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:

.

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

Guest Blog #2

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

Every once in a while I let someone talk me into using an instant messaging service, such as ICQ. I would forget that I had it installed and be working happily away on some book or article, or doing my taxes when there’d be this knocking sound coming from my computer, and the little ICQ flower would change appearance — someone wants to message me, the flower would say. I would think to just ignore it, but this seems so rude because the little ICQ spy I allowed to be installed on my machine would be telling everyone that I am online, I am home, I can’t close the curtains and pretend otherwise. I would go online and have this typed conversation with the other person, which usually consisted of me frantically typing away as fast as I could while the other person, more adept at these sorts of things, would be using this cryptic pseudo-underground language endemic to the medium to send me short bursts of compacted meaning. ROTFLOL! (Real Off The Feeder Looping Out Lonely? Rather Old Testy Fart Laying Out Licenses?)

The thing that sets social software apart from the software we use to balance our checkbooks and order our next book is the interactive element of it: Instant messaging implies there’s someone to answer one’s virtual knock at the door; file sharing implies one person is out there sharing, another borrowing; discussions groups have, well, discussions. And weblogs have all the trappings of a personal journal, but one whose pages are instantly ripped out and passed around to a host of people, some known, some not. For most of the software, the interactive element is quite obvious, as in your face as that annoying little ICQ flower; but with

For most of the software, the interactive element is quite obvious, as in your face as that annoying little ICQ flower; but with weblogging the interactive element is more subtle. Within these journals, we can turn off comments and trackbacks, not provide RSS files, and even remove any concept of a permalink to discourage anyone from linking to something we write. We can disdain reading other’s work, and never reference other webloggers in our writing. We can refrain from leaving comments in other weblogs, and even forgo pinging weblogs.com. Once we’ve done our best to isolate ourselves we can congratulate ourselves about our independence, but really it’s a sham, a mockery, nothing more than feeble self-delusion. Weblogging by its nature is a social animal, and if you ignore that aspect of it too long, it will destroy your furniture and eat your best plant. Metaphorically, of course. No matter how much we may say we’re writing the weblog because we want to write, for self-discovery, or for posterity, we are impacted by our surroundings, by the very nature of the beast. Eventually, we find ourselves being influenced by the medium. Over time, we may be forced to make a decision: to either accept the ‘social’ aspect of

Weblogging by its nature is a social animal, and if you ignore that aspect of it too long, it will destroy your furniture and eat your best plant. Metaphorically, of course. No matter how much we may say we’re writing the weblog because we want to write, for self-discovery, or for posterity, we are impacted by our surroundings, by the very nature of the beast. Eventually, we find ourselves being influenced by the medium. Over time, we may be forced to make a decision: to either accept the ‘social’ aspect of weblogging, or abandon weblogging altogether. Since this is about social software, I won’t focus on the person who decides that the interaction takes more energy

Since this is about social software, I won’t focus on the person who decides that the interaction takes more energy than they have at the moment and leaves weblogging. Instead, we’ll look at the people who have decided that they’re game and ready to join, or stay with, the party. People like me. Perhaps people like you. We implement the permalinks and publish the many different versions of RSS files — plain XML, RDF/RSS, Blue RSS, Red RSS, RSS for Bad Hair Mondays. We also enable comments and trackbacks and all the other accouterments that say “Come on in, join the fun!” Once we’re ready, we introduce ourselves to the neighborhood by writing comments in other weblogs and referencing other’s work in our own writing. Pretty soon, we find ourselves surrounded by a friendly group of supportive new friends. Nothing but grins and giggles. That

Pretty soon, we find ourselves surrounded by a friendly group of supportive new friends. Nothing but grins and giggles. That is, until someone comes along and drops The Bomb. What is The Bomb? It’s different for everyone, and for every post. It’s the comments by the person or persons that criticize the original posting, or something someone else has said in an earlier comment. Many times the comment is thoughtful, perhaps even brilliant. Other times it’s taunting, provoking, even downright nasty. Regardless of the tenor, it’s the introduction of a discordant note into an otherwise harmonious whole. Now the introduction of this note isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If we all thought alike and agreed on most things, we’d all be pretty boring and would spend our time sitting around, exchanging daily epiphanies with each other. However, depending on the nature of The Bomb, your comment thread either excels to new heights of intelligence and insight, leading you to congratulate yourself on attracting such witty and urbane contributors; or your comments degenerate into a slugfest that would make the back alleys of your nearest Big City seem tame by comparison. Regardless, your comment thread most likely has now taken on a life of its own, one that’s not quite in your control anymore; and that’s a bit tough to take because, you say to yourself, you are the Writer of this Weblog. The Leader of this Little World. You are King or Queen of your Domain. Who are these people who just come on in and lay their thing in your space, without a by your leave? Shit on a shingle, but what did we do to bring this down on ourselves? Personally, in my comments I’ve been told to get a life, to stop doing drugs, to start doing drugs, that I’m sad, bad, and mad, and words that have come

