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Flame Wars vs Fluff Wars

Just over a month ago, Clay Shirky wrote a piece called "Group as User: Flaming and the Design of Social Software". And it's been given plaudits galore. But - ahem, polite cough - I think it's a) wrong, and b) steering into very dangerous territory. The focus on group and the eradication of flame wars is a surefire way to kitsch thinking and fluff wars.

Clay's Argument
Hopefully, this doesn't oversimplify things, but Clay's argument seems to run as follows:

  • "Much of the current literature and practice of software design ... targets the individual user, functioning in isolation."
  • This assumes the user treats computer is a box "while our actual behavior is closer to computer-as-door, treating the device as an entrance to a social space.".
  • Users' behaviours in these social spaces, though, are complex, more so than "human/computer interaction, and that unpredictability defeats classic user-centric design". Social roles (such as process Nazi or peacemaker) and social actions (such as social climbing or arguing) highlight the design gap.
  • A way to bridge this design gap is to accept that "the user of a piece of social software is not just a collection of individuals, but a group"

Then we have a phase-shift, and the focus turns to flaming.

  • "Flaming, an un-designed-for but reliable product of mailing list software, was our first clue to the conflict between the individual and the group in mediated spaces, and the initial responses to it were likewise an early clue about the weakness of the single-user design center."
  • Flaming is a Tragedy of the Commons problem, i.e. when a group holds a resource (here communal attention), but each of the individual members has an incentive (here easy steering of attention to themselves or their own point of view) to overuse it"
  • Netiquette and Kill files, two common attempts to reduce flaming, are largely ineffective because they ignore this logic of collective action and/or focus on computers-as-boxes
  • Weblogs and Wikis are largely flameproof because they either provide little communal space (weblogs) or focus on computers-as-doors (wikis) where social action is embedded.

Looking at next-generation mailing lists, the argument suggests that social engineering can work.

  • Adding simple, social enhancements to mailing lists can greatly enhance them. Slashdot and Craigslist have allowed their users to police the system themselves, and so, by "[violating] the assumption that social software should come with no group limits on individual involvement", work better as a result.
  • "Once you regard the group mind as part of the environment in which the software runs, though, a universe of un-tried experimentation opens up". Clay suggests a number of experiments (a few among many possibles): induced lag, "thread jail", a "Get a room!" feature, and flagging the most common posters in an effort to help them self-moderate.
  • For these experiments to work at all they need to be done rapidly an iteratively, but if they work (as in the case of Craigslist and Slashdot) they can create enormous social value.
  • That said, there is of course "no guarantee that any given experiment will prove effective ... The feedback loops of social life always produce unpredictable effects. Anyone seduced by the idea of social perfectibility or total control will be sorely disappointed, because users regularly reject attempts to affect or alter their behavior, whether by gaming the system or abandoning it."


Tragedy of the commons revisited
It's a small point, but try as I might, I don't see how flaming can ever sensibly be called a tragedy of the commons example. The argument behind Hardin's original example was that even given a limited resource, it is nevertheless still rational to try to maximise their own consumption of that resource. But because it's a rational form of behaviour, everyone does it.

... the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another.... But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy."[My italics]
Well, clearly not everyone flames and to call the most ardent flamers rational might be stretching it. The mapping doesn't work for me: the utilities involved in communal attention and expressing yourself are more complicated than cattle-grazing and profits. In other words, "rational people" will often get as much benefit from the commons by listening as by talking. For sure, someone hogging the airwaves is a resource problem, but I don't think that sort of behaviour is something that everyone naturally does. Pedantry probably, so sorry.

My main point is this ...

Flame-retardant = Kitsch
For Clay, "the user of a piece of social software is not just a collection of individuals, but a group". Whether you call it sacred and taboo, clean and dirty, or pure and impure, people like Freud, Durkheim and have all argued that these are powerful identity mechanisms. Our notion of who we are - both as individuals and as members of groups - thrives because we can point our fingers at "dirty", "impure", "profane" things and grunt "Other". Or as David Bohm put it,

"to be confused about what is different and what is not, is to be confused about everything"

If the user is a group though, then whatever it is, it isn't "other". There's a real danger, though, that through focusing solely on the "clean" and aiming for a social space that is flame-retardant we end up being kitsch, reliant on vicarious experience and faked sensations.

Milan Kundera, in his "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" (which I have to confess I struggled with) hints at the link.

"Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence."
And John Elsner and Roger Cardinal, in their wonderful "Cultures of Collecting", spell it out.
"... if the cultural criterion of the desirable excludes anything tainted by 'shit', if the definition of a collectible rests on an implied ritual of cleansing ... and if we never touch anything that is not already in a sense 'our own', then all conventional collecting can really offer is kitsch."

Now, for post-modernists, to determine the right "interpretation" of, well, pretty much anything, you need criteria, and those criteria tend to be reflections of social power of some kind. In other words, what counts as knowledge is defined by power. With that insight comes a raft of work looking at the "other" - non-powerful, taboo, dirty interpretations. Foucault, for instance, tried to get a critical perspective on the power-knowledge network by examining prisons and asylums, institutions which are essentially collections of others. He might well have done the same for "thread jails".

If you eradicate flaming, or the potential for it, then you eradicate the chance of that perspective. You socially engineer a "kitsch" group. By getting rid of flame wars, you beckon in fluff wars (where the fighting tends to go : "you're nice" - "oh no you're nicer" - "oh nooo, you're nicer"). Heartily sickening stuff.

Before sitting down to scribble this post, I had a skim through the various references citing it on Bloglines. There were 97 in all. And of those that had any comments to make, or who were commented on, all but one were essentially saying "Clay's nice". As far as I could see, there was one - just one person - that offered any sort of criticism or dissent. The criticism had to do with comments on [flame-retardant] weblogs, and it came from a gent called Ben Hammersley.

I've been a party to many conversations on weblogs, and they have always always always ended with one of the protagonists blanking the opposing view. They just don't link to them. They delete trackbacks. They remove comments. They don't show technorati or referrer information.

After this, the conversation always fractures into two sides, and invariably the two sides cease to have any contact at all and you end up with an echo chamber. On a mailing list, this just can't happen. You don't get flame wars on weblogs, true, but you don't get any meaningful discussion either."

Meaningful discussion involves confronting differences (and that's confronting, not combating). It's the whole daring to know idea. Clay, while (rightly I think) going for a richer definition of the user of social software, stops short. By defining the user as the group and the group alone, we're in big danger of missing out on critical perspective, and without that, you're likely to have a whole load of tools for slightly kitsch, slightly self-satisfied, blandities. For sure, we need to have that as part of our definition (because that gives our group some identity), but we also need to provide for us(ers) as individuals, with all the complexities Clay touched on at the start of the essay, including membership of other groups. To do that, the user of social software , I think, needs to be both group and individual.

Anyway, I don't know if you've seen the Third Man, but there's a little scene in it where Harry Lime says:

In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed - they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
Seemed to the point.


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