The Inner Circle Writers’ Group continues to expand at an extraordinary and unexpected rate. It began in 2008 with just me; it grew to a handful of members over the next few years, but in 2017, adventuring onto social media in the form of a Facebook group, it began to grow rapidly. Within a couple of months, membership had topped 500; soon afterward it reached 1,000. Now, eight months after its first appearance in Facebook, it is climbing more steeply than ever, past 1,700 members at this writing, with every sign of speeding up rather than slowing down.
One or two voices in those hundreds have expressed a concern that might echo with a few others: how big should a group get? How large, in fact, can a group get while still retaining its attractive characteristics? And, expanding even further upon that, how big can or should anything grow?
Using the Inner Circle Writers’ Group as an example, I’m pretty sure that, at 1,700 members, we are very much like we were at 300. Members are still entertained and enlightened enough to remain active at a ratio of between 70% and 80% - in other words, over a given period, about three quarters of the members of the group are participating in it in some way. This is remarkably high, and something that acts as an index, measuring group satisfaction to some degree: a group which did not have so active a membership would be failing, as the only real purpose for a group is its members. Most members feel that, when they visit this group, they get something from it; most want to add something to it, ranging from a ‘Like’ all the way to posting major articles and being a part of several conversations at once. This isn’t likely to change with the addition of more members: the flow of traffic, in terms of what and how much is posted, is still controlled by me. About the only things that I can’t directly monitor are all the conversations that take place in comment threads, but in the space of eight months I have only had to intervene three times to ‘pour oil on troubled waters’. As the membership grows, the potential for ‘troubled waters’ increases. And that brings up some interesting issues, not just to do with the group, but about things in general.
Anything and everything in Life goes through a cycle of growth, maturation and eventual decay. In the beginning, the in-built potential of an organism, both responding to stimuli and acting out a ‘destiny’, becomes more and more manifest. This is shown by growth, by the living thing getting bigger, expanding to a point at which it can properly fulfil that potential. Then, for reasons which scientists are still studying but which philosophers perhaps understood a long time ago, that point of maturation and accomplishment is passed: the organism begins to develop signs of weakness and is no longer able to perform at its best.
Whatever the biological reasons for this might be in living things, in abstract terms it could be argued that something in an organism or growing entity develops which is not in alignment with the purposes of that organism or entity. If this is not swiftly corrected, that ‘something’ has its own growth rate, and over a period of time it takes over the direction of the entity and this brings about a misalignment, seen outwardly as decline and ‘death’. But, provided that the misaligning thing is spotted, monitored and corrected early enough and consistently enough, there is no theoretical reason why it should become dominant. Thus human beings, for example, are living biologically longer as modern medicine tracks down those things which cause misalignment in the body, ranging from unhealthy lifestyles to bad diets to diseases, and so on. Eliminate these, or keep them under control, and the entity, whatever it is, can continue to follow its own directives and flourish.
Groups are the same. Provided that there are procedures in place to prevent or control factors which might pull a group off course or damage it irreparably, it should (per a kind of extended Newton’s Law) continue to operate well.
What happens in some groups - some other writers’ groups serve as an example here - is that, as the group grows and grows, those monitoring and guiding principles are not installed or are operated inadequately. Misalignment enters in: discussions, posts, comments, even identities creep into the main feed which no longer match the original purpose of the group, thus diluting it, reducing its attractive power, and eventually making it semi-comatose or even killing it. It’s perfectly understandable that, having seen that happen, someone might become anxious that it could happen again in any group. And it could - if the required protocols were altered too much, or dropped out altogether.
If I were to, for instance, open the doors for anyone to enter the group, without any kind of check, then within a couple of weeks we would be overwhelmed by members whose primary purpose would not be to gain some knowledge about or insight into the subject of fiction writing: they might be there to try to sell other members things, or to stir up trouble by intentionally upsetting people and then vanishing. This could still happen in the Inner Circle, but there are at least some safeguards in place and, as far as I know, this has not happened to any great degree yet.
If I were, as another example, to open the doors to any kind of posts, without any mechanism for approval, the group would soon be swamped with either advertisements or with those rather pointless and inane things with which we are familiar from elsewhere - you know the kind of thing: ‘here’s what I had for breakfast’ or ‘we can guess the colour of your eyes with this simple quiz’. No thank you. We are all busy people, and we want to be able to quickly visit this group, gain some insight or have a laugh, engage with people who have similar issues to ourselves, and then get on with our writing, refreshed and perhaps enlightened.
As I say, about the only thing that I can’t safeguard against is the way conversations go in threads. I don’t see all of these - I don’t know if it’s possible or viable for me to do so. But, given the other protections that are in place, the likelihood of anything going completely crazy in a comments thread is pretty low: we’re generally people of a like mind - we value fiction and the writing thereof, and we value each other.
So how big should something grow? As big as it needs to to continue to fulfil its purpose. Which can be enormous. I don’t plan on limiting the size of the Inner Circle Writers’ Group in any way, at the moment. To me, more members equals more writers being helped in some way, more engagement, more participation, and potentially more customers for my books and yours, as members of this group tend to be interested and alive to what is going on around them, curious about what is on offer, and willing to look more closely at it than the faceless identities most of us have pursued through internet ads and the like.
If, however, I notice that the quality of the Inner Circle experience is being compromised, I will act in all our interests to correct it. As far as I’m concerned, though, the quality of the experience is going to get better and better as we get bigger and bigger. You’ll be amazed. I’m in Year Three of a Forty Year Plan. So stick around.