Sunday, July 29, 2012

Article #7: Hierarchy of Peers

All web communities have some sort of user verification and some sort of hierarchy among the users. Most of the sites I've participated in have both a formal and an informal hierarchy, a pecking order of sorts. I'm comparing, contrasting, and discussing a variety of systems and their meta implications, not advocating a particular system or suggesting a direction for any of the communities I'm looking at.
The formal hierarchy is easy to discern, as it will be documented as fully as possible, for the utility of all. Informal hierarchies are harder to discern and, in some cases, can be impossible to pin down with any degree of accuracy.
[Community2]'s system is not yet fixed as far as I know, but one of the suggestions I've seen is for a four-level hierarchy consisting of unlogged guests with read access, provisional users with write access, peer-verified users with full write and vote access, and coder/administrators with behind-the-scenes access. The public finger utility sorts alphabetically, eliminating some of the obvious hierarchy. The ethics and aesthetics of the site appear to put coders and administrators on the same tier as verified users. Within the ranks of verified users, things are designed to be as level as possible, with no specific official levels or ranks. The formal policies, culture, and informal hierarchies are as yet unformed, I simply bring it up as a point of comparison.
The magic mountains of [|Pyroto] are entirely different. A rigid hierarchial system that requires no peer validation (although there is a rule against multiple IDs), with a sharp level gradient. From the front page -- Pyroto mountain is a web site interactive game where people log in under a "wizard" identity, answer increasingly difficult trivia questions for power and status, post messages to each other, and occasionally wield "spells" that can increase or decrease others' power and status. These systems are one of the primary reasons for the prohibitions against multiple IDs, because a user with many names could use them to boost their own abilities and level, thus distorting the game aspect in ways that can adversely affect other users. Pyroto as a community is a cross between a [MUD] and message board. In order to gain levels, you have to answer trivia questions -- but you must also make a certain number of posts to the message boards. The actual content of the posts is not measured, but people who can't find anything to talk about wash out. The levels are complex, with low level users starting in a small part of the site but able to expand their view to other "mountains" by use of mana (which regenerates over time) and spells (which are gained by leveling). The people at the highest levels don't seem to notice the teeming masses below them, in part because the message boards are keyed to level. This encourages the bulk of your conversation to be with people at or near your own level, unless you choose to drop down to a lower level board. This formal horizontal stratification means that you're unlikely to meet high rankers, although you can message them if you wish. But why? You haven't had the chance to get to know them, and there is little reason to msg someone unless you know them (or at least something about them, their work. Contact between higher and lower ranks is most likely to be initiated from above.) The formal hierarchy is so rigid and defined that I was unable to determine any sort of informal status-among-peers, although I never operated on the highest levels. It's possible that there is some form of status at the tops of the mountains, but unprovable without getting there yourself.
The level system of [Everything2], based on a combination of number of posts and numerical reputation (XP, based primarily but not entirely on peer voting), is less stratified than the Pyroto system. Higher level users receive software perks such as supervotes (Chings), bio images, ability to create chatspaces and lurk without displaying their login in the public finger utility (which is sorted by XP). Since all users share the same public space, all members of the hierarchy are accessable to lower-ranking members, for example, it's entirely possible for a level 2 user to get to know and interchange messages with a level 10 user. Levels are not the only system in place, as levels have a voluntary aspect -- any high-level user wishing to lower their rank has an easy method to do so by voluntarily giving up reputation. Another, less formal hierarchial system is [User Since:]. This is also not rigid, as it's not unknown for a user to leave and come back under a different name.1 The informal hierarchy-among-peers seems to be pretty egalitarian and based on the same information that the levels are based on, with the addition of pleasantness/politeness, accessability, and membership of subgroups, which are formal, and opt-in rather than opt-out type groups2. Some user subgoups at E2 include a couple of "database improvement" teams, parents, GLBT, and a variety of "expert" groups (video games, for example). The level system discourages multiple logins, because to gain enough rank in more than one login to have a substanive effect on a user's standing, they would be able to achieve that standing anyway. Multiple logins do exist, but generally for benign purposes (some people have multiple logs that they use for chatspace fun, I have access to two logins but one never nodes, etc), identity obfuscation or changes (often with administrative approval), and (rarely succesful) trolling.
On Motet systems, there is no formal hierarchy other than Admin, Host, and User (or Poster). Since the status of posters has no formal system at all, any conclusions about the hierarchy must be tempered with IMHO and YMMV. Since the level of a poster is informal and subjective, it is unquantifiable. On moderated boards multiple logins are generally not allowed except in special cases, where the administration openly or tacitly approves of "sock puppetry". Boards with auto-registration's admins can check IP logs and determine most, if not all, cases of multiple IDs. Within the User rank the hierarchial elements include longevity on the system and, more subtly, longevity and rank on related systems, although since it's informal, is inconsistent for example, some users view rank on their system inversely to rank on another, so an admin at another board may well be considered anathema, whereas someone booted from that board has instant status. Another measure is facility. If someone is unable to communicate coherently (due to spelling errors and misuse of words indicating that they have little or no knowledge of vocabulary and grammar, and never seems to add anything to conversation, they are liable to be discounted. Volubility is another -- an unusually voluble poster may be discounted because they may be seen as watering down their credibility, and someone who rarely posts may also find themselves in a "what the hell do you know" category. An important note on this, however. Some who post in high volume, if they are good writers with interesting views, are likely to be respected, as are people who post rarely but whose few posts are pithy, witty, and well-written.
Another part of the informal hierarchy are informal usergroups, sometimes called cliques. Some of these groups are indeed cliques, tightly knit exclusive groups with a united front aspect. They tend to "take over" a conference (or a gropup of topics within a conference) and allow little or no other participation, or do everything thay can to run off people they don't accord status to. An example of a clique that isn't really a clique is the group of users who frequent a specific conference. The Motet system compartmentalizes by interest rather than rank, so people who are interested in free-for-all discussions of politics may never cross paths with a group who are interested in writing and commenting on poetry. The thing that makes these groups not fit the definition of a clique is they are willing to accept new people in their conferences, regardless of their opinions, with no eye to rank. The status of a poster who may be held in high esteem in Politics doesn't matter to the people in TextileArts, and vice versa. It's possible for two people to be bitter opponents in one topic and be cordial and deferential in another. In the Motet hierarchy, the board as a whole is a common pool (like the eCore Everything) but there are vertical strata. A host in one conference may be regarded as just another poster in another. Also, users can use the software to ignore another user or a complete topic. Someone who is being "filtered" by a large number of people tends to have a lower level of overall status, although that is not 100%.
The degree of stratification is a function of the administration, who determine exactly what conferences/major divisions exist. Also, on a per-conference level, the hosts affect the status of the posters. A popular host can elevate or denegrate the status of a poster by their reactions and attitude towards them. An unpopular host can do the same, although their impact tends to be inverted, as someone censored by a host generally seen as an autocrat tends to gain status among those who consider themselves egalitarians.
On a Motet-style board with no moderation whatsoever, the hierarchy among equals skews. Voluble posters with firm opinions are seen as stronger and louder, and the loudest voices can dominate a conference, disrupting any conversations they have no stake in nurturing. Also, if there is no user verification by the administration, people can log in under as many names as they can supply email addresses for, and literally have conversations with themselves. A skillful puppeteer can be highly respected, whereas a clumsy one can be seen as a low-status nuisance, or vice versa. The lack of a formal hierarchy, either admin or peer-driven, removes any objective measure of status and leaves any attempt to measure user status murky and incomplete.

