Sunday, July 29, 2012

Article #6: Chagnon, Heisenberg, and Metacore  {Note: some of this article has been hotly refuted because of problematic aspects of Chagnon's research that I was unaware of at the time I wrote the article.  Assume that at the time, I was unaware of the true scope of the problems around him.)

Being both a caution to scientists and a statement that I am not a scientist, merely opinionated
You cannot understand the level of community at a website without being a part of that community. (If your information comes from members of that community, in formal or informal interviews, than your information is skewed by your source's interpretations that they formed as part of the community.)
Napoleon Chagnon's groundbreaking study of the Yanomamo Indians, fabled in story and song as the Fierce People of the Amazon, is a seminal anthropological work. It has become a source work for others, such as Marvin Harris's Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches, which has been standard fodder in some college-level anthropology and sociology courses. In recent years, it has been partially discredited in some circles, as it's coming out now that the people being studied merely acted as they thought the anthropologist wanted them to. The Yanomamo will never be free of the baggage of Chagnon.) Note: Chagnon has not been totally discredited, and many of the most egregious charges against him have been proven unfounded. However, what I am concerned with here are not deliberate mishandlings (such as the accusations of biowar against the Yanomamo or the "genetic agression" theory), but the Hiesenberg effect, as applied to the soft sciences, that observation of an event changes that event. Thanks to Jeremy for making me reexamine and clarify this point.
Trying to "study" an online community as an outsider will always fail, because: the interactions you have with the community will make you a part of it, compromising your objectivity; if you are a true outsider, a dedicated lurker, the community will have depths you will be unable to understand (examples, you can't lurk at an E2 Nodermeet or a WELL face-to-face); you are going to seriously piss people off.
Real people do not like to be research subjects without their informed consent. Internet communication is sometimes more intimate than meatspace relationships for a lot of reasons, including anonymity and a presumption of safety (For example, I'd be very hesitant to hang a rainbow flag with a pink triangle outside my apartment door, as it's my place of business, and I could suffer anything from no ill effects at all to an egging to being fired or (until Lawrence V. Texas, anyway) prosecuted. I have no such qualms about participating in a GLBT usergroup or website or openly posting it on my bio, because I am effectively anonymous in my name, specific location, and gender. Anyone with sufficient time and commitment could find out my real name, adress, and phone number. In meatspace, it would take less effort to ask a couple questions and divine the answer by my body language and dodging of the question.).  {This has changed, as at the time I wrote the article I was not yet out of the closet in meatspace.  I've been flying my bi pride flag high since 2009.}
Commenting on community, how it develops and grows or balks and mutates, is an art, not a science. There is no quantitative analysis possible, not computer model you can plug all the elements into and predict if it will grow and thrive, or what form the community will take. The most atractive, supple, and well designed site with the best intentions can become a Levittown of tiny parcels "Where the Lowells speak only to Cabots And the Cabots speak only to God", or a community can develop in spite of the intentions and actions of the administration. The San Fransisco Gate ran an essentially unmoderated Motet site for years. It became, undeniably, a community -- until the newspaper decided it was too expensive to maintain, and shut the entire site down. It did not destroy the community, merely fragmented it. Many members went to other sites with the same software, joined other communities, while bringing with them the friends, attitudes, habits, and customs that made the Gate a special experience for them while it existed. The Gaters are a community-in-exile, a (dare I say) metacommunity.
You cannot understand a community without being a part of it. One of the features of eCore websites is a real-time chat utility with messaging. This chat, open to everyone, is one of the carriers of memes, ideas, and relationships that can only be experienced by being there. You can read the archives and get an idea of events, but a lot of subtlety is lost. When there is a lull of minutes or hours, it's not felt, even if it's recorded. It's ephemeral in actuality, but not in effect. The real-time chat is a community builder, a place where people can interact in real time, without restrictions of topicality, where relationships can start and be nourished.
Another community builder is backchannel. Private messages, private topics, private chatrooms, telephone calls, snailmail letters, all are places where the individual relationships that both form the seed of and can be the ultimate expression of community happen1. In most cases, the upper levels of the hierarchy of a site have such private spaces designated. On a site where community is encouraged or just happens, the administration forms a de facto subcommunity that may or may not have anything to do with the expressions of power of this group.
When reading topics (on a non-threaded system) or threads, there is a difference between reviewing them and being there as they happen. The best way to show this is with a diagram. For the purposes of argument, A is a topic about foo, B is foo', C is commentary about foo, D is commentary about foo', and E is a metathread talking about the four previous dicussions. This is by no means an unusual event.

topic/thread     A          B         C          D           E
day v  post >
Mon             1,2         1         1         1,2,3        
Tue             3,4         2        2,3        4,5    
Wed           5,6,7,8,9     3         4         6,7,8        1
Thu              10       4,5,6                  9         2,3,4
Fri          11,12,13,14  7,8,9,10    5        10,11,12      5
Looking at this the way that you would see it if you left the site on Sunday Looking at this the way that you would see it if you left the site on Sunday and returned Friday evening, if you accessed these threads in this order, you would read A, B, C, D, E. If these are all topics or threads on a related subject, part of one multi-thread discussion, you're going to see five parallel conversations. But, if you are reading this a few times a day, you might see the posts appearing something like this --
topic/thread     A          B         C            D              E
day v  post >
Mon             1,2         3          7         4,5,6        
Tue             8,10        9        11,12      13,14,15    
Wed             21-26       19         16       17,18,20        27
Thu              28        30,33,35                29        31,33,34
Fri         36,43,44,47    37,38,39    40       41,42,46        45
Without trying to draw conclusions, it's pretty obvious that not only are the conversations influencing each other, but they are really one big, sprawling conversation. You are more aware of the back-and-forth, and you see immediately how a comment made in topic E affects the activity in topic A (just an example. You can't prove it by this diagram, I made it up, but it's representative of how things seem to happen.) Reading it as it happens, firing off messages and comments in chatspace and backchannels such as email, telephone, and private spaces, it's obvious. Reading it more asychronously, the tone and tenor of the conversation seems different. Humans are built for synchronous conversations. In asynchronous communication environments, they will develop conscious or unconscious simulations of synchronous communications. This is related to but not the same as the problem of interpreting posts and messages differently due to a lack of body language, vocal cadence, and tone of voice, the inadequacy of emoticons to convey the subliminals we depend on.The community is much more clearly seen in the daily back and forth, give and take, than in the sterile environment of last month's posts.
The difference between a member of the community doing some analysis and an external sociologist type trying to dissect the community to see how it works is the difference between a journalist recording the current events in Mayberry and Chagnon's work among the Yanomamo, which not only presented an inaccurate view of a culture, but may have damaged that same culture (by causing people to act differntly, handing out axes and canned foods which altered the traditional food-gathering and cultivation systems, etc). The local writer may or may not cause change in the community. It depends on their goal. They can bring down a corrupt justice-o-the-peace, or simply give everyone in town something to chuckle over at Floyd's Barber Shop.

1 -- Thank you to Ben, Anthony, Oolong, and SEF (among many others in different places) who helped me realize this simple truth that had been eluding me.
A Note -- this article has been refuted, quite well, in msg and in discussion on other sites. I plan to offer a rebuttal in another Metacore, Schroedinger, and Harris article, unless someone beats me to it.

No comments:

Post a Comment