Limiting the damage from cultures in collision
A Man in Black has a readable twitter essay about the role of chan culture in gamergate, and how the concepts of identity and debate inside a largish subculture can lead to an amazing uproar when they clash with outside cultures.
A brief recap: the Gamergate Controversy was/is a fierce culture war originating in the video gaming community in August 2014 but soon ensnaring feminists, journalists, webcomics, discussion sites, political pundits, Intel… – essentially anybody touching this tar-baby of controversy, regardless of whether they understood it or not. It has everything: media critique, feminism, sexism, racism, sealioning, cyberbullying, doxing, death threats, wrecked careers: you name it. From an outside perspective it has been a train wreck hard to look away from. Rarely have a debate flared up so quickly, involved so many, and generated so much vituperation. If this is the future of broad debates our civilization is doomed.
This post is not so much about the actual content of the controversy but the point made by A Man in Black: one contributing factor to the disaster has been that a fairly large online subculture has radically divergent standards of debate and identity, and when it got into contact with the larger world chaos erupted. How should we handle this?
There is no such thing as “Internet culture”, but the Internet is a breeding ground for subcultures. Many centre on a shared interest, but others emerge due to shared discussion fora. One such forum type is the imageboard, where participants post images and short messages. The nature of imageboards lend themselves to short, snappy spur-of-the moment anonymous comments. The tone is often very rude in a juvenile way. Imageboards such as 4chan have been extremely fertile sources of Internet memes and movements (indeed, 4chan was the origin of Anonymous).
The Man In Black points out that there is a certain sociology going on here. Anonymity leads to rude, mob behaviour. But much of this is good-natured ribbing: since participants do not have stable personas nobody ever loses (unlike in fora where you have at least a pseudonymous identity whose reputation you might wish to protect). That is not to say there is no real sexism or malice there, just that it is mixed up with far more uses of its terminology where the actual meaning is different.
There is also an identification with the mob and its chaotic, dynamic nature – consider the delight Anonymous took in being an inchoate, implacable enemy of whoever aroused its ire (“Because none of us are as cruel as all of us”). As the MIB says, “Chan culture considers personal reputation meaningless but collective identity sacrosanct”. Deliberately trying to stand out is in the eyes of this subculture and in the rules of its discourse uncouth. To claim that the consensus is wrong and that one’s personal experiences can refute a point breaks the rules of discourse. To have a mass of people respond with rude invective to any statement (including statements they actually agree with) is how you have an argument: if you do not want a wave of hostility, why did you invite it by making a claim?
These rules of discourse are of course radically different from in other subcultures. And this nicely explains part of the gamergate explosion: when the Chan culture touches other cultures of discourse there will be fundamental misunderstandings about the very nature of what a discourse is supposed to be.
Cultures in collision
Colliding cultures of discourse is nothing new. Most intellectuals with broader interests will have seen or been in clashes where two groups simply cannot figure out what the other group is doing or trying to achieve: continentals and analytic philosophers (Noam Chomsky debating Michel Foucault comes to mind), economists and ecologists, postmodernists and scientists, punk rockers and music critics, religious fundamentalists and western politicians… maybe they are interested in the same question, but they differ in the way to approach it, what kind of result is valuable, and the proper way of interacting in the discourse. Usually the end result is the conclusion that the other side is misguided or evil.
For communication to actually be possible there has to be enough agreement on not just syntax and semantics (tricky enough) but also the pragmatics of how it is supposed to happen. Normally we learn this by observation. I see academic debate and explanation, and I learn how that kind of academic discourse is supposed to work. I hang out in an online forum, and I will learn the style of it (or leave/get thrown out – not everybody can learn every kind of discourse).
But the Internet means that every culture of discourse can potentially encounter every other. Normally this does not happen since people network with people like themselves, and instead the properties of Internet communities lead to rapid evolution of local cultures of discourse. Sometimes they are borrowed: this blog, for example, tends to stick close to academic philosophical discourse styles much of the time (for example, people often responding with objections even though they are meant in a friendly way – the ideal is honest truth-seeking rather than status gams). However, occasionally a post here touches on a topic of interest to other communities and we get an infusion of commenters from elsewhere. Often this leads to a bit of friction since people don’t follow the assumed and unspoken rules. How can they know that when a philosopher suggests that mulching children could be good he does not actually promote baby-mulching, but trying to make a fine point about some metaethical issue? Normally when somebody says somethingb they mean it.
