Jabber and Decentralization

Originally published at Many-to-Many and now archived at the Wayback Machine

One of the most pivotal weblog essays I’ve read was Jonathon Delacour’s Alibis and Consistent Lies. In it he wrote:

That’s it: where my own interests lie. In other words, hardly anything to do with telling the literal truth; and everything to do with fashioning an authentic persona from bits of alibis and consistent lies.

 

The uproar that resulted is still being felt today — that a weblogger would mix fiction in with fact in their weblog writing is something that had not been contemplated before, at least within Jonathon’s circle, and many people were disturbed or even downright angry. Yet, weblogging is a form of writing, and most forms of writing, even the autobiographical has some element of fiction — even if it’s only the fiction of our perceptions and faulty memories.

Another aspect of weblogging that Jonathon’s essay demonstrated, indirectly and more importantly, is that there is an element of acceptable behavior within most weblogging circles. To violate the unwritten rules and expectations can generate censure, though not necessarily censorship. It’s not a question of saying forbidden speech, as much as it is of writing against the grain. It is writing that leads to disapproval in those we admire, respect, and like, and these are very powerful forces for conformity. Yes, conformity. There is nothing more limiting than a friend. Having experienced this writing against the grain a time or two myself, I can describe it as trying to walk through waist-high mud: doable if one is determined, but difficult and not something one does for fun. This same experience isn’t limited to weblogging — you can see the evidence of it in discussion groups such as Slashdot or Metafilter, and interest groups such as those in Usenet or Yahoo Groups. There is accepted behavior even in disagreement. There are accepted rules by which one lives, or writes to be more accurate. To go against these is to bring down the wrath of the other participants. If you’re lucky, you’ll be politely or not so politely ignored. If you’re not lucky, you’ll be thankful to escape with just being embarrassed. You could also be banned or ejected from the community as a disturbing influence, a troublemaker. Of course, this type of community behavior isn’t new — try going to a proper English tea party and letting loose with a loud fart to see social ostracism at its finest. But we want so much more from our digital interactions. We talk first and foremost about the openness of the medium — how anyone can join, and all contributions are welcome. In reality, though, we’re finding that in some circumstances we have to provide some form of moderation, or the interaction degenerates into a lovely form of chaos. Did I just say a lovely form of chaos? My pardon! Must have been a slip. Moderation has its place, but extreme form of this behavior is what I call “the tyranny of the commons”: behavior within a community is so constrained that even the slightest deviation is punished; the unwritten rules of group behavior are so concrete and rigid that the community takes on aspects of a wild dog pack, with interaction dictated to by an alpha male who maintains rigid control at all times. I have found that there is something about the faceless nature of the Internet that can encourage this type of behavior from people who would never think to act this way in person. Though I realize that condemning warbloggers is becoming rather old-fashioned and quaint among weblogging circles, it’s in them that we see some of the more obvious forms of tyranny of the commons practiced. For instance one of the more virulent warblogs Little Green Footballs maintains only the thinnest veneer of objectivity over what is an almost xenophobic outlook of persecution and isolationism; an outlook protected by a group of avid and devoted readers one could only describe as a pack behavior at its most extreme. LGF is a most unusual leader of a pack, though. Rather than eating first, it drags the bloody carcass of its next victim into the midst of its followers and then sits back watching while the other animals attack until not even the original bones of truth are left. All the while LGF sits, hyena smile on face, living off the bile of the attack while claiming its paws are blood-free. Where something like LGF is dangerous isn’t in the words spoken in the posts but in the devotion of its readers. When Anil Dash criticized MSNBC’s inclusion of Little Green Footballs in its lineup of weblogs, the LGF war machine went into action with letter writing campaign to MSNBC, and a barrage of harassment against Dash. From what I remember of the event, the ensuing carnage was not pretty. What it lacked in community spirit, it made up in by being a disturbing reminder of what mob behavior can accomplish. Where’s the witch? Someone get the stake and the gas. Who brought marshmallows? We could say that something like LGF provides a service — a place for people to vent their anger and fear rather than in the street or worse, the voting booth. However, rather than siphon off the negative energy, LGF creates a feedback loop and cycles it back in, and it grows and grows, getting uglier each iteration. Of course, not all examples of tyranny of the commons is evidenced by negative behavior. In fact, the most insidious examples of commons tyranny is the group think that surrounds many of our technologies, and even ourselves. When journalists condemn webloggers, even in a mild way, we react as if the people have insulted our favorite child — calling it a bucktoothed ugly little snit. The most infamous case of this was an article written by John Dvorak of PC Magazine ages ago that dismissed weblogging as unworthy, dull, and mainly related to cats (the infamous cats of weblogging). The result was a universal loathing against Dvorak in weblogging that if one could have harnessed the energy, would have lit up Cleveland. But the times, they are a changing. I thought it was extremely humorous to see John Dvorak guest blogging at Boing Boing, giving as his reason for coming over to the dark side:

