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About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

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Public Discourse: Inverted Totalitarianism, Threshold Models and Cell Phones

Uploaded: Feb 21, 2016
Online discussions are an important part of public discourse even for people who don't participate directly. Much of what they hear from others may have come from online discussions--directly or several steps removed--and if the results of their discussion are to reach a non-trivial audience, it will likely be through online publication and discussion. Consequently, the quality and participation in online discussions has a significant impact on the overall public discourse. This is a general rumination, provoked by various discussions about what is happening at multiple levels of politics.

Inverted Totalitarianism (2003) is an interesting analysis that totalitarianism can be achieved with the opposite approach from conventional totalitarianism (Fascism, Communism). For example, power doesn't need to be centered in the government and organized hierarchically, but rather the government can be merely a subservient agent to collaborating power centers. Conventional totalitarianism calls for mass participation by the population, which it controls through mass indoctrination and omnipresent propaganda. The inverse is to keep the population disengaged and apathetic, for example, with trivialities such as celebrity news. Dissent is not suppressed, but disrupted: Rather than "Resistance is futile" it is "Participation is futile". The latter is the more effective because potential opposition is dissipated at an earlier and smaller stage. Recognize that it isn't important whether the disruption is orchestrated, or whom performs it, merely that it happens.(foot#1)

Analyses such as this are useful in encouraging consideration of whether you are getting too close to a tipping-point or edge that you wouldn't have otherwise realized existed.

In the early days of Internet discussion groups (pre-1993) September was a dreaded month because college freshmen would gain access without adequate instruction in "netiquette". However, this was a temporary annoyance because the groups had established cultures, acknowledged leaders (formal or informal), and members willing to stand-up for the culture and back the leaders. The new arrivals tended to be quickly schooled in expected and acceptable behavior. That all changed with Eternal September (aka Black September) in 1993 when AOL unleashed its subscribers on the Internet groups (Usenet). There was a large pool of AOL subscribers that regarded discussion groups as not being for productive use but for entertainment, with combative exchanges and bullying regarded as legitimate "fun". This barbarian horde combined with those that didn't understand netiquette overwhelmed the established groups and many of them became vastly diminished or effectively disappeared. What was then regarded as being a "troll" or other form of miscreant has become the norm on many Internet forum, comment sections,...

This distorted sense of what is acceptable and normal has made it increasingly hard to moderate comments. A number of major news sites eliminated or reduced comment sections partly because it had become too expensive to deal with all the abusive comments and partly because the toleration of abusive behavior had gone on so long that they had alienated and lost the audience they desired. Other sites decided that allowing abusive behavior was profitable--it supported their advertising revenue ("eyeball" count / page hits).

Threshold Models:
The basic problem in reestablishing a culture of appropriate discourse is that there rarely is a good starting point: Any enforcement can be seen as picking on someone whose offense is not that different from others. And even when someone clearly and repeatedly violates the rules of the group, too often the response of many other members is "Where's the harm of just one person doing this?"(foot#2) Research into the behavior of physical mobs provides interesting insights. An early notion of mob behavior was based on a belief that only societal constraints kept people from behaving in evil ways, and that the anonymity of the mob negated those constraints and allowed evil to emerge. Another concept used the analogy of a contagious disease to explain the spread of various bad behaviors, turning a crowd into a mob. The problem with this formulation was that it allowed anyone to be the provocateur, and held that everyone was equally likely to be "infected". A 1978 research paper "Threshold Models of Collective Behavior" claimed that people had different thresholds for joining in, and that there was a wide range of thresholds. There would typically be a very few willing to cast the first stone, and a few more who wouldn't go first but would go second. And so on. And that there was often a significant pool of people whose thresholds were so high that they weren't so much as "joining" as much as giving in or going along with the majority. The take-away from this research was that you had multiple opportunities to prevent a crowd from turning into a mob, and that you should pick your opportunities and who you target (mobs don't have leaders, but rather enablers). The flip side of this is found in marketing, with its concepts of "Early Adopters", "Influencers",...

