About social systems

This text is inspired by the decline of the German Oekonux discussion list during the years 2005 and 2006. It is a personal collection of thoughts and mixes in a couple of earlier experiences from different realms.

Social systems

What's this?

This collection of thoughts is about social systems. So it would be nice to define this term. Unfortunately I can't to a degree I personally find satisfying. However, I can give a few characteristics.

  • Consists of interacting humans

    Well, that's probably what everyone expects of the term.

    May be the interaction should be emphasized. In fact I think the interaction and the patterns in this interaction are the most interesting thing in social systems and a lot of these thoughts here are concerned with patterns of interaction.

  • There is a purpose

    See purpose of a social system for some thoughts about this.

  • There are boundaries

    See boundaries for some thoughts about this.


This collection of thoughts is inspired by the decline of a mailing list. A mailing list is a social system. It may seem needless to emphasize this but there are people who think that a different technology could change a lot. I don't think so. Technology in social systems is always a tool - and as such it can be used one way or the other. For instance nobody would try to change the telephone system just because people express love and hate using it. However, there technology may make a difference as far as troubled persons are concerned.

Social systems are made of people and because of this people are the most important things in social systems. Of course technology can support processes in social systems but it can not replace something I'd call culture.

However, while we are at technology one word needs to be said. Internet technology is a rather particular technology because it strips a lot from human communication. Especially e-mail is a very difficult tool socially - despite its technical simplicity. Internet communication reduces human communication channels to the very explicit and textual surface. Things look rational - after all it's written text - but often this rational surface hides emotional messages. Well, in fact they are not really hidden but expressed between the lines. This makes things very difficult because such hidden messages are hard to deal with.

Please remember: Every "body-less" communication tool like e-mail is a very difficult medium. I tend to think that it is one of the new cultural techniques to learn for coming societies to deal with such media adequately.

Purpose of a social system

I think one important characteristic of a social system is that it has a purpose and may be even a goal which can be reached. Every social system needs effort to keep it up so there must be some rationality for the members of a social system to engage in that effort. I think the single non-alienated reason for this effort is the purpose of the social system.

A purpose can be really anything - from saving the whales to maximizing the common profit, from flying to the moon to having a good time in the pub once in a while. The purpose of a social system is what makes staying in it worthwhile. If that purpose becomes unclear then a social system is in danger. If that purpose is unclear from the start there is barely a social system.

There are many reasons why the purpose of a social system may become unclear. One reason can be that a goal is simply reached. Another reason can be that it becomes clear that a certain goal can not be reached at all. The purpose of a social system may also change over time leaving some people behind while attracting others. Moreover there are phases in each social system during which the purpose of a social system is more visible and phases where it becomes less visible.

I think the purpose of a social system is the most important thing at all. It is important to maintain its visibility and repeating the purpose of a social system can probably not be done often enough. If the purpose becomes unclear there is the danger of alienation.


When a social system has a purpose then it is implicitly clear that there are boundaries: Something which has nothing to do with the purpose of the social system or is even contrary to it is outside the boundaries of this social system. Clear and simple.

Though boundaries are an inalienable feature of social systems there are people who have a general problem with boundaries. They think that boundaries generally should not exist and that the absence of boundaries entails freedom. IMHO nothing could be more wrong. In the contrary boundaries are an important part of the structure of a social system and as such they are helpful.

Of course boundaries also mean restrictions - that's their very purpose in the end. Restrictions may be useful and harmful - it depends. A stable social system, however, IMHO can remove boundaries which became harmful for the social system while it keeps boundaries which are useful.

Admittedly boundaries are probably among the most difficult concepts at all. Boundaries are often not clear cut but large grey areas instead. This makes them debatable and it needs some feel for them to get used to them - if people want to be a useful part of a social system. In fact most of the dangers for social systems are about boundaries.


Culture in a social system in the way I think of this term is somewhat hard to explain. It refers to the way how people interact with each other. Culture is build from patterns of behavior shown by the members of the social system. May be it could be said that culture is a pattern of patterns of behavior.

I don't think patterns of interactions in a social system are arbitrary but they are largely formed by a dominant culture. I.e. whether people yell at each other or whether they try to listen to each other is largely determined by some culture. And no, in a single social system it seems impossible to me to have permanently more than one culture.

