I’ve been sitting in on Robert Kraut‘s online communities course. He’s a visiting lecturer from CMU with a background in social psychology, and consequently, the course is heavy on theory and empirical studies. In it, he discusses how theories of social psychology can help us understand and build online communities.

So far, we’ve covered community structures, motivations for contribution and ways of encouraging it, the ways in which newcomers assimilate into the community, and the ways in which relationships can form within a community. We’ve also talked a little about groups within communities, for example as sources of motivation and social loafing, shared identity and discrimination.

Recently, while talking about the last of these, discrimination, someone mentioned ‘Blue Eyes / Brown Eyes’, a lesson taught by a teacher, Jane Elliot, to classes of 3rd graders in Iowa during the years following Martin Luther King’s assassination. In it, she teaches them about discrimination by dividing them into brown and blue eyed groups, then praising one group and criticizing the other.

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Try this experiment. Read the following passage, once only. Then, click through and read the rest of this post.

With hocked gems financing him, our hero bravely defied all scornful laughter that tried to prevent his scheme. “Your eyes deceive,” he had said. “An egg, not a table, correctly typifies this unexplored planet.” Now three sturdy sisters sought proof. Forging along, sometimes through calm vastness, yet more often very turbulent peaks and valleys, days became weeks as many doubters spread fearful rumours about the edge. At last from nowhere welcome winged creatures appeared, signifying momentous success.

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