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The Sting in the Tail

A couple of interesting discussions have caught my eye recently. One is about unkind communities and the other is about alternatives to the "mainstream". It's how closely these are related that has got me thinking, because it seems that as soon as you "dare to know" what is going outside the mainstream and start rooting around in a network's tail, you can expect, at least initially, to get stung.

Unkind Crowds
Anil Dash has picked up on the poor treatment of David Hailey and says how there are

more and more examples of people just getting browbeaten by the blogosphere
Later on, in Anil talks about the value of perspective and notes that
Being too "in the trenches" on a topic seems to lead people into saying polarizing things, or into demeaning or dismissing those who disagree with them.
He's spot on. I'm slightly suspicious of the way people invoke "the Wisdom of Crowds" in some of these sorts of conversations. (It seems increasingly to be in danger of being an "exception proves the rule", blind faith type of comment. If you sit down and think about it, of course a rule's being broken doesn't prove it. Quite the opposite. And if you sit down and think about it, of course not all crowds are wise. Witch trials, apartheid, lemmings ... and so on.) Anyway Surowiecki was at pains to point out that crowds seem only able to be wise when they are indepedent, decentralised, and diverse.

But what if the further you delve into the tail, the less likely you are to find 'wise' communities, communities that have these three features?

The stinging tail

There certainly seems to be some evidence of this - on and offline. Richard Evans Lee comments on Anil's post that

Even before there was the web you saw this in usenet. Flame wars damaged many newsgroups usefulness long before spam became a problem. Before I quit reading newsgroups my kill filter became so heavily laden that I eventually switched to whitelisting people and deleted everything by the people not in the list. Which meant I'd miss any worthwhile new posters.
Newsgroups are essentially niche interests, and hey presto, you get uncivil behaviour. In April, Nick Gray and friends surveyed the New York Arts market. He posted a colleague's thoughts on it all. It's a wonderful read, but it was this that really caught my eye
One interesting facet of this [art] market segmentation ... was that it seemed to get less intellectually haughty as we moved up the food chain. It struck me ... that xxxxxxx xxxxxxx and others were openly disdainful of potential clients who would speculatively use art as aesthetic ornamentation to match their sofas ... At Christie's and the xxxxxxxxxx gallery, though, the suppliers seemed much more open to sell to any and all comers without questioning their motives ...

the more financially successful consortiums were the ones that seemed to have the smallest ideological stake in their work.

As Anil might have put it, smaller groups are too "in the trenches".

Daring to know
Alternatively, and as social scientists might have put it, we define who we are, as groups and as individuals by pointing to what we aren't - the unclean, profane and taboo. I think (though I'm not sure) that the maths of this means that small groups see more that is unclean and taboo and wrong than large ones. It all puts a slightly less rosy spin on Chris Anderson's recent article in Wired about the value of the tail. Anderson says that

"Everyone's taste departs from the mainstream somewhere, and the more we explore alternatives, the more we're drawn to them. Unfortunately, in recent decades such alternatives have been pushed to the fringes by pumped-up marketing vehicles built to order by industries that desperately need them"
This notion of an 'industry' going for saccharin lowest common denominators sounds very much like the old Warner Bros chief's quote from the '50's - "You can never underestimate the taste of the general public". But what this idea of a sting in the tail might mean is that, rather than these industry (and mainstream) tendencies being snobbery, it is a push for an easy life. As soon as you overestimate, or try to engage with non-mainstream views, you are likely to run up against the sorts of ideologues found in the New York (and other) arts markets.

Kant and Foucault picked up on the notion of "daring to know". On Anderson's view, everyone "dares" sometime, and the more they do the more they like what they see. I think he's confused what he thinks people ought to do with what they do do. I suspect people don't dare enough - it's hard and it's risky, because there is a sting in the tail. As I posted a while ago, TV companies prefer Gulliver's Travels as a happy two-part tale of little and large to a four-part story of a man's possible insanity. As David Hailey commented after his poor treatment, he felt 'stained' - you can almost add dirty, profane, and taboo. "Daring to know" and allowing for criticism is risky and I think many naturally avoid it. But it can reap rewards, for groups and individuals. The four-part Gulliver was a runaway success, and Hailey also admitted that the experience had allowed him to make his views and arguments more robust.

I'm dribbling on a bit, so I'll cut it short:
- Crowds are only "wise" in specific cases - they need to be independent, decentralised and diverse.
- Small groups don't fit this model.
- Small groups or at least groups that perceive themselves to be small, also tend to protect their identities vigourously/unpleasantly
- If you don't engage with small groups, you (or your group) atrophy
- If you do, you (or your group) get stung.

I'm going to put the kettle on, but any solution to this bad behaviour Anil's picked up on needs to address that little dilemma. I think ...
There's nothing like a cup of tea.


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