Critique groups degenerate into three different forms, and this may in fact be limited to these three forms, and the reasons appear to be memetic in nature.
1. Cheerleading Squad
2. Sharks and dinner
3. Master and Slaves
Critique Group Dynamics
Moreover, an interesting application of the Second Law of Immunomemetics (1) suggests that so-called "rules" such as "Don't be a dick" don't actually translate into a useful set of corrective behaviors available to group members.
All of the above group dynamics are examples of memetic nexus. In the first two cases, the work and often the author submitting the work are at the center of the nexus, and in the third case the 'master' of the group (2) is the source of the memes for the group.
Why do memetic cohorts tend to resolve into memetic nexuses? Why do critique groups, which tend to start out as 'a circle of friends,' transform into these three archetypes? Again I pose the question: Are these three archetypes a spanning set?
To answer this question, let's take a look at what a memetic nexus is and how it optimally fulfills a basic need of memetic agents, as exemplified by the following law:
The First Law of Memetics
A memetic agent deploys the meme at their disposal most likely to yield optimal resonance.
This could also be termed The Law of Optimal Resonance.
Memetic Nexus and Optimal Resonance
A memetic nexus makes it easier for agents to deploy memes for optimal resonance. How does it do this? A memetic nexus supplies a collection of common memes to its subscribed cohort all at the same time. This results in a cohort who can exchange these memes with each other.
And many of the memes are refreshed on regular intervals. How this novelty effect makes things better may be the topic for another essay.
A negative outcome for an agent is to deploy a meme and get no resonant reaction, i.e., no countermemes deployed in response, i.e., alienation. A slightly less bad outcome is to have oppressive memes deployed in response (3). The author being attacked or praised by the group is the source of these memes, and they are outside the memetic nexus, and they are not a subscriber to it.
By being a subscriber to a memetic nexus, an agent is guaranteed a set of memes which they may deploy in the knowledge that some potentially large group will be able to resonate with them. In fact, there may be simple-to-read cues (8) as to the size of the cohort also subscribed to the nexus. In a critique group which has settled into one of the three archetypes, this population is the entire group.
The Second Law of Memetics
The law states:
Any deployment of a meme moves the cohort to a new memetic state
This could also be termed The Law of State Transition. What does this fairly obvious Law tell us about memetic nexus? In a non-stable cohort, meme deployment moves the group around from state to state, changing the collection of memes available to each person. This is the polar opposite to everybody having a large inventory of memes available to deploy with the confidence that any of them will achieve resonance (5). This is like what exists in a fanatic cell. The optimum is a sizable collection of memes, all available to all members, and deployment of any meme keeps the cohort in the same state (6), or transitioning among a (small) number of states, all interconnected.
This is precisely what a memetic nexus provides to its subscribers. A very desirable and easily achieved memeplex configuration. And as we can see, a critique group tends strongly to converge to that state.
This prediction depends upon ultimately what the definition and nature of immunomemes are. I say that because a 'Sharks and Dinner' group will ultimately do something to their victim author(s) by deployment of oppressive memes (immunomemes) that the group will destabilize. The nature of immunomemes is to prevent destabilization of a memetic system, i.e., a culture. An author(s) continually bringing their work to the feeding frenzy (4) and being attacked with immunomemes looks like a memeplex trying to defend itself from an outside attack.
This goes along with the First Law of Immunomemetics, which states that any stable memeplex contains an immunomemeplex. So, if the effect of immunomemes on a targeted agent is that said agent gets fewer and fewer memes at their disposal, or they are reduced in status, then ultimately they will be unable to submit work that the group can do anything with. They will die out. Another obvious outcome will be that all authors that submit work will soon find that even if they get the attention of immunomemes directed their way, they will, through the course of this degradation (if indeed this is how immunomemes work) discover that they get more resonance (First Law of Memetics) by subscribing to the nexus instead of submitting work.