A similar set of observations and theory underlies the Broken Windows Theory of Policing (1982). It claimed that minor things such as broken windows, graffiti... encouraged criminal activity because they were interpreted as the sign of a weak, uncaring community--one that was unlikely to counter the criminals. Unfortunately, these valid observations and reasoning were too often taken to an absolutist extreme (zero tolerance). Unlike Threshold Models, it doesn't encourage thinking about flexibility of when to respond and how.(foot#3)

Cell Phones and Texting
All the above may be irrelevant ("You couldn't have told us earlier?") because people are having increasing difficulty participating in significant discussions. It is hard to find someone who doesn't bemoan the effect of increased use cell phone texting--the combination of spelling, grammar and composition deficiencies that render so many non-trivial messages as difficult to understand, with some incomprehensible. The costs (effort) of typing incentivize the sender to shift costs to the recipient (effort understanding). But this is not just the senders being rushed or sloppy--in situations where they need to do better, they often fail. I hear this from people interviewing job candidates, trying to make major purchases,...

Beyond the problems with the individual messages have come larger problems in the conversations and discourse. It has long been observed that written messages don't convey multiple categories of information, with a partial response being the creation of emoticons. However, these observations pre-date email, going all the way back to handwritten letters (then telegrams,...). Texting exacerbates the problem, both by being short and by being sent from devices that make typing slow, laborious, difficult,... A prominent author on the effects of electronic devices on the quality of communications is MIT Professor Sherry Turkle. She and others claim that the overuse of texting causes people to have difficulty understanding the perspective of other participants in these exchanges. These claims are vague and ambiguous between whether people are neglecting to make the effort, or that the skills and reflexes failed to be develop, or had atrophied. Because Turkle is focused on the building and maintaining personal relationships, she uses the term empathy for this.

"Empathy" is too narrow a term because it requires identifying with other perspectives, not just understanding them. I have increasingly seen this in physical meetings: Speakers whose intent seems to be to persuade instead antagonizing those that don't already agree with them. It runs the gamut from misrepresenting facts, analyses, statements by other speakers... to disingenuous and transparently false claims to demonizing others.(foot#4) On several occasions I have talked to prominent voices for those positions and suggested that they try to rein in those disruptive speakers, only to be told that the attempt had been made and failed: Even after it was pointed out, those speakers were oblivious to the negative effects of their behavior. Its bad enough when someone in their late 20s is unable to read basic facial expressions and body language of someone sitting 10-20 feet away, but it is unsettling when you see it in someone in their late 30s and beyond.

Another observation by Turkle and others is that the culture surrounding texting allows the participates to drop in and out, often invisibly. One effect of this is that those conversations tend to be shallow--and reportedly many participants see this as a major advantage of conducting them by texting. Various authors have noted that this can lead to an uncomfortableness and ineptness when a deeper conversation is needed. Others point out a decline in the ability to have an efficient conversation, pushing it to a productive conclusion.(foot#5)

Note: Although I have mentioned Turkle multiple times above, I recommend against her recent book.(foot#6) Instead I would recommend reading one/some of the numerous articles and interviews generated by the marketing of the book. Because of Turkle's prominence, she will often be mentioned in writings by others, and thus including her name in your web search term can be useful.

