Online communities

The internet is full of strangers, generous strangers who want to help you for no reason at all. Strangers post poetry and discographies and advice and essays and photos and art and diatribes. None of them are known to you, in the old-fashioned sense. But they give the internet its life and meaning.

I first got online in the late 80s, when I was an eccentric teenager in suburban New Jersey, in a town mostly interested in sports, popularity and clothes. I was a reader, into Jorge Luis Borges, and I found, connected to and delighted in a group of Borges scholars from Aarhus, Denmark that I met online. It was early days, the days before COPA (now COPPA), chat rooms and a/s/l, when the level of discourse was high, and the number of scoundrels was low. The lonely “no one understands me” use case for online communities is one of the strongest ones. How many people, different from those around them, have finally found a home among strangers on the internet?

I learned most of what I knew about online communities on The Well, and it was a good place to learn. The group of people in Sausalito, Mill Valley and Bolinas who’d gotten the Whole Earth Catalog off the ground — a bunch of boomers, techies, hippies, intellectuals and nerds — established the “Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link”, and showed us what online communities were. They taught us how to create a civilized space, to speak in our own voices, use our real names, fan the flames of friendliness, to boot and ban trolls. They showed us how to mediate flame wars, start and end conversations, tease out contributions from the shy and lurking, engage in healthy debate. The mantra of the place was “You Own Your Own Words”, a phrase coined by Stewart Brand, one of the Well’s founders, meaning you not only have the right to say your piece, but also that you have to take responsibility for the consequences of those words.

Maybe I just found all the great places to hang out online, but the communities I found were most often characterized by their incredible generosity. On Metafilter, a group of strangers worked together to rescue two women from villains who appeared to be sex traffickers. The nephew of a man with Downs Syndrome who was suffering from cancer posted that his uncle loved to receive mail, and received hundreds of letters from complete strangers. Amit Gupta announced that he had been diagnosed with leukemia and needed to find a matching bone marrow transplant, but it was difficult to find matches for Southeast Asians, who are underrepresented in donor databases. Countless conversations, tweets and blog posts conspired to help him — and subsequently other underrepresented groups — find a donor. The outbursts of care and kindness happen every day to my continual astonishment.

And then came the sunset of the Golden Age. The Dot Com era began, and things got serious. Online community became the hyped new thing that every new web site had to have. While motor oil, laundry detergent and pantyhose don’t seem like natural foci for gathering and sociality, attempts were made — repeatedly and laughably — to form communities around such products.  And forums and chat spaces, which I’d seen as a merry places for interesting people, became, often enough, shady places for iffy people. Because for every gay teenager living in a remote, conservative, homophobic town who finally connected with his people, a white supremacist found another. A cannibal found someone who was interested in being eaten. Trolling, hating and spamming became a surge, then a flood.

“Communities are defined by what they tolerate,” says Heather Champ, who worked with me at Flickr guiding and cultivating the community there. Flickr’s community was something we cultivated in a hands-on, very engaged way, greeting, welcoming and befriending the first 20,000 users. And, famously, in the Flickr community list of dos and don’ts, Heather wrote this beautiful, concise guideline :

Don’t be creepy.

You know the guy. Don’t be that guy.

Community management is an art, not a science. It requires an iron fist in a velvet glove, and Heather is a mandarin. She’ll endlessly fight for the disenfranchised to have their space, for artists to practice their art, for peaceful coexistence and tolerance, for people’s right to privacy — while ruthlessly squashing trolls and silencing the hate.

Now we are building a new community built around places, with a team that includes Heather. A lot of things have changed since the days of Flickr. Facebook has concentrated the sociality of the internet within its blue borders, like a Walmart siphoning off the mom-and-pop shops that formerly comprised the internet’s gathering places. Communication, in the age of mobile dominance, has become, of necessity, shorter and snack-sized. Gone are the long debates on The Well. Gone are the Olden Dayes of the Independent Web. But never gone is the miraculousness of connecting with people remote from our houses, but close to our hearts.

Each online community decides what it is going to be, and in the end, reflects the people that participate in it. The internet is made of people. Like Anne Frank, I believe that, despite all evidence to the contrary, people are good at heart. And always, on the internet, I am astounded by people’s insistence on being generous, compassionate and kind.

