Ramblings & ephemera

Examples of tweaking old technologies to add social aspects

From Clay Shirky’s “Group as User: Flaming and the Design of Social Software” (Clay Shirky’s Writings About the Internet: 5 November 2004):

This possibility of adding novel social components to old tools presents an enormous opportunity. To take the most famous example, the Slashdot moderation system puts the ability to rate comments into the hands of the users themselves. The designers took the traditional bulletin board format — threaded posts, sorted by time — and added a quality filter. And instead of assuming that all users are alike, the Slashdot designers created a karma system, to allow them to discriminate in favor of users likely to rate comments in ways that would benefit the community. And, to police that system, they created a meta-moderation system, to solve the ‘Who will guard the guardians’ problem. …

Likewise, Craigslist took the mailing list, and added a handful of simple features with profound social effects. First, all of Craigslist is an enclosure, owned by Craig … Because he has a business incentive to make his list work, he and his staff remove posts if enough readers flag them as inappropriate. …

And, on the positive side, the addition of a “Nominate for ‘Best of Craigslist'” button in every email creates a social incentive for users to post amusing or engaging material. … The only reason you would nominate a post for ‘Best of’ is if you wanted other users to see it — if you were acting in a group context, in other words. …

Jonah Brucker-Cohen’s Bumplist stands out as an experiment in experimenting the social aspect of mailing lists. Bumplist, whose motto is “an email community for the determined”, is a mailing list for 6 people, which anyone can join. When the 7th user joins, the first is bumped and, if they want to be back on, must re-join, bumping the second user, ad infinitum. … However, it is a vivid illustration of the ways simple changes to well-understood software can produce radically different social effects.

You could easily imagine many such experiments. What would it take, for example, to design a mailing list that was flame-retardant? Once you stop regarding all users as isolated actors, a number of possibilities appear. You could institute induced lag, where, once a user contributed 5 posts in the space of an hour, a cumulative 10 minute delay would be added to each subsequent post. Every post would be delivered eventually, but it would retard the rapid-reply nature of flame wars, introducing a cooling off period for the most vociferous participants.

You could institute a kind of thread jail, where every post would include a ‘Worst of’ button, in the manner of Craigslist. Interminable, pointless threads (e.g. Which Operating System Is Objectively Best?) could be sent to thread jail if enough users voted them down. (Though users could obviously change subject headers and evade this restriction, the surprise, first noted by Julian Dibbell, is how often users respect negative communal judgment, even when they don’t respect the negative judgment of individuals. [ See Rape in Cyberspace — search for “aggressively antisocial vibes.”])

You could institute a ‘Get a room!’ feature, where any conversation that involved two users ping-ponging six or more posts (substitute other numbers to taste) would be automatically re-directed to a sub-list, limited to that pair. The material could still be archived, and so accessible to interested lurkers, but the conversation would continue without the attraction of an audience.

You could imagine a similar exercise, working on signal/noise ratios generally, and keying off the fact that there is always a most active poster on mailing lists, who posts much more often than even the second most active, and much much more often than the median poster. Oddly, the most active poster is often not even aware that they occupy this position (seeing ourselves as others see us is difficult in mediated spaces as well,) but making them aware of it often causes them to self-moderate. You can imagine flagging all posts by the most active poster, whoever that happened to be, or throttling the maximum number of posts by any user to some multiple of average posting tempo.

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