Matini chewed hungrily on the cooked forearm of the monkey as I watched, thinking, “WTF, is he really not going to share?” The others watched him with looks of incredulity that told me they were thinking the same thing. Finally, Latala said to Matini, thumb pointing sideways to me, “You know, he knows the rules.”

“Huh?” Matini replied, looking up vaguely with his eyes while chewing the arm.

“You killed that monkey with an arrow he had given you. Therefore, that arm is his, according to our traditional way of dividing up the portions of animals we have hunted. But you are not sharing.”

Matini glowered at Latala and the others. He cursed in a language I did not know, and handed me the monkey’s arm. Knowing the rules as well as anyone else, I would have been obliged to give this piece of meat to a woman …. my wife, daughter, mother, whatever … who would then see to it that it was shared with the others fairly, in a communistic manner, to each as his need. That is how it is done among the Efe Pygmies of the Ituri Forest. But there were no women, just us guys. So I handed the arm to Latala and said, “You can be my wife today.”

And everyone but Matini laughed, and the remaining meat was cut from the arm and divided up evenly so everyone got about the same amount. Except Matini. He was ignored as he sulked on the periphery. Within two weeks of that incident, Matini was gone never to be seen again, disappearing as quickly as he had appeared a few weeks earlier. Matini was a pathological non-sharer. He cheated in ways one was not supposed to cheat and called out others when they were obeying cultural norms that did not happen to be in his interest. He made an utter pain of himself, snarkily demanding and never giving, following none of the tractions that kept people who lived in this small face to face group from driving each other nuts, until finally everyone stopped giving or respecting him, and he was forced to move on.

Latala told me, and others confirmed, that this happened now and then. Someone like Matini would come along, but could never stay long. Such individuals had a clear pathology. This pathology may not be recognized in Western Society as anything, or it may be a form of sociopathy. It may be, in fact it is almost certainly true, that behavioral pathologies are defined in no small part by the cultures in which they exist. The pathological inability to share may be something that can exist only in a culture where sharing is waft of the common social fabric. (As an aside, one wonders if there are pathologies that would emerge in and remain unique to the blogosphere.)

I am deeply cynical about the ability of people who impose their voices on the Internet (bloggers, commenters, facebookers) to gauge their own positions in relation to larger scale meaningful and important objectives. When I think of the bloggers with whom I know I share similar opinions about gender, race, and other elements of progressive politics, I believe the majority of them are displeased with me and the feeling is quite mutual. And I am not alone. This phenomenon that seems to permeate the blogosphere … adherence to a new rule, “keep your enemies clicking on your blog and your allies annoyed,” affects everyone. And I think it is because of a systematic bias in how people on the Internet tend to react to each other. I think this is a systematic and inappropriate shift in reaction to others or their opinions that results in part from the simple fact that we did not evolve here, and in part because this behavior benefits the actors. We evolved in small face to face groups where asshatitude is instantly addressed, relationships are matters of life and death, and, at least in my experience, humor is the social glue and snark that is reserved for outsiders. So when we are divorced from that setting we may act poorly, but that poor behavior may not be the simple result of relaxed constraint. It could be beneficial.

We arrive at the table knowing we know better. We view ways of thinking that we did not initially think as violations of our pristine ideals. Re respond, post hoc, by setting boundaries (that have already been crossed) and by making up new rules that have already been broken. We often seem incapable of having a conversation in which respect is even a consideration. In fact, we’re told that respect is a bad thing. You can’t make a move without someone getting jiggled, and for that, they will take offense. But not because you’ve offended them. Rather, because it benefits them.

Here is a simple thought experiment. A situation arises in which I have a comment about something in mind, but you speak first. You say something I wasn’t expecting, something I was not going to say, with an idea or perspective that is new to me. I hear what you said, and I react in one of the following ways:

A) I think, “Oh, interesting. I see that, now that you mention it.”

B) I find what you said substantially different than what I was thinking. I’m glad to have this perspective that had not occurred to me, but I need to process it.

C) I don’t agree with you but I see how we are generally in agreement, and I move on.

D) I don’t like what you said, and I see your statement as something that should be corrected.

E) I disagree with what you said, and I think you are doing harm to the larger causes with either the content or the tone, but I see your approach as part of a broad spectrum of which we are both part.

F) I am alarmed and annoyed, and offended and angered by what you have said. I feel the need to tell you so, and to take a stand against your tone or to disprove your content, or at least, distract your argument away from its intended goal so that this horrible thing you are doing is derailed.

Now, imagine that you are looking to buy a house. Every house you are shown by your agent has a set of features that relate to the houses value to you, and every house has a price. The smart thing for you to do is to choose the house that meets your basic requirements but that has a higher value than the price indicates, because there is some feature that has been overlooked in the pricing scheme. Suppose you are shopping for books in a used bookstore. You find three different copies of the same book, and you’d like to buy one. They are in differing conditions so you inspect them closely. One has a worn binding and when you open it is it heavily marked up. You put that one aside. The second is not too worn and inside there are no markings. That’s better, you may chose this one. The third one has no wear on the binding, and when you open it up, you see that it has no markings other than the signature of the author. And, used as a bookmark by a previous owner is an old envelope with a stamp on it that you happen to know is worth $10,000. So, given that all three books are the same price, you pick the third one.

