take it from the other.

That feeds the mutualisation of success, which becomes a kind of co-marketing: a rising tide lifts all ships.

And the rapid exchange of tools requires two things: highly efficient communication (openness and forums to be open in); and a non-proprietorial attitude to tools and ideas because execution is what matters.


LOS ANGELES – Hype House, the physical location of a new content creator collective, is a Spanish-style mansion perched at the top of a hill on a gated street in Los Angeles. It has a palatial backyard, a pool and enormous kitchen, dining and living quarters.

Four of the group’s 19 members live in the house full time; several others keep rooms to crash in when they are in town.

That’s from The New York Times, Hype House and the Los Angeles TikTok Mansion Gold Rush.


So-called collab houses, also known as content houses, are an established tradition in the influencer world. Over the last five years they have formed a network of hubs across Los Angeles.

And some detail:

  • Collab houses are beneficial to influencers in lots of ways. Living together allows for more teamwork, which means faster growth.
  • A good collab house has lots of natural light, open space and is far from prying neighbors. A gated community is ideal, to prevent swarms of fans from showing up.
  • And if you want to be a part of the group, you need to churn out content daily.

Manufactured scenius.


Clay Shirky’s classic essay from 2005, A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy (pdf), on software for groups.

Shirky channels the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion who specialised in groups in the mid 20th century.

Bion’s realisation was that social groups have their own mentality, a kind of mind which is connected to but also separate from the individuals.

Bion then goes on to detail three basic assumptions that the group mentality can fall into (as fundamental as any of the mental states like exuberance or fight-or-flight that we can fall into an individuals).

Shirky’s words:

  • The first is sex talk. (imo Shirky’s not quite on the money interpreting Bion here, but close enough)
  • The second basic pattern that Bion detailed is the identification and vilification of external enemies.
  • The third pattern Bion identified is religious veneration – any closely-held tenets of the group will do, not necessarily those of an organised religion.

What a successful group does (says Bion) is weave together these three basic assumptions so that they’re no longer dysfunctions (which is what each becomes if left to dominate) but instead providing a foundation for productive work.

Shirky brings Bion’s work to life. It’s an essay very, very much worth a read/re-read (delete as appropriate).

Bonus link: my own stream of consciousness 2015 essay, Small groups and consultancy and coffee mornings.

I find myself circling these topics, and thinking about technology and its role and how we’ve really screwed that up, and about Bion and his wonderfully emotional approach to groups, and asking the same question that James Mulholland asked at the top of this post: What is the SMALL GROUP for the 2020s?

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