Sunday, July 29, 2012

Article Number 2: The Worm Oroborous

In mythology, the Worm Oroborous was a long snake that had its teeth firmly clamped on its tail.
Metaphorically, Meta results in the site vanishing up its own {rctum} and/or turning into a round robin of silly in-jokes and mindless kvetching.
This is a matter of opinion. Sure, if all everyone ever does is talk endlessly about the site and how they write, it will be dull. If the site is a hierarchy, complaining about the higher rank's choices can fill pages of text with very little real content.
This feared result is not inevitable -- it is a consequence of not planning for the inevitable. On a hierachial site of any significant size, where freedom of expression has any limits, there needs to be a place where honest feedback can be given, regardless of its tone.
    Some unscientific rules, garnered from observation.
  • Axiom: People complaining on their own behalf are usually going to either be angry, or get angry if they are not allowed to speak their piece.
  • Axiom: Censoring complaint or dissent leads to more complaining or dissent. Driving dissent underground strengthens the dissent. Look to the Soviet Union for real life examples.
  • Axiom: Revolutions are started by dissatisfied people. (Niven's Law, f x s = k -- the product of freedom and security is a constant. Lowering one value increases the other. Happy, secure people don't revolt.)
  • Axiom: In an online setting, leaving is technically easy, but can be emotionally difficult. If all you have to invest is your time, a relatively small investment leads to a large feeling of entitlement.
    Some of the actions taken by people who feel their right to dissent is being quashed
  • Leaving the site -- not uncommon. "Voting with their feet". This happens everywhere I can think of, there are few sites that have been in operation long enough to have a living culture without more registered users than active ones. The proportion varies by ease of initial registration. It's that capital dynamic again -- if you can register by creating a username and password, lots will come and few will stay. If you have to provide personal information, it's more likely you'll hang around and weather small storms. If you have to talk to a person, pay money, or be vouched for, you're more likely to stay and fight for your rights.
  • Leaving the site and taking all of their postings (their capital) with them -- less common. In E2 parlance, pulling an Asamoth. It happens on other sites as well -- someone just did it at Neopoeia. It's an attempt to recover their capital, but all it really does is leave huge holes in years of conversation, preventing anyone new from benefiting from the ideas presented. It also plays hob with metahistorians, unless they have personal archives of the material -- which truly dedicated metahistorians often do.
  • Attempting to damage the site -- rare. These people have either been removed by managment or are about to be. They start flamewars in every topic they can reach, attempt to disrupt conversations, and often re-register continually in an attempt to be heard, or threaten legal action against the site owners. The last happened a couple years ago at Cafe Utne, where a user felt that hate speech was being tolerated. Management maintained that freedom of speech included posts that some or even most people would find offensive, as long as they were a valid part of the discussion at hand, and were taken in context.
Talking about what you are saying can lead to the site eating its own tail, if that is all everyone does.
Talking about how people relate in an online environment, a virtual community, can be compelling, stimulating conversation. The people who are most interested in these discussions can be a valuable resource for a site.
I tend to focus on E2, Neopoeia, and Cafe Utne, because these are the places I {was} most familiar with. I'm interested in other sites as well, to see if my conclusions are way off base, or if these metacore ideas are universal. One other site with an interesting Meta history is Poets and Writer's Magazine's SpeakEasy. This site was a Wild West of the internet for a while, totally unmoderated. When managament decided to crack down and take control, to censor those they found offensive for the good of the site, the feel changed from an anything goes, ruled by the strongest posters, to It's a good life. One of the things management immediately cracked down on was dissent. It's unknown, at this point, if that will help the site, by eliminating thrashes and letting the most civil and peaceful have a forum, or hurt it, by eliminating the thrashers, the outspoken, the fractious -- the creative and unconventional.
Something to watch for, in self-censorship -- when does civility become conformity? When is nonconformity interpreted as incivility? Civility is a potent and common word on the web, but what does it really mean, especially when the subject itself is not "safe"? It's easy to be civil talking about buttercups. It's easy to be called incivil when discussing, for example, self-censorship for the sake of topical continuity and thrash prevention a middle eastern nation which I won't name.

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