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= A group is an agglomeration of people with the affirmative purpose of bringing about change.

- Beth Simone Noveck [1]


Action-oriented defintion in Beth Noveck's First Monday essay, A Democracy of Groups:

"By “group” I understand a community of individuals (whether on or offline) who seek to accomplish something in the world — some kind of purposive change — as a group. I am interested in our ability to come together voluntarily to engage in collective action. I am therefore not referring to a group as a class or a category to which one belongs by dint of birth or accident, such as race or ethnicity (though these are factors that can influence the choice to join particular groups). The group exists qua group not as the mere sum of the actions of its individual members but as the product of the interactions and influences within the group. The group is also not the accidental angry mob. Rather the group comprises the actions of its members to achieve something in the world in their roles as members of the group.

In addition, groups, in the sense that I use the term here, are also not the same as communities, a term that has become ubiquitous to describe the emotional attachments of people online. Virtual communities, according to Howard Rheingold, are defined by conversations among people who meet in cyberspace. But a group in the sense that I use the word is unlike two people talking or ten people on a street corner or even unlike ten thousand people on Craig’s List. It is not defined or determined by the size of its membership or the level of sociability. It is not defined by the rights it has or does not have (though we want to talk later about giving greater rights to groups). A group is an agglomeration of people with the affirmative purpose of bringing about change. The group moves beyond the “illusion of companionship without the demand of friendship” that characterizes virtual community." (


"While not exclusive, the following characterizes the qualities of a group.

1. The group is an intentional collective.

2. The group creates a sense of belonging to something — a public sensibility.

3. The group manifests a shared purpose.

4. The group desires to produce something together.

5. In the group roles and responsibilities are shared.

6. The group has boundaries and membership and exists as an independent entity, whether legally formed or not.

7. The group creates incentives and structures to facilitate belonging.

8. In a group, interaction must be sustained over some period of time.

9. A group develops its own internal norms or culture.

10. A group does its work through the participation of its members."


Groups need Group Physics, Group Culture and Group Assets

Beth Simone Noveck:

"Group physics gives shape and direction to the work of groups. By “physics,” I am referring to the rules and structures, which define the boundaries of the group and shape how participants in a group interact. I prefer to use the term group physics (or what John Clippinger has termed “Social Physics”) rather than structure, because it conveys something of the dynamic, complex and messy social interaction that characterizes human relations. Physics is not the same as legal structures or external interventions [96]. Physics describes all the forces that define the group and its behavior. Group physics gives shape and direction to the work of groups.

The social physics are the basic rules governing the interactions that allow the group to form. Having a structure ideally gives participants, not only a sense of the group as a whole, but also a clear indication of their role and function within the group, which, in turn, contributes to a sense of belonging. Structure generally takes the form of some kind of governance or organizational rules. Without such rules, the division of roles necessary for collaboration cannot take place. Is it legally incorporated or simply a loose agglomeration? How large is the group? (Differently sized groups behave very differently from one another, on average). Does the group have an explicit policy about who can join and what membership requires? Who makes the decisions and by what means? Is there prior discussion and deliberation or is the decision an aggregation of individual opinions? Structured interaction is necessary to coordinate participation within a group to produce a result, focus a conversation or achieve a desired goal, especially where members are distributed and working from a distance without the benefit of physical proximity or social cues and clues to coordinate their work. The structure and rules may be embedded in legal rules, perpetuated through informal norms or even encoded in the tools the group uses to manage its collective action.

In any biological system, the physics governs the basic structures but additional energy is then required to sustain and operate the system. Beyond physics groups also depend on group–specific history, experience, ideas and purpose, which ensure reciprocity, trust and shared sense of mission. In other words, there must also be that social glue that I term group culture. While the physics describes the way the group can form, the culture describes the way the group sustains itself and does its work.

Participants have to be able to depend on some form of iterative interaction and non–defection . This is not to say that groups have to persist indefinitely. There are many temporary forms of group life. But a group must last long enough to achieve some kind of “tranquil stability” and “abiding attachments” so that it can accomplish its purpose.