----Footnotes----

1. Discouraging participation has a long history. A few examples if you haven't thought about the many ways this happens:
Example 1:
Negative advertising became a staple of political campaigns in the 1980s. One of the insights was that it was easier to get people to not vote for your opponent than to get them to vote for you--a vote not cast for the opponent was effectively a vote cast for you. From what I read, demonizing your opponent to gain votes is relatively ineffective--for people already likely to vote for you, it modestly increases their motivation to cast that vote. And the cumulative effect of negative advertising for various major races in an election is thought to be a significant factor in people not bothering to vote at all.
Example 2: Incessant and annoying trivialities:
In the late 1990s, various friends who had been self-confessed "news junkies" said that they had stopped watching TV news. They described it as coming in two stages: Initially, they would turn off the news at the first mention of "Monica Lewinsky", but then realized that this typically came so quickly that it wasn't worth turn on that show.
Example 3: Designated blowhards:
A number of acquaintances have developed similar strategies for watching the PBS NewsHour: They hate the mindless recitation of that day's talking points by the anointed shills. Since this occupies about the first third of the program, they wait before turning it on--and sometimes forget altogether. One friend observed that the likely audience is both capable and likely to read those talking points elsewhere, so what it the point of having them spoken loudly and insistently by someone unwilling or unprepared to discuss the issue at hand?
An interesting contrast: In the interview with Republican Presidential candidate John Kasich on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert of 2016-02-17, Colbert quickly read through Kasich's established talking point (from Kasich's Communications Director) and said "Now that I have said all that, you can't. You have to answer my questions." It was instructive that Kasich, unable to pivot to his canned responses, was flummoxed by even some softball questions (Rubio redux).
Example 4: Elite/insiders are the only audience that matters:
The Democratic Party Presidential Debate hosted by MSNBC (February 4, Durham NH). Various people I talked with said that they turned off the program early on when the moderators seemed intent on pushing the candidates to behave like bickering children, and were largely successful (questions about the definition of "Progressive" and who deserved that label). To me, it was unclear if MSNBC wanted this debate to be more like the Republican ones, or if they were clueless about what they were doing, or if they didn't care about a larger audience ("preaching to the choir"). Aside: Many political movements have died because they became more interested in arguing over definitions and in ideological purity, and uninterested in accomplishing anything. "You may be 'dead right', but you are still dead" is an admonition that most people encounter in their teens in Drivers Education but don't remember.

2. The problem of someone protesting about a moderator attempting to deal with her disregard for the rules was the subject of a 2015-November-06 Guest Opinion and comments at Palo Alto Weekly/Online. This is cited only as optional background and not for further discussion here. Guest Opinion: A Scofflaw? Not I--just a good neighbor.

3. Broken Windows extremes:
Example: in New York City, the Death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYC Police for selling cigarettes individually. Aside: Why is this illegal? New York State has the highest cigarette tax in the US--$4.35/pack--and this encourages smuggling from other states. Since the tax stamp is applied only to cigarette packs, loose cigarettes are presumed to have not been taxed.
Example, again in New York City: Aggressive stop-and-frisk targeting primarily young, minority males.

4. To be a "lie" requires it to be false, knowingly so, and intended to deceive. Question: If the only deception is self-deception, does that count? Some common phrases used to describe this are of being in "a bubble", "an echo chamber", or "a reality-distortion field".

5. Example: "It might sound like a funny question, but we need to ask ourselves: Is there any 21st-century skill more important than being able to sustain confident, coherent conversation?" from My Students Don't Know How to Have a Conversation: Students' reliance on screens for communication is detracting--and distracting--from their engagement in real-time talk by Paul Barnwell, The Atlantic, 2014-04-22.

6. More on my recommending against Sherry Turkle's book "Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age": My Amazon Review. Other reviewer found that much of the contents of this book was a rehash of what was in her earlier books, but I don't have enough of a recollection of them to make that judgment.

----Boilerplate----
An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.

If you behave like a Troll, don't waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.

Comments

 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Humble observer, a resident of Mountain View,
on Feb 21, 2016 at 8:43 am

Another informative and provocative essay. I appreciated your reprising the Eternal-September culture clash, which I witnessed, as a longtime internet user by then. (Side comment: pre-1993 internet usage was not unusual at all here in the Bay Area, where _public_ access to internet email and newsgroups was available to literally anyone by 1985, from independent networking services such as WELL that -- unlike AOL, Compuserve, or Prodigy -- connected their users to basic internet services as early as practical, rather than trying to compete with the internet; this public access supplemented a large population with access though early major internet hubs at UCB, Stanford, H-P, DECWRL, Apple, etc.) Other US regions had less-easy early internet access, until the middle 1990s when it went mainstream. That's relevant because the 15 or so pre-mainstream years saw the online human interaction patterns and "internet culture" being worked out, even if only with millions of users, not yet billions. That period is outside the awareness of many who joined the 'net later (including many writers on "internet history").