Now the introduction of this note isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If we all thought alike and agreed on most things, we’d all be pretty boring and would spend our time sitting around, exchanging daily epiphanies with each other. However, depending on the nature of The Bomb, your comment thread either excels to new heights of intelligence and insight, leading you to congratulate yourself on attracting such witty and urbane contributors; or your comments degenerate into a slugfest that would make the back alleys of your nearest Big City seem tame by comparison. Regardless, your comment thread most likely has now taken on a life of its own, one that’s not quite in your control anymore; and that’s a bit tough to take because, you say to yourself, you are the Writer of this Weblog. The Leader of this Little World. You are King or Queen of your Domain. Who are these people who just come on in and lay their thing in your space, without a by your leave? Shit on a shingle, but what did we do to bring this down on ourselves? Personally, in my comments, I’ve been told to get a life, to stop doing drugs, to start doing drugs, that I’m sad, bad, and mad, and words that have come

Personally, in my comments, I’ve been told to get a life, to stop doing drugs, to start doing drugs, that I’m sad, bad, and mad, and words that have come perilously close to all I really need is a good medicinal f**k. And I’ve been known to come back swinging. A time or two. During your first few flame wars, at your weblog or within others, you might be invigorated, even refreshed. After a time though, after your fifth, tenth, or Nth flamefest, you wonder whether you should just turn comments off, and stop commenting elsewhere. You see promising thread after promising thread breakdown into name calling and accusations of the worst kind. You see people call each other names you haven’t heard since puberty, and there’s more than a whiff of the schoolyard dust about the exchanges. You just get tired of it. Depressed. Discouraged. Tired. You think about that lone weblogger who doesn’t have comments, or trackbacks, and who ignores others as they are ignored themselves, and you find within yourself a wistful thought that you wish you had taken the path less stomped. But then, just when you’re about to turn off comments and pull into your hermitage, someone comes along and writes something absolutely breathless, and you think to yourself, how could you cut something like this from your life? Dilemma. You start thinking about how you can control the ‘bad’ but encourage the good. Things to Do to Control Comments in a Nutshell. You might ban the IP addresses of repeat offenders, or disallow anonymous commenters. Perhaps you’ll force registration, with the hope of forcing people to identify themselves, and thus be more responsible with their words. However, none of these truly eliminate

Dilemma. You start thinking about how you can control the ‘bad’ but encourage the good. Things to Do to Control Comments in a Nutshell. You might ban the IP addresses of repeat offenders, or disallow anonymous commenters. Perhaps you’ll force registration, with the hope of forcing people to identify themselves, and thus be more responsible with their words. However, none of these truly eliminate flamefests because most are started by people who would gladly register, who give their names freely, and you can’t ban because they log on with different IPs all the time. At that point you might start getting a little more determined. For instance, you’ll delete comments from spammers, or from anonymous cowards who slam and run. You might warn specific people that if they continue to post Nasty Things, you’ll start deleting their comments. In other words, you start policing your comments — your weblog is no longer a journal but a country, with its own set of rules and regulations; it’s up to visitors to learn these or suffer the consequences. Still, even the thought of comment deletion won’t stop all folks, and sometimes there’s more than one person slamming away. So what are you going to do now? Delete all the comments? In this situation, you may decide to take a step in a direction you probably told yourself you would never do when you started a weblog: you begin to edit comments. You annotate, you delete, you edit. Unfortunately, editing comments is a path of no return, and weblogging and the easy communication you shared with others is no longer the same. Issues of blogging territory as compared to ownership of words enters the picture and, for good or ill, the spontaneity is gone. There was a trust between weblog reader and weblog writer and it’s been broken, but who’s to say who broke it first? At a minimum, the next time a journalist sticks a mike in your face, you’ll find yourself stumbling over the description of the open nature of weblogging. We all will. No matter how you wrap it up or what you call it, you’ve just become a

