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On Council, business and fun
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jducoeur
A few totally unofficial observations, while I think of them.

The current move of Council to Christopher's (it's the second month in a row, so it seems to be trending that way) has produced some interestingly mixed reactions among people I've talked to. Some are very much in favor of it, since it facilitates a much more social atmosphere than our usual room at MIT has done. Others are much less sanguine -- some about practical concerns like parking, but others about the atmosphere swinging *too* much in the other direction: that Christopher's is noisy, has somewhat weak acoustics, and isn't as good for getting business done. This is shading over into the SCA-stereotypical "X vs. Fun" debate, and as usual that raises a bunch of alarm bells in me, since those things are usually false dichotomies.

So let's think about that for a minute. Council *used* to be a fair amount of fun. It hasn't generally been lately. And the question that hasn't been asked enough is: why?

The thing is, there's fun and there's fun. I like having a beer with folks as much as the next guy, but it's worth noting that that really has nothing at all to do with why Council used to be enjoyable. Rather, Council used to enjoy a virtuous cycle because of the way the Barony was running. We were very busy and active, so a lot of people had things to bring up at Council. Since there was a lot of variety being discussed at Council, a broad cross-section of the Barony came. Since that broad slice of the Barony was there *and* accomplishing things, there was a gratifying sense of accomplishment, and a charge in the air -- the whole Barony working closely *together* to make things happen, which provided a lot of underlying social energy. And that made it easier for us to do more things.

All that being the case, my conclusion is that the dullness of Council is more a symptom than a cause. It's a dynamic system, so "cause" and "effect" are often hard to tease apart, but I think it's more an effect of our general drop-off in activity. So moving to a more social location is basically a patch over the symptom rather than a fix.

Which doesn't mean it's a terrible idea: so far, I think it's proving a reasonable experiment for the time being. But I don't think we should develop any illusions that it's going to change things fundamentally, and I don't think we should get too attached to the experiment. The *real* fix is to gradually ramp up the activity and energy around the Barony's activities, with Council returning to being the central lightning rod for those. If we can do that (and realistically, I think that's going to take a few years), making Council more enjoyable is likely to take care of itself. (And we might have to move to somewhere more conducive to business, if we find ourselves with a bunch more of it...)
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Good questions, but I think I'm going to mull on them instead of attempting a snap answer...

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So, I'm going to go out on a bit of a limb here. When I hear people talk about the Good Old Days of Council (which I experienced peripherally, having gone a couple of times), the tenor is a lot like the way people talk about Small Traditional Events. And as I have said elsewhere, STEs are great if you know people there and are in the mood to schmooze - if either of those two criteria are not met, at least *I* will eventually want to run away, at best.

If my comparison holds any water at all, the way to "fix" Council is to make sure people plan to see their friends there, and to impose some way to make people's friendships in the Barony more numerous and more tightly-knit. I'm not sure how that goes; it's a difficult question for events, and they presumably have a bigger additional draw.

Largely agreed -- the fragmentation of the Barony socially is a major underlying issue for all *sorts* of stuff. I suspect that a solution can't be imposed, though; rather, I suspect it's going to require a slow process of teasing things into a better position. That is, I doubt there's any single effective fix, but will instead require lots of little tweaks to make things healthier.

(That's pretty normal when you're trying to shift a dynamic system: it takes lots of nudging, rather than one big shove, if you want to wind up with something reasonably stable.)

It does suggest, though, that the much-mooted idea of having Council joined with one or more other SCA activities (possibly a general "activity day", although that's not obviously required), might help significantly. We tried doing that somewhat artificially a couple of times, dragging activities to Council, with modest success; it might work better the other way 'round...

the fragmentation of the Barony socially is a major underlying issue for all *sorts* of stuff.

So, here's another thing. This can often sound a bit too much like "you must become friends with this group of people or Carolingia will die" - when natural selection has not fostered those friendships. We do all have similar interests to some degree - we wouldn't be in the SCA if we weren't - but it sometimes seems as if there is an attractive geek fallacy in play that assumes that that is enough to make us all friends.

And the Sword of Damocles is a chandelier that will dampen any party.

Hmm. Fair point, although that's not how I intended it.

I usually describe the Barony as best envisioned as a very large Venn diagram, made up of many circles representing various activities, interest groups and social circles. That's natural, and even at its healthiest the Barony was always structured that way. AFAIK, there hasn't been a time (since I started, anyway) when *anybody* knew everyone in the Barony, much less was friends with all of them.

The interesting question, though, is how much those circles overlap. Complete overlap is unrealistic, and very likely undesireable -- social circles just don't scale that way. But I *think* (and a number of others have made the same observation) that those circles have been drifting apart over the years, with the amount of overlap reducing over time. That's a dangerous state for any community to be in: without a lot of friend-of-friend relationships, things tend to fray and consensus is increasingly difficult to achieve. Basically, it starts getting hard to get anything done.

(I will note that we are by no means as bad as we could be: I've known branches that were far worse-off in this regard. But the trend line worries me.)

That's not something that can be simply forced back into its old configuration; even trying to do so is probably quite harmful in its own way. But nudging things towards more social overlap between circles is likely to pay good dividends. That's a very slow process, made up of many very small (and typically rather indirect) steps that build ties. But working gradually in that direction is likely to produce more of a sense of Carolingia as a whole being a meaningful community composed of social circles, rather than being a wholly artificial construction from a social perspective. (Which it is dangerously close to now.)

