Little Bubble Worlds:

Is the future of the net "A Thousand Hardened, Unblinking Points of Light"?

M. Scott Peck, a psychologist and theologian, did some important pioneering research on communities - what they are and aren't, and how they form.. His book "The Different Drum" describes that work and his discoveries (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.) Those discoveries center around a distinction he made between two sorts of groups which he called false communities and true communities. To press his ideas into perhaps too small a nutshell, false communities (the majority) value agreement (uniform consensus) over honesty, and true communities, in which real intimacy is possible, value honesty, reality and even disagreement over the appearance of agreement or consensus. Therefore, genuine intimacy is possible in them. Although his own Christianity is very evident in everything he writes, Peck found that most churches were really false communities that relied on consensus, for example; and he set about discovering how to turn what he calls false communities into truly open ones.

I can't summarize his methods neatly, but I do recommend his book to anybody, especially those who spend any amount of time in internet forums or bulletin boards (and everyone else who values human contact). Suffice to say that it's usually a rocky road between being a false community and a true one because consensus has to be broken in order to achieve that. According to Peck, it's an understatement to say that this will usually be strongly resisted by the settled core group, whether the matter at hand is personal or impersonal, and often even if it is unimportant to the core membership, or at least, to the stated function of the group. The pull to retain consensus will be very strong, because the comfortable illusion of community (where no real intimicy or exchange of views exists) will be destroyed by any real diversity of views.

All of which I mention, because in over twenty years in cyber-space I've found that everything Peck says probably goes double for cyberspace. What are sometimes called by netizens "little bubble worlds" of consensus reality seem to form very easily over the net, which often turns out to be unfortunate. Sometimes the concensus holds for long periods of time, during which time, no-one learns anything. But like other bubbles, little bubble worlds often pop at the first real crisis. Even more often, once an apparent concensus or culture forms, they stultify, and slowly die out..

I first started on-line with BBSes ("Bulletin Board Systems") in the days before the internet was open to the public, or existed in its present form. One such BBS was linked by nightly phone calls, using a program I wrote for the moderator, to a BBS in Los Angeles that served professional screenwriters, and it was intended to help beginning writers. We beginners would query some of Hollywood's best screenwriters and story editors for TV series such as Baywatch, and our inane questions would get a concise answer the next day. The answers were kindly, but sometimes more informative than flattering.

Our moderator, who had owned his own business before switching to screenwriting, was smart enough to do something that it's taken me nearly twenty years to appreciate fully. Maybe originally it was just a marketing device, to hook people in. Or perhaps it was just his screenwriter's appreciation of the value of conflict in keeping humans interested, since that's a law of screenwriting. In any case, from the start, he continually invented newbie personas who would join the forum and stir the pot, with opinions or questions that were markedly different from the positions usually heard on the board. Sometimes outrageous, sometimes dumb, but usually plausible and different from what had been said before. As time went on the core membership came to a largely similar agreement on matters such as how characters and plot related, how evil should be portrayed, how much art ought to have to do with screenwriting, and suchlike.

However, as long as he was the moderator, no rock hard consensus formed and newbies could ask questions without getting blasted from several sides, or being wholly ignored - because their shocking or apparently boneheaded opinions were no novelty, as the moderator was always introducing novel personas with such opinions. Also, the old salts slowly came to understand that shooting down newbies was a bad idea: they might be being rude, or threatening, or insulting, or just less than entirely encouraging, to the moderator himself, under some new name.

But the day came when our very competent moderator was promoted. The woman took over who was very well-meaning, but she had not been on the BBS for very long watching the original moderator at work, and had other strong demands on her time. Not all that slowly, the general agreement on the board amongst the six to twelve most regulars became a uniform consensus amongst all the larger pool of fairly regular users on nearly everything concerned with writing. Those who privately disagreed with a common opinion no longer bothered to post their objections and get smacked yet again by nearly everyone else. They'd done that, and gotten the T-Shirt.

Unconsciously, what Peck would call a "false community" had formed with a vengeance. The growth in users slowed, then stopped, then declined. Newbies who joined at this late point obviously weren't around when the consensus formed, so they couldn't possibly predict what the consensus opinion on our little board was, and so newbies usually left the first time one of their earnest messages or questions brought a number of similar slapdowns from several different directions. Which might be after their first message. Or they left after the second or third time their unusual views were simply uniformly ignored or frozen out. Very few newbies survived a run of three or four such gauntlets, even if a good exchange or two had happened in between.

Why did the old hands stop speaking up, usually, even when they happened to agree with a newbies aberrent views? Because theyl knew very well that speaking up wouldn't alter the consensus anyway, so it was useless to spring to the defense of the newcomer. Better to save one's keystrokes for the screenplays we were supposed to be writing.

In the worst cases of discrimination against newbies who were somehow reluctant to follow the consensus, say after a veteran of the board felt a favorite opinion of theirs had been attacked unnecessarily or unfairly by some new voice, no future message by the wet-behind-the-ears miscreant was free from very, very close scrutiny - and consequent criticism, backed (at least silently, but not always silently) by the concensus.