Culture is something people usually do not recognize very consciously - only if they are very unused to a certain culture they are confronted with. However, people usually align by themselves to such a culture - well most do most of the time. Those who don't sometimes cause problems. Lacking a better word I call such behavior trolling.

If you know a bit of Oekonux you may have heard of ODA (OrganizationDominationAnarchy). Culture is a good part of ODA. A part which - as I said - is usually not recognized very consciously. May be that's part of why it is so difficult to explain - you can not put your finger on it but just feel it.

Creating culture

One of the most difficult things seems to me to explain how to create or modify a certain culture. No, that's not true. It is usually easy to destroy a fruitful culture in a given social system but it is always hard to build it. Sometimes it is even pointless trying to create or recreate a fruitful culture.

You can try to set up rules but cultures are not made of rules. They are felt by the members of a social system.

May be the best is to just live a certain culture. Many people will - often unconsciously - observe your behavior and behave similar. It seems to me that whether or not this works is also part of the basic culture of a person largely coined by the country / regional culture s/he comes from.

However, living a certain culture visibly is a constant effort. If a few important people stop living this for some reason then care must be taken.


I already pointed out that creating culture has a lot to do with watching the behavior of other members of the social system and mimic their behavior. In other words: This works through observation.

Often mimicking observed behavior is far more important than rules. Especially the behavior of important persons for many is a way to decide - often unconsciously - about their own behavior. That also means that if important persons start breaking rules, then the social system is in real danger. Of course this puts a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of important persons - but that's probably the price for being important.

Of course behavior which is invisible to others can not be observed. Thus nice behavior in a small subgroup of a social system helps nothing if in the overall social system bad behavior is shown.


Structures in social systems are helpful because they give guidelines. Structures can be part of the culture of a social system and then they are usually implicit. Or they can be explicit and you may want to call them institutions then. Often explicit structures come about only after a social system exists for some time.

Boundaries are a part of the structure of a social system. As for boundaries there may be people who fight structures by principle. In a way this is stupid because social systems can not exist without structure - be it in a culture or be them more explicit. Personally I think it is better to have explicit structures than to have some implicit mumbling.


Rules make boundaries and structures visible and are there to make them clear. In a way rules expressly say what the boundaries and structures of a social system are, they make them explicit.

Boundaries and structures are more or less debatable and it follows logically that rules expressing them are also debatable. However, because rules need to be formulated in some language they add one layer of confusion. Boundaries and structures can be felt without explicit expression. Rules being formulated in some language can be understood, misunderstood, interpreted and so on. I think stable social systems can live without rules. However, this only works when there is a strong and fruitful culture.

As for boundaries and structures rules can raise opposition just because some people think each rule needs to be opposed by principle. If you have such behavior in a social system you need to be careful with rules. Such behavior can cause big trouble and often enough the purpose of the social system becomes irrelevant compared with the fight over some rules. This is one type of alienation.


An alienated relationship to a social system is a relationship which is not inspired by the purpose of the social system but by some reason external - alien - to this purpose. There are many possibilities for alienation. One big source of alienation in social systems is money. If you get money for something then you have interests in this job which at best are indirectly related to the purpose of the social system.

I'm not sure but I tend to think that all dangers for a social system stem from alienation.


There are people who believe that in a social system everything can happen in harmony always but I think this is not true. I think conflicts are inevitable in a living social system.

Conflicts are also not necessarily bad for a social system. Conflicts can make clear different paths which could be followed and if things work well conflicts can be a source of inspiration and mark the beginning of something new.

They become a problem, however, if there is no conflict resolution. After having seen countless examples I tend to say that working conflict resolution is one of the most important things in a social system.

Conflicts are also one of the most important sources of changes in patterns of behavior in a social system. Especially unresolved conflicts can destroy the culture of a social system to the point where the whole social system is destroyed.


In a living social system decisions are necessary. If things work well then there is no much problem with decision making because it is clear anyway what the right decision is. This is the case if there is no conflict about one way or the other.

However, there may be multiple ways to follow. Then there may be a conflict and a decision may be hard to make. Again conflict resolution is key here.

Important persons

A lot of people want to think that in a social system everyone is equal. In western societies we learn that equality is one of the cornerstones of democracy. However, reality doesn't care much about such ideology. In every social system I heard of there are people who are more important for the social system and people who are less important for the social system. I think there are two main reasons for this inequality: interest and ability.

