Tuesday, March 27, 2007
The Madness of Crowds, And What to Do About It
So, the Kathy Sierra bullying thing is pretty awful.
In fact, I also have an anonymous dude who attacks me. Not with death threats, to be sure, but amazingly enough, he's devoted almost an entire blog to attacking me (not linking).
There is a bigger picture here. This chronicle of lameness also points squarely to the amazingly willful ignorance of the Valley in looking at the real world.
There, attacks like these - and lemme be specific here - attacks where mobs of people are drawn together specifically to gang up on a much smaller number - have been going for the better part of two years.
They continue to increase in both frequency and intensity.
Here's an example - try Googling some of those names.
Another classic example is 4chan's raids.
Now, there are many ways to see this.
One is the social psych approach - to say that anonymity + interaction depth = disinhibition, and nasty things happen.
That may very well be true, but I think that's missing the larger point.
Which is this. One inevitable consequence of a fragmenting consumptionscape is that nasty people cluster together, just like other kinds of people (Goths, Tennis Lovers, whatever).
Put another way, by creating spaces which are heavily moderated and policed (Wikipedia, your average friendly community), we drive nasty people into each others' arms.
Put another way, scale in nastiness is a natural and inevitable outcome of the kinds of self-organization we are tapping.
The problem is that we have fundamentally misunderstood the macroeconomy of the commons.
So what's the "answer"?
I think there are two answers.
First, reputation mechanisms (that work) that provide a amplify incentives for niceness, to counterbalance the amplifiction of incentives for nastiness anonymity creates.
Conversely, one could do the opposite - lower the costs of retaliation (but that might not be such a great idea, because people would just escalate).
Second, Valleywag says something really important (for a change :)
"...Why do these debates between web geeks become so venomous? Because, as Henry Kissinger said about academic infighting, the stakes are so low."
That's exactly right. What's needed are mechanisms which raise the stakes, and then make people commit. Reputation mechanisms are one category of these, but there are many others.
In fact, there's an absolutely fascinating existence proof of this - as a MeFi commenter on the Kathy thread points out, mommyblogs (uggh) are absolutely the nastiest places on the entire web today. They are full of the most vitriol - over the most trivial stuff imaginable. Why? Because the stakes are nonexistent.
But none of this will happen unless we drop the insularity that's blinkered our vision.
The "blogosphere" of approximately 1000 geeks all of whom are in love with each other is so not the issue.
This is a phenomenon that is happening across the larger mediascape - and so a geek community love-in isn't gonna do anything to stop it; it will just be a big waste of time.
So let's try and think beyond our "community" (which, if it really was one, would have prevented stuff like this from happening in the first place).
Final note - who benefits from a nasty and brutish mediascape, vs a nice, cooperative one? You guessed it, Google. Interesting.
The rise of OpenID might prove useful in this too. The easier OpenID gets to implement, and anonymous gets turned off, the less we'll see. I hope.
When a community is made up of people who have met face to face, the then cost of this type of action is very high. But if you don't know the person or only know them through the written word then there is an psychological disconnect.
This psychological disconnect is what is behind road rage and the demonising of various groups. We are now seeing it spread to another noosphere of human interaction.
Anonymity is a two edge sword. I do wonder whether the current levels of anonymity are correct. I think that complete anonymity is more of a curse than a blessing. And yes I understand the arguments for complete anonymity, but I think a lot of the good arguments against complete anonymity are completely ignored in the debate.
My personal opinion is that you should always stand by your opinion. Anonymity, to me, is simply cowardice.
The other aspect is for full weight of law to be brought to bear. What has been done is illegal (what ever way you cut it). I think that a few arrests will be very good for the blogsphere (will remind the community that they are still part of the real world and subject to its laws). In addition to criminal charges there is certainly civil defamation proceedings possible.
Speaking of attacks, one has to understand that certain individuals and entitities calim to fame is entirely dependant on such attacks. This is not a new phenomena as such emotions are part of human psychology.
On the brighter side, negtaive criticism is actually a good thing. Behind those coarse words is hidden a sign proclaiming "You actually Matter" :)
I hope the choice isn't between this, or banning anonymity.
Perhaps the ideal balance is encouraging long-term psuedoanonymity (that's what I'm using right now.) I make almost all my posts on the Web under the same nickname, and have for many years. When necessary, I register under that nickname. But I don't want to associate it with my 'real life' identity. I think that my comments and contributions can stand on their own - I am not an authority in any field anyway.
This isn't cowardice - I simply don't think that people should have the ability to make me face any consequences for what I post on the Web (as long as I don't break any laws, of course.) I've never abused my psuedoanonymity (e.g. by making personal attacks), nor have I taken any special measures to protect it - there many people who know me, and know my alias. Nevertheless, I'm glad that anyone who Googles my name will not see, for example, comments made by a rather unhinged individual calling me a neo-Nazi. I don't want to end up like the people in the WPA article, with my reputation in the hands of some random psychos on the Web.
I think free speech should include the right to express your own, personal opinions during your free time with the minimum possible consequence. I've never expressed any opinions that would get me fired, but people do get fired (or harassed, or ostracized) for their opinions. Hence I believe psuedoanonymity should be permitted throughout the Web, and in the case of minors who are not fully competent to judge the long-term effects their actions may have, encouraged. Psuedoanonymity solves most of the problems with permitting people true free speech, because, it truly is (to the rest of the world) a different person talking. For example, an employee could psuedoanonymously criticize the company they work at without incident, because they are clearly not speaking in their capacity as a representative of the company, but rather as a private citizen.
That said, the comments made about Kathy Sierra are probably criminal, and if they are, legal means should be taken to identify the perpetrators.
Profound, as always. I like how you uplevel the discussion to include reputation. I believe people should be free to create environments where anonymous cowards can do shameful things; too -- but the people who pimp and promote those forums should expect it to reflect on their reputations.