My contention is that people, when choosing a reaction along the A to F scale outlined above (and that is not the only measure of a reaction … it is just an arbitrary scale I’ve devised for the present purposes to make the point) will tend to shift their reaction in the direction that benefits them the most. In small relatively stable interactive groups, like the Efe I started out this discussion with, this means shifting towards A. The hunter gatherer, who tends to shift towards A gains status, will have an easier time in the future negotiating important interactions, and if consistent, will be well regarded by everyone else in the group. When a “headman” emerges in a hunter-gatherer group, it seems to be that sort of person most of the time. In contrast, people interacting on the Internet will tend to shift towards F. That people do this is not really a question. It is utterly obvious that this is what people do. The reasons may be a bit elusive. It could be the “firing squad effect.” It could be a group identity effect.

Or, it could be a wide range of different proximate causes that mostly lead to a sense of power. I gain little power telling you that you’re right. I gain a number of things by telling you that you are wrong. Or, more subtly, by ignoring what you say and stating something that I can make look more relevant or more correct, and most importantly, like mine, even if I’ve merely restated what you have already said.

I accept and understand that people are bad at managing environments in which we as a species did not evolve. But only to some extent, because we actually evolved in a dynamic and socially complex environment. This is generally known as the EEA effect (environment of evolutionary adaptiveness) and has been applied to many circumstances, often uncritically, often ineffectively. But I accept that there is an element of “alien environment” here in the Internet, and that it can matter.

But that is not the primary explanation for the observation that the average person in the blogosphere is a flaming asshole. Rather, oppositional behavior, passive aggressiveness, and snark benefit the actor more than considerate or respectful behavior or the fair exchange of ideas.

To put this yet another way: It is often said that people are mean to each other when using electronic media because of the lack of checks on that behavior. I’m sure that is true, but it is also true that there are benefits to this behavior. The average behavior of denizens of the blogosphere is poor by most accepted social standards in part because people who can’t get along in normal society thrive here, in part because nobody knows if you’re a dog on the Internet, but also, and in an important way, because that behavior benefits the actor, in the context of normal day to day human power relations. All of the different explanations that are typically suggested for people’s Internet behavior involve a balance of costs and benefits to the individual actor (not surprisingly). But most explanations I commonly hear speak to the relaxation of costs as primary. In truth, a strong motivating force is the tangible benefits one gains.

When you can’t tell vilification tennis from a conversation you are witnessing, you know you’ve arrived at the blogosphere.

Comments

  1. #1 Hank Fox
    May 15, 2010

    Very nice. Asshole.

    No, seriously, this is something I’ve thought a lot about without reaching any really good conclusions. There’s food for thought in what you’ve written.

    I think some part of it all is the brevity necessary online. I find that I go out of my way to explain what I mean when I write, but most replies from others consist of only a sentence or two. You really can’t communicate nuanced ideas in so short a reply — I think lots of people fall back on the catty attacks because it’s simply easier than explaining at length. You get immediate, exciting feedback rather than delayed, subdued feedback.

    For some of the same reasons — laziness — it seems the nitpick factor is always in play. You can’t say ANYTHING without the nitpickers chiming in with comments on your every little mistake, focusing on each small misstep as if it was your main point, and worthy of intense critique.

    Plus, I often think, a very large percentage of people who use the Internet just aren’t very smart. Sometimes disagreement about petty inessentials is all they can manage. They’re simply not equipped to understand, or think about, larger matters.

    I had a really interesting interaction with a blog commenter I later discovered I knew slightly — someone who’d won an award for commentary on PZ Myers’ Pharyngula site.

    Without knowing at first who she was, I got into a slight disagreement with her on another site, and she turned into this flame-throwing bitch-goddess, really a crappy-vicious human being. When I Googled her user-name, I saw all the comments on Pharyngula, and realized who she was.

    On Pharyngula, I’d read countless comments by her, and saw nothing wrong with them, but on this other site, I was suddenly on the wrong side of her, and got the full assault.

    Caused me to look at my own behavior since then, I can tell you.

  2. #2 Aaron
    May 15, 2010

    Interesting. I see that, now that you mention it.

  3. #3 John Callender
    May 15, 2010

    The monkey-arm story was fun. I’d be interested in any additional evidence you feel like offering, though, to support the position that it’s all asshattery on the net. Granted, there are a lot of griefers out there, but there are some nice folks, too, and some emerging elements of community with face-to-face-ish features. I’m not arguing that you’re wrong. But I wonder if you’re being too one-sided as to the general applicability of the particular part of the blind-man’s elephant you’re currently holding.

