Saturday, January 15, 2011

Groups and the Web

Much of what we assume today about groups on the Internet appears to ignore the realities of group dynamics in physical situations. Though there can be value in crowds (or in Internet 'clouds'), the opposite can also be true. Mobs can turn nasty on the Internet, just as elsewhere, and they do so. And groups even find ways of justifying their behavior—something perhaps a little more important on the Web, where everything anyone “does” has a permanent record. Much of the time, such justification is based on the putative 'rogue' behavior of the other, behavior that makes the rogue a threat to the group, obviating whatever protections for the individual the group had established for those within it.

The English religious philosopher James Martineau long ago described the mindset of such situations, a mindset leading to willingness to lie, and to do other things otherwise considered themselves law-breaking for the protection of the group:

On the area of every human society, and mixed with its throngs, there are always some who are thus in it, but not of it, who are there, not to serve it, but to prey upon it, to use its order for the impunity of disorder, and wrest its rights into opportunities of wrong. Assassins, robbers, enemies with arms in their hands, madmen, are beyond the pale; and the same principle applies to those who try to turn the postulate of speech to the defeat of its own ends, and through its fidelity compel it to play the traitor. Such persons, we surely may say, can no more claim the benefit of ‘the common understanding,’ than could a spy who, by stealing the password eludes the sentry’s vigilances and makes his notes of the disposition of the lines, expect to be treated as a comrade, if he is found out. The immunity and protection of the camp are not for him; he has nothing in reserve but a short shrift and a high gallows. If, then, there are persons to whom, on this principle, we are not bound to tell the truth, it is not that the intuitive rule of veracity is broken down by the admission of exceptions: we have not put these people into the rule, and then taken them out again: they have never been within its scope at all; for its defined range was that of a social organism, in which indeed they may be present, but to which they do not belong. (Types of Ethical Theory, 242)

Martineau, of course, fails to explore the crucial question of who gets to decide just who is beyond the pale, who does not belong—or even why, really. The spy is too facile an example, and is rarely the one targeted.

What Martineau describes is, for many of us, the great weakness of democracy, the possibility of it becoming mob rule ('the tyranny of the majority'), for it can forget the rule of law in favor of common assumption and determination. The Internet shows symptoms of such attitudes, where a group can rile itself up against outsiders and, figuratively, ride them out of town on a rail.

On the liberal blog Daily Kos (one of my favorite political blogs), people who have attained 'trusted user' status can 'hide rate' the comments of others, leading to the disappearance of those comments. Though this may provide for a certain amount of order and may even be necessary, it really goes against the grain of democracy. The problem is that the 'troll' (as the unpopular commenter is called) has not accepted the precepts of the group and is acting more like Martineau's spy. The 'law' of the website is brutal and swift—and 'democratic' only in the most mob-oriented sense. At the same time, the 'justice' is almost meaningless. The impact on the life of the 'troll' is nil; there are plenty of other places to post.

The political scholar Sheldon Wolin points out that, for effective democracy to exist, a three-part underpinning needs to be in place, things that are not necessary conditions for participation in discussion on the Web (it is not, after all, an actual structured democracy of any sort):

While the principle of popular participation in decision making is fundamental to democracy… thoughtful participation is dependent upon certain commonplaces: first, the availability of knowledge in the form of reliable factual information and, second, a political culture that values and supports the honest effort to reach judgments aimed at promoting as far as possible the best interests of the whole society. There is a third principle, intellectual integrity. One aspect of it is the responsibility of those who, as teachers, publicists, researchers, and scientists, practice truth telling as their vocations. It is not a vocation to which many pundits, talk show hosts, for-sale journalists, and think tank residents are committed. (Democracy, Incorporated, 262)

Wolin's idea of public responsibility, in its absolutes, contrasts sharply with what Martineau presents, for Wolin leaves no room for the outsider exception and focuses on responsibility within the group. Martineau, in describing group dynamics, exposes the dirty little secret (not so secret, really) that groups exclude. The 'frontier justice' of the Wild West, while sometimes defended as necessary in perilous times, often takes advantage of the desire to exclude at the expense of justice and even of democracy. The Internet, unfortunately, has not (and probably cannot, given its universal nature) taken to heart Wolin's 'commonplaces.' Nor has it found ways of dealing with the deliberately disruptive.

To make matters worse, a different sort of view of the world that has also become quite influential in shaping how we view the Internet, an expemptionalist view of the relationship between human beings and the world. Edward Wilson, biologist and environmentalist, describes it:

In this conception, our species exists apart from the natural world and holds dominion over it. We are exempt from the iron laws of ecology that bind other species. Few limits on human expansion exist that our special status and ingenuity cannot overcome.(Consilience, 278)

Here again, we see something that extends to the Web as well, which we sometimes see as a playground we act upon but that doesn't, in return, act upon us, that removes us, also, from responsibility for our actions 'there.' We believe, somehow, that, if it has no impact on us, it has no impact on anyone. This makes the renegade more bold and more effective, for there is little on the Web to rein him or her in. There is little individual responsibility and little group action that has more than the smallest meaning.

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