Hence, a 'Sharks and Dinner' critique group will tend towards fewer and fewer authors submitting work. This will tend to strangle the memetic nexus, and the group will die out, since members will no longer get the guaranteed memetic nexus effect they crave. That is, unless the group can transition to a new dynamic.
A stable critique group should converge towards a single author submitting work that is universally praised by the entire group.
There's an effort minimalization associated with praising only one author, and this is soundly macromemetic in nature. If multiple sycophantic authors exist in a Cheerleading group, then it may be more memes for the group to internalize for little additional resonance benefit. Whichever author is easiest to praise, e.g., has the right mix of complexity and consistency, a difficulty level that fits the lowest common denominator preferences of the group, then that author shall win out over one who is too simple or too complex, who writes too much different stuff in too many different styles, or submits work less regularly, and so on. In fact, regularity may be the critical factor.
Cynical? Of course. But once a group starts to spiral through the process of becoming one of these archetypes, it ceases to be literary and becomes squarely macromemetic.
What about Master and Slaves?
The master may be able to steer the group through a Sharks or a Cheerleaders phase, or even something in between. In which case the group will either die out, or settle into a Cheerleading squad. The master's (or mistress') problem is maintaining the interest of the group, which means maintaining the health of the memetic nexus. Authors submitting work is a very good fuel for this (7). Talking about published authors the master likes, or about writing principles or other things the master has read about will ultimately fall short as they simply don't provide enough interesting memes (9).
In the end, if the master or mistress cannot keep authors submitting work, the group will die. It will either die from the Sharks eating the last of the Dinner (immunomemetic degeneration), or it will collapse into the red dwarf state of one author bringing stuff to the Cheerleading Squad.
Conclusions and Summary
Things look kind of grim. I don't personally know a critique group that works and is stable. Admittedly I don't know many, but these archetypes seem to be a recognized thing.
Intimate intercourse in the form of sharing one's writing and receiving comments about it, especially one is enjoined from saying anything about the comments, is tricky business. I want to write a piece along the lines of 'The Memetic Play and Work of Lovemaking." It's possible to really get hurt, and if the rules are such that it's okay to hurt people and have nobody say anything, and that makes you feel powerful or smart or whatever, or absolves you of having to be asked if those are your motivations, or it plays to your vanity to have people forced to read your work, then people are going to do it and people are going to get hurt.
I feel like those dynamics are present in critique groups and writing groups. It's probably impossible to root them out completely. Critique groups are particularly vulnerable, since there is this intimate interaction that goes on as a part of it. Often it's one-way, as these archetypes show. I've tried to fashion the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions (of AA) for use in Critique Groups. I'll publish these, too.
Meanwhile, I'm trying a little experiment in my writing group to see if I can apply them.
(1) Any system of rules or laws translates into a collection of bullying behaviors.
(2) and as also happens, a group member 'targeted' by the 'master,' who then becomes the target of the whole group. This may also be by way of selective omission, i.e., the master can allow some members to be targeted and not others.
(3) This is still a work-in-progess. Oppressive memes can result in injury, physical or other, to the oppressed person, or result in a reduction in status, i.e., their inventory of available memes gets reduced, kicking them one step closer to actual alienation. Or it could be memes to which they themselves can't response, or can only make responses which debase themselves. Or it could be other things, or a collection of things. This is all in the search for a clear definition of immunomemes.
(4) A special kind of memetic nexus, where the center of the nexus is attacked with immunomemes. This is the kind of dynamic which exists in racism and sexism, etc.
(5) known as a Memetic Orgy or memetic chain reaction or steady state, depending upon whether the point is to describe intensity or dynamic stability or both. Agents like intensity, and if it may be sustained, much the better.
(6) This does not violate the Second Law -- it simply means that the target state is the current state.
(7) Which is probably why critique groups are such a 'thing.'
(8) Probably the subject of another essay. The obvious maximum is the entire group.
(9) and they're not novel, which may be the appeal of a critique group to start with, and novelty appears to be a critical element of memetic nexus, though I need to explore this further.