  4. #4 eddy
    May 15, 2010

    Isn’t part of what is interesting when reading information on the internet the fact that you have all these raw reactions? Many comments are funny observations. There is information and there is the package it comes in. Nothing forces you to accept both the package and the information.

    Here is something you should give a try: next time you agree with someone, package the message as if you don’t. When you notice that the person you have the conversation with responds to the package and not the message, then you know there is no point in having discussions with that person.

    The experiment can also tell you whether the person is right by accident. If they cannot restate their opinion to explain what they think, then what’s the point of a discussion. (You’ll still learn about opinions that are out there, you don’t go putting your fingers in your ears and sing lalalala)

    Don’t do this experiment often (because you *are* being an asshole), but do try it. You will get to know people much better.

    Here is something else I noticed. For a lot of people it seems impossible they change their position during a conversation. That is ok for the moment. When you meet the person next time and the topic comes up, you’ll probable notice a shift in their position. Change is difficult. Give it time.

  5. #5 Ian Tindale
    May 15, 2010

    I think a lot of it is because:

    a] blogging (at the big end) through to tweeting/IM/chat (at the small end) is essentially the same ecological niche as CB radio was many decades ago when people used CB radio because it was the in thing to do. The dynamic is similar — disposable noise that only means anything right here right now. Much the same as a lot of what gets discussed in pubs every night across the world, and amounting to as much in the end.

    b] internet content is highly highly highly temporally tuned. What people pay attention to is largely what was written just now, not a while ago, so there’s currency in sticking your oar in right here right now, then move along.

    c] the payoff is not strong to stay in a static sustainable “village” online, but rather, the payoff is sometimes better to reap gains, ignore losses you cause others, move on and keep on moving on — an online slash & burn approach to information consumption.

  6. #6 george.w
    May 15, 2010

    Social conventions work the other way too. Taking approach “E” on Pharyngula will get your monkey arm taken away in a hurry. As you say, the social context defines the pathology.

    I must not be good at keeping my enemies clicking on my blog. One who deliberately insulted other readers in ways unrelated to the topic at hand, I told to get lost.

  7. #7 Stephanie Z
    May 15, 2010

    John, I think you misread. Greg said that the pressures were universal but that bad behavior was average.

    Ian, the interesting thing about the blogosphere is that it’s assumed to be temporary in this way, but much of it isn’t. Blogs are indexed in a way CB could never be. Eventually, my most-read post will be something I wrote last June, because I get several people every day looking for information I included in it. And there’s a fair chance that much more of it would endure if we didn’t treat it as passing.

    I consider that one of the more interesting internet contradictions, by the way. People are writing here because they want to have an impact on other people (not all, of course), and so many of them are settling for reaction. It’s not bad, but it’s not what they set out to do.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    May 15, 2010

    she turned into this flame-throwing bitch-goddess, really a crappy-vicious human being.

    Salty Current can be that way. :)

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    May 15, 2010

    evidence you feel like offering, though, to support the position that it’s all asshattery on the net.

    I have no evidence to support that claim. I said …I think it is because of a systematic bias in how people on the Internet tend to react to each other. I think this is a systematic and inappropriate shift in reaction to others…

  10. #10 Greg Laen
    May 15, 2010

    When you notice that the person you have the conversation with responds to the package and not the message, then you know there is no point in having discussions with that person.

    Why not have a discussion about how to have a discussion with that person?

  11. #11 Mal Adapted
    May 15, 2010

    Greg,

    My response is between B) and C), I guess. My problem is that, if all you have to go on is “the observation that the average person in the blogosphere is a flaming asshole”, your theory that “oppositional behavior, passive aggressiveness, and snark benefit the actor more than considerate or respectful behavior or the fair exchange of ideas” sounds a little like the reflexive adaptionism of dogmatic Darwinists.

    It’s true that on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog; but everybody knows you’re an asshat. As others point out above, blogospheric identities can be long-lived, and quasi-stable “communities” can arise. On the blogs I frequent (mostly, several that defend the AGW consensus), regular commenters develop reputations. Those who consistently make informed, logical, on-topic arguments are recognized with deference, while asshats are quickly marked and treated as such.

    I’m puzzled by the asshats that keep hanging around, because it’s not easy to see how they benefit from their consistent asshatitude. Is there a Psychology dissertation here 8^)?

  12. #12 Mal Adapted
    May 15, 2010

    I often think, a very large percentage of people who use the Internet just aren’t very smart. Sometimes disagreement about petty inessentials is all they can manage. They’re simply not equipped to understand, or think about, larger matters.

    You mean, people like this 8^)?

  13. #13 Glendon Mellow
    May 15, 2010

    Very interesting Greg. Like Hank Fox, it’s making me rethink my own behaviour online, and reflect on things I’ve said. You’ve held up an important mirror.

    I especially like the bit about finding ourselves in an alien environment. Evocative.

    A lot of quick snark, followed up “Snarky-person FTW!”-type comments also reinforce the perceived benefit of going on the attack online. It’s like video games. The benefit isn’t one what helps someone find a mate or procure food, but the somewhat artificial pay-off of a round of winning Mario Kart can be satisfying.

