In a discussion about stress, my friend Bert Jaap van Oel asked: “How much stress can a community handle before it falls to pieces?” Two forces are already naturally at work in communities against dislocation, by both external and internal forces: one is cohesion or what Bacon (2009) calls ‘belonging’ and the other is the notion of ‘identity’ of the community, as pointed out by Wenger (1998).
But what do we mean by stress and what does it have to do with communities? Stress is a natural short-term response of the body to circumstances that require increased strength and stamina as well as rapid reactions and focus. Stress becomes a problem when circumstances force the body to maintain this level of alertness over an extended period. Stress then becomes chronic, is difficult to eradicate and can ultimately lead to physical or mental illness. Except in medical circles, we have come to use the word stress to refer exclusively to this chronic state, as this dictionary definition illustrates: a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.
Sources of stress and strategies for diminishing it
Stress can be set off by a major event like a death in the family or an accident or an illness or a set of exams. However, the vast majority of stress is an accumulation across varying contexts sparked off by minor events or seemingly trivial circumstances none of which are life-threatening or immensely challenging. Coming into a situation already stressed makes the likelihood of that situation also being stressful all the greater. And a ‘little more’ can be enough to make an already full cup overflow. A number of challenging situations occur in a communities and these can contribute to stress. One could argue that it is the role of community leaders but also the function of the tools and structures of the community to keep stress-provoking situations to a minimum. But it wouldn’t be good to take all the challenge out of communities, partly because tolerance to stress varies from person to person but mainly because it is the challenge that can be a major motor of community development and life. I can hear you saying that it is not the challenges that are the problem, but the many irritations. However, handling irritations is also a challenge. As stress is due to the persistence of challenge or threat, efforts need to be made to ensure that disruptions (such as technology failures or misunderstandings or conflicts) are short-lived and that the rhythm of community life varies between the intense and the more leisurely.
Here are some of the possible sources of stress in a community and suggestions of ways of handling them.
Online communities are frequently changing with the evolution of technologies but also the arrival of new people and the uptake of new ways of doing things. Each change requires some measure of adaptation and learning. For some people, the newness of the experience may bring with it a feeling of being overwhelmed, and in extreme cases, may produce a feeling of inadequacy or a fear of failure. As mentioned about, if it is possible, periods of change should be alternated with time when the situation is stable, giving people a chance to assimilate.
We are constantly under pressure from a fast-changing world that seems to get more complex everyday. Whether that complexity is real or imagined, the result is the same, many people react to complexity with stress. It is the role of those running communities to keep complexity in the community within bounds that most of it members can tolerate. Complexity is likely to occur as a combination of the technology used, the exchanges taking place, the relations between people and the ways of working. Although complexity cannot be entirely avoided – and doing so would probably not be good – following Bacon’s maxim of keeping it simple, when it comes to technology and ways of working, might help a lot.
As much of the substance of online communities is words exchanged, it is only to be expected that communication, language and, beyond them, relationships can also be sources of tension in communities. The hasty or careless use of words can lead to misunderstandings that easily spiral out of control. Developing a culture of respect helps. Tolerance towards diversity also helps. More generally, fostering savviness about emotional intelligence can help (Goleman 1995). More directly concerned with language, encouraging care in the use of words can also prevent misunderstandings. And when all else fails, developing ways and means of handling conflicts is a useful insurance policy.
Ways of working
Another potential source of stress lies in the frustration caused by inappropriate or irritating ways of working. Tension often occurs between individuals and within groups due to the differing ways of doing and seeing things. Wenger suggests that communities are aligned around shared ways of working. But the modular nature of technologies and the way individuals combine those technologies with changing ways of working points to a definite move away from unified ways of working. When it comes to individual ways of doing things and possible tension between different ways of doing things, cultivating respect for difference within the community is a good strategy. As for irritation due to what are perceived as inappropriate collective ways of working, for example excessive emphasis on procedures to the detriment of getting things done, it can be partly avoided by aiming for simplicity whenever possible and seeking a consensus over procedures.
Let’s face it, for all its wonders and they are many, technology can be a real pain when it doesn’t work or when it doesn’t do what you want it to do! And when it doesn’t work, the amount of time consumed can be considerable and the frustration can reach epic proportions. In terms of the offer provided within the community, whenever possible, keep it simple. And in terms of responding to problems and requests about technology from members, direct access to people who can change the code can come in useful. Unfortunately, access to those who made the code is not easy. Even open-source projects, in seeking to automate the handling of feedback, create considerable barriers to communication from non-developers. The increasing use of small modular software (Apps) shortens development cycles and potentially makes improvement more responsive to demand. Another thing to be born in mind about demands on technology is the 20/80 rule: eighty percent of demands for technology modifications require twenty percent of the effort, and twenty percent of the changes demanded require eight percent of the effort. The question then is: is the effort worth the return from implementing the changes?