Sunday, July 29, 2012

I will be reposting some articles from a while back here, in the order originally written.  They have some rough spots, but I think they still have some value.  I have made a few excisions, clearly marked, generally due to YOYOW issues, and a few edits, generally self-serving.  Hope you enjoy them -- they have been unavailable online for a few years now.

First: Metacore

This is the beginning of a metathread of musings, theory, and observations regarding online dynamics, community building, and conflict in hierarchies.

Meta -- above, beyond, separate from. Similar to para. In certain online circles, meta refers to conflict, to the issues of human interaction online, especially in hierarchial systems when the conflict is between people with unequal power in the system. Censorship issues are a large part of Meta. Cafe Utne calls it, "Talking about how we're talking to each other". In rigid hierarchies, meta can be an epithet ("Take it to Meta and quit flaming all over my topic!").
The Metacore (the term is not my creation) is an ad hocracy, a group of people who find the how and why and who of what is said as interesting and important as the actual statement. To pull examples from a couple other places out there -- At Cafe Utne, a couple of people were banned from the site for continually saying the wrong thing, at the wrong time, to the wrong people (in management's eyes). Some of these cases have been debated for years. Real years, not internet years. A new message board was spun off, at least partially in reaction to the perceptions of rigidity of Utne. Although C2 is not a "replacement E2", its creation and early population is certainly related, at least in a significant part, to perceptions of rigidity (and other things) at E2.
The Metacore are the people who study these things, not in an attempt to assign blame, but to understand, and, if possible, to use the knowledge gathered to help make places they are comfortable with. For example (and this, also, is not an original concept with me, but is from participating in metacore groups) , you can tell a lot about a community by what is forbidden to talk about. It sounds simple, but the skeletons in the closets of virtual communities shape them in a larger sense then is immediately obvious. Is it a good idea to dig up these skeletons and discuss them, air them out, refer to them continually?
It seems not. This dwelling on the past can damage the future of the community. On the other hand, it's important that these forbidden topics not simply become unpersons, be given midnight burials and become the source of whispered innuendos for years.
I don't have a quick answer to this question. But I'm always looking for the real answer. This is a characteristic of the Metacore.
    The Metacore is composed of (in no particular order)
  1. People with no axe to grind -- no particular name
  2. People with a personal investment -- generally the aggrieved party
  3. People who tend to run to the nearest fight -- the audience and often the loudest participants
  4. People who are willing to dig through months or years of posts to find links to the events that started or underlie the current thrash -- Metahistorians. Sometimes, but not always objective
I'm usually a 3 with hopes of being a 1. {edit: these days I feel I've progressed away from this to being a 1 more often than not.}
Since the metacore is an ad hocracy, there is often little or no overlap between the administration/power structure of the website and its metacore group. A high overlap is a good sign for the health of the site, because it means the administration is honest enough not to fear frank discussion of its missteps and foibles.
    Metacore Axioms:
  • Nobody's Perfect
  • Imperfections on the upper layers of a hierarchy magnify as they ripple through the site
  • Accusations of censorship are easier to make than to prove
    • Corollary:Accusations of censorship greatly outnumber actual cases
    • Second corollary:Actual cases of censorship are frequently dismissed as groundless
  • The only differences between a flamewar and a discussion are intensity and point of view (this only applies to hierarchial conflicts. When two or more people of equal rank flame each other over personal beliefs and personality conflict, it rarely has any effect on the overall health of the site. When the ranking and power is unequal, it becomes Meta).
I am indebted to the metacore group at Neopoeia for the formalization of these ideas. Props to Name Withheld for the name, and the conversations that spawned the idea. The ideas about virtual communities' closet skeletons was spawned out of conversations with Moulton.
{Some comments by another member of one of these forums under discussion removed}
Further comments by Eponymous:
Censorship, viewed from the perspective of the metacore, is beyond things like downvoting/deleting poorly written materials. It's when a person or people empowered by the software decides, formally or informally, that content is unacceptable regardless of quality of presentation. In meta, it's often the case that material unacceptable to the site gets censored, because it's Not To Be Spoken Of. Some examples: for those who hang out at Cafe Utne, there was a conference called MetaMatters that was patron-run, much like the vision of C2 that I've seen here and there, with rotating hosts selected from the populace. It had a tormented history and was eventually shut down by Utne management. This shutdown was censorship on a grand scale, because self-fulfilling prophecy|the primary activity in MM was trashing Utne management. Management put up with this, for a while, but in the end decided that those sorts of opinions were better off elsewhere. Their money funds the site, so he who has the gold makes the rules -- but since Utne bills itself as a bastion of free speech as long as it's civil, it's a dichotomy between hype and reality. Hypocritical. And, as Stephenson points out in The Diamond Agein a morally relativistic system, hypocrisy is the only sin.
Another: At one board I participated on, in the early days, the Admin had a silent financial partner. When the partner decided not to be silent anymore, the Admin left the board for a while. There was a lot of messy personal stuff, since the admin was personally involved with the partner. The six month period when all this was going down is now almost never referred to, by anybody. This is self-censorship, because the culture is such that if it ever was discussed it would likely not be shot down by the empowered, but quashed by the peers.
Another example: how much does E2 refer to C2? Also, this sort of discussion would most likely not be permitted, as it could fall under the heading of noding about noding. But, in truth, noding is one of noders' big interests, something they do, have fun with, think about a lot -- and yet analysis of noding itself, or the political structures that surround noding, is verboten. Why?


  1. epo, i seem to have misplaced your email addy
    could you resend it? at this point I have no idea what it might be

  2. this is, by the way, a trip down that big ol' memory lane, for me as well. In earlier days, before Neopoeia there was Speakeasy, and before that there was Excite, which was one of the classic multi-armed message boards, rivaling Utne in size if not scope. It involved every kind of troll, spammer, and what we cheerfully called balrogs, almost totally out of control. I learned a lot there, and very quickly. Much of what you mention in these posts I saw there, first, and recognized the instances. There is, after all, nothing new on or off the Net.