  14. #14 DuWayne
    May 15, 2010

    eddy –

    For a lot of people it seems impossible they change their position during a conversation.

    This is actually a very fascinating concept because it is almost the universal default for men who grew up culturally U.S. American. There are very few exceptions – of which I am certainly not one. I find that it takes a conscious effort of will to acknowledge I was wrong – or that another person was more right than I was acknowledging. U.S. American women tend to do moderately better on this front but only as a matter of degree.

    If I still had my communications text I would actually cite the series of studies but will contact my com instructor to see if he can help me out. The flag study that included some five thousand U.S. American respondents, (closer to forty three hundred when they filtered for “cultural” Americans) found that more than ninety four percent of American males will refuse to acknowledge their opinion was wrong when they were given more information about the scenario discussed in the first part of the survey – in that case a factor that was rather innocuous and would have required very little change. Nearly eighty five percent refused to change their minds when the scenario discussed in the second part of the survey was drastically altered with the inclusion of previously withheld information.

    Followup studies confirmed the findings of the first.

    Women scored about eighty two percent for the first and dropped to about sixty some percent for the second part.

    We are hell bent on maintaining face in U.S. American culture, though we aren’t actually the worst in that regard. It is a lot easier to just change our opinion quietly and surprise people we were arguing with before by suddenly coming out on their side the next time the discussion comes up. In extreme cases – of which there are actually many, the person who changed their opinion turns out to be so ashamed, that they will extricate themselves from contact with people who knew their previously held opinion. This may mean never visiting a particular blog or blog community again, never visiting that particular bar or coffeehouse again or in some cases even quitting a job.

    Hank Fox –

    I would note that there are times when “nitpickers” have what they see as a good reason for doing so. I am pretty inclined to go hard on people who don’t operationally define terms in a given conversation, because it often turns out that there is little disagreement. Rather it was a lack of agreement on what is actually being discussed. I am also guilty of this behavior myself, especially when discussing morality. I really have a hard time trying to clarify exactly what I mean when I say morality – though at least I try. I have found that particular word is actually very ambiguous – I recently sat with a group of seven atheists and after about an hour of just trying to define what morality is, we had I believe eleven distinctive definitions (i.e. definitions with a components that contradict all others).

    Yet nearly every conversation I get into about morality peters out because I simply demand a operational definition for morality. I do my best to explain my own (in part made difficult because it isn’t entirely static) and not only don’t they provide their own, they ignore mine. When pressed most people will still assume that we are talking about the same thing, because everyone knows what morality is.

    The thing is, operational definitions often seem like minutiae and accusations of nitpicking, pedantry and arguing semantics get thrown around. But when it comes to a lot of terms in a lot of discussions, the definitions are often very subjective. In the end it quite often turns out that, as I said, you actually agree about everything except the definition of what you think is being discussed.

    And in some conversations there are minutiae that are important because when you knock that bit out, considerable chunks of the overlying premise collapse. Sometimes a bit of minutiae is the or one of the keystones to the whole argument. Just as often, it is hard to see that progression of collapse when it is your argument collapsing – something I know from bitterly embarrassing experience.

    As for Greg’s actual post, I was recently given a TTC course in game theory. And while I have a break from communications for the summer semester, I am taking a class in communication theory this fall and intend to continue some of my focus on it between now and then. I would note however, that there is a theoretical model that is very little different from your ABC’s listing. And there are studies being performed across cultures, that would try to peg cultures down on that spectrum.

  15. #15 DuWayne
    May 15, 2010

    mal adapted –

    I’m puzzled by the asshats that keep hanging around, because it’s not easy to see how they benefit from their consistent asshatitude.

    Honestly? It is sometimes a power game that is similar to power games serial rapists play. Other times it is just a matter of them believing they are right and perceiving the target as a generalized ally who is fucking up. I would note that I have fallen into that latter far more often than I would like to admit, when I was flat wrong to do so. Though sometimes I think that I was right to do so.

    It is important to keep in mind that there is more to this than what we see. It is easy to get stuck on the proactive participants of a given conversation and forget that there are often far more participants who just read the discussion as it progresses. Sometimes they delurk to say something, sometimes they email a given party – more often than not, you will never have the foggiest clue what they think because they never expose themselves.

    That was my long route to saying that sometimes they stick around to speak to the “audience.”

  16. #16 Comrade PhysioProf
    May 15, 2010

    Dude, I think you are forgetting that being a douchebag on the Internet is fucking funny.

  17. #17 Greg Laden
    May 15, 2010

    Actually, I don’t think I made any statements about it being good/bad funny/not funny. For instance, some of my best and funny stuff is total asshatery, IMHO.

    But in person, I tend to share nice.

