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.

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