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Sunday, April 14, 2019

Teething Troubles

There comes a point for every group of people where the singular rule of "Don't be an asshole" become insufficient. I usually refer to it as critical population or critical mass; it's the point at which people are more likely to form cliques within the population, where outliers are more likely to form, where people start caring more for those in their social group (or their frequent-interactions group) than the network as a whole.

I don't know what the population limit number is that marks the threshold, and I suspect it's not the same number for all groups, but Pratchett and Baxter's "The Long Earth" pegs it at 1,890. I would put it closer to 300.

Regardless where it sits, it spells the same sorts of problems for all communities: growth of dissent, division of language, sub-grouping into cliques, disingenuous participation, and more. Sociologists doubtless have their own, "official" terms for these things, but as I am not a sociologist, I can only call them what makes sense to me.


Growth of Dissent is like hijacking threads. It's when a person or group of people take policing upon themselves, sometimes under the guise of Division of Language, using the same words to mean different things, and driving the conversation either to their own ends or the utter dissatisfaction of all involved.

I saw this happen on Scuttlebutt in February. A new user introduced themselves and self-identified as a handful of sex- and gender-specific roles (an action I commend and applaud in one's first introduction, it's not easy to wear your identity on your sleeve before people have gotten a chance to get to know the rest of you, personality-wise; or feeling out the lay of the land). The first several comments followed and were open and genuine and welcoming.

And then followed a comment of dissent, complaining about the introducer's choice of language, disagreeing with their definitions of such words (I'm sorry. I'll link to it if anybody wants to read it for themselves, but they aren't words I'm intimate or familiar with, so I will not be posting them here in an attempt to minimize unintentionally offending anyone).

The commenter--my condolences to them if they're reading this--reacted to responses in a way that conveyed to me they were or recently had suffered from some kind of break. Scrolling through their post history showed little indication of this degree of dissent, disgust, or derision.

The post, intended to be a welcoming introduction to the community, turned into a defensive argument spanning more than just the welcoming committee and a kind handshake, and instead shook the foundations of the community.

Part of the solution to this is forking, which Scuttlebutt supports, but it's hard to get dissenters to follow the line that they're already toeing. Forking allows the conversation to split in a different direction without derailing the linear nature of the conversation. Those forums that use a threaded conversation style, like Reddit, don't need a separate implementation for forking, rather its built into the design of threaded conversation.

But none of the solution is really discovered until the problem arises. Platform flexibility is necessary for continued growth, and discussions over further user protections like block lists (published lists of recommended blocked users instead of just private block lists of individual users) have been raised in the aftermath.

Division of Language is one that strikes particularly close to home. Last year, for several months, I ran a now-defunct subreddit called AwesomeSuperPowers. It was intended as an outlet for those who found submissions to ShittySuperPowers that were actually rather good ideas. So I provided an outlet.

At the start, a couple of simple rules were provided, namely, the zeroth (listed above), no "normal" powers (flight, invisibility, and variations on the common ones), and how to format the posts (power in the title, don't say it's awesome, etc).

For a while, that was enough.

Then we got popular.

Suddenly we were getting posts (and not just one or two, here and there, but floods) that broke the rules, and while many were because people hadn't bothered to read the rules, most were for people who abided by the letter of them, but not by the spirit. When I would later (after closing the subreddit) express regret over Rule 2, that was the "normal" or "common" powers rule. My normal or common was meant to be an umbrella covering all popularly used powers in movies, books, comics, and more, but because I only had flight and invisibility listed (intended as examples, not as a comprehensive list), people were posting for super speed and super strength, x-ray vision and more.

That was a division of language. What I meant and what I wrote were not the same thing, and even though I added details and a growing comprehensive list of "Forbidden powers," the damage was done. If it wasn't on the list, people felt they could post it, and people who couldn't be bothered to read the rules or read the whole list posted whatever they wanted and then complained when their submissions were removed.

I don't know what the solution is. I've considered burning it to the ground and building something new from scratch, but it's probably not worth the effort, and similar but different replacements have popped up in the meantime; I just don't have the time or the energy to deal with it.

Disingenuous Participation is a wordy way to say trolling. The more tame of it resorts to puns and jokes, some obvious and some inside, but they all have one thing in common: they distract. On Reddit, trolling is a quick and easy way to accumulate karma, which is not just worthless internet points, but also serves as a controlling medium to restrict the participation of uninitiated users. The concept is, if you participate, your ability to participate improves.

Except it doesn't actually work out that way.

I've become something of old hat at farming karma, gained through the practice of restarting a new account from scratch every six to eighteen months. The fresh perspective helps me keep on my toes on the shifting of perspectives on the site, instead of growing "old and weary" and being unrestricted by thousands or tens of thousands of participation points.

Trolling can be very profitable, all it takes is luck and timing.

The only solution is to stop rewarding it. Aether has its handy price of work protocol that makes trolling wearying, while Scuttlebutt has no points system and an easy block option that means you can burn yourself very easily and very permanently from your network.

As for Sub-Grouping into Cliques, I think that's pretty self-expanatory, and all of the platforms I've mentioned above support it. Aether has groups, Reddit has subreddits, Scuttlebutt has pubs and tags and channels.


I suppose the purpose and message to be taken from this is you can plan and pre-build all you want, but until you break critical population on the platform or community that you're building, you don't really know how any of it will out. Things will break--rules, guidelines, walls, definitions--after the force of a growing population tries to squeeze through them, and all you can really do is either be flexible enough to work past it, or be willing to burn it to the ground.


Note: When I first wrote this, the ASP subreddit was closed and I had no intention of reopening it. Between writing this post and actually publishing it, I have reopened the subreddit with revised rules and fresh moderation controls. You can visit it here. If it once again goes downhill, I will once again pull the plug, and it probably will not discover another incarnation.

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