  18. #18 CherryBomb
    May 15, 2010

    I am sure that there is a lot cost/benefit calculation going on when someone makes an offensive post, but what I think is somewhat overlooked is the effect of the medium itself. It is almost insanely easy to offend someone with a blog comment or message board post (as Hank Fox discovered), and I think this because people use verbal conversation as their model for how to behave without realizing how important the non-verbal cues are. Humor, in particular, is very hard to get across when you can’t use body language and have completely lost control of the timing.

    I will use Hank’s first comment as an example:

    “Very nice. Asshole.

    No, seriously……..”

    I am sure he pictured himself delivering this in a mock-pompous tone of voice that could not possibly be taken seriously, but in a blog comment, he has to remember to explicitly identify this as a joke. Even with this explanation, I can imagine Greg feeling a subconscious twinge of resentment before reason takes over.

    The Efes in the post were using all kinds of non-verbal cues to communicate which of their words were joking and which were deadly serious, cues that took many thousands of years to develop. We humans have only been communicating by internet for a short time, so maybe not surprising that we are not very good at it yet.

  19. #19 momkat
    May 15, 2010

    Thanks so much, this totally explains the Prof to me. Seriously.

  20. #20 Comrade PhysioProf
    May 15, 2010

    Dude, you’re not an asshat. You’re a hat-ass.

  21. #21 Avattoir
    May 15, 2010

    Might what’s being described just be typical of the h. sapiens sapiens pattern of experimentation with new tools? 2001 Space Odyssey monkey man picks up big heavy bone, whacks something and hilarity ensues? The pattern shows up in childhood as h. migrates from mom to multi-verse, from tit to tat to titillation.

    The monkey meat scene Greg Laden draws doesn’t portray first principles; the context is primitives, but there are still lots of complex social adaptations that preceded it, and they’re not exactly hard to detect.

    You don’t have to be so old to be able to recall photocopy machines being at the apex of office technology; okay, old — but not dead.

    A bit further (not being actually dead still allows for, as Robin Williams’ golf bit puts it, f***ing hope), some fairly sophisticated patterns of social adaption the new tools may already be showing up on the toobz: go here for a discussion; go to a few msm sites to take the pulse on tribal reaction; go to a specialty wonk site to fill a gap on understanding, to check one’s own, for balance, or for bonding; go to a hardnut winger site to test one’s mettle, or level of tolerance, or for amusement — abuse even.

    Maybe the internet just isn’t all that closely comparable to a penis party of monkey munchers.

  22. #22 Traveler
    May 15, 2010

    As an aside, one wonders if there are pathologies that would emerge in and remain unique to the blogosphere.

    Sock-puppetry? This would be hard to do outside of the net.

  23. #23 Leni
    May 15, 2010

    I don’t know about other people, but the factors that seem to contribute to my unpleasant internet interactions are my mood, my feelings about the person I’m in the conversation with (e.g. whether I am familiar with them or not, general impressions etc.), whether or not I think the person I’m talking to is “getting it” or just being argumentative, and what I perceive their motivation to be. Their behavior is a good indicator as well. Someone who is still friendly while arguing is much more likely to get a positive response from me than someone who isn’t. That’s probably true for most us, even ass-hats.

    A lot of times I’ll start out nice but then quickly lose my patience. It sometimes takes a great deal of effort stay nice, and I’ll often find myself editing out a lot of unnecessary snark before I post and then feeling like kind of a shit-hole for including it in the first place. Sometimes I have to actively remind myself that the person I’m talking to is probably someone I would very much like “in real life” and that there’s usually no reason to be rude. It’s much easier when I actually do like the person, though. (Or at least their posts.)

    And other times I just fail miserably at keeping my cool. It’s embarrassing to lose your cool, though. Sometimes that serves as a check. Sometimes. It also seems to depend a lot on things that are going on in my life. If I am angry or upset about something I’m much more likely to take it out on some poor bastard on the internet. But I’m a somewhat emotionally reactive person, so it’s not something that’s confined to online posting. I’m sometimes a bitch to my real friends too ;)

  24. #24 Anna Haynes
    May 15, 2010

    DuWayne #14, re your
    “The flag study…found that more than ninety four percent of American males will refuse to acknowledge their opinion was wrong when they were given more information about the scenario discussed in the first part of the survey”

    …do you have a reference for that? (or at least some keywords I could google)

    (I ask with “this is fascinating, I want to know more” body language; i.e not “I don’t believe you”)

  25. #25 DuWayne
    May 15, 2010

    I emailed my com instructor and intend to actually go in to harass him sometime this next week. I will see if I can dig it up when I go to see him. The text really didn’t talk about the studies at all, just referred to them and cited a literature review. I can check and see if I managed to get that saved to my external drive, but I have my doubts as it wasn’t all that important to me at the time. About the best I can say is that the review was in the journal “Communication Theory.”

  26. #26 Pen
    May 15, 2010

    The other side of the coin is that if people in face to face situations gravitate towards response A, they could condone and promote the circulation of some pretty dubious ideas. That could explain a lot about some of humanity’s more picturesque beliefs. I know I’ve listened in silence to some pretty whacko stuff, all in the interests of social harmony.