Not everyone is interested in a certain social system equally. Some are more interested in the (purpose of the) social system others are less. This is normal and fine for most social systems and it probably can not be enforced that everybody is equally interested. Please note that low interest is not the same as alienation. Alienation happens when there is interest in things alien to the purpose of the social system. Such alienation may come with any level of interest in the purpose of the social system - though low levels are more likely to alienate from a social system.

The other reason is ability. It is a simple matter of fact that not everyone is able to do everything. Because to pursue the purpose of a social system may need some abilities more than others there are people who are more important for a social system than others. Plain and simple.

A social system is in danger if its important people leave.

Troubled persons

Let's face it: There are troubled or even disturbed persons out there. Though it may sound hard there is no use in denying this. Also we are all more or less troubled at times.

Though I think technology is not the foundation of a social system but only a mere helper as far as troubled persons are concerned (communication) technology can make a difference. Especially in the "body-less" forms of communication via the Internet you can often see flames which are absolutely unthinkable if the same persons would face each other.

I also learned that often people who are very "strong" in "body-less" communication are absolute loosers if it comes to communication with real people. It seems that for a certain class of troubled people Internet communication seems to be a valve where they can act out all the emotions they not dare to have in the less-virtual world.

In a social system troubled people can cause big problems when they start to act out their troubles or even disturbances in that social system. The dangerous patterns of behavior are often shown by troubled persons. Though it is certainly a pity that there are troubled people out there it is certainly not the purpose of a social system to help such people - unless it's a self-help group.

I've seen countless projects crash because they tried to integrate troubled persons by all means. Don't do this. It helps nobody but it can destroy social systems which are very useful to a lot of persons. Unfortunately in social systems who have a tendency to integrate troubled persons if you try to do something about it you will typically run into problems like policing and you almost certainly will raise professional opposition. In other words: There is no easy way out.

Real names

In Internet-borne social systems people can choose names of their liking. Basically this means they can use their real name or they can use an alias. My experience is: The more people use their real name the better the social system is off. At best everyone uses his/her real identity. People who are really interested in the social systems have no reason to hide their identity - unless it is a criminal social system.

On the other hand people who use an arbitrary alias or just their first names have something to hide. This has not necessarily to do with the social system but remember it is far easier to cause trouble if you are hidden behind a mask.

Individual actions

Individual actions and social systems build a very complex relationship. However, social systems are definitely more than a sum of the individual actions of their members. Therefore individual actions sometimes make no sense because they are done in a different realm.

For example in a social system the boundaries may become weak for some reason. This weakness is generally a danger for the social system as a whole if it is not removed or resolved in a constructive manner. In such a case an individual action could be to construct some individual boundaries by leaving or by not feeding a troll or ignoring trolling completely. Both of these patterns of behavior are effective on an individual basis but they ignore the real problem which keeps to exist. Such individual actions make only sense if they are done by all.


Part of the reason why individual actions are in another realm than the social system is the dynamics of social systems. In a way the dynamics of a social system are part of the culture of a social system.

Strong dynamics in a social system can determine it heavily - for good or for bad. Entanglement can be one of the bad dynamics.


Responsibility is probably an important topic in every aspect of human live. In a social system, however, it is particularly important to act responsibly because observation of behavior by others will influence the social system massively. This applies especially for important persons because their indirect influence is bigger than the influence of others.



Policing I call an attempt to enforce rules, boundaries and/or structures in a certain social system. Of course people don't like to be policed so this is always a source of conflict.

If you feel that policing is necessary this is a good indication that there is either something wrong with the culture of the social system or you have some alienated behavior which doesn't respect the purpose of a social system and because of this is not interested in the culture.

Expelling persons

Expelling persons is one strong sort of policing. As such it often is a strong source of conflict. However, expelling troubled persons who started to act out their troubles in the social system can do less damage than if they have their way. Its a difficult question.

Patterns of behavior

If interaction between humans is an important characteristic of social systems then it makes sense to look at patterns of behavior. This text focuses on patterns of behavior I learned to be harmful or even dangerous for a social system and a few patterns of behavior I learned to be useful for a social system.

Please note that I'm describing patters of behavior. It is important to understand that this is not a typology of humans but of behavioral patterns. Humans can show many different behavioral patterns and they can change them over time. Thus a description on the basis of types of humans makes little sense. Also such a perspective would make it impossible to understand how behavioral patterns develop in a social system. This is, however, of utmost importance because social systems can trigger one pattern of behavior and they can trigger another. For instance conflicts - especially if not resolved - can change patterns of behavior.