But as you point out, by 1993 there was already ample history of observing which behaviors worked more and less effectively in online interaction. Useful collections of "netiquette guidelines" had appeared since the early 1980s, and a set was published more formally in the middle 1990s as the famous reference paper RFC1855 Web Link (a more focused source than Wikipedia, which has been perennially weak on this well-documented subject, and others). RFC1855 begins ("Introduction") by forthrightly citing the culture clash that Eternal September also showed. Netiquette tips have also been in most introductory books and courses about the internet; yet many people still come to the subject assuming that all you need to use the 'net competently is a connection to it. Exactly the troll behavior you cited ("distorted sense of what is acceptable and normal") surfaces even in cordial and responsible online communities today, from people who appear well-spoken and intelligent, yet resist the whole idea that principles of online interaction are well established, and might be useful to know. One of your footnotes captured a dramatic example of netiquette-resistance (someone who not only maintained, essentially, that her behavior online was accountable solely to her own ego, but went so far as to write and publish a Guest-Opinion essay asserting that view).

Finally to your texting comments: Around 2000, a friend reported regularly on his 14-year-old daughter's addiction to texting. When cellphones were banned from the dinner table, she developed impressive skill at working the keys with her fingers, behind her back. Her father reported this with both exasperation, and admiration for the dexterity. But the upshot is, she and her peers may now be the 30-year-old adults you encounter with atrophied in-person communication skills.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Interesting, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Feb 23, 2016 at 10:42 am

Interesting ruminations. One might have guessed that the limitations of texting, Twitter, etc. would nudge people to be more clear, direct, and concise in their communications.

Emoticons can be very expressive, after all a picture can be worth a thousand words ;-) Pictures also can be more accessible to pre-readers and people across different languages. I do think these can enrich online communication.

Re bad "netiquette": in some instances, mitigating factors often used by the audience to excuse poor behavior in real life, remain unseen on the anonymous internet. Some people are more likely to behave badly online than in real life. Others act the same, but in real life are less likely to be called on it.


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Posted by Humble observer, a resident of Mountain View,
on Feb 23, 2016 at 11:22 am

I think we're agreed so far that emoticons help supplement the limitations of communicating by text only, "where, for example, body language and tone of voice must be inferred" (RFC 1855, written 20 years ago) -- to say nothing of humor, irony, etc.

For what it's worth, when I refer to "netiquette" it isn't just about "good"/"bad" online behavior (granted that both Doug and I cited examples along that axis). In the larger sense, netiquette just means being _aware_ about how people communicate online -- including the points Interesting mentioned -- above all, knowing that the very subject exists, that people have now interacted online long enough to show what works and what doesn't (most of which, I recall being pretty clear already 30 years ago).

Many longtime netiquette tenets aren't so much about politeness or decorum as effectiveness. Examples offhand: private mail as a useful alternative to public posting, when the message is just for one person; read existing comments to a question before you add another, since the question may have been answered already, or even changed by its author; on forums that store past discussion, search before asking a popular question because it may already have been answered ("10,000 times," as Google once put it). Those aren't very complicated ideas, let alone controversial.


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Posted by Interesting, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Feb 23, 2016 at 1:05 pm

Humble observer, I'd submit that some amount of patience is appropriate with respect to the kind of netiquette issues mentioned in your most recent post. I would guess a good portion of it is folks who are just new to the online experience. For example, would folks have more patience knowing that the poster who just asked a basic question for the 10,000th time is my 84-year old neighbor who only recently got a computer so she could see photos of grandkids on Facebook? Would you tell grandma she shouldn't go online until she has memorized the internet version of Miss Manners? Talk about discouraging participation! Remembering that there is a person on the other side of the keyboard/screen -- empathy -- goes both ways.

I fully appreciate that this is a "where's the harm" scenario, but I think it ought not be so lightly dismissed. Anecdotally, I would tell you there are still plenty of internet newbies (relatively speaking) even here in Silicon Valley, more in other parts of the country.

[Re: the Guest Opinion mentioned, I think that is a different scenario as apparently the poster had been notified previously about violating the mailing list rules.]

I also should add that I agree with much of what is in your post and Mr. Moran's. My personal peeve is overuse of email in the workplace. How about picking up the phone or walking down the hall to talk to someone? Trust me folks, the bosses notice the effort-shifting and it does not have a positive impact.


