Second star on the right

This is my last posting related to community member or writer, because if I’m a writer than I should be writing about something other than community. Or at least, I think I should be writing about something other than community, because I’m getting that feeling about this topic that tells me to move on.

(Or perhaps it’s the flu. You, and you know who you are, did you send me the flu through the wires? I demand words in recompense.)

However, a conversation did start that opened a new angle on the discussion, and I wanted to point it out, if for no other reason than it crosses weblog borders, without knowing it has done so.

Joi Ito did respond to Community Member or Writer post with Communities and Echo Chambers. He presumes a question on my part:

Shelly asks the question “What part of you, the writer, is part of a community? Where, within yourself, does community leave off and you begin?” and says, “But I guess we’re accountable to each other, and that’s the most dangerous censorship of all – it’s the censorship of the commons.” This is an interesting question that Shelley has pointed out to me and I have been thinking about. In the comments on Shelley’s blog, Doc ties it to the notion of the “echo chamber,” the effect where we’re all just talking to each other oblivious to the outside world.

In some ways this reminds me of the six blind men and the elephant, each describing the same thing, but the descriptions drastically vary because of their differening perceptions. One feels the trunk and describes the elephant as snakelike; another holds the legs, and describes the elephant as like a tree.

But Joi also wrote:

I think the key is to understand that it’s not just like a high school. In high school, there is group of friends and everyone spends all of their time concerned about being in that group or not in that group. My life is a jumble of relationships and memberships in a great variety of sometimes conflicting communities of all different sizes and doesn’t feel like high school to me. As Ross has pointed out, these can be roughly grouped into three sizes. Big power-law shaped groupings, which are political, medium sized groupings which are social, and smaller groups which are strong-tie/family/close-friend groups. My sister used the word, “Full-Time Intimate Community”.

The behavior at each of these levels is quite different and it is when we collapse the context that we get in trouble. Comments made between intimate friends are different from the comments that are suitable for a discussion at a cocktail party. Comments made at a cocktail party are often not suitable for a public speech. One of the problems we have on blogs is that all three of these contexts are often collapsed into one blog.

Dave Rogerswrote on this theme in response to a comment by Joi:

I’d like to point out a few things as well. Given that your comments about Marc’s behavior being tasteless are _not_ going to change his behavior, then why offer them? There is a reason. What is it? It is in the nature of community, and the relationships between members of the community, and the beliefs that bind communities together. I submit you did not offer the comments to change Marc’s behavior, but to exploit Marc’s behavior to strengthen your own relationships within the community and to convey to other members of the community what the norms of belief are within “the community.” (A frustratingly difficult to define, if nevertheless very real entity. Complicated by the fact that there are communities within communities and communities of communities. It’s so, so…emergent!)

So Marc’s tasteless behavior is not allowed to go unremarked because it represents an opportunity for those who would presume to be authorities within a community to identify and proscribe types of behavior which are presumably outside the norms of the community. Joi strengthens his relationship within the community to Danah, presumably because at some point a stronger relationship with Danah will support Joi’s claim to authority within the community.

This was also picked up by Warren Ellis in Joi’s comments:

If the person(s) we’re addressing is sitting across from us in a bar, we don’t necessarily immediately shut up. What we do is moderate our tone. Or possibly not, if we’re trying to get through to someone. … It doesn’t stop you saying what you want to say. It just necessitates you put it in human terms.

Basic social skill tests go like this: your friendly acquaintance Fred Z has for some reason shown you a photo of a crack whore being anally raped with a corncob. Do you a) privately tell him he’s a weird little bastard and you’d rather he didn’t get within a meter of you again or, b) put the picture in the window and stand next to it pointing at it and saying “this really is appalling!”

You can substitute b) with “Blog it”, obviously.

In another related comment on this theme, Dave Rogers also wrote:

These (“push-back”) are observations, assertions and arguments that counter the observations, assertions and arguments of the conventional authorities. The effect, when the two camps are in balance, is to allow a community to give enough “space” to community members to allow the numbers and kinds of social interactions that define a successful community. Absent that balancing force, the force of authority shrinks the space of “acceptable” behaviors until they become so small that other social forces, likely the psychological forces of individual members’ needs, causes the members to abandon the community and, in effect, “fly apart” in a kind of psycho-social nova. Alternatively, if the force of authority is so strong and compelling, we get a very closed community that is not what we would call a “healthy” community. This might be analogous to a neutron start – itself often the product of a nova where most of the stellar mass is blown off in a violent explosion, leaving only a dense, presumably inert core.

