One Man Book Club: Cognitive Surplus, Chapter 7


That’s not very nice to the Moran family.

In the final chapter, Shirky discusses what makes successful online communities tick and what makes unsuccessful ones fail. His observations, in one way or another, all addressed the size of a community. Even on Facebook, which is populated by pretty much everyone except for the kind of people who sniff “I don’t have a TV” at you, the size of the community you participate in is limited by the number of friends you have.

The Internet has been a boon to narrow groups without a critical mass in any one location. If you have an unusual hobby or obsess over an obscure cancelled TV show, there is simply no other way to have a real community. See Smoking Meat Forums. There, you can find someone who has every kind of commercially available smoker, every style of homemade device and every cooking style out there. Before, you may have had a couple of people in town with smokers to rely on. As someone who tried to set up a smoker for Thanksgiving, SMF was a godsend.

But what about trolls? Won’t somebody please think of the trolls?

SMF doesn’t really have them, as nobody interested in stirring things up would find it. Why Google “how to get a more even temperature from your Brinkmann Smoke N’ Grill” in order to sling homophobic and sexist slurs when there are YouTube videos to comment on? Smaller communities self-police and have fewer ne’er do wells to deal with.

What if there was a community built around a topic that affects everyone and engenders very strong opinions?

It’s called politics, and it has a mixed record in terms of creating effective online communities. It certainly has its more than its share of vitriol and trollery, but hasn’t been as transformative to electoral politics as it has been to smaller, geographically-dispersed, narrowly-focused interest groups.

Unlike our helpful meat smokers – who stand in here for the successful online communities cited by Shirky – the online political community is bifurcated between top-down party and candidate machines and squabbling forums filled with trolls.

First, the top-down apparatuses. The Obama campaign built a massive voter targeting system in 2012 that pointed volunteers to the doors that most needed to be knocked according to a massive database and GIS system. The 2012 election may have been Big Data’s biggest moment, but the implementation entirely top-down using a national campaign.

The very nature of free publishing of information has made message discipline of paramount importance. Former Sen. George Allen’s “macaca moment” to Mitt Romney’s “47%” gaffe to President Obama’s “bitter clingers” blunder, were all made possible by individuals with small recording devices and a means to disseminate what they recorded. A politician simply can’t say one thing to the die-hards and one thing to everyone else. This is why campaigns are loath to cooperate too closely with independent online communities with the potential to be loose cannons.

Then we have the independent online communities. Take Free Republic, the message boards of which are filled with noxious hate, rage and conspiracy theories. It is the perfect example of how a community of like-minded people left to its own devices will only get more extreme.

The operative concepts here are epistemic closure (not listening to those who disagree with you) and confirmation bias (giving more weight to facts that bolster your beliefs and discounting arguments that don’t). These two phenomena build on one another until one can only see the other side as pure evil. Julian Sanchez wrote what I believe to be one of the definitive articles on conservative* epistemic closure in 2010. The nut of his argument:

Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)  This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile.

Meat smokers don’t have hundreds of well-funded organizations cranking out content with the stated goal of making biased partisan arguments over, for example, which type of wood chip is best for which type of smoker. This happens to be exactly why the meat smoker community is so vital – the participants themselves are best source of information on the topic they’re discussing. Creativity loves a void. Nobody’s biases are being flattered because there is nobody with both a vested interest in flattering them and the resources to do it effectively.

Online communities about broad topics devolve into extremism, trollery and backstabbing. Shirky’s example communities, from the Josh Groban fans to sufferers of rare diseases, succeed because they are narrowly-focused, which is the point of his final chapter.

* It’s no secret that I consider myself a liberal. There is certainly epistemic closure on the left, especially in social justice circles. People can (and do) argue about which corner of the political spectrum suffers from it the worst, but that’s not the point.

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