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A version of this post appeared in Wired last year

Human rights begin in small places

Eleanor Roosevelt

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

— Eleanor Roosevelt

Via Moyalynne

Quarrel not at all, or why one shouldn’t engage in online mudslinging

Photo via Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/burge5000/22568539/
Photo via Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/burge5000/22568539/

“Quarrel not at all. No man resolved to make the most of himself can spare time for personal contention. Still less can he afford to take all the consequences, including the vitiating of his temper and loss of self control. Yield larger things to which you can show no more than equal right; and yield lesser ones, though clearly your own. Better give your path to a dog than be bitten by him in contesting for the right. Even killing the dog would not cure the bite.”

— Abraham Lincoln

11 year old boys make a neighborhood

In the January 2012 issue of The Believer, there is an interview with cartographer Denis Wood, who created Everything Sings, a representation of Boylan Heights, NC, where he lives and raised his children. The maps are not typical maps, instead they depict, according to the article (I don’t have this book, though I’m ordering it!) “the light that fills the streets, the delivery routes of local newspapers, the face of pumpkins in front of homes at Halloween”, among others. Wood says:

I wanted to think about what a neighborhood is. What makes a neighborhood a neighborhood? What are the characteristics of neighborhoodness? There’s a theorist named Leonard Bowden who had the idea that neighborhoods are created by eleven-year-old preadolescent males. In their running through the neighborhood and connecting families together, crossing fences, going into homes that their parents would go into, and knowing people that their parents would never even acknowledge, they create the neighborhood. Not girls, because girls were not given the privilege of ranging like the boys were, and not older boys, because they were being directed by the school toward classmates at a distance.

Anonymity and Pseudonyms in Social Software

On Facebook, and now Google Plus, real names are required. Since its launch, there has been a fair amount of controversy surrounding the Google Plus policies, including this from a former Google employee who goes by the name of Skud, who had her account suspended. Today Jyri posted (on Google Plus) about Pseudonymous Accounts and why they should be permitted. He argues that people should “not be booted off the system for using a made up name” and quotes the diary of a gay teenage girl, Agnes, writing about her love interest, Elin, in Show Me Love:

This is not an edge case. Nor is it just about the two billion people who live under oppressive regimes. If you are a person who “thinks different”, think back. Were you ever the nail that sticks out, at some point in your life? Like in Amal, the home town of the two girls Agnes and Elin, the community preventing you from being all you can be the neighborhood school, church, friend group… often it’s your family.

Later in the afternoon Bradley Horowitz, from Google, posted about some changes to Google Plus addressing some concerns, allowing people to associate fictitious names with their accounts under “Other Names” (which can also be used for maiden names and the like), clarifying the rules during the sign-up process, and the implementation of a warning system prior to account deletions. He noted that he himself goes by the name “Elatable” on various places on the internet. And I think Google is being responsive and trying to do the right thing (That “Data Liberation” link gets me every time!)

The point I think is this: Pseudonyms are not in themselves harmful. Yes, they can be used for harm, as when people use them for anonymous, slanderous attacks, trolling, etc., but in the vast majority of cases there is no harm done. Importantly, they can serve to protect vulnerable groups. There’s even a comprehensive list of people harmed by Real Names policies. In the cases where pseudonyms are being abused, it is the harm that should be stopped, not the pseudonyms.

To my mind there are three categories of Pseudonymous behavior, and they should be treated differently:

AKA or “Also Known As” is a common use case. It’s like a stage name or a nom de plume. Say your Nom de Web is Kryptyk Physh. It’s not your “real name”, but you’ve staked your claim to it, it’s easier to register an original name in crowded namespaces, and your friends have come to identify you by it. These names are usually accompanied by a real name, like Bradley associating himself with “Elatable” or my friend Todd using his customary handle “Telstar Logistics“. The person is not trying to conceal his or her identity, just use a handle. Harm? None. It’s fairly easy to design systems to accommodate this, and this is the use case that Google Plus was addressing with their changes today.

