Article #12 (and last): Strange Attractors and Suppleness
being a look at the importance of inital conditions, and why administrators should be able to take a punch in the nose gracefully now and then
An attractor is a point or points on a graph that affects the other points plotted. It's a sort of mathematical gravitation. An attractor perturbs your lines, and can be located and defined even if it cannot be seen, much as the planets beyond Saturn were discovered (as well as how Obi-Wan found Camino). There are three types of attractors. A fixed-point attractor is like the vanishing point in perspective drawing, the point all lines converge at. Another attractor is a set of points that everything eventually circles through, a limit cycle. Strange attractors come from the science of Chaos.
Meta issues often resemble strange attractors. Activity cycles around them in infinite pattern, but never actually reach them. In math, the Lorenz Butterfly is one of the most famous. It resembles a mask, with lines in a complex lemniscate, the "eyes" never passed through, and the orbits switching unpredictably from one side of the graph to the other.1 One of the features of the butterfly is that, if you start two lines at slightly different points, the resulting lines will be different. This is the sensitivity of initial conditions, the reason weather is unpredictable in the long term, and the source of the Butterfly effect, the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can spawn a monsoon in Bangladesh.2 Both of these butterflies have meaning to the Metacore.
Meta issues (as opposed to freewheeling flamewars) are interactions between management and the population that have gone out of control and into a potentially infinite iterative cycle. One key part of this cycle is the history of the administrator in question. A neophyte host is bound to make mistakes -- we all do. If they do not recover from these mistakes, meta can become a spin cycle. One example is the administrator of Cafe Utne. Having been embroiled in several unresolved (and in some cases, unresolvable) issues, he is now in a position where even a small issue can blow up. Admittedly, he has a crew of very vocal critics who watch his every word and action -- but if he had recovered better from earlier incidents, it's possible that those critics would be more willing to let some of the smaller things slide, or might not have formed at all. Although it's the inconsistencies in the policies that cause most of the Meta, the history of the personalities involved has a significant effect.
Hypothesis: Personality conflicts between individuals are one of the drivers of Meta.
Stepping briefly into the analog world, I've observed that groups like clubs and companies are subject to the impersonal rules of group dynamics, which take as a given that all groups share characteristics regardless of the individuals involved. This works when you are discussing an entire industry, or a group of factories in the same town. However, when you start looking at individual groups, the personalities of individuals within the group, especially at the top, make every one different.
A perfect example of this comes from the PBS show Frontline's program on McWane and ACIPCO. They make exactly the same product, cast iron pipe, but McWane is recognized as one of the worst companies in the country to work for. The founder set policies that bring in high revenues, but lead to high turnover (near 100%, in one plant), apallingly high injury and death rates, and a very dissatisfied work force. ACIPCO, an employee owned company, has a waiting list, less than .5% turnover, and is recognized as one of the best American employers. J.R. McWane, the founder of McWane, was president of the company that became ACIPCO -- he quit to start his own company when the founder of ACIPCO willed the company to the employees.
Back to the digital world. Two otherwise identical virtual communities, with the same software and purpose, can be radically different. If one is run by an autocrat, or as an aristocracy, it will develop a different culture than a democratic, egalitarian community. Decisions made early in the life of the community will have a snowball effect later on, and that effect will not be linear, but quite possible exponential.
The administrators of a virtual community have a certain level of control over the culture and life of that community. If they lose that control by not acknowledging mistakes, by favoritism, by allowing the appearance of capriciousness or conspiracy, they will often end up in a position where they lose the respect of the people underneath them in the hierarchy. Once that happens, they will often leave the position3, or, to quote Mittens at Neopoiea, "just keep tightening up the screws, until the only ones left are the toadies and the Yes folks who need it that way. A lot has to do with playing fair with the people you're involved with." Playing fair is one of the most important ways to prevent meta spin cycles. Respect is two-way -- if the upper levels of a hierarchy allow the appearance of contempt for the lower, soon it will go both ways. An example from E2 is "April Troll's Day", when the administration, in an admittedly ill-advised April Fools prank, spent a large part of the day trolling the site and hoaxing h4x0ring. Regardless of your opinion of the administration's right to do so, regardless of your opinion of the humor (or lack thereof) of the prank, it had an effect on the site that did not go away on April 2nd, spawning four nodes about the events of the day, and leaving a lasting impact on some people.
At Cafe Utne, there was an event with an even broader impact. Known as "the Well-Engaged Crisis" in some circles, it spins (quietly, for the most part) around a proposed software change (that never happened). The reasons that it was a crisis rather than simply a nonevent is the perception that the Cafe Patrons were not properly treated, were not given any respect by management. The lack of resolution to this meta matter serves to increase the repercussions of later issues, in a small but not insignificant way. (According to the administrator of Cafe Utne, the Well-Engaged Crisis has not had as much of an impact as the actions of the then-administrator on that and other issues.) It's not uncommon for a mid-level admin to take heat for something done by another person at the same level.
Hypothesis: The administration reaps not only what it has sown, but the fields of their predecessors and contemporaries as well.
Axiom: In the eyes of the lower levels of the hierarchy, the higher members are frequently interchangable. This is increased by the attitudes of the higher levels. Although it's certainly true that particular admins will get reputations as exceptionally fair or trustworthy, one bad apple does, indeed, often spoil the barrel.4 If there is a policy of always backing the mid-level admins in public, is it any suprise that the actions of one host are attributed to the subculture of subadmins?