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Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 23, 2016 at 1:31 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Interesting

" I would guess a good portion of it is folks who are just new to the online experience."

My experience managing various discussion groups is that most of the flagrant violators are not new to the online experience, but rather have been online for many years and continue to make the same violations of netiquette. While most people will make an effort to follow the rules, I have dealt with too many whose attitude is "It is up to others to accommodate whatever I decide to do. (such as the author of the Guest Opinion cited in the blog footnote #2).

"...has memorized the internet version of Miss Manners."

This is a gross exaggeration of what is being asked. The basic rules of netiquette are quite short. For example, knowing the difference between Reply and Reply-all and that you don't inflict a message intended for a single person on hundreds or thousands of people on that list. Or the common-sense of Don't post messages inappropriate for the explicitly stated purpose of the discussion group.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Moderation??, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Feb 23, 2016 at 1:37 pm

I'd call this interesting .. the part that is informative is great, in fact I just ordered Wolin's book on Amazon.

Basically though I've seen your style, and Levy's style of "moderation" and believe this is a rationalization for censoring what you want to hear on your own blogs to justify what is basically censorship - the dis-allowal of disagreement. Trolling is mostly very obvious, and what is done here ... sometimes ... I can only call censorship for reasons of directing the conclusion and forming a kind of false consensus.

[[Removed by blogger: An accusation against my moderation of this blog that is both unsupported by a single example and is contrary to many examples here.]]


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Interesting, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Feb 23, 2016 at 2:20 pm

Mr. Moran, suppose I should have used an emoticon, but I thought it was pretty clear that my response was directed at Humble observer's comment regarding questions asked "10,000 times."

I will grant that your personal experience is different than mine. I have spent my fair share of time trying to help out some folks learn how to get on line, and in forums where basic questions such as "how do you post pictures?" get answered repeatedly, with patience.

If the discussion groups you moderate attract "bad behavior," what do you think is the cause?


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Meh, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 23, 2016 at 2:25 pm

[[Removed by moderator: sniping - an example of a violation of basic netiquette.]]


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Humble observer, a resident of Mountain View,
on Feb 23, 2016 at 2:26 pm

Interesting: Patience with inexperienced users is itself a point of netiquette; I have no argument with those points of your last two posts. ("10,000 times" was Google's phrase, not mine.)

My observation differs from Doug's posting (prior to yours) in its specifics, but similarly is of people who clearly were veteran online communicators. From such people I sometimes encounter balking at the whole idea that established, consensus principles exist of skillful online communication (against which behavior can be measured).

That particular reaction from such people may just reflect a larger strand in human nature: People informed of a reality they didn't know about, AND whose implications they dislike, often instinctively, semi-consciously, try to make the reality "go away" by interpreting it as just someone else's offhand opinion that they can confidently ignore. (They won't do the effort to check the reality, and discover that the problem was, in fact, theirs.)

I understand also that online forums (especially with little or no moderation) disproportionately attract individuals with certain "functional" psychopathologies (prominently, but not limited, to Narcissistic Personality Disorder), who may be abnormally _unable_ to perceive the distinction between their notions and reality, or that a consensus exists about appropriate behavior.

That might also figure in what Jim Leff (who founded an influential online food forum in the 1990s) has dubbed the "Pushy Loudmouths" syndrome Web Link -- an observation specifically from Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a forum whose contributors, or "editors," face limited refereeing and almost no accountability. It has become increasingly notorious for content arguments resolved not by expertise or accuracy, but by the stubbornest aggressive personalities. Leff argues that this directly reflects Wikipedia's "bedrock" principles of editor anonymity and anarchy. Certainly in my own experience of other human communities (even long ago), I noticed that noble-sounding ideals of "giving everyone a voice" via minimal rules led in practice to governance not by the "people" (as usually promised), or common sense, but rather by the pushiest personalities.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Interesting, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Feb 23, 2016 at 3:02 pm

Humble observer, my limited personal observation is that internet "Pushy Loudmouths" usually just end up talking to themselves. You raise a good question though, whether the "bad actors" recognize this in themselves and do it deliberately, whether it is unconscious, etc.