    On the strengths of my observations, I'd like to set down drafts of some laws that virtual communities seem to follow. As always, these are my opinions, and I'm happy to discuss these or alternate views. I do not claim perfect objectivity nor omniscience.
  • Virtual communities have a mechanism to somehow verify and classify members, whether by administrative means (from hand-registration to coded level systems). A website with no mechanism whatsoever to tie a person to a login is unlikely to develop genuine community on a sitewide level.
  • Virtual communities have formal and informal hierarchies among the non-software-empowered members. The more comprehensive and rigid the formal hierarchy, the less important the informal hierarchy.
  • An important component of the informal hierarchy is the longevity of the user on a site. If you have been somewhere for five years, you will be accorded a higher status than someone who has been there five months. It is more likely that more people will listen to what you have to say, although that depends on your reputation among your peers.
  • Personal reputation is part of the informal hierarchy. Someone perceived as honest will have a higher status than a proven liar, if honesty is esteemed on the site. In a culture of tellers of tall tales, the accomplished liar may be more respected than the boring truthspinner.
  • Status in a virtual community does not have to equal power. The actual power will always reside with the administration. The administration may give power to high-status members by granting perks to high-level users, or inviting them to leave the ranks of the users and become members of the administration.
There is, of course, application of these laws to meatspace groups. It can be clearer in virtuality, because in meatspace, you can't review the code.
1) personal note: I've seen this happen, where I offered unsolicited advice to a newbie who seemed to be floundering, and promptly got my head bitten off for assuming that a user since:this afternoon was actually new to the system, when actually they claimed to have been there longer than my 2.5 years. My only defense is the writeup needed work, and as a mentor in the E2 system, I felt I was trying to help a new user succeed, not criticising someone above me in the hierarchy. If I had known the noder had been there that long, I would not have offered to help, I would have simply downvoted and moved on, because according to the systems and culture of E2, a higher-ranked user "ought to know better" than short, poorly written nodes.2)Opt-in vs Opt-out -- Due to the nature of the internet and virtual community, I am unaware of any opt-out groups (that you are placed in without your conscious action, but you can leave on request without leaving the community entirely without having to satisfy any prerequisites) unless you wish to count administrative groups such as Conference Hosts or Editors. Since those groups have a higher measure of power than the general populace, they aren't really relevant to this particular discussion, although they are a keystone of MetaCore  {Facebook now offers opt-out groups by default.  They suck.}

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