Blowups seem to happen more and more often thanks to the nonlocal nature of the Internet. I write something that makes sense as bioethics, and find myself vilified (and subject to satirical poetry) by people who didn’t get the context. Somebody makes a joke that is innocuous in their home culture but vile blasphemy elsewhere. There is also a network effect: since messages are transmitted not from central hubs but as branching trees between participants, there is both potential for accumulating bias and misunderstanding, but also that comments on comments become relevant – and they also have blowup potential. As a blowup gets larger more people become involved, each with a certain probability of adding a secondary detonation through some comment or action (I bet that the eventual size distribution of such reactions has a power-law probability distribution). Conversely, when something causes interest thousands or million eyes can focus on a single individual, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
The multisubcultural Internet
In the best of all possible worlds we grow up as an internet-using civilization, learn to recognize that there are fundamentally alien cultures of discourse, and when encountering something weird/vile from out there treat it with tolerance and an honest attempt at bridging the cultural gulf…
…except that the cost of trying to understand foreign cultures of discourse is nontrivial. The above interculturalist utopia is in trouble because new cultures of discourse are emerging daily thanks to rapid technological change and the multifaceted human desire for interaction. I have no doubt many of the regular readers on this blog had never heard of imageboards or gamergate before this post. How much effort should I spend on reading poststructuralism to figure out whether it has a relevant critique of a paper I wrote? Should we expect Chan culture to try to understand the perspective of some of the more sensitive American liberal cultures of discourse (the ones that want trigger warnings on any discussion on anything that could cause offence)? Should we even expect Chan culture to even care? Causing offense is, from its inside perspective, nothing bad.
The problem is that learning cultures of discourse requires interacting or at least observing them, and this costs time and effort. Sometimes observers like MIB makes trenchant observations that can be understood by others, but even knowing that it might be worth hearing about a culture is problematic (will you ever encounter Chans in the future?). We should hence expect to encounter many more utterly bizarre cultures of discourse in the future that we will not have the tools to deal with.
One solution is to make one’s own culture of discourse explicit and clear: anybody posting on this blog has to agree on some set of rules of conduct, and when writing in the media I should state if I am saying something as a scientist or philosopher. Except that this rarely works since even understanding how a rule of conduct is to be interpreted is to some extent a discourse rule, and there are many assumed rules we are not ourselves aware of.
Another solution is to make each forum clearly separate, maintaining a threshold of entry and social behaviours that enforce the culture of discourse (ban rude people, require a PhD in ethics before allowing the word “should” in a post). But this only protects by preventing outsiders from entering the discussion.
Some will no doubt argue that the culture of discourse of Chan culture is pathological and whatever they have to say cannot be as important as keeping the better forms of discourse intact, so the Chan people should just be filtered out. Leaving the practical impossibility aside, it sets a dangerous precedent: just because a group isn’t very articulate in the sense of dominant discourses doesn’t mean it has nothing valuable to say. Suffragettes may have been disruptive, but they had a point.
(In principle it might turn out that there is nothing but vileness in a subculture, but that requires somebody diving in, learning it, and making an objective report. That is hardly feasible for the churning myriad of groups online.)
The most important discussions are the one that happen in the open, the ones that can spread ideas from and into separate subcultures. They are the ones that actually hold societies together. They are clearly not helped by isolation, nor by requiring cumbersome shibboleths of stating assumptions, privileges or tolerance. Some important things might not even be expressible in standard polite discourse as it is currently recognized but will expand it once the initial uproar has died away. Maybe the best approach is to recognize that we cannot avoid blow-ups when incompatible groups interact, but we can aim at damage limitation.
We might for example start examining how to prevent large-scale cyberbullying: while individuals targetting others can be very nasty, the truly horrific effects of thousands piling on pressure on an individual through all available channels should be avoided.
The most egregious aspects of gamergate have been the doxing attacks against some notable critics: here the linking of an online identity to an offline identity is used as a technique of silencing. The fact that it is so powerful should be a cause of concern to those who think a real names policy is the best approach to cleaning up internet discussions. But as MIB has argued, truly anonymous activity may breed extremely problematic modes of discourse too.
In the Chan case anonymity leads to a particular sociology; in other online foras it can contribute both destructive trolling or, through pseudonymity, necessary separation of a person’s public persona from the persona presenting its vulnerabilities. Requiring a unified identity limits discourse in a variety of ways. A better understanding of how to construct identity management systems that both fit the complex demands of human identity and the different demands of societal and epistemic communities would be helpful.
It might also behoove us to find ways of compensating the victims of having an open, rambunctious and sometimes dangerous public debate. If free speech can ruin reputations, we who think free speech is extremely valuable should still consider whether we can compensate for its bad sides.