Participants have to be able to see themselves as the group and demonstrate their belonging in order to build trust. The culture of a group is shaped by many factors that promote or discourage a sense of the group. These can include something as simple as a common uniform, logo or other symbol of belonging (i.e. secret decoder ring); an explicit expression of mission, goal or purpose; the perceived type of work to be done or problem to be solved by the group and material factors, such as funding and meeting spaces that enhance the work of the group. To be clear, a successful group does not require a common cause; people can be joined by difference. All of these blend together to define a culture within the group and to sustain its membership in the collective enterprise.

Finally, the life of the group depends, not only on physics and culture, but also upon having access to the necessary assets to accomplish its stated purpose. We focus on the primary asset groups need to do something, namely information (which includes the communication that produces it). Groups have to be able to connect information to the task at hand and to the purpose of the group. It is not information per se; it is group information. That information may come in the form of outside data or may be the information exchanged through deliberation and dialogue within the group. Paramount is that the information be manageable enough to exploit, clear enough to understand and transparent enough to minimize manipulation. Crucial are ways of understanding the relationship between the information, the desired outcome and the different roles of members of the group vis–à–vis that information.

Physics, culture and information are, of course, terms to describe intertwined constitutive phenomena. But they help to give us a roadmap of the group and a guide to understanding the dynamics of group work. Breaking down the group helps, at once, to dispel prevalent fear of anything “groupish” and to uncover the material and technological conditions underlying our understanding of group dynamics. This is to the end of making the argument, as we will do in the next section, that technology can have a positive impact on the formation of group physics, culture and information. This might enable the growth of new and more productive kinds of groups to which the law ought to defer." (

Responding to the anti-group critiques

Beth Simone Noveck:

"If new technology is a boon to parents taking responsibility for their local school, isn’t it also the mainstay of pedophiles and pornographers? While groups might do things in the world, does that doing not include violence to other groups and individuals? After all, countless theorists have lamented the unfortunate tendency of groups to become factions from which the liberal state is designed to protect us.

This fear of mobs trampling the flowerbeds motivates the disdain for groups expressed by Richard Posner and Cass Sunstein [187], who challenge the usefulness of groups in their recent writings. They fear that the group, as a unit of social action, gives rise to excessive extremism and polarization. Groups cannot be trusted to govern themselves without bothering others. Not only are the internal dynamics poor, leading to a handful of members ganging up on others within the group, but groups will attack each other. After all, groups are a useful way for terrorists to work [188], Sunstein asserts. Posner cites familiar arguments on the social psychology of “groupthink” to assert that group deliberation is wasteful and ineffectual (especially as compared to the pragmatic judging of the appellate judge). Groups, to them, tend to be insular, parochial and intolerant of outsiders. People entrench opinions, rather than changing them, through interaction with a group. Groups are not characterized by participation but by demagogic hierarchy. Therefore, the argument follows, even if technology is good for groups, groups contribute nothing useful to the legitimate organization of power and, normatively, should not be promoted.

The anti–group critique comprises two distinct complaints, which justify for their proponents the arrangements of the liberal, republican state with its weak forms of collective participation. One criticism is that groups are homogenizing and polarizing. This is the critique of group dynamics, which are as likely to be poor as to be good. Call it the Groupthink problem. The second is that not all groups are “good.” Just as people naturally gravitate to groups, groups, so this logic goes, gravitate toward hurting other groups. The purpose of groups is to harass others. This is the gang intent on domination as juxtaposed to the picture I have painted of proactive and harmonious parents, workers, friends focused on self–governance. Technology has afforded groups new ways of doing harm as well as good. Call it the terrorist problem." (

See the appropriate section of Noveck's [2] for a full response to these critiques.

Towards Group Law and Group Corporations

Beth Simone Noveck:

"What are the legal models to engender the creation of a wide array of collective actors?

One possibility is that the market will self–organize the necessary means for groups. Technology can implement the contractual arrangements within a group, backed up by group bank accounts and insurance, creating the infrastructure for groups to act and wield power. But just as the market depends on the state to create the statutory framework that regularizes corporate actors, democracy may benefit from the incorporation of groups. Especially in a world of private and privatized communications platforms, where constitutional protections do not necessarily apply, we need a way to safeguard the rights of groups to associate, own assets, make decisions — and to protect against malevolent groups. Giving rights to groups is easier when we can identity the groups. And, if we want to impose conditions for the legitimate work of groups, we also need a guiding framework. We need a way to safeguard the rights of groups to associate, own assets, make decisions — and to protect against malevolent groups.