Dangers for social systems


Trolling stands for the violation of some culture of a social system. Some types of trolling are easy to recognize because it openly violates the culture. What this means depends on the person trolling as well as on the culture the trolling challenges. You can recognize trolling by the fact that it looks extreme to you in some way. Often trolling is done by open provocation.

One may ask what drives some people to break a certain culture. There may be many reasons but IMHO one of the most likely is that they look for some (public) recognition. Unfortunately for some people it is of little importance how they receive such (public) recognition and often enough it is easier to receive such recognition by negative and destructive actions. Please note that provocation is a very handy way to receive (public) recognition.

In a stable social system open trolling usually is no problem because everyone recognizes and treats it as such. More problems than with such open trolling are caused by border crossing.

Trolling is also a type of alienation: For trolling it is not the purpose of the social system which is important but to receive (public) recognition.

Border crossing

Border crossing happens when someone in one moment complies with the culture of a social system while in the next moment s/he violates it. Such behavior is extremely difficult to cope with because border crossing persons changes their face every minute. While open trolling is recognized by everyone border crossing is considered differently by members of the social system. Some like border crossing, others hate it. Because border crossing is difficult to understand - if at all - and because there are contradicting positions all the time it tends to drive people and social systems crazy. May be border crossing is the biggest single danger in every social system.

On the other hand in an open social system mild border crossing can be useful to change things. This of course adds to the difficulties with border crossing...

However, neither open trolling nor border crossing as such are a problem to a stable social system. Feeding trolls however is.

Feeding trolls

We need to remember that every behavior of a human is rational in some way - though neither we nor the individual itself may be able to concsiously see the rationality behind an action. If someone trolls then it also has some rationality. If (public) recognition is the reason then of course the best way to break that rationality is: Don't feed the troll by reactions. I mean if nobody reacts to you then you feel not very recognized - neither does someone who trolls.

I've seen countless examples where not feeding a troll helped very much. If trolling does not lead to the wished for result then there is little rationality in trying on and on. If, however, trolling is fed then trolling patterns of behavior gets stronger by each reaction. This may also lead to a situation where are people start trolling which didn't do so before.

Please be aware that reacting not is sometimes hard to do - often much harder than reacting. Please remember that often trolling actively uses provocations to force a reaction. Please note that we all feel like "But this needs to be anwered!" Just don't do it. If you do you will end up in the opposite of your intentions.

Even if trolling is not fed by other members of a social system there is a possibility that there are trolling groups.

Trolling groups

Trolling groups consist of two or more persons who during a given phase do open trolling and/or border crossing. They feed each other.

This is a very difficult situation because there is nobody who can be appealed to to not feed a troll. Two or more trolls can feed each other perfectly and with an enormous frequency. They can poison a social system within a very short time.

Professional opposition

You may be inclined to say "Well, simply remove these persons who are trolling from the social system". This may work if you have a high degree of consensus among a relevant part of the social system about the trolling. But this is rarely the case and if at all only with open trolling.


As with any rule or other explicit action, however, you can be sure that you call for professional opposition in the social system at hand. Professional opposition doesn't care much what it is it is against, it lives from simply being against. Professional opposition will never accept a rule - just because it is a rule and regardless of how useful it is.

For social systems with an emancipatory goal there is a special difficulty: Emancipation to some degree has to do with opposition and so professional opposition is attracted by such social systems. There is probably little which can be done here...

If someone raised professional opposition in a social system it is best to revert that behavior as quick as possible. However, once professional opposition started it tends to stay.

Professional opposition is not really interested in solving things - in the end that would destroy rationality for staying. However, professional opposition poisons a social system by nagging on and on and on.


While trolling can be characterized as active aggression nagging is the passive counterpart. Nagging means criticizing everything. Yes, criticizing in general is something positive but the difference between criticizing and nagging is the intended outcome.

Criticizing is interested in analyzing, understanding and improving a certain situation. It ends if the critique is taken into account or the situation changed. Critique can be questioned by others and the criticizer can reply to such questions. In other words the criticizer feels responsible for its critique.

Nagging is different. You can question nagging - but don't expect an answer. You can change things - but don't expect nagging stops. Nagging is not interested in a solution. Nagging is only interested in nagging.

