Governance Thrash Redux?

Welcome to the nineteenth installment of the EVE Blog Banter, the monthly EVE Online blogging extravaganza created by CrazyKinux. The EVE Blog Banter involves an enthusiastic group of gaming bloggers, a common topic within the realm of EVE Online, and a week to post articles pertaining to the said topic. The resulting articles can either be short or quite extensive, either funny or dead serious, but are always a great fun to read! Any questions about the EVE Blog Banter should be directed to Check out other EVE Blog Banter articles at the bottom of this post!

This month’s topic comes to us from @evepress, and he asks: The CSM: CCP’s Meta Game? – The CSM, an eve players voice to CCP.Right? In the grand scheme of things yes, the players bring up issues and the CSM presents them to CCP. But in its current iteration the CSM was supposed to be given small authority to assign CCP assets toprojects that the CSM thought needed work on. As it has not come outthis was not the case. So fellow bloggers, is the CSM worth it, has the CSM improved the game in any way, or is it just a well thought out scamby CCP to give us players a false sense of input in the game? What’s your take?

. . .

Erbo Evans, speaking for the Ralpha Dogs.

Many capsuleers have had high expectations for the Council of Stellar Management (CSM), a group of players elected by their peers to, essentially, represent the player base to CCP.  CCP’s own overview page refers to them as “A democratically elected representative council, manned by players elected by players. The implementation of social ideas in EVE and the strengthening of the social structure.” Unfortunately, sometimes, expectations clash with reality.

The fifth CSM, in particular, seems to have come up against the “wall” dividing expectations from reality in particularly short order.  Mynxee, chairperson of the Council, sums it up in a brutally honest graphic that is not to be missed, and in her words:

Players are a brute-force rock of expectations driving CSM face-first into the hard place that is CCP decision-makers who hold all the cards and decide which balls CCP devs will be juggling at any given time. There ain’t much wiggle room in that hardscrabble zone for CSM. It’s a damned-if-we-do, damned-if-we-don’t job.

Her words are even more true than, perhaps, she herself recognizes…because this has happened before.

. . .

In what seems now like the “Elder Days” of the Internet, in 1996, Howard Rheingold, veteran of The WELL conferencing system and author of the influential book The Virtual Community, sought to put his ideas about online community into practice by creating Electric Minds, a new community focused on innovative content and discussions for the growing online population.  The following year, it began to run into financial trouble, and Rheingold sought potential buyers…but he pledged to the community that one of the conditions for the sale was that the community had to be “self-governing.”  The eventual buyer, Durand Communications of Santa Barbara, CA, agreed to this condition, and, in the main, stayed clear of the “governance” issue.  (In the interests of full disclosure: I was an employee of Durand Communications at the time of the Electric Minds acquisition, and afterward following Durand’s own acquisition by Online System Services, later Webb Interactive Services, of Denver, CO.)

So what happened?  I’ll let Nancy White, virtual community expert with Full Circle Associates and a participant in what was later termed “The Governance Thrash,” explain:

We thought we knew [what we were designing], but in hindsight, I’m not sure that we really did. We were essentially designing a process for a “roll-your-own, owned-by-the-members” governance modeled on the River and other communities. We were not designing for a community whose infrastructure was owned and controlled by a company. I believe this was one of our first missteps. When you roll your own, there are a host of administrative and financial issues which suggest specific governance structures related to financial accountability, and to assignment of tangible responsibilities. When infrastructure is not a priority, the driving set of needs is more related to the social structure — the operating norms, “rules of the road” and policies relating to membership. But before the sale to Durand, it seemed like fiscal responsibility was about to necessitate more formality, so we may have started with that assumption.

To compound our confusion, we were also dealing with emerging factions within the group, some aligned with individuals, and some aligned on certain principals. The words “democracy,” “free speech,” and “power” took on some loaded but little-examined connotations, setting up waves of argument and misunderstanding, rather than dialog and alignment. Compromise was not the theme of the day. There seemed to be the need for each of us, in our own way, to be “right.”

The result?

The Thrash did not kill Eminds, but it set the tone for it’s second phase, July 1997 – July 1998. Electric Minds was small and in some ways self-limiting by it’s recoil from the Thrash. There was some difficulty dealing with members who consistently crossed outside of the informal “norms” of the community. Eminders were hesitant to make changes for fear of being perceived as “power-mongers.” They wanted to tread lightly, not too deep into problems or innovation and play it safe.

And, ultimately, the user base of EMinds was unable to prevent Durand Communications from making changes to the underlying conferencing system that alienated the members.  Nor was it able to prevent Webb Interactive from discarding the community entirely in 2000, though some of its members kept it alive for some years thereafter, in a different form. (Full disclosure again: I was one of those people.)