Moderation??, I have a differing view, I would not have bothered posting here if I thought Mr. Moran was going to delete my comments just for disagreeing with him. But I also would prefer to see a lighter touch to moderation, I have faith in the audience being able to figure things out. Do you think there is possibly a chicken-and-egg situation or reinforcement loop with heavy moderation and trolls?


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 23, 2016 at 3:05 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Re: Interesting: "I have spent my fair share of time trying to help out some folks learn how to get on line,... If the discussion groups you moderate attract "bad behavior," what do you think is the cause?"

As a moderator, I too spent a lot of time helping people get online. Many who were unsure would send me a message asking the How's and Whether's. The groups I moderated for the Barron Park Association didn't attract bad behavior, but simply had a very few individuals that refuse to learn or heed netiquette. My observation was that members of the lists I moderated tended to be quite tolerant of an individual making the occasional mistake, but the same individual repeatedly violating netiquette was a serious irritant.

As moderator, I could see the impact, either from private emails from other members asking me as moderator to rein in the offender, or by seeing tens of people unsubscribe from the list -- on a list of 400-600 subscribers with most of them having been members for years, such bursts are not random.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 23, 2016 at 3:20 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Re: Interesting: "Moderation??, ... But I also would prefer to see a lighter touch to moderation, I have faith in the audience being able to figure things out.

My choice is an example application of Theshold Models.
My experience is that personal attacks and accusations tend to escalate very quickly, especially when they are contrary to the evidence. Consequently, I try to squelch them quickly.

The attacks/accusations and responses don't just affect the parties directly involved, but have a very negative effect on readers -- similar to the example in the blog footnote of people turning off the debate. My experience is that many people are quick to turn away when the topic is of moderate, but not intense, interest.

And these thresholds are different for different people. The example I am wont to use is a retired kindergarten teacher who moved here from rural Minnesota ("Minnesota Nice") to be with her grandchild will have a much lower tolerance than a 20-some male in high tech who moved here from a place where many people delight in arguing (example: Israel).


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Interesting, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Feb 23, 2016 at 4:29 pm

I think neighborhood forums are different in the sense that people are likely to "care more deeply" about the particular issues (schools as an example) and the consequences of an escalating dispute are different -- more is at stake than on an anonymous internet topic discussion board.

There is going to be an occasional rude poster everywhere, but in general forums those folks are more likely to just move on (drive bys). If it's your neighborhood, well, they live there too. Perhaps more block parties are in order? Or a rules violation should obligate the scofflaw to take the moderator out for coffee? I'm only partly kidding.


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Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 23, 2016 at 4:43 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Interesting: "Or a rules violation should obligate the scofflaw to take the moderator out for coffee? I'm only partly kidding."

The primary "victim" of a rules violation is the discussion group, not the moderator. But the problem with a public apology is that it is often only additional
I noise== in the group -- an irritant rather than a salve. In the case of a misrepresentation or false claim, my moderation policy is typically to send a private message to the offender ask him to post a correction. For minor insults, I suggest that the offender send a private email apology to the target and not bother with a public correction.

Just like in physical meetings, the leader needs to remember that the rules are there to support the larger goals of the discussion group (online virtual meeting) and not an end in-and-of themselves. Similar to how many meetings are run using a loose version of Robert's Rules of Order -- a common admonition is that one of the best ways to ensure a meeting accomplishes nothing is to strictly follow Robert's Rules.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 23, 2016 at 4:53 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Interesting: "I think neighborhood forums are different...than on an anonymous internet topic discussion board."

I would make a different distinction. There are groups that are "information utilities" and there are groups that participants treat as primarily entertainment, for example where the "Pushy Loudmouths" (in comment by "Humble Observer") can compete to see who is the most offensive and dominant. As noted, the "Pushy Loudmouths" often view all discussion groups as existing for their entertainment.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Humble observer, a resident of Mountain View,
on Feb 24, 2016 at 7:52 am

Interesting wrote: "my limited personal observation is that internet "Pushy Loudmouths" usually just end up talking to themselves."