If you are lucky you can catch someone nagging by treating it as critique. Ask questions on how to proceed differently. Try to find out what are the reasons behind the nagging. If you get no answer this tells you more about the intentions than any word. Also the social system recognizes that someone is just nagging around with no own ideas and no responsibility - which sometimes stops the nagging over time.


One of the most aggressive ways of trolling is lying about members or aspects of the social system. While "normal" provocations common in trolling are only a way to provoke some reactions lies are a special type of provocation: They are directed against the social system itself.

Lies are really tough to handle. On the one hand if they are not corrected by a reply people start believing in the lie. Then people start to think in wrong ways about the social system they are members of - which is of course always bad.

On the other hand each reply to a lie is also feeding a troll - which strengthens the person who lied in the first place. There is, however, the chance to unmask the lie as being a lie which if done well will discredit the person telling the lie. People will stop trusting in that particular person and that's what is the right reaction to lies.


Bullying is another sort of trolling. Bullying tries to silence others by reacting to them in an aggressive way. Though aggression sometimes is useful to show a permanent level is usually not useful for the purpose of the social system . This applies especially if this purpose contains openness because openness is prevented most effectively by bullying.

An extreme form of bullying is calling someone names. Milder forms are not answering to arguments made or to question the qualification of a person in an aggressive way.


Yet another type of alienation is evangelizing. Evangelizing is done when people feel enthusiast about some idea and for some reason think that all the world needs to share their enthusiasm. For evangelizing a social system often is a wonderful possibility to (try to) recruit new followers. Evangelizing actually doesn't care about the purpose of the social system but about a way to get a foot in the door.

Doing so evangelizing sometimes even ignores the culture of the social system it is trying to convert. However, this is not necessarily the case. Evangelizing can be done in accordance to the culture of the social system and then it is only a bit boring.

Sometimes you can recognize evangelizing by a certain behavior pattern. For evangelizing it suffices that you are a member of a social system only for a short time to come up with the topic of the evangelizing. Please note that this topic can be on-topic or off-topic. Often people with this behavorial pattern even don't try to understand what is going on in the social system they are entering.

In most social systems evangelizing is rare because it is not worth the effort. This is different, however, for successful social systems.

Successful social systems

You can distinguish social systems which are successful and those which are not. Successful social systems can be recognized for instance by their age. An unsuccessful social system is usually rather short-lived - it is simply not worth the effort and crumbles away soon.

Successful social systems which have some public recognition and a good deal of members are interesting for various types of alienation. Trolling for instance is attracted by the sheer size of a social system as is evangelizing. Both use the existing infrastructure for their respective purpose which has nothing to do with the social system.

So ironically with the success of a social system the dangers grow. Unsuccessful social system often face none of the dangers described here. However, this is not because they are somehow smarter but because they are not so attractive to patterns of behavior who cause trouble.

Unused infrastructure

While the purpose of a social system may become unclear the infrastructure of that social system may stay operational. This is often the case in the end of a social system or parts of it. The unused infrastructure, however, is attractive for all types of alienated usages. Therefore it makes sense if unused infrastructure - especially if it once was important - is removed if there are other parts of a social system which are still functioning.


If there is trouble in a social system scapegoating is one of the more likely reactions. If the scapegoated person is still around then this person is often done enormous harm by such treatmen. If such a person is an important person for the social system chances are that this person leaves the social system sooner or later which will weaken the social system further.


Leaving a social system can have many reasons. What is of interest here are those sorts of leaving which are due to the decline of a social system. Leaving with this background is a way of creating individual boundaries where the boundaries of the social system became non-operational for some reason.

If there is a constant rate of people leaving the social system then this is a clear indication that there is something wrong with it.

Off-topic talking

Off-topic talking is a more general term but many other alienated phenomenons are based on off-topic talking. It means talking about things which have nothing to do with the purpose of the social system. This is possible because every social system needs a communication space which, however, can be used for arbitrary communication. In a stable social system off-topic talking is usually prevented by the culture of the social system.

Bad things creeping in

Above there are listed a lot of bad things which can happen to a social system. If you have a positive culture in a stable social system none of these things will damage your social system immediately.

However, often there seems to be some tendency that bad things creep into the social system slowly. They change the culture of a social system slowly and step by step turning useful and nice social systems into a mess.