    At least on the Internet, people are not shy about disagreeing. I doubt it’s possible to publish an opinion without finding out the various arguments that exist against it. And yes, you probably get some insults thrown in – or start hurling them yourself if you don’t like being disagreed with. The main participants may not change their minds as a result, but the quieter lurkers might. Is it worth paying the price of a verbally violent atmosphere if it gets people confronted on their ideas? Could we keep the benefits and avoid the violence?

    As for motivation, I can see your theory that people in the blogosphere get rewarded for rudeness. Personally I can’t help suspecting that people get quite a lot of intrinsic joy out of calling an idiot an idiot. I wonder if the prominence of the rudest isn’t more a side-effect of the pleasure they get from being rude, rather than a motivating force in itself.

  27. #27 abb3w
    May 16, 2010

    Greg Laden: I hear what you said, and I react in one of the following ways

    Where would “Ask a question about the new perspective” fall? =)

  28. #28 Greg Laden
    May 16, 2010

    abb3w: B. (processing)

  29. #29 Hank Roberts
    May 16, 2010

    I learned to read online with the ‘nn’ newsreader (“no news is good news” — an approach that worked very well to avoid wasting time.

    Setting up the filters was an education in thinking through who, and what, to ignore.

    It could happen with blogs, if someone would write comparable tools, though without consistent headers on posts there’s much less to work with to do filtering.

    With blogs I find if I remember to _pretend_ I have a killfile, I can avoid jumping at a lot of the nonsense, and remember to write for other readers later, not attack the ankles I see all around me needing to be bit.

    “… instead of having to read everything to decide what you don’t want to read, you are choosing which few posts look interesting…. the newsreader should keep track of which posts are related to each other and group them, so you can select or ignore whole groups of posts … by noticing the threads and subject names ….
    These two changes account for an almost unbelievable difference in speed …. determining which threads look promising and which don’t, we can read USENET literally 100 times faster ….”
    http://athena.vvsu.ru/docs/unix/unix_adm/ch07.htm

    The _exercise_ of tuning a killfile every few days was an instructive one, choosing who and which topics to remove until the newsreader gave a rewarding, rich result in minimal time. It wasn’t recreational reading for many of us back then, it was a way to get great information from smart people we couldn’t find anywhere else.

    I tell ya, this pathetic little braindead killfile we have here with Firefox, grateful as I am for it, is an irritating reminder of what used to be …. Oops …

  30. #30 strix
    May 16, 2010

    I’m gravitating to ‘A’ (I usually do on this blog, which is why I come here) but I think it might be worthwhile to consider some other online spaces in comparison to the blogosphere. To comment on blogs one has to overcome the barrier to action; stating an opinion costs time and risks reputation. That barrier is less likely to be crossed if the reader don’t have a strong emotional reaction, and will probably elicit a shorter response if the reaction is positive (“strongly agree” isn’t a very useful or informative thing to say). Thus even if a majority of readers can see the sense in your argument the comments will be dominated by the minority who dislike what is said, and they may not be the most coherent or civil bunch (ad hominem is so much easier than patiently and respectfully making ones case, especially in the heat of an emotional reaction).

    I recently looked over my Digg history and was given pause by how snarky and oppositional most of my comments were. In that space most feedback is made with little thumbs up or down icons; instant and comfortably anonymous judgment of others opinions. In that medium people generally post comments to bask in the positive feedback (Diggs) one gets from other users – usually gained by making some witty, insightful remark or tearing down someone with an unpopular point of view. I’m more successful at the latter than the former.

    On chans (anonymous imageboards) I happily take both sides of an argument, unburdened by reputation. It’s freeing and stimulating to defend both ideas and oneself from inevitable attack, and it’s just plain fun. The same thrill that little boys get from throwing stones at a wasps nest, from ringing a doorbell and running away.

    When trolling some outgroup space like Conservapedia or Free Republic, I’m only pretending to abide by social norms, if that.

    I guess the core of what I’m trying to say is that environment effects the tone of interactions by making civil conversation more or less rewarding. 4chan is the internet’s largest, busiest English language forum (2chan is the largest overall) and it’s edge to edge trolls. The blogosphere, which overlays so many different real-world social networks is much more retrained by all that IRL socialization which is dragged along with identities and the real world communities members belong to (your siblings reading your Facebook, or your friends reading your blog comments).

  31. #31 DoktorZoom
    May 16, 2010

    You may have said something interesting or useful to me, but I cannot see any value in anything you said because you misspelled “worn” as “warn.”

  32. #32 Azkyroth
    May 17, 2010

    This is a bit more elaborate than the observation I recently had, observing a sycophantic commenter on one of the blogs you’re probably thinking of, snarkily dismissing a comment by another commenter (of indeterminate gender), who was engaging with and critiquing the ideas and these of the original poster in a serious and intellectually honest fashion, as “mansplaining,” that “‘us-vs-them’ thinking is addictive,” but the observations seem related.