Pseudonym A false name, or a name unassociated with a real identity, to preserve anonymity, for protection. The spectrum of danger ranges from people trying to avoid email-harvesting spammers, through gay teenagers risking the judgment of their peers and family, workers fearing they might lose their jobs, journalists in corrupt regimes or political dissidents who could risk prison or death. Sometimes their friends and allies know who they are if others don’t, in a kind of identity steganography. This is a strong case for allowing pseudonyms to exist online, and such white hat users can generally be identified by the content they post and their behavior online, which distinguishes them from

Trolls, a rubric I’m using to include Trolls, Harassers, Griefers, Spammers, Pimps, Exploiters, Slanderers, Criminals, Impersonators, Haters and so on — these are the abusers of anonymity, using false names as a convenient fig leaf to cover up anti-social behavior and to escape the consequences they’d face if they’d used their own names. Strong moderation is the solution to this problem. (And not to be forgotten: people harass others using their real names too.) On many systems there is a combination of real names and pseudonyms. The system can be designed to elevate in trust people using their real names, as Amazon does, and similarly can be designed to raise or lower the reputation of people using pseudonyms, by their behavior, using their posts, comments and contributions, rather than their identity. A general policy (that I use for my own sites) is to publish cogent, considered posts by anonymous contributors, but throw out posts that are angry, unproductive or concern trolling.

“Real identities” have real benefits to users — creating communities of trust, silencing trolls, people standing by their words. Nothing can destroy a happy social space faster than allowing the trolls to go unchecked. The use of real names online has gained momentum in recent years, I think as a consequence of the rise of social networking; in an earlier era this wasn’t the case. But most peoples’ pseudonymous online behavior falls into the first two categories — only the third needs policing. Pseudonyms, which provide so many benefits to the first two categories, should not be banned because of the third.

How real names benefit Facebook and Google is another story, for another post.

FOMO and Social Media

I’ve been watching Twitter and Ditto feeds of people at SxSW, and, from a distance, I get a distinct sense of the social anxiety and FOMO that’s going on there. “FOMO” stands for “Fear of Missing Out” and it’s what happens everywhere on a typical Saturday night, when you’re trying to decide if you should stay in, or muster the energy to go to the party. At SxSW I see people wondering if they’re at the wrong party—the party where they are is lame, feels uncool, has too much brand advertising or doesn’t have anyone there they’d want to hook up with—and so they move on to the next party where they have to wait in line too long, can’t get a beer, or don’t find their friends, and so move on to the next venue where…and so on.

FOMO is a great motivator of human behavior, and I think a crucial key to understanding social software, and why it works the way it does. Many people have studied the game mechanics that keep people collecting things (points, trophies, check-ins, mayorships, kudos). Others have studied how the neurochemistry that keeps us checking Facebook every five minutes is similar to the neurochemistry fueling addiction. Social media has made us even more aware of the things we are missing out on. You’re home alone, but watching your friends status updates tell of a great party happening somewhere. You are aware of more parties than ever before. And, like gym memberships, adding Bergman movies to your Netflix queue and piling up unread copies of the New Yorker, watching these feeds gives you a sense that you’re participating, not missing out, even when you are.

There is a company that sells radar equipment to the police as well as radar detectors to the public. Clorox is one of the world’s worst polluters of water, and also sells Brita filters to get the bad stuff out of the water again. Lawyers create mazes that you have to hire a lawyer to escape. Similarly social software both creates and cures FOMO. If you didn’t know that party was going on, you’d be home contentedly reading your latest New Yorker. But since you do, you hungrily watch each new tweet.

It’s an age-old problem, exacerbated by technology. To be always filled with craving and desire (also called defilement, affliction) is one of the Three Poisons of Buddhism, called kilesa, and it makes you a slave. There is true meaning in social media—real connections, real friendships, devotion, humor, sacrifice, joy, depth, love. And this is what we are looking for when we log on. Most of the world is profane, not sacred, in the Mircea Eliade sense. So it is. But within it is the Emmy award speech of Mister Rogers, a Japanese man being rescued at sea, Abraham Lincoln, moms who comfort sick children, the earnest love that dogs have for people…

FOMO can be fought. Stay alert! En garde!

(This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.)