HIVEMIND: ON THE GROUP DYNAMICS OF GOONSWARM

Historically, large armies have functioned because of top-down, highly regimented organizational structures—this has been true since the days of Alexander, Hannibal, Napoleon, and Patton, and is certainly true for many of the groups playing within Eve Online. As its name implies, however, GoonSwarm often operates as a fragmented, far less structured fighting force, one that effectively utilizes bottom-up tactics. For example, one campaign within the alliance, known by the nom de guerre Jihadswarm, operates much like a terrorist cell, exploiting unarmed and unprotected mining vessels in an attempt to garner easy treasure and territory. A combination of high numbers of low-level players and a communal lack of self-preservation instinct (you can respawn, after all, and small cheap ships are practically disposable) has been instrumental in building GoonSwarm into the powerhouse that it eventually became. The advantages of GoonSwarm's approach is that it is more flexible and agile compared to a traditional military structure, since smaller groups can operate independently without awaiting instructions from on high. This also makes the entire group much more unpredictable to its enemies, who are unable to anticipate any clear operational logic or strategy based on the actions of an isolated faction. Finally, the bottom is given more autonomy in this process rather than just blankly taking orders; this power-sharing model results in happy goons and ensures a healthy morale among the ranks.

A screencap video of a Jihadswarm attack on unprotected mining vessels, an example of the alliance's emergent tactics. See the full-size version here.

We can look to media theorists to explain how GoonSwarm functions. In his 2001 book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, Steven Johnson describes the effect that often occurs in emergent networked systems, essentially a whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts argument wherein a kind of group intelligence manifests itself that transcends the singular intelligences of participants. Kevin Kelly extends Johnson's theory of emergence (and updates his own "swarm theory" from the 1995 book Out of Control) by arguing that even complex adaptive systems benefit from top-down direction; because of time-scale issues, top-down controls provide an efficient corrective to an emergent system ("The Bottom is Not Enough"). Kelly's theory more accurately describes GoonSwarm's structure, which has a wealth of strategic talent residing in the upper tier, one that knows when to direct and when to unleash the swarm. Group identity is balanced on a kind of rhetorical teeter-totter: on one end is the discourse of grown-up, cunning, big-picture planning, and on the other, an immature, frenetic free-for-all.

In the era of what Howard Rheingold dubs “smart mobs,” we notice parallels in real life to the swarm-like organizational structure utilized by GoonSwarm, from guerrilla and terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda (alluded to in the aforementioned Jihadswarm) to loose-knit economic policy protest encampments like Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Oakland, and others. These groups, like GoonSwarm, create a sense of identity and cohesion based on members' sense of not just belonging, but actively participating in group governance and communication. For example, the Occupy movement employs a less regimented communal consensus model for identifying goals, producing documents, and the like. Similarly, the “human mic check” innovation (where occupiers verbally repeat a speaker's sentences en masse as a means of circumventing many cities' no-PA system policy) is a very embodied example of how the “bottom” becomes empowered to disseminate critical group communication. Additionally, these types of groups tend to take advantage not of “legacy” media forms and technologies (e.g., sending out press releases to local television affiliates), but of newer back-channel innovations (Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, wikis, SMS, etc.) in order to mobilize, plan, or document group activity, a move that further entrenches a member's sense of identity by granting him/her the authority to shape the meta-narrative about the group.

These sorts of community-building communication practices help establish what Kenneth Burke calls "identification." Despite the seemingly chaotic nature of these groups, the ability to participate, to help give shape to their very language and actions, is a powerful motivator. As Burke writes in A Rhetoric of Motives, “We need never deny the presence of strife, enmity, factions, as a characteristic motive of rhetorical expression. We need not close our eyes to their almost tyranneous ubiquity in human relations; we can be on the alert always to see how such temptations to strife are implicit in the institutions that condition human relationships; yet we can at the same time always look beyond this order, to the principle of identification in general, a terministic choice justified by the facts that the identifications in the order of love are also characteristic of rhetorical expression” (20). Burke's take applies to GoonSwarm; despite (or likely because of) the invective and vulgarities characterizing group discourse, they're remarkable proud to identify as goons, and largely effective in their in-game campaigns.

 

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