That explains the butterfly effect, but what of the strange attractor? The strange attractor, in Meta, is the event or idea that no one talks about, usually for fear (justified or otherwise) that to speak of it will bring down sanctions from above, or from your peers. Often it's something that the management has deemed Not To Be Spoken Of, formally or informally. Formally would be, to use April Troll's Day as an example, the note at the end of the nodes stating "There is nothing more to say. Contact an editor if you really think there's more."(paraphrase) A less formal but more meta-inspiring case was at Utne, where a poster was asking questions of the publisher if the magazine in an "Ask The Publisher" topic. When he persisted in asking valid if uncomfortable questions (that the publisher never saw fit to answer), he was sanctioned by the administration. This had a chilling effect on substantive dialog on his issue (one of copyright regarding his own words vs. corporate copyright over the entire site, an interesting YOYOW issue worthy of yet another, possibly too lengthy article ;) ).
In a lot of virtual communities, it is considered a sin to publicly speak out against management. (I use sin to mean "an action that, although not against formal rules, violates the norms and goes against the folkways5 of the community.) This forms the heart of many Meta issues.
Axiom: The upper levels of the hierarchy must be resilient and confident enough to absorb a higher level of criticism from the lower levels than vice-versa.
At the higher levels of a formal, software based hierarchy as is found at nearly all virtual community sites, the admin and sub-admin levels, there are specific software tools that can be interpreted as having extra power over others. At the lower levels, such as the general membership, the only power you have is your words. If you have the power to hide, erase, or edit those words, you need to, as well, have a thick enough skin to handle criticism both mild and sharp. Although it can get out of hand and become outright pillory or abuse, you can't be in a position of power and not expect to upset someone, sometime.
Axiom: The amount of verbal abuse directed at an administrator or group of administrators is directly related to how they handle such criticism.
Blaming the victim? Absolutely not. For one thing, being specially empowered is incompatable with victimhood. For an admin to say, "I can't take this, leave me alone" and click the button that silences their critics is victimising others. "If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen" is more than a Truman quote -- it's a law of nature.
Part of the reason for having mid-level administrators is to take the workload off of the top admin. Another part is to take some of the heat off of the top admin. If the actions of mid-level administrators leads to an increase of Meta activity, if someone's fragile ego or sense of superiority leads to an escalation of a situation that could have been handled with fairness and tact, they are a detriment to the community. At a site that has a genuine interest in building community one or two such incidents would be grounds for the host to learn how it feels to be hosted. At a site viewing the community as a commodity, where hits or revenues are a primary driver, such incidents are simply slid under the rug.
It's easy to sit back in the comfort of hindsight and objectivity and say, "don't take it personally." When Don Corleone was shot by a competing gang, he told his son, "It's just business". But when it turns from a dispute into a conflict, when it becomes a thrash, it's very personal, even if it's being driven by rules of group dynamics. A different group would treat the hypothetical Suomynope thrash in a different way, as it's driven by the conflict of personalities as well as the culture of the community. But that same group that thought Suomynope got only her fair due might consider changing conferencing software from unthreaded to threaded a major issue, where Suomynope and her peers might not care at all as long as they still had the same people to talk to at the same URL.
The other part of the strange attractor is when the conflict is not actually about what it seems to be about. Very often, what looks like a straightforward conflict about a simple issue is actually a hierarchial conflict. This contributes to the circular nature of thrashes, because no matter how successfully you resolve the issue at hand, if the true nature of the conflict is never addressed it will never go away.
Often, the actual root issue goes unrecognized. Equally often, it simply goes unmentioned because, for one reason or another, those that recognize it decide not to talk about it. If their silence is motivated by fear of retribution, the hierarchy is not supporting the community, and the hierarchy is allowing itself to damage the community, as well as guaranteeing the next iterations will be more severe. If their silence is motivated by a desire not to delve into the deeper issues at that time, it's neutral as far as the community is concerned -- the issue will come up again, inevitably, but may be easier to handle at that time, and the next few iterations may be equally or less stressful. If their silence is motivated by a knowledge that the deeper issue is unresolvable, and damage would be done by pursueing it, the impact is positive, and as the knowledge spreads that there's really nothing that can be done, further iterations are damped.
A goal for a Metacore group would be the conversion of strange attractors to limit cycles or fixed points, by identifying and attempting to resolve the deeper issues, ending the thrash not by judging winners and losers, but helping turn issues into authentic non-issues (as opposed to simply drawing a curtain over it). The Metacore group, if it functions this way, is an asset to a community, by ending thrashes and letting everyone else get on with the reasons they belong to the community in the first place.
1) For a great example of Lorenz's strange attractor, visit http://www.exploratorium.edu/complexity/java/lorenz.html. It's worth your time for its beauty and strangeness.2) There is no direct connection between Lorenz's Butterfly and the mythical storm-spawning Monarch, even though Lorenz's equation is a meteorological model. It's a beautiful coincidence, according to every credible source I've read.
3) The higher in the hierarchy, the less likely an admin will quit over a meta issue, of course.
4) It wouldn't have become a cliche if there wasn't some truth to it.5) Mores are the rules followed by a community, often codified into law. Folkways are the unwritted principles, not as severely sanctioned if broken. A Neopoeian example: posting someone's meatspace address is verboten both by the formal rules and the culture. Calling your opponent in a debate a Nazi is a violation of Godwin's Law, is generally frowned upon, but is not specifically punishable unless it's accompanied by other rule violations. "According to the American sociologist William Graham Sumner , who coined the term, folkways are social conventions that are not considered to be of moral significance by members of the group (e.g., customary behaviour for use of the telephone). " -- "folkway" Encyclopædia Britannica
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