Doug Moran wrote: ". . .groups that participants treat as primarily entertainment, for example where the "Pushy Loudmouths" (in comment by "Humble Observer") can compete to see who is the most offensive and dominant. As noted, the "Pushy Loudmouths" often view all discussion groups as existing for their entertainment."

I hope you've both read, or will read, closely Leff's brief piece I cited for the term (repeating: Web Link ). He means something different and specific.

It labels not your everyday trolls (who post off-topic or abrasively, seeking reaction), but tenacious individuals uninhibitedly defending a pet notion or worldview against evidence (ultimately, against reality).

Leff's term resonated for me, after seeing precisely that behavior in internet public discourse since the '80s, even on forums for well-supported informational content (as Wikipedia is). I'm not a Wikipedia editor, but have long noticed its wildly inconsistent article quality. Looking closely at examples where I knew the subject well, the "talk" page (discussion and justifications) shows this behavior and its consequent driving away of constructive and better-informed editors. Many thousands have given up editing WP; an official report within WP itself revealed quantitatively that the exodus is accelerating.

Long ago, Jose Ortega y Gasset described related behaviors in a classic essay. "His only authority is his own opinion, and he believes these opinions to be Facts. . ."

My last post cited some overlapping, but distinct, behavior patterns. Clinically signficant Narcissistic Personality Disorder is said to afflict around 1% of people; I've seen expert testimony that internet forums concentrate it higher. Certain forum types are sheer NPD catnip, such as Yelp (so structured that far from discouraging narcissistic behaviors it rewards them, presumably in service of the firm's interests -- topic for an essay some time, with many examples).


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Interesting, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Feb 24, 2016 at 9:59 am

Humble observer, I did look at the Leff piece. Maybe an example would be useful? On an online forum similar to Chowhound -- Pushy Loudmouth on repeated threads: "Don't do XXXX. No one uses XXXX this way." Random rebuttal poster: "I use XXXX this way because YYYY." The random rebuttal poster differs from thread to thread, and Pushy Loudmouth quickly becomes known as "that person that doesn't like XXXX." The discussions just continue on their merry way despite the Pushy Loudmouth -- possibly because the topics are "more boring" than, e.g. politics or religion and "less personal" than neighborhood concerns. I suspect real trolls would find going on these kinds of forums to be not worth their time ;-)


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Humble observer, a resident of Mountain View,
on Feb 25, 2016 at 9:03 am

"Interesting," I don't wish here to belabor the subtopic of Jim Leff's 2008 metaphor, but I reiterated its link above because I found _his_ characterization apt. Its essentials are tenacity ("pushy") and assertiveness ("loudmouth"). On Wikipedia, such personalities stake out favorite topics, defending their notions of reality against all comers (especially knowledgeable ones), as Leff testified. It can leave them talking not just to themselves, but to many attempted editors.

On more conventional online discussion venues, they'll haunt preferred forums. Sporadically for 15 years I've read Leff's creation chowhound.com which has a Bay-Area discussion forum, and occasionally I contact some of its more impressive contributors privately about subjects of their expertise. Independently of each other, these constructive individuals often volunteered strikingly similar private observations to the effect that they'd contibute more on the forum, but are discouraged by the browbeating and bullying by a very few self-important regulars. ("Reasonable people, alas, behave reasonably" -- Leff, link above.) This is sad, because it diminishes the experience for everyone else -- a Gresham's Law of online public discourse -- a version of the broader problem Doug Moran cited seven comments back, where a few offensive individuals drive many good people off a forum.

Like many Pushy Loudmouths, those on Chowhound are adept at navigating the limits of forum moderation policies so as to push the limits, but evade censure themselves. One of those people, whose know-it-all style impresses newcomers at first, is obsessively negative, often posting just to contradict others' contributions (whether or not he knows what he's talking about; often he doesn't). When this exasperates others to the point of calling out his behavior, he's quick to "flag" their comments, which moderators then delete as ad-hominem. (A chowhound.com tradition is "criticize the chow, not the chowhounder" -- offering no guidance on what to do when the chowhounder is the main problem). AFAIK, that man genuinely thinks he knows more about the forum's topics than anyone else, and is determined to defend his perception against many threats. This contrasts with the classic behavior of "trolls."