Now see how what Ms. White says in that last quote resonates with this one, from Mynxee again:

If we have certain expectations about being able to influence EVE’s development, if we push too hard on CCP for not giving CSM issues priority, if we call CCP out on bigger-picture issues that seem to be involved in the problems related to EVE, then we’re just a bunch of egotistical, overzealous players on a power trip. If we don’t raise the “right” issues, don’t push CCP hard enough for results, don’t document every detail of every controversial event for public purview, refuse to share NDA-protected information, don’t conduct ourselves like paid professional advisors 100% of the time, and worst of all possible sins can’t actually MAKE CCP implement the changes we ask for, then we’re nothing but elitist pigs who are just in it for the free trips to Iceland. Or so some recent blog posts and forum flames would have you believe.

CCP’s intentions are good, just as Durand’s were.  But governance–even the sort of “limited” governance over game issues as the CSM is intended to have–is not easy.

. . .

In some ways, the CSM has it worse than the participants in the Governance Thrash.  EVE’s player base is many times what EMinds’ user base ever was, and even more fragmented by opinion.  Though the process by which the CSM was elected was “democratic,” and CCP did their best to help match candidates with the views of the “electorate,” ultimately these sort of online elections always come down to a popularity contest.  (No flame against the CSM, who have demonstrated exceptional competence thusfar! That’s just how it is.)  And popularity contests always involve a certain degree of resentment among those who weren’t chosen, or whose favorites weren’t chosen, so, yes, the CSM is already fighting with one foot in a bucket.

And then it comes up against CCP, whose intentions may be good (as evidenced by the fact that they created the CSM in the first place, as a feedback mechanism), but which is, ultimately, a business that is responsible to its investors and shareholders first and foremost.  Jamie Zawinski, formerly of Netscape Communications, has observed:

Some will tell you that an organization is the people who make it up, but that’s not the case at all. The whole is larger and completely different from the sum of its parts. The system that we as a society have invented to run our world is a simple one. It’s a game with a small number of rules. You put the pieces on the board, wind it up, and let it go. The thing is, the rules involved are all about money. The underlying theory is that you motivate people to provide value to society by making it be in their best interest to do so. But that’s the intent; the mechanism is much less vague. The mechanism is money.

Corporations are not evil. That kind of anthropomorphism is inappropriate. Corporations are too stupid to be evil, only people can be that. Corporations are mechanisms. People can influence them, but by and large, corporations just follow the rules.

Bear in mind that, for a publicly-traded company, if a CEO makes a decision because it’s the right thing rather than because it’s the most profitable thing for the shareholders, he will lose his job, and possibly be sued into oblivion. That’s the way the rules work.

And, more to the point, if CCP doesn’t make money, it goes bankrupt, and EVE Online goes down with it.

And that means that, if CCP feels that Incarna and DUST 514 are more critical to their future ability to make money than the “bugfixes” and “polish” demanded by the CSM, then they are duty bound to expend resources on those, and the CSM be damned.

Sorry.  I don’t make the rules.  I just report on them.

And yes, it’s entirely possible that CCP could be wrong.  Game companies have been wrong before.  Most of them ended up going under as a result, or provoked such a backlash that they were forced to back down and lose face.

But while the CSM may be “stakeholders,” they are not “shareholders.”

. . .

So what of the attempt at governance that is the CSM?  Nancy White has a few suggestions for emerging design patterns for online community governance (and make no mistake, EVE is as much an “online community” as EMinds ever was, it just has fancier toys to play with), which may be useful to look at:

  • Make it as simple as it can be. The CSM is certainly simple in concept, explainable in just one sentence on the EVE Online Web site.  As always, “the devil is in the details.”
  • Make sure the needs and purpose of the community (and community owners) are articulated.  This is where the struggle lies with the CSM and CCP.  The CSM must articulate its purpose with respect to the community (and by this I mean the whole community, not any subgroups of constituents), and CCP must do so as well, and things must not get bogged down at “cross purposes.”
  • Consider that structures may need to be fractal in nature giving the most control at the smallest group units.  I’m not sure what this would mean in terms of EVE.  Perhaps a system where the CSM could recommend people as outside game masters, or make recommendations concerning the existing ones?  But how much influence would this have on CCP as a whole?
  • Consider that sometimes benevolent dictatorships are good solutions.  CCP is a good example of a “benevolent dictatorship.” The CSM is their attempt to add feedback into this loop, and is noteworthy for that purpose alone.  (Could you see Blizzard doing something similar with World of Warcraft?  Me neither.)
  • Consider that listening is probably the most important skill for any player, site owner, staff or member.  I think Mynxee has been emphasizing this point to anyone and everyone, as much as possible.
  • Consider that it is easy to leave an online community so why make it easier? A word of warning, perhaps, for CCP as well as the CSM?
  • Avoid time-unlimited circular conversations (know when to fold-em!).  The fact that each CSM is inherently time-limited works against this tendency, but also means that each CSM may have to “fight the last war” over and over again unless and until CCP listens.
  • Define and use decision-making processes.  The difficulty here is that CCP’s own decision-making processes are largely opaque to outsiders, including the CSM.  The CSM will have to plan and react accordingly.
  • Put up or shut up. Cook or get out of the kitchen. Fish, no bait cutting here.  Something tells me Mynxee is heartily in agreement with this statement! 🙂
  • When a group process is used, consider the power of words and seek some alignment on definitions the minute people fall into advocacy modes as opposed dialog.  Especially difficult in EVE, where “advocacy modes as opposed dialog” is the order of the day on the forums.
  • Keep it in perspective. Life is short and precious.  Good advice at any time, no matter what the situation.
  • Eat more chocolate! Perhaps Mynxee would agree with this point as well? 🙂

