Sunday, January 16, 2011

It Takes a Village... Idiot

We are in the process of creating what deserves to be called the idiot culture. Not an idiot sub-culture, which every society has bubbling beneath the surface and which can provide harmless fun; but the culture itself. For the first time, the weird and the stupid and the coarse are becoming our cultural norm, even our cultural ideal. - Carl Bernstein (b. 1944), U.S. journalist. Guardian (London, June 3, 1992).

In software development the joke goes that it is pointless to spend too much time idiot-proofing a product, as you'll soon just be confronted by a better idiot. Idiocy takes many forms, and finds its origins in everything from a lack of mental capacity to a lack of applying mental capacity. Thinking like an idiot for the non-idiot developer or community manager is an art form, and begs the question, how idiotic should your prevention get?

Foundational norms that address idiocy tend to be old and proactive: we guarantee certain freedoms to prevent some idiot from trampling them. By contrast, new constraints are generally created reactively, and for the simple reason that we cannot possibly imagine all the things idiots might do to hurt themselves and others. Even if we could imagine with the greatest of idiots, there is usually insufficient probability - no one could be that stupid! [enter new idiot, stage left]. 

So, we create new constraints in nearsighted hindsight. And when the actions of village idiots like Richard Reid cause us to change laws and behaviors (taking our shoes off during airport screening), we also create a greenfield for unintended consequences: increasing the level of frustration with air travel security and concern over the increasing intrusion of government and erosion of personal liberties. And this certainly applies to social media. There is nothing more irritating than filling out some impossible to read Captcha just to be able to post a public response because some idiot created a spam robot.

Village Life
Villages need rules constructed on foundations that are timeless and universal (a consequence of prior idiots): self-determination, equality, freedom of thought...

Ecclesiastes 8:8: There is no man that has power over the spirit, to retain it; neither has he power in the day of death.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Words written thousands of years apart, but based on common, enduring precepts.

There are similar, enduring (hopefully) foundations for social media:

  • Participation - harnessing the power of mass collaboration through user participation.
  • Collective - participants gathering around a unifying entity (i.e Facebook).
  • Transparency - participants get to see, use, reuse, augment, validate, critique and rate each other’s contributions.
  • Independence - any participant can contribute completely independent of any other participant, time, place, or technology.
  • Persistence - participant contributions are captured in a persistent state for others to view, share and augment.
  • Emergence - you can’t predict, model, design and control all human collaborative interactions and optimize them as you would a fixed business process.
Without a foundational underpinning for interaction, it is nearly impossible to maintain current norms or address emerging ones. Additionally, there is no way to adequately architect a future state without a deep, historical understanding and appreciation for the current state. 

This is why sometimes it takes an idiot to better know the village.

Village Idiots
We face the fundamental challenge of the village idiot: how do we maintain our foundational underpinnings in the face of new and improved idiots? There are certainly a number of ways designers of social media technology protect the non-idiot from idiots: authentication, access, moderation, organization. Those responsible for managing social media platforms take great pains to moderate their environments, and even communities themselves can be highly effective at self-moderation. But the relative anonymity afforded by social media makes the idiot a moving if not invisible target, and sometimes idiocy within a community is the norm.

Truly, the greatest threat to the village is overreacting to the idiot. This applies to the developers as well as the villagers. This is not to say the idiot simply should be ignored, but a balance must be struck between discouraging unwanted behavior and creating a punishing experience for everyone. Punishing aspects of social media already appear in the onerous steps some platforms add in order for users to participate, such as convoluted registration processes (a reason Google and Facebook Connect have gained so much traction), or rigid, permission-based architectures (read enterprise) that stifle creativity and participation.

Additionally, the villagers themselves can be punishing: heavy handed moderation by community managers, ostracizing users, and overreacting to any content that irritates anyone's thin skin. Community managers must study and understand elements of group psychology (i.e. polarization, social loafing, bystander effect) and negotiation (depersonalize issues, soften entrenched positions, create options, etc.).

Villagers should:

  • Promote a wide spectrum of ideas
  • Depersonalize issues
  • Maintain a friendly tone
  • Use non-punishing language
  • Encourage honest debate
  • Stay on point
  • Never leave mad
So, let the village treat the idiot with grace... lest we become idiots ourselves.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Alter ipse amicus

Alter ipse amicus: A friend is another self

Is that a friend or contact? We must discern between the two, as social media has made the act of friending into a meaningless competition that often deludes people into a false sense of self. A few years ago, a colleague and I conducted an experiment on a now defunct social platform to better understand the role of social influencers (highly connected people) in building a personal network. We found that by using a persona to only friend complete strangers with 500 or more friends, we were able to quickly build a network of over 1000 friends in a matter of weeks. We also studied how some superficial changes in that persona became highly magnetic and dramatically increased the rate of friend requests. After finally destroying the persona, we concluded that we had to clearly define friend and contact, differentiate the two, and create distinct weightings when determining their level of influence in the social graph.

