How a Group is its own Worst Enemy/Part 4

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Facilitator: Roshanara Rahman

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How a Group is its own Worst Enemy
Written by Clay Shirky

IntroPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Conclusion


Four Things to Design For

1.) If you were going to build a piece of social software to support large and long-lived groups, what would you design for? The first thing you would design for is handles the user can invest in.

Now, I say "handles," because I don't want to say "identity," because identity has suddenly become one of those ideas where, when you pull on the little thread you want, this big bag of stuff comes along with it. Identity is such a hot-button issue now, but for the lightweight stuff required for social software, its really just a handle that matters.

It's pretty widely understood that anonymity doesn't work well in group settings, because "who said what when" is the minimum requirement for having a conversation. What's less well understood is that weak pseudonymity doesn't work well, either. Because I need to associate who's saying something to me now with previous conversations.

The world's best reputation management system is right here, in the brain. And actually, it's right here, in the back, in the emotional part of the brain. Almost all the work being done on reputation systems today is either trivial or useless or both, because reputations aren't linearizable, and they're not portable.

There are people who cheat on their spouse but not at cards, and vice versa, and both and neither. Reputation is not necessarily portable from one situation to another, and it's not easily expressed.

eBay has done us all an enormous disservice, because eBay works in non-iterated atomic transactions, which are the opposite of social situations. eBay's reputation system works incredibly well, because it starts with a linearizable transaction -- "How much money for how many Smurfs?" -- and turns that into a metric that's equally linear.

That doesn't work well in social situations. If you want a good reputation system, just let me remember who you are. And if you do me a favor, I'll remember it. And I won't store it in the front of my brain, I'll store it here, in the back. I'll just get a good feeling next time I get email from you; I won't even remember why. And if you do me a disservice and I get email from you, my temples will start to throb, and I won't even remember why. If you give users a way of remembering one another, reputation will happen, and that requires nothing more than simple and somewhat persistent handles.

Users have to be able to identify themselves and there has to be a penalty for switching handles. The penalty for switching doesn't have to be total. But if I change my handle on the system, I have to lose some kind of reputation or some kind of context. This keeps the system functioning.

Now, this pulls against the sense that we've had since the early psychological writings about the Internet. "Oh, on the Internet we're all going to be changing identities and genders like we change our socks."

And you see things like the Kaycee Nicole story, where a woman in Kansas pretended to be a high school student, and then because the invented high school student's friends got so emotionally involved, she then tried to kill the Kaycee Nicole persona off. "Oh, she's got cancer and she's dying and it's all very tragic." And of course, everyone wanted to fly to meet her. So then she sort of panicked and vanished. And a bunch of places on the Internet, particularly the MetaFilter community, rose up to find out what was going on, and uncovered the hoax. It was sort of a distributed detective movement.

Now a number of people point to this and say "See, I told you about that identity thing!" But the Kaycee Nicole story is this: changing your identity is really weird. And when the community understands that you've been doing it and you're faking, that is seen as a huge and violent transgression. And they will expend an astonishing amount of energy to find you and punish you. So identity is much less slippery than the early literature would lead us to believe.


2.) Second, you have to design a way for there to be members in good standing.

Have to design some way in which good works get recognized. The minimal way is, posts appear with identity. You can do more sophisticated things like having formal karma or "member since."

I'm on the fence about whether or not this is a design or accepting. Because in a way I think members in good standing will rise. But more and more of the systems I'm seeing launching these days are having some kind of additional accretion so you can tell how much involvement members have with the system.

There's an interesting pattern I'm seeing among the music-sharing group that operates between Tokyo and Hong Kong. They operate on a mailing list, which they set up for themselves. But when they're trading music, what they're doing is, they're FedExing one another 180-gig hard-drives. So you're getting .wav files and not MP3s, and you're getting them in bulk.

Now, you can imagine that such a system might be a target for organizations that would frown on this activity. So when you join that group, your user name is appended with the user name of the person who is your sponsor. You can't get in without your name being linked to someone else. You can see immediately the reputational effects going on there, just from linking two handles.

So in that system, you become a member in good standing when your sponsor link goes away and you're there on your own report. If, on the other hand, you defect, not only are you booted, but your sponsor is booted. There are lots and lots of lightweight ways to accept and work with the idea of member in good standing.


3.) Three, you need barriers to participation.

This is one of the things that killed Usenet. You have to have some cost to either join or participate, if not at the lowest level, then at higher levels. There needs to be some kind of segmentation of capabilities.

Now, the segmentation can be total -- you're in or you're out, as with the music group I just listed. Or it can be partial -- anyone can read Slashdot, anonymous cowards can post, non-anonymous cowards can post with a higher rating. But to moderate, you really have to have been around for a while.

It has to be hard to do at least some things on the system for some users, or the core group will not have the tools that they need to defend themselves.

Now, this pulls against the cardinal virtue of ease of use. But ease of use is wrong. Ease of use is the wrong way to look at the situation, because you've got the Necker cube flipped in the wrong direction. The user of social software is the group, not the individual.

I think we've all been to meetings where everyone had a really good time, we're all talking to one another and telling jokes and laughing, and it was a great meeting, except we got nothing done. Everyone was amusing themselves so much that the group's goal was defeated by the individual interventions.

The user of social software is the group, and ease of use should be for the group. If the ease of use is only calculated from the user's point of view, it will be difficult to defend the group from the "group is its own worst enemy" style attacks from within.


4.) And, finally, you have to find a way to spare the group from scale.

Scale alone kills conversations, because conversations require dense two-way conversations. In conversational contexts, Metcalfe's law is a drag. The fact that the amount of two-way connections you have to support goes up with the square of the users means that the density of conversation falls off very fast as the system scales even a little bit. You have to have some way to let users hang onto the less is more pattern, in order to keep associated with one another.

This is an inverse value to scale question. Think about your Rolodex. A thousand contacts, maybe 150 people you can call friends, 30 people you can call close friends, two or three people you'd donate a kidney to. The value is inverse to the size of the group. And you have to find some way to protect the group within the context of those effects.

Sometimes you can do soft forking. Live Journal does the best soft forking of any software I've ever seen, where the concepts of "you" and "your group" are pretty much intertwingled. The average size of a Live Journal group is about a dozen people. And the median size is around five.

But each user is a little bit connected to other such clusters, through their friends, and so while the clusters are real, they're not completely bounded -- there's a soft overlap which means that though most users participate in small groups, most of the half-million LiveJournal users are connected to one another through some short chain.

IRC channels and mailing lists are self-moderating with scale, because as the signal to noise ratio gets worse, people start to drop off, until it gets better, so people join, and so it gets worse. You get these sort of oscillating patterns. But it's self-correcting.

And then my favorite pattern is from MetaFilter, which is: When we start seeing effects of scale, we shut off the new user page. "Someone mentions us in the press and how great we are? Bye!" That's a way of raising the bar, that's creating a threshold of participation. And anyone who bookmarks that page and says "You know, I really want to be in there; maybe I'll go back later," that's the kind of user MeFi wants to have.

You have to find some way to protect your own users from scale. This doesn't mean the scale of the whole system can't grow. But you can't try to make the system large by taking individual conversations and blowing them up like a balloon; human interaction, many to many interaction, doesn't blow up like a balloon. It either dissipates, or turns into broadcast, or collapses. So plan for dealing with scale in advance, because it's going to happen anyway.

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