For those of us that know Nancy, it’s not difficult to see why she included that last point.  (Her EMinds user name was “choconancy,” after all.)  Chocolate is kind of her catchphrase…just as mine, when writing in authorial voice as Abbot of the Ralpha Dogs, is:

Wrought in deepest Hell, our vengeance is freedom!

. . .

Other EVE Blog Banter posts:

  1. Growing Pains | CrazyKinux’s Musing
  2. CSM: Hoax or Serious Business? « Lost in New Eden
  3. CSM-Power to the people or puppets of CCP « A whole lot of Yarrrr!!!
  4. Gaming the CSM | A Mule in EvE
  5. A Taste Of Democracy | StarFleet Comms
  6. CSM: Player Power or Paper Tiger? | I Am Keith Neilson
  7. Governance Thrash Redux? « The Ralpha Dogs
  8. CCP Doesn’t Care: Blog Banter 19 « OMG! You’re a Chick?!
  9. The Cataclysmic Variable: It’s Crunch Time!
  10. The 19th EVE Blog Banter is upon us… and about the CSM and CCP | Victoria Aut Mors
  11. CSM: Lame Duck from the beginning?
  12. Blog Banter #19 << Dense Veldspar
  13. Be careful what you say, Roc « Roc’s Ramblings
  14. Exchange Fraking Phone Numbers « Scrap Metal & Faction Ammo
  15. Blog Banter #19: Assumptions
  16. EVE Blog Banter #19 | EVE on Real Life
  17. A Reality Check | A “CareBears” Journey
  18. Quit your bitching | Fly Reckless – EVE Online
  19. War has come to EVE | Scram Web
  20. CCP and the CSM | Morphisat’s Blog
  21. BB 19 Riding the elephant | mikeazariah
  22. The CSM: A well thought out scam by CCP | Nitpickin’s

14 Responses to “Governance Thrash Redux?”

  1. unique perspective on what has been going on. I still wonder if CCP really knew what they would be getting , and every time a new batch of CSM’s step forward I wonder if THEY know what they are jumping into. Great article and some very good commentary!

  2. A great posting. Nice use of a real-world example. I’m sure there are many others that have gone down the same road as EMinds. IMO, giving the inmates too much control over the asylum will lead to slow/stunted growth. The only way this will work long-term for EVE, is if CCP were to spin-off the game as a standalone. As a part of the growth-minded CCP, and only one of 3 games…dynamism is key and I don’t think a community-led product can keep up.


    • Many similar communities have gone through wrenching change such as this, kaarbaak. Even The WELL itself only survives in something like its original form because of the largesse of Rheingold wound up creating his own, invite-only online community, BrainStorms, where he and his friends could shoot the bull without having to worry about corporate interests, or governance, or any of that.

      The other thing that interested me about EVE’s situation is whether the model could work for Second Life, another “online community” I’m involved in. I’ve kicked this around as comments on another blog, and plan to do a post about it on my Second Life blog one of these days; I’ll probably cite this post as a reference, since I’ve laid a lot of the groundwork here.

  3. Great article, and an interesting read, if a little difficult to understand at some technical points. 🙂

  4. Very interesting and informative post, foor for thought indeed. I’ll have to read it again and make notes.

  5. […] Governance Thrash Redux? « The Ralpha Dogs […]

  6. […] Governance Thrash Redux? « The Ralpha Dogs […]

  7. […] Governance Thrash Redux? « The Ralpha Dogs […]

  8. […] Governance Thrash Redux? « The Ralpha Dogs […]

  9. ERBO! What a pleasant surprise it was to find the link back to this post. And I’m sorry that your community is under stress. It feels at time that past a certain size, this kind of stress is inevitable. I hope it works out for the best. And of course, don’t forget the chocolate.

    • Thanks, Nancy. And what you point out is valuable; it’s sort of the same point I was making, in that something like this always happens in communities struggling with the question of self-governance. But the other thing to keep in mind is that, among commercial MMORPGs, it is nearly unprecedented for the company running the game to give its users this much in the way of self-governance. The CSM and the outcomes it’s able to influence in terms of game development will be worth watching, for that reason alone.

      And Selenalore would NEVER, EVER let me forget the chocolate. 🙂

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