So yes, I'm advocating community-building within Carolingia, but not as a desperate project. I'm under no illusions that that is something that can be rushed, nor can it be imposed artificially, but it's worth thinking about the little steps to improve things...

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Ah, excellent. Thank you -- you've mentioned this in the past, and I've been meaning for months to ask you for pointers to it. I'll put these on my to-read list...

After a quick skim of the site: yeah, that broadly makes sense. (It edges into marketing pitch a bit too much for my comfort, but the ideas seem right.) In particular, it makes a lot of sense from a systems-dynamics point of view -- that there isn't one magic bullet for solving the problems, but a bunch of factors that have to be addressed, that synergize.

Of course, that's all at the strategic level -- a lot of thought is needed on what tactics are appropriate to implement in the SCA. (And specifically in Carolingia -- the "how do we get there from here" question is not by *any* means a small one.)

I'll continue to chew on this; at some point I'll likely want to borrow that CD. It's not quite a laid-out program, but it does suggest a good approach to examining what the Barony is and isn't doing well, and what we might do about that. (Offhand, it looks to me like we do reasonably well on some points, so-so on others, and much worse than we'd like to think on a few...)

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I want to caveat up front that this is *not* a "yes, but" answer in the sense of "oh, that won't work, here's why" - you know I hate those answers. ;) This is a "why I struggle with this" answer, intended to solicit ways to ameliorate struggle.

(And I think "give them something to do that was worth their coming" is the HUGEST thing, and I have zero quarrel with it, and am continuing to turn over ideas.)

I spent a year being co-chatelaine with my beloved, and I had the opportunity to practice this sort of things firsthand. It really does work - particularly with regard to newer folks - make an effort to not only meet people, but stick around for more than five minutes. Make an active effort to spend time connecting with people you do not know and figuring out ways to knit them in, both to the organization and to your life. Simple and clear principle, really.

And one that is diametrically opposed to the things that people say they like about Olde Councile and STEs - hanging out with your extant friends around a common topic. So it is, in some part, a question of training people to acquire a new instinct which may be uncomfortable and unfamiliar. And I think, in order to really work, EVERYBODY has to do it; if you leave it to people whose official job it is, and the handful of extroverts we actually have, you get crispy fried chicken.

I credit a wise person with breaking this down to three ideas: time spent connecting with new-to-SCA folks, time spend connecting with new-to-you folks, time spent creating the something-worthwhile-to-do. If everybody involved spent, say, 30% of their time on one of these three things...

Yep -- I think you're exactly on target that it's all about getting everybody (or at least a substantial chunk of the population) in on it. In a club full of introverts, that's not an easy proposition: it's trying to change not just habit but *culture*, and that is hard work. (And demands a great deal of patience.)

That said, I do suspect it's possible. In particular, if enough of the folks who people look up to (not just those with fancy titles, but the ones who are *respected*, which isn't quite the same thing) pick up the practice; the practices are played up as ways to have a better and more interesting time instead of being an onerous responsibility; and there is a clear sense of what we're trying to accomplish and why, I would guess that these habits could probably be fairly broadly instilled in a few years.

Really, the biggest challenge looks to be changing habit. We've paid lip service to these ideas for ages; the trick is making that real...

As a non-oldtimer, I tend to feel like people get too fixated on Council. As I've said before, I like the idea of a central meeting with multiple activities we'd be excited to encourage newcomers and lapsed Carolingians to just show up to. Presumably the days when I used to go to council were far after the glory days, but I don't see why Council should be the central lightning rod even if the activity and energy of the Barony went up. Obviously, more stuff going on would be more business, but I'd be all for a social heart for the Barony that ended up being separate from council.

Agreed. I was at those Good Old Days councils. They weren't quite so All That. The schmoozing with friends before after and during was.

A social heart for the Barony. That's what's needed.

Edited at 2012-01-27 12:53 am (UTC)

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That's fair, and may prove to be correct. It's easy to get focused on Council because it *used* to be the Baronial crossroads. I care that such a crossroads exist (or some other mechanisms that foster cross-circle communication), but it wouldn't be tragic if that turned out to be some other forum...

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Social crossroads, indeed!

Once upon a time we had two of them. Council was one. Fighting practice was the other; non-combatants used to attend and do stuff on the lawn and hang out while the fighters hit each other with sticks. I'm thinking of warm weather practices; the indoor ones in the winter didn't happen as regularly back then and weren't the same kind of social nexus when they did.

It was easier in the days when we all lived relatively close together; back when I first got involved (1976) just about everybody lived in Boston or Cambridge, and T-friendly locations for things were the norm. Now we have a lot of geographic dispersion, and it's harder to find a single location that is good for everybody.

As somebody who DOES live in the city, I'd like to see Council revive in part because it's something I can actually attend without a great deal of pre-arrangement. Events have gotten more difficult; most of them are now held in places that require a car to get to. Some activities that I used to be active in (archery, for example) are in the same situation. The talk of Council moving scares me because then I might not be able to get there -- but I'm the secretary, I HAVE to!

As for Christopher's, for me as secretary it's a bit problematic - though not because of transportation, that's fine for me, just a few more stops on the Red Line. It's hard to hear what people are saying; I'm likely to have to ask for more repeats and pauses. And there are no convenient electrical outlets in the centrally-located areas, which would be a challenge if we have another of the really long meetings like we did when we were discussing the election for Baron/Baroness. But it IS a friendly place, and if they're happy with having us there I can deal with it. I expect they are; we bought stuff on a slow night, didn't disrupt their other patrons, and didn't make a mess of the space.

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