I suppose you’re wondering exactly how I got here. The answer is simple: only a fool would refuse the opportunity to guest blog on what is probably the most entertaining blog being published today.

Of course, an upcoming book called ONLINE! might also have something to do with it, too. See! Now there I reacted like a typical weblogger, suspicious of all professional journalist actions. When the new Creative Commons licenses were released, there was a subtle pressure to get on the bandwagon, cheer the home team, jump on board with these and any person who questioned the potential problems associated with them was frowned upon as a child not playing well with the other children. Yet there were and still are a lot of unanswered legal questions associated with the licenses — questions should be asked, concerns raised. This very site, Corante, was at one point chastised for its CC license use. It was also chastised for having weblogs but not having RSS feeds — something that’s just not done in well-behaved, polite weblogging circles. Fie. Tsk. Even within our circles, especially within our circles or virtual neighborhoods as we call them, we reward those who fit, and punish those who don’t, and the coin of the realm is recognition. I remember stumbling across a weblog entry once, long ago, that hadn’t been maintained in several months. The last entry said something like, “Why do I continue writing this? None of you cares. None of you gives a shit.” I wish I had copied down the exact words because they were genuine words of pain, the realization that one doesn’t matter and that no one was listening, and it troubled me a great deal. I’ve never forgotten that entry. If there was any one thing that has led me to fight against elitism in online interactions, and the absolute necessity of maintaining open doors, it was that one weblog and its last entry. Long gone now, as with the weblogger who wrote the words. The tyranny of the commons isn’t restricted to just weblogs. You can see group enforced behaviors in discussion groups such as Slashdot, with its system that rewards points based on the cleverness of the reply. Of course, cleverness wins over courtesy in Slashdot, so one could say that the site maintains a wall against chaos by giving into the chaos. Even a relatively open discussion group/pseudo weblog such as MetaFilter has acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, which tend to get ignored on hotter topics. It’s an abject lesson in diminishing returns — the longer the comment thread, the greater the degree of degeneration. At some point, the thread become just so much dirt kicking and shoulder shoving. Sometimes the words are uttered with wit, sometimes the words are uttered by the witless. Still, the most beautiful online moment I’ve witnessed was a MetaFilter posting. When my friend Chris had a close friend, Rick, killed in the terrorist attack in Bali, in the MetaFilter posting related to this there were several entries with just one character — a single period:

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Within online discussion groups, this period stands for a moment of silence and to see one after another, interspersed with condolences, and poetry, and genuine expressions of concern — it still brings tears to my eye, and I’m not a sentimental person. It is works such as this that give me hope, that helps me realize that though there is a tyranny of the commons, there’s also a compassion of the commons. And maybe if we’re lucky, the compassion will eventually triumph over the tyranny. Or not. I want to thank the members of Many-to-Many for having me here. When Clay wrote me and asked me to guest blog, I joked and asked if he was still sick from the flu; after all, I have been a fairly vocal detractor of his social software writing in the past. However, Clay is a gentlemen who respects the necessity of giving voice to those who disagree, as much, and perhaps more, than to those who agree. Yours in celebration of diversity and disagreement, Shelley aka Burningbird

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