I’ve been involved in online forums for years now. There’s one in particular where I have invested a great deal of time, where I recently crossed over the 5,000 post threshold. There’s a certain level of respect for seniority that is attached to longevity, but my reason for sticking around was more substantive. Three-and-a-half years out of the television business, I still go back occasionally – I like that it is a meritocracy.
When I was younger (and in that industry,) I had some thoughts and theories about how certain things worked and could be better. Like the vast majority of users, I had an online handle. The pseudo-anonymity gave us the freedom to say things that were politically incorrect without fear that search engines would attach our professional journalistic identities with ideas that might reveal bias. But it also fostered meritocracy – that one advanced in the pecking order by virtue of the power of his/her ideas. Had it been a truly transparent environment, many good ideas would have been bullied off the board. After all, how could a cub reporter in Billings possibly be right when compared to a reporter from Chicago? Obviously the one in the large market must be right… right? (Same holds true for blogs and rankings.)
Yes, anonymity was often a screen that allowed for bad behavior. In the midst of a wave of online congratulations about the birth of my daughter, one wiseacre openly compared her to a pile of… you get the point.
I’ve been on forums where there is anonymity, and I’ve been on forums that are wide-open. I’ve been a part of giant communities, and small intimate ones. I have a good understanding of the dynamics involved. And I am concerned…
The Dullness of Crowds
While most discussions stay fairly civil, there is always the propensity to push too far. Discussions can become reasoned differences, and differences can become shouting matches very quickly. Outright venom is the understudy always in the wings, waiting to steal a scene at a moment’s notice. Many before me have written about how some people become just mean and evil on the internet. I’m worried about the price we’re paying to avoid ‘meanness’ at all costs.
Healthy debate spurs good arguments all the way around. Done right, online sparring can toughen a line of reasoning, removing unnecessary logical fallacies and whittling away everything but truth. Occasionally, you’ll find the intellectually honest participant who admits defeat. More often than not, a respectful ‘agreement to disagree’ based on core values or initial premises. The new communities I am engaged in now don’t seem to value intellectual rigor at all.
A Clear Culprit
One might point to the fact that so many of the current social networks have so elevated the gospel of transparency that it’s poor etiquette to write under an assumed name. I could make the argument myself that today’s participants are operating out of a fear their words will haunt them forever – a Word of Damocles, hanging by a single strand.
In the latest example (which I shall not link to), one participant made a sweeping generalization that I happened to disagree with. Confronted, she replied with a completely different complaint, also unsupported. When I asked for sourcing there, she turned to a third issue entirely. In each case, she stuck with something that those of a political stripe might call ‘conventional wisdom.’ These were things she has accepted as articles of faith, and the beliefs are common enough.
Before you pile on me for being rude, I did not challenge her assertion of fact, question her sanity, nor insult her. In each instance, I offered an alternate interpretation for the ‘facts’ she was using to form her opinion. And there are many just like her entering these social media communities.
The Great Friend Rush
Here’s my fear – everyone is running to Social Media Networks like it’s free pan day at Sutter’s Mill. Social Media is the thing to do because that’s where the crowds are. It’s mind-boggling to network with people who you didn’t know yesterday, and now you have 72 Cyberspace Friends and a not enough Meatspace Friends to give invites to. It’s a brand new frontier, a totally fresh start – and boy, I hope they like me. My fear is Social Media is crossing that line from being ‘Something to Do’ to ‘The Thing to Do.’ We’re all Time’s People of the Year after all.
Of course, when I entered the world of virtual communities “transparency” wasn’t yet in the Kool-Aid. Now it’s embedded in the DNA. Users are expected to use their real names on most sites, and when possible link up the content from their various networks. With few exceptions, your participation in all of these efforts is shaping the “Global You,” otherwise known as ‘what shows up when you Google yourself.’ With no platform for anonymity, the new arrivals at Social Media Ellis Island seek privacy by voluntarily melting into the pot. Don’t stand out. Don’t say anything outside the norm. Don’t question the group. Groupthink. Just say ‘Me 2′ and move on with the herd.
Openness and transparency are way too important – and this is not a rant against them. Instead, read this as a wake-up call.
- Those of you sticking your first toe in – relax. The water is fine. We’ll all be richer for your participation, but only if you don’t water yourself down.
- Those of you encouraging others to jump – slow down. Every crowd will find its own unique dynamic when given an opportunity. You cheapen the experience by setting improper expectations and pruning the crowd to be more like you. Decorum is fine – Decree is not – and Echo Chambers stir the faithful with noise, not nourishment.
- Those of you designing online communities – think ahead. Ask yourself what you want your users to get out of the experience. Ask yourself what level of experience they’ll have with navigating the interface, and more importantly navigating the meritocracy. Will the humans you invite have the same “human nature” you project onto them from yourself?
With all the talk about the Wisdom of Crowds and the increased rhetoric about the expectations of Society (or Village), it’s vital we remember that not all Crowds behave the same way – nor are they a solution to every problem. In some cases, the Crowd is the root of the problem, and a community can’t self-correct if it has so rigidly crystallized and paralyzed its membership.
If you find yourself agreeing with everything in your social networks, it’s time to get out – you’re either preaching to the choir, bleating with the flock, or being measured for mutton with a mint jelly glaze.
[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR, Wisdom of Crowds, Social Media, Social Networking, Online Communities, Communications, Transparency[/tags]