Soon enough only the core membership was showing up, and there wasn't a whole lot new to interest them, either. They knew each other's opinions already. Then, one day, there was a software problem. The board was down. It was going to be fixed next week. Then next month. Then next year. Then the board was gone. In truth, it died because it's original purpose, an outreach to people with no background who wanted to try to become real writers, had perished long before a software problem killed the BBS itself. If you don't know anything about screenwriting, getting blasted by several other people who know just enough to make you feel like a fool or interloper isn't very attractive. Being largely ignored by them was no more attractive.

A "little bubble world" had formed on this net-before-the-net, and after that point even though the regulars thought things were going better than ever, soon it was in no one's interest to spend the time or money to keep the BBS going. The sponsor who had been paying the freight, cut it loose - perhaps because a looser regulatory environment allowed them to, but more likely because it was no longer doing it's job - encouraging new screenwriters. I don't think anything much came of any of the regulars, they'd pretty much stopped learning, after all; having long ago exhausted their own views. Oddly, we all felt they were still very welcoming to newcomers, though, right to the end, and past it. We sent them welcome greetings the first time we showed up, after all, didn't we? The newbies must have disagreed.

A lot of time has past, and I've seen the same forces at work repeatedly. Not uniformly, but very frequently. If anything, I suspect that the internet is more prone to this pattern of ossification and unconscious exclusion than the old world of dial-up BBSes - unless the groups are so huge or so temporary or in so much flux that no consensus can form at all.

I now highly appreciate our old moderator's intelligence and lengthy efforts in so forcefully preventing consensus from forming, while he was there. And all these many years later, I don't have any better answer than his as to how to prevent forums, particularly those with an outreach function, from settling into a consensus that makes being a newbie there automatically painful. Nor does Peck, really. He certainly doesn't have an answer that involves no conflict. But one way or another, you have to break out of a wish for consensus.

Only if the old salts somehow come to value sharp differences from their own opinions very highly, knowing that these are what keep their community real, and treat clumsy newcomers and irritating gadflies with enormous delicacy and tact (even when the newcomers seem to them to have none) can change happen. A pity, because in tomorrow's wired society, our being an open society may depend on the existence of truly open forums, as opposed to a plethora of polarized, hardened nodules of opinion, none of which in fact allow free-flowing discussions, internally. After all we all do like to have others agree with us; and yes, flame wars are unpleasant - but it turns out that a fetish for the appearance of agreement might be still worse, in the long run.

Now, don't take this as a matter of blame. After all, I was one of those old salts, on that board. I know now that I was just the same as the rest, killing that rare and valuable BBS and making newcomers feel quite unwelcome without ever wishing to, or even realizing I was doing so. I certainly thought I was being polite and only reacting to very large divergences from "the truth", and just sticking up for my friends when I thought they were on the right side of an issue.

What could be wrong with that? (A lot, from the point of view of the heavily outnumbered newbies.) None of us consciously wanted to limit our group or kill the board we loved. It "just happened", while we were honestly sharing our opinions and knowledge so very freely.

The only penance I can do, for those old sins, is to be just a little bit more honest about my opinions than I otherwise would in any settled forum I find myself in now - always honestly, but with a little more bravado than I really have, and more than is strictly necessary - not infrequently more than is appreciatted (yet never as pithily or fully as I express myself with true intimates.) I'm actually a very sensitive and fragile flower of manhood, although perhaps I'd have a hard time convincing some of my cyber acquaintances of that.

I leave the members of this and all other forums with the problem, and I recommend M. Scott Peck's book highly as a start. It you want to go nuts on the problem, a little investigation of game theory, including but not limited to Prisoner's Dilemmas and Nash equilibriums, might even help. Culture, including racism where that becomes a part of culture, is little more than a Nash equilibrium, after all.

Who knows, perhaps a technical solution might even come from someone pondering the analogy of the importance of isolated population groups to the formation of new species in biological evolution. I only hope there's an answer somewhere, and I also hope that our fast-shrinking interconnected world doesn't become a single hard, unchanging little bubble world of received and unquestionable opinion someday in the far future, without any of us having wanted that to happen. In the meantime, we can all help by tolerating gadflies, and even becoming them from time to time.

I don't expect anybody to agree with me immediately on all of this, although some may, or may long ago have come to similar conclusions. It took me twenty years to come to this view of what had happened on that screenwriting BBS, and I expect it might take others at least a fraction of that time to come to similar views, always assuming that I'm right, of course.

I simply hope this will give some webizens pause for thought. If you doubt that electronic worlds of consensus could be very harmful, think of the emails that preceeded the second shuttle disaster: NASA.

And remember, it's the newest and most criticized members who have the ultimate right to judge just how welcoming any forum is, or how friendly it is to contradiction. That's where the rubber meets the road. Usually, very hard concensuses form without anyone noticing, anymore than fish notice water.

Feel free to copy or reproduce this message as you like, and maybe someone else can come up with better answers to this common pattern within discussion groups, forums, and lists than I have. And here's a toast to irrascible gadflies mad enough to tap out what they think. Long may they type.

Incidentally (in case anyone has wondered) this article was written before I discovered Everything2, rather than as a reaction to Everything2. Everything2 just seemed like a good place to park it.

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