One of the problems with bad things creeping slowly is that it is harder to recognize them. People quickly get used to this or that behavior until half of the members of the social systems shits into the corner. If you have a bit experience with social systems you may be aware of the beginnings of such bad things creeping in. But be sure: Others are not. If then a few of these others have a tendency to behave in the professional opposition pattern then trying to prevent such bad things may become an impossible mission.


Especially if you have trolling and feeding trolls in your social system for some time there is the risk that an entanglement between trolling and feeding persons comes into being. As we all know such an entanglement will keep itself alive forever - unless someone breaks it consciously. In the best case this is one of the persons involved in the entanglement - for instance by simply stopping in engaging in the entanglement or by leaving.

Revolving around itself

There are very few social systems which have revolving about themselves as their purpose. And what should this be good for?

A declining social system, however, has a tendency to revolve around itself. People stop talking about the real purpose of the social system and only talk about the social system itself. If you can see such a shift in the topics discussed in a social system you can be sure that it has come to its end because it is no longer useful for its original purpose.


[Term formed from "do-gooder" (German: "Gutmensch")]

Do-gooding happens when people are not able to act in ways they perceive as evil - regardless of how useful it would be for the social system. Do-gooding is born from a firm believe that everyone loves each other - which in reality is neither true nor desirable. Do-gooding has a problem with conflicts - because they don't fit into this world view. However, ignoring a conflict by do-gooding worsens the conflict.

In social systems do-gooding can be seen often when as a consequence of breaking rules persons shall be expelled from a social system or when there are troubled persons. In such cases do-gooding tries to help these persons then. However, only self-help groups are social systems where such help is the purpose of the social system. In all other social systems such attempts to help are clearly not the purpose of the social system and in addition they are not helpful for anyone. It's another type of feeding trolls.

In social systems do-gooding can also be seen together with professional opposition but has not the aggressive manner of it. Coalitions of do-gooding and professional opposition, however, can be an effective way to make effective action difficult or even impossible.

Hope for social systems

Above I said a lot about the dangers for social systems. But there is some hope for social systems as well. Unfortunately it is far easier to destroy a social system than to keep it useful and stable. Some of these points seem to be clear and don't need mentioning. However, especially when a social system declines it may be useful to remember what could be useful patterns of behavior.


In any social system listening to people is one of the most important things - and sometimes the hardest thing. However, only if you listen to people you have a chance to understand them. Listening also makes people feel valued and as such they have more reasons to stay in a social system.

When a social system declines often more and more people feel that they are not listened to. This can be used as an indicator.

However, listening needs criticizing as well. If nobody criticizes then there is nothing which can be listened to.


Critique is generally useful to a social system. It opens a door to further development of the social system. However, different from nagging criticizing is interested in the furtherance of the social system. Critique is aimed at some change or at least to register that there is something wrong and should be considered at some point. As such critique is a responsible way to cope with problems in a social system. Also critique can be criticized itself and step by step something useful can mature.

Criticizing is also needed to give someone the chance to listen.

On-topic talking

On-topic talking means to talk about things which have to do with the purpose of the social system. If off-topic talking and other forms of alienated behavior spread in a social system on-topic talking can reassure members that there is at least someone who is still interested in the purpose of the social system. If you are lucky you can even reverse negative trends with a constant effort of on-topic talking. If, however, the social system declined enough even this won't help any more because for instance trolling behavior overlays on-topic talking.

Positive atmosphere

The atmosphere in a social system is part of that culture. A positive atmosphere welcomes contributions to the social system and tries to value them. In a negative atmosphere on the other hand people are attacked for everything and listening is rare. People really interested in the purpose of the social system usually are not interested in being attacked all the time so they often leave when there is no positive atmosphere.


Discipline in a social system means that one needs to check for the culture of that social system as well as the purpose of the social system when acting in that social system. It prevents people from showing negative or even dangerous patterns of behavior. In a way discipline means constantly acting in a responsible way.

Be constructive

Try to be constructive - even if it is hard because the atmosphere is already rather bad: If there are a few people who try to be constructive there is still some hope for the social system.

However, beware of feeding a troll. Since trolling is not really interested in constructive solutions there is no point in trying.


In every social system trust is a key aspect. If there is no trust in the people active in the social system every action needs to be actively controlled by the members of the social system which in practice is rarely possible.

Trust in a social system means mainly trust in the will of the active people to further the purpose of the social system. This is different from "normal" trust between humans.