On Christmas Day, 2010, Simone Black posted on her Facebook page that she was taking her own life. None of her 1082 friends did anything to stop it, and some even mocked her. This is not the first time someone used a social platform to broadcast their intent to do harm and there was total inaction by that individual's social network. We do not know enough of Ms. Black or her friends to launch any kind of blanket indictment, but this tragedy speaks to several issues:

People can be incredibly callous to the pain and suffering of others
The current state of humankind leaves much to be desired. There is room for much improvement in our regard for one another, as evident by increasing attacks on the most vulnerable. Ian Birrell of Mail Online writes:
Every day, people with disabilities are attacked in their homes, spat on in the street and taunted in their towns. And every year, this torrent of abuse, bullying and torture ends with more and more names on the list of those who die in terrible circumstances simply because they are disabled.
It is symptomatic of a larger emotional disconnect to our fellow man. But it is not just the clearly disabled who are at risk, it is anyone who demonstrates or perceives that they have any level of weakness or vulnerability. And so people develop a range of defense mechanisms, from preemptive behaviors marked by unusual aggression, to building extensive but shallow social networks that provide a false sense of community or mutual consideration. This movement from fostering meaningful, permanent friendships to casual, temporal friendships is often based on the mistaken sense that they carry the same weight. They generally do not.

There often remains a fundamental emotional disconnect when using technology for asynchronous communication and social interaction
In the 1990's email emerged as the communication medium of choice, but there arose the issue of flame mails: communication that was hostile, inflammatory and generally counterproductive. At the heart of the issue was a new communication medium that had not yet developed its own rules of decorum, and people mistook the ability to write with ease, relative anonymity and immediacy as a parallel for handwritten communication. It became apparent that the thought and deliberation that went into letter writing did not carry over as often to email, and the ease of distribution and redistribution introduced an entirely new and problematic dynamic. Over time best practices emerged to address the issued created by electronic communication. As with the mass adoption of email, we now see the same period of whitewater from the disruptive qualities of new social media technologies and the corresponding lack of best practices.

We are experiencing a rapid increase in technology-driven social engineering, and we should be cautious of what are essentially untested ideas and new behaviors that do not always transcend generations, cultures or even exhibit common sense. As someone behind the development of new collaborative technologies, I constantly ask myself, is this a good idea? Sometimes it is not. And sometimes it is not for me, but it may be for others and so it is built. But the rule of unintended consequences should always be considered, and where technology fails to consider social consequences, we must develop our own methods and best practices for dealing with them, or simply opt out.

There needs to be differentiation between friends and contacts - they are not the same
Recently I unfriended almost 200 people on Facebook. It was not that I didn't like them, but they were not what I could define as friends for a number of reasons:
  • I never have or will meet them in person
  • They friend me and then don't interact with me afterwards
  • They are completely inactive
  • They are strictly a business contact
  • I feel uncomfortable due to their lack of personal familiarity and that they can see into my personal world
  • They have creepy friends
There is a certain irony in the occasional uproar over personal security on Facebook. What most users fail to consider is that the accounts of their friends are the critical point of vulnerability. You can easily hide all of you personal information from the public, but if someone hacks your friends' account you have created a trusted pathway to the very people you were trying to avoid. As a result, I do not keep inactive friends on Facebook.

Aristotle declares, alter ipse amicus: a friend is another self. I must recognize my self in my friend and my friend in me. Genuine friendship is defined not only by a friend who acts for his friend's sake, but is also aware of his friend by knowing him. I think this is why we need to make the distinction between friends and contacts and use the appropriate technologies for each:
 friends - Facebook, contacts - LinkedIn. 
And so there may be this grey area for some that straddle the friend v. contact chasm, and this is where we need to develop new norms and behaviors to distinguish between each in an era of social media that frequently has difficulty in recognizing the difference.

Monday, January 3, 2011

L’arte di non fare niente

L’arte di non fare niente: the art of doing nothing.

I first heard this expression in Eat, Love, Pray, and it really resonated. I am hyper-connected for better or for worse, and multitask with the best of them. The iPhone and iPad, in particular, make it possible to watch TV, respond to emails, follow the news, FB (yes, it is now a verb), and play Angry Birds all at the same time. I can't say that this is actually good for my brain and I wonder how perpetual hyperactivity affects my emotions and response mechanisms.

I noticed towards the end of 2010 that I had become increasingly agitated, and so I used the Holiday break to throttle back my social media interaction, email and other forms of electronic communication. I will admit I raised my Angry Birds score over 16 million, and I watched the most football ever, but much of my time was spent vegging and just enjoying my kids. I was very unproductive, but it was one of the most relaxing breaks I've had and my batteries are certainly recharged.

I think certain cultures lend themselves more easily to l’arte di non fare niente, especially those that originated in warm climates where midday inactivity is necessary to survive or at least remain productive. Like ethnic cultures, organizational cultures develop in response to their environments and create corresponding survival habits. Perhaps its time to examine the habits we are fostering in a Web 2.0 world and ask ourselves if we are spending enough time (if any) disconnecting from electronic communication and social media. It might be prescriptive to sometimes just experience life rather than share every moment of it. And it might be good for your soul.