  33. #33 Tony Sidaway
    May 17, 2010

    I think this posting takes the comments threads of blogs far too seriously. If a regular troll makes a nuisance of himself on a blog thread, I’ll avoid that thread. If the blogger doesn’t take steps to keep regular trolls out of the main threads, eventually I’ll stop bothering to read the threads, if for no other reason than to save precious time.

    I’ll still read the posts I find interesting, and may comment if I feel like it. But a blog is not a forum so I think the primary interaction is between me and the blogger. I don’t feel obliged to read the other comments.

    If I feel that what I have to say to the blogger is very important (which is extremely rarely) I’ll email him. I don’t expect him(or anybody, frankly) to wade through the dross that makes up a blog comment thread.

    The posts are what keep me coming back.

  34. #34 Greg Laden
    May 17, 2010

    Strix, interesting comments. I tend to think of the blogosphere as including the internet rather than the other way around (incorrectly, of course).

    DZ: my spell checker obviously has a regional accent.

  35. #35 Greg Laden
    May 17, 2010

    Tony: Interesting perspective. I approach blogs in the same way, and sometimes I get into big trouble. A couple of times I’ve been told that it was wrong for me to comment having not read all the comments on the post, and in fact, all the comments on several posts as well as the 6,000 word section of the about page explaining how to comment or interact.

    That annoyed me, but in truth there is something to it. If I have the rare 100 comment long thread, and someone makes a comment that has already been made, that will annoy the thread-readers. But is it really OK to insist that every single person reads every single comment?

    Well, that depends on the comment. A common event on this blog is that someone comes in screaming that I got it all wrong and have crushed the puppies to death, when in reality what I said was a) different than they thought but perhaps subtle and b) clarified and expanded in the comments.

    I suppose it would be best for me to view such re-statements by the non-thread-readers as not any kind of problem or offense, and I generally do if their comments are just comments or suggestions. But, if the comment is a full scale condemnation calling for justice by way of be being hanged or driven into the swamp, then maybe the onus was on the commenter to be more prepared.

    And there are blog communities that really do have a life of their own an their own culture. When someone not part of that culture shows up to comment, it really is like someone walking into a restaurant and taking a seat at a large table of people they’ve never met and who did not invite them.

    Or, more accurately, it is a bit like a HS freshman showing up in the cafeteria and accidentally sitting at the “wrong” table and thereafter being bullied and/or stigmatized.

    I’ve rather enjoyed reading the commentary involving some of the members of one such long established community while they explore a very new and rather snarky blog, trying to figure out what table it is OK to sit at and what table it is not OK to sit at.

  36. #36 Greg Laden
    May 17, 2010

    Also, don’t forget to look at these: http://tinyurl.com/26dpr2t

  37. #37 Snarkyxanf
    May 17, 2010

    Is it a bad thing that asshattery abounds in virtual communities?

    In real life, the cost of asshattery can be anything from loss of a job to starvation and death. Societies over taken by pathology often end up dead. Even in an office building, asshattery can lead to loss of jobs, bankruptcy, etc.

    Here the costs are nearly nonexistent—I risk only angering people I’ve never met, on whom I depend for nothing of substance.

    Perhaps there is a benefit to having a contained venue for douchebaggery—we already have social venues for controlled strife (sports), violence (sports like boxing, hockey), pain (hazing and traditional coming of age rituals), humiliation (reality TV), etc.

    Presumably since most societies have venues for bad things, such venues have a purpose.

    One complication: some of those are examples of costly signaling, and the “consequence-free” nature of the internet undercuts a costly signaling argument.

  38. #38 becca
    May 17, 2010

    Two reactions:
    1) Along the lines of what strix said, there are many internet subcultures. Some shift me toward A (the PhD phorums), and some shift me toward F (you have a gift for puppycrushing, Greggie).
    As a sidenote, I personally find it entertaining to see people who get shifted very dramatically, depending on context (although it is an endless source of consternation if I attempt to pigeonhole such people *cough*CPP*cough).

    2) I think there is also another complexity here, which is how ‘shiftable’ you are, and in what contexts, and whether there are social sanctions applied to that (ok, I’m following the PA Senate race right now, so that may be influencing my thoughts).
    Sometimes I get mad at people for the circumstances under which they shift toward A.
    When someone is *only* shifted toward A when they’ve got something to loose, ‘making nice’ can look like ‘abandoning your principles’. More often, I get mad at people for shifting toward F with those that have less power- that makes you look like a bully. Of course doing the opposite, as is my wont, makes you an *idiot*.

  39. #39 Tony Sidaway
    May 18, 2010

    Greg @35, first I outlined the circumstances under which I might excuse myself from reading all the comments. It’s a compromise between courtesy and sanity. Indulging trolls does nobody any good.

    Having said that, I must observe that I find it easier nowadays to find intelligent discussion–in that respect, the best blogs are a great improvement on Usenet. I rarely find myself confronted with a situation where I must ignore a comment, and when I do it’s much easier to adapt my reading strategy to avoid the troll.