Trust is damaged when alienated goals are recognized. That is a logical reaction because by definition alienated goals use the social system but do not further its purpose. Smart people try to hide their alienated goals - because they at least feel they are alienated. In other words: Alienated goals usually are pursued by a hidden agenda. Hidden agendas are probably the most damaging things for trust.

On the other hand suspecting someone of having a hidden agenda is a good way to discredit this person in the social system. Thus suspecting someone of a hidden agenda is one of the ways of the professional opposition pattern of behavior.

There are some things you can do, however, to maintain trust. One thing is to maintain transparency. Make transparent what you do so people can see it. In practice it does not matter so much whether people actually do use that transparency. It's more important that they could if they like to. One key factor here is that all relevant communication in the social system is done in a public space. The only exception from this is conflict resolution for which it often is more useful to try it in a less public space. The results of the conflict resolution, however, should be public again.

The other thing is to behave in a rational and calculable way. It furthers trust if people have the feeling that they have an idea of your next steps. Behaving in a rational way is one way to do this. Make transparent what your reasons for acting are. Then people can consider them and make up their own mind about it and try to understand your behavior. On this basis trust can grow.

Asking for reasons

If in the social system trolling occurs then in some cases it helps to ask the trolling people why they do this. This is most useful if the questions ask for whether the actions of the trolling people are aligned with the purpose of the social system.

Asking for reasons works best if people keep nagging. In this case it also may make sense to ask those people to create their own social system where they can set all of those parameters they are expressedly so unhappy with to their liking. This is also a litmus test whether they are serious with their criticism or whether they just want to nag: If they are serious they will fork - if they just nag they will leave without doing anything useful - or worse: they will stay.


If in a social system there is unacceptable behavior like any form of trolling then it is good to make that clear. The trolling person then is informed that there is a problem with her/his behavior and s/he can change her/his behavior accordingly.

In some cases it suffices to warn in private communication but warning in public has the advantage that the other members of the social system see that there is something done about the situation. In addition a public warning makes clear to everyone that there is a problem and that the problem causer has been informed of this.

Typically warnings should be given at least twice so the problem causer really has a chance and sees that the warning was serious.

If warnings do not have the desired effect, however, stronger measures need to be taken. Otherwise the effect of the warning is contrary to its intention: A warning without consequences is an invitation to disturb the social system further and others with such potential may feel that their time has now come. Usually the next stronger measure is to expel the respective person.


In some social systems it is technically feasible to have some sort of moderation for some time period. This means that there is a fixed set of moderators who approve or prevent contributions of the other participants on a case-by-case basis.

Moderation is a rather powerful method to realign a social system to its purpose. However, in a social system which had no moderation before it is also dangerous because it may drive some participants to professional opposition. This effect can be reduced if the moderation is done publicly so everyone can watch the decisions made by the moderators and if possible understand the reasons for the respective decision.

When you switch on moderation and the perceived trolling disappears more or less immediately this is a rather clear indication that it actually was trolling. Trolling persons look for public recognition and when there is no chance to get it any more there is no use in trying. This is different for people who really want to contribute to the purpose of the social system. They will continue to do so - or start again if the atmosphere gets better.

In any case moderation is a powerful tool and with every such tool it needs to be wielded with care. Sometimes it is the last option.

Conflict resolution

Many, many social systems fail because they have no (working) conflict resolution mechanisms. Conflicts are normal in a living social system - they can not be prevented and they should not be prevented because they can help develop the social system further. However, if conflicts are not resolved then people get pissed off more and more and some may change their behavior from useful to dangerous.

What a good conflict resolution mechanism is depends largely on the culture of the social system. There are no fixed rules. In some social systems authoritarian solutions may work - because people are used to this type of conflict resolution. However, in most social systems other conflict resolution work. There is a bunch of conflict resolution methods out there - for instance mediation where there are helpers who try to mediate the conflicting parties. Take your pick.

However, the best conflict resolution mechanism can not work if the parties are not really interested in a conflict resolution at all. This happens regularly if the interest of the conflicting parties is alienated from the purpose of the social system. Then in many cases a conflict resolution is not possible because the field of the conflict is not really the social system as such but concerns at least one outside aspect.

StefanMerten/Thoughts/AboutSocialSystems (last edited 2009-06-02 16:55:33 by StefanMerten)

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