So what are you going to do now? Delete all the comments? In this situation, you may decide to take a step in a direction you probably told yourself you would never do when you started a weblog: you begin to edit comments. You annotate, you delete, you edit. Unfortunately, editing comments is a path of no return, and weblogging and the easy communication you shared with others is no longer the same. Issues of blogging territory as compared to ownership of words enters the picture and, for good or ill, the spontaneity is gone. There was a trust between weblog reader and weblog writer and it’s been broken, but who’s to say who broke it first? At a minimum, the next time a journalist sticks a mike in your face, you’ll find yourself stumbling over the description of the open nature of weblogging. We all will. No matter how you wrap it up or what you call it, you’ve just become a censor. (To be cont…)

Guest Blog #1

Originally posted at Many-to-Many, now archived at Wayback Machine

Software developers have traditionally used one phrase when testing text output in a new programming environment — “Hello, World!” We need to devise a new form of “Hello World” when testing unfamiliar weblogging software because every weblog post we write is a form of “Hello World!” Our words are recorded and literally thrown out, bounced against the aether, hanging brightly on the page like lures to little fishies. Except the little fishies are people like me, and you. Come here fishy, fishy, fishy.

I wrote once, long ago, that sometimes you have to stop in the middle of writing a weblog post and realize exactly what you’re doing: You’re writing into this void, hoping that someone wanders by and is interested enough to stop and read what you’re saying. It’s equivalent to being in a big room full of walls, and you’re shouting at the walls and faintly you hear other people shout at their walls and every once in a while, someone hears you crying out “Hello? Hello?” and answers back. Contact!

“Hello? World? Is that you?” “Yes! Yes! I hear you! “By the way, your taste in poetry really sucks. Did you know?”

What a unique out of body experience. You can take the voice out of the body, but you can’t teach it manners.

I guess this writing, this post (a word I dislike) is my equivalent of a weblogging “Hello, World!” — a rambling, disjointed shout out on nothing in particular into the threaded void. A tap at your monitor to let you know I’m in the neighborhood and tomorrow, I’ll be by with something useful. Or not.

Curves and Blogs

Clay Shirky has updated his article to incorporate new data. He pointed to a new list over at Technorati created in response to his article:

Top 100 Interesting New Comers

I’m on the list. But then, I’m also on Technorati’s Top 100 as well as Technorati’s 100 Interesting Recent blogs.

What can I say, I’m a Technorati Blog Magnet.

Clay and I are continuing our chat in the comments attached to the previous post. However, in looking at the new power law distribution graph, and looking at the data that generated the graph, I found that it would be quite simple to get rid of the curve: DaveCory, shut up. You’re skewing the curve.

Sam Ruby wrote about the best summary of this whole thing:

Here’s the way I look at it. I’m listed in the Technorati top 100. By looking at the statistics there, 98.93% of the weblogs it tracks do NOT link to mine. 99.90% of the weblogs tracked have less inbound links than me.

I see no mountains here, only molehills.

Squeak.

Archived with comments at Wayback Machine

Load of hooie isn’t in the guidebook

I’m sorry, I used a term like “a load of hooie” in my last posting rather than using some more learned discussion. I didn’t treat Clay’s article with the serious reverence due to it, and didn’t use enough words from the “How to impress people when you write” guidebook, here next to my computer.

I’ll make sure to use words of more than one syllable next time I write, so that I don’t insult my readers.

So I guess I’ll link to other more learned colleagues:

Alex Halavais Power Less

Mark Pilgrim Power Laws and Priorities

Jonathon Delacour’s Stuck(?) in the middle again

I had missed the posting Stavros did on this.

And Phil, who started all of this.

update

I gather this posting came off as somewhat defensive or perhaps even petulant. I’m sorry. I’ve let you all down.

Seriously, this wasn’t meant to be petulant. I was joking. But then after I posted it, I found I wasn’t joking. Hard to explain. However, no one’s comments, which are excellent and generous as always, were responsible for this posting. I wanted to make that assurance. And Mark’s, Jonathon’s, and Alex’s postings are good, which is why I linked to them.

And Phil: Zoe’s curled up in my lap right at the moment, and sends you purrs.

Archived with comments at the Wayback Machine