My point, if I have one, is that much of what we do as people is the product of evolutionary psychology that has made us especially fit to affiliate in groups, and that much of our behavior is unconsciously designed to serve the needs of groups. When the values of the group are congruent with the needs of individuals, and there are always differences and therefore tensions, communities probably remain healthy. That’s not to say that individual members of communities necessarily treat each other as humanely as we would like to believe we do.

In this context, it was “safe” for Danah to assert that Marc’s invitation was offensive in a public forum. She had a somewhat reasonable argument to offer, and can be relied upon to be something of an authority on that particular issue. Her message was not to Marc, it was to “the community,” and it was intended to help proscribe certain forms of expression. If Danah was merely unhappy with Marc, she, as well as any of the people who offered their short, quick, effortless validations of her sanction, could have simply written an e-mail to Marc and expressed her feelings regarding the invitation. But that’s not what occurred.

Dave also mentions the concept of ’smart mobs’, saying:

This, in part, is why I have little faith in “smart mobs,” and regard the very notion as somewhat frightening. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a “smart” mob, we just have mobs that can act more quickly, more ruthlessly and less humanely than the already ugly things do in “meat-space.” Whatever hope we have of exploiting the technology of digital information networks to the betterment of our social interactions will only be realized by an attendant, thorough insight into our own nature.

Lago also writes about this in a related post, stating emphatically:

Excluding people and reinforcing local hegemony may be part of the �emergent� natural order, but the bulk of that behavior is still morally impoverished. Claiming �emergence� as justification for such behavior is irresponsible and cowardly, and it is especially so when used as a rhetorical device to claim that people who are excluded are responsible for their own exclusion because that�s how it goes in �nature.� Listen up, because I�m going to put it in a cute little quotable quote to increase the chances that readers will remember it.

Lynch mobs are just as emergent as smart mobs.

And he references Stavros in my comments who writes:

Not to insult the intelligence or the writing of any of my recent high-profile targets (all of whom, in contrast to times past when I sucked up to them, have responded with resounding silence to my shit-disturbing (but do I give a flying fuck? nah, not really…)), all of whom are also talented and capable to varying degrees, of course. But it seems to me that many are becoming famous for *being famous*, in true, hideously American fashion, and these folks, showing up at conferences and so on, the usual suspects in the usual line-up, begin to set up a cycle of feedback where the actual weblog, the actual writing (which this is supposedly all about, right?) becomes less the focus of the whole thing than the writer and his (or her, rarely) paid-for opinions.

It’s not about community any more, if it ever was, for some of the more visible amongst us, I don’t think. Unless by community they are referring to the intersection of their legions of acolytes and their semi-closed network of peers – the same people that they hang out with at these silly conferences that people talk so much about.

Reading all of this I am struck by a revelation (literally hit over the head with it by Dave): that my personal epiphany about wanting to return to being first and foremost a writer, without the weight of expectation from the community is neither that personal, nor that much of an epiphany. That if I hadn’t written a post on this subject, someone else would have (or already has).

Could it possibly be that the very voices for social software and emergent democracy and new forms of Internet communities and ’smart mobs’ are the very people destroying the foundation underneath them; spinning so tightly about the topic that we’re being forced into pulling away by the sheer mass of the support?

Dave used an analogy to astrophysics to discuss online communties:

I think an analogy from astrophysics may be in order, although I’m a little rusty on my stellar mechanics. Let’s say a “healthy” (i.e. vibrant, successful) community is a star. There are two forces at work in the star (there are more than two, but bear with me), the force of gravity, which keeps the mass of fuel together to support sustaining the fusion reactions that make a star as star (analogous to the psychological forces that compel us to affiliate in groups and the shared belief systems that make those groups possible), and the interior radiation pressure generated as a result of those fusion reactions that prevent the mass of stellar fuel from collapsing in on itself yielding a violent explosion in the form of a nova, or completely collapsing into a black hole, a singularity, a gravity well so deep that nothing, not even hope can escape. (That’s not exactly true either, but I like it as a turn of phrase, and it does say something about the nature of oppressive communities.)

Following from Dave’s analogy, is the social software phenomena, and its associated emergent democracy, ready to implode under its own weight?

I don’t know about the phenomena, by I just imploded under the discussion.

What say for cure for what ails me: tea and lemonade? or whisky and lemonade? Or a good walk in the fresh air?

(Or, as my friend Head Lemur gleefully points out, in our shared longtime joke – It’s all about me.)

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