I've seen many comparable situations online, I cite that one just as a concrete example.


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Posted by Interesting, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Feb 25, 2016 at 10:01 am

Yes, I've seen this phenomenon. But I'm sure you realize that not everyone's perception is the same. And it's not limited to online discourse. As with many things, Pushy Loudmouths probably come on a spectrum. If the Pushy Loudmouth poster occasionally "knows what he's talking about" and is not actively baiting, I'm not sure I see how the Pushy Loudmouth is the main problem as opposed to merely annoying. Isn't the appropriate response to Pushy Loudmouths (online and in real life) the approach of "count to 100" before responding? I have in the past reflexively typed out a response to a Pushy Loudmouth, walked away from the computer, then returned and edited to remove personal references and simply address the topic before posting. In the situations I've seen where an exasperated regular contributor "loses his cool" typically there is understanding and sympathy from the group. Sometimes followed by a "meta-thread" as to posting behavior, which at some point typically provokes responses along the lines of "who are you to tell us how we should be posting?"

Perhaps one underlying question is whether a particular discussion forum should be limited and private, or open and public? Each will come with its own set of dynamics. In a neighborhood group it's more complicated because it's harder to ignore folks you might run into every day.


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Posted by Humble observer, a resident of Mountain View,
on Feb 25, 2016 at 10:23 am

Well (just as text communication suppresses some nuances, and people read it colored by their own perspectives and assumptions), maybe I should once again have been more explicit above. The individual I mentioned does bait people, there's a strong consensus among frequent participants about his behavior (so among regulars at least, perceptions _are_ similar), and at least when this situation arises, the individual IS the problem -- as in the case in Doug's footnote #2. Moreover the rules and customs of that particular forum (which is heavily moderated) preclude any meta-threads on posting behavior such as you described -- so the upshot is an environment unnecessarily discouraging to constructive contributions (like Wikipedia on PL-ridden topics) and the forum owners seem perennially unconcerned, as long as there's active buzz and page hits.

And again I was describing a case to underline typical P-L dynamics, where they resemble and also where they differ from "trolling."


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Posted by Interesting, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Feb 25, 2016 at 11:12 am

Oh I think I see now. I sympathize, it is discouraging to see a productive discussion run off the rails.

I assume the terms of use disallow baiting, and Pushy Loudmouth's posts could be flagged when that occurs? Some of the sites I've seen where baiting is an issue, the moderator will not merely delete the entire offending post but instead replace it with something akin to "[Removed: baiting]" (similar to what Mr. Moran did above) so that it serves as a general reminder that folks will be called out for bad behavior (and also a record of the poster's offense).


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Posted by Humble observer, a resident of Mountain View,
on Feb 25, 2016 at 11:58 am

The skillful "baiting" I mentioned (coupled with a peculiar eagerness to "flag" responses -- uncommon enough on that forum that it stands out when it clusters around one individual) is an example of what I meant by "adept at navigating the limits of forum moderation policies." Or maybe it could be said that the moderators aren't attentive enought to remove provocations along with their results (I've seen that with other problem posters there).

The same individual was either thrown or driven off the site by moderators a few years ago, and later returned having evidently learned more cunning. (Given the behavior I've seen, I would not be personally surprised were I to learn some day that the same person had been medically diagnosed with NPD or a related condition, such as I described earlier here.)


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Posted by Interesting, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Feb 25, 2016 at 12:38 pm

Perhaps it would be an interesting diversion for a troll to see whether the troll is able to subtly dislodge Pushy Loudmouth? aka "Troll the Bounty Hunter" or "Internet Protection"

This was a joke ;-)


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Posted by sunshine, a resident of Barron Park,
on Feb 27, 2016 at 8:27 am

Does this in any way remind you of the current political scene? Especially on the right wing it's much like the Goon Show and very low on factual information.
Or as in movie pre-statements: Any relation to actual facts or activities is purely coincidental.
Ah yes, don't look for any correct facts.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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