This will require recognizing new forms of collective legal personhood. As David Johnson writes:

The single most fundamental impact from all of these new capabilities may be felt in connection with the way in which we form the middle tier of the social fabric — organized, persistent, collaborating (non–governmental) groups.”

He suggests the “creation of new forms of organizations — including complex, stable institutions that ultimately may demand and deserve legal personhood”.

We can imagine a framework statute, which recognizes the external existence of self–constituting groups. The law would accord rights to such groups to allow them to own assets and make binding decisions. While technology, to an extent, will provide the means for groups to control assets and make decisions, we need to explore in much greater detail what the group corporation might look like. We need more experience and experimentation with emergent and self–organizing groups to define that legal framework definitively, but, at least initially, we can imagine baseline conditions that might apply.

First, those groups that secure a member’s right to exit and safeguard other member rights, such as rights of free expression and association within the group would be eligible. Second, the group corporation that the law defers to is one that is self–governing. In other words, it makes decisions that directly affect itself and not those outside the group. Of course, there is no such thing as pure autarky; there are always some external effects. But we can imagine a requirement that reintroduces some degree, not of representativeness, but of direct impact. The group cannot have as its purpose to harm individuals or groups. Third, it must maintain transparency in exchange for which the law recognizes its rights to own and dispose of assets and make decisions with binding authority. The group — no matter how short–lived or how constituted (e.g. a Meetup) — can own a bank account.

The legal framework ought to be flexible enough to accommodate a wide variety of purposes. There is no need to impose a single corporate form a priori and risk reifying the nature of group life especially when the technology is still evolving. Unlike in the business corporations context where we have an incentive to limit the number of corporate forms, to enhance the ability of groups to make decisions over an ever increasing array of complex subject matter, we want to have groups proliferate. Business corporations assume an extended life for the corporation. But these democratic corporations need to exist only long enough to accomplish their purpose. That may require an extended life or it may only need to subsist for a moment or a day. This group corporate status need not apply to the group as a whole or for the duration of the group but could apply to decisions or output of the group that the groups desires to have regarded as binding and legitimate. Again, because the new group corporation would be something easy to enter into without significant transaction costs (imagine an online registry), it need not have the same formalities at every level as the traditional business or municipal corporation. In fact, I imagine the forming of a new corporation to require only a series of clicks to establish. We trust people to make binding contracts in one click. Why not make it simple and easy to make a group in two? We trust people to make binding contracts in one click. Why not make it simple and easy to make a group in two?

Not all groups would need to become group corporations. While most groups can self–regulate, where groups need to ensure that their decisions can become binding and legitimate law and enjoy authority, they would become “group corporations.” The law would recognize decisions made by the group that affect the members of that group. But the group would be free to engage in decision–making as it chose, congruent with the values of its members. Groups could connect with other groups in larger scale corporations, which could be formed for a longer or a shorter period, depending on the task to be accomplished. Technology in every age creates the conditions and the boundaries for collective action. Cyberspace is no different.

We are just at the beginning of the conversation about the future of groups. There is no doubt that soon technology for groups — or visual and social software — will become mainstream and part of the familiar fabric of cyberspace. That cyberspace will look more and more like a videogame and less like the text–based Web we know today. And that evolution toward more visual screens will likely have a positive impact on social relationships online, allowing people, not only to play, but also to work together. Technology in every age creates the conditions and the boundaries for collective action. Cyberspace is no different. But with a decade of experience with cyberspace and the challenges of cyberlaw behind us, we can begin to address how the law should respond to the changing nature of cyberspace and to its potential impact on democracy. We know that law is often a blunt and awkward instrument, especially when applied retrospectively, for encouraging positive and democratic uses of technology. Corporate law, which establishes a statutory framework for social order and action, suggests a possible avenue forward for recognizing the rights of groups and the legitimacy of their decisions while circumscribing the malevolent influences of bad groups." (

More Information

  1. Group Physics
  2. Social Physics
  3. Group Corporations