    I don’t really use blogs for socialising but I appreciate that there are those who do. I am probably blissfully unaware of several such social groups, in the activities of which I feel no particular interest.

  40. #40 darwinsdog
    May 18, 2010

    Guys like Matini may be traveling from group to group fathering children and thereby perpetuating whatever genetic component to the propensity for being selfish there may be. In between times he’s out in the forest alone, where he doesn’t have to share whatever he catches.

    In real life people affect niceties because if they didn’t they’d get punched in the face. On the internet people are free to be the kind of asshole they’d be in real life if they could get away with it.

  41. #41 Greg Laden
    May 18, 2010

    Becca: When someone is *only* shifted toward A when they’ve got something to loose, ‘making nice’ can look like ‘abandoning your principles’.

    Yes. But if it is someone else who will suffer the loss … e.g. you might want your lawyer to suddenly get nice to the irate judge. It is a slippery slope from cranking down the snark to appeasement, but the truth is that we often find ourselves clinging to that slope out of need. Greater need.

    More often, I get mad at people for shifting toward F with those that have less power- that makes you look like a bully.

    That is practically the definition of a bully.

    Of course doing the opposite, as is my wont, makes you an *idiot*.

    Wait … who you calling an idiot!?!?!?

  42. #42 Greg Laden
    May 18, 2010

    Tony Sidaway: I would like to point out that the comments on my recent post regarding breathing through the skin is a great example of how the comments can make the post. I’ll take credit in this case for creating a situation in which that would happen … I suspected/hoped that certain commenters would chime in with good info and ideas, and they did.

  43. #43 Greg Laden
    May 18, 2010

    Guys like Matini may be traveling from group to group fathering children and thereby perpetuating whatever genetic component to the propensity for being selfish there may be. In between times he’s out in the forest alone, where he doesn’t have to share whatever he catches.

    In theory, yes. But a) attitude about sharing is known to be entirely learned and not genetic and b) with the Efe, there is a strong tendency towards “mate guarding.” Matini was not getting any where near any of the women. But in other societies that may be very different.

  44. #44 zyan
    May 18, 2010

    You forgot c) the only women who’d mate with Matini are either stupid or desperate, both traits which will leave his offspring disadvantaged in the long run.

  45. #45 Oedipus Maximus
    May 19, 2010

    Thanks for this. It summarizes why I’m pessimistic about the blogosphere and contains some insights which had not occurred to me.

    I think the main driving factor (or at least one of the main) is what you mentioned near the end: human power relations. We want to feel special, unique, valued, and recognized. These goals are likely to be obtainable in small hunter/gatherer groups. But in the massive alien environment of the Internet it’s nearly impossible. So we take shortcuts to obtain a modicum of short-term satisfaction, in the absence of any long term hopes. And this is done quite easily by a sprinkling of snarkiness, condescension, and vilification. We can walk away from our computer with the smug satisfaction, however small, that we demonstrated our specialness, uniqueness, and value in relation to others. Add to this the postulate that feelings of powerlessness increase in relation to time spent on the Internet, and you have a self-perpetuating cycle.

    This is my stereotypical characterization of blogosphere participants who seem to be, for lack of a better word, unhealthy. To some degree it applies to each of us. But we also have control over that degree.

  46. #46 Oedipus Maximus
    May 19, 2010

    After reading DuWayne (#14), I was reminded of http://www.pointofinquiry.org/carol_tavris_mistakes_were_made . Her book is required reading for mankind, I think.

  47. #47 darwinsdog
    May 19, 2010

    a) Phenotype (including behavior) = genetic component x environmental component x nonadditive (genetic x environmental) component x dominance component. Seldom if ever is any phenotypic attribute entirely environmental (or genetic).

    b) Females, especially human females, are pretty sneaky when it comes to evading being guarded by mates. In exchange for meat or glass beads Efe women may well have been meeting Matini out in the bush for sex. Only they know and they’re not telling.

    c) I don’t think that Matini much cares about that, zyan.

  48. #48 Greg Laden
    May 19, 2010

    Females, especially human females, are pretty sneaky when it comes to evading being guarded by mates. In exchange for meat or glass beads Efe women may well have been meeting Matini out in the bush for sex. Only they know and they’re not telling.

    Yes, they are sneaky, but this is in the context of along term behavioral study. Not only do we know a lot about mate guarding among the Efe, but I was with Matini day and night for most of his time in the area. I’m personally convinced that paternity attribution among the Efe is as close to accurate as we would generally see in any society.

    You forgot c) the only women who’d mate with Matini are either stupid or desperate, both traits which will leave his offspring disadvantaged in the long run.

    I should add that about 10 percent of the women (and the sex ratio is about 50-50) marry out of the Efe, while exactly 0% of the men marry out. (Thus the mate guarding.) So it is very hard to find a woman who is of age and not married.

    This is not widely acknowledged, but I’ve observed polyandry here as well (in low frequency).

  49. #49 Jason G. Goldman
    June 24, 2010

    Oh, how I wish I had seen this a week ago.