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In my time, I’ve seen my share of Zombie films. Some of them I’ve enjoyed (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland), some I’ve actively disliked (28 Days Later), and many others have fallen somewhere in between. Until recently, though, there was one aspect of zombie films that confused me greatly: I couldn’t figure out why zombies displayed a form of social cohesion.
I mean – we’re talking about mindless, shambling, ravenous, flesh-eating monsters here. Why do they run in packs? Why do they work together? Why, I wondered, do they cooperate?
It just seemed inexplicable that zombies would exhibit a tendency to strive toward a common goal. I expected more anarchy and less teamwork from the shambling masses. Just the other day, however, I began to understand the complexities of zombie social dynamics. Unsurprisingly, this onset of comprehension coincided with my latest foray into the seedy underside of the Social Web.
It occurred to me that zombies were not born zombies but were, in fact, once human. Therefore, their behavior patterns (both within the narrative and without) would logically fall into line with normal human behavior patterns. And most humans, I think, are less likely to form a community and more likely to form a mob. You know – a large group of mindless, shambling, ravenous monsters.
I take a great interest in the Social Web. On some level, I guess you could say I am a student of it. Because of this, I am quick to study any new movement/website/idea of the ilk that comes down the road. This often results in membership and a trial of the newest fad, but not always (see my posts on Facebook. Sometimes my research shows me that membership is a step I’m unwilling to take). The Social Web is not terribly different from many other aspects of life – sometimes the best way to get to know it is to just take a deep breath and dive in.
Which is what I did with the latest fad to appear on my radar: Quora. Quora bills itself as “a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it.” On the surface, this sounds like a good idea (unfortunately, the reality is nothing of the sort. The general consensus over at Quora seems to be that ideas need to be edited in order to have value. It’s more like the Ministry of Truth than the Social Web). So I joined, looked around a bit, then posted a question. I checked back now and again over a week or so, until I found that someone had edited my question. Curious as to what I had misspelled, I went to have a look, and discovered that an entire paragraph had been removed. This made me wonder about the person who had done the editing, so I clicked upon his name to check out his profile. What I saw disturbed me a bit. The profiles on Quora show users’ activities on the site. Specifically, the numbers of questions asked, answers given and edits provided by the user. This particular user had asked 6 questions, given 8 answers, and provided 1,122 edits (you read those numbers correctly).
Naturally, I assumed I was dealing with some sort of Quora troll. Being the fan of crowdsourcing that I am (see any of my posts discussing OpenStreetMap), I leapt to the erroneous conclusion that the community’s ability to edit each others’ questions was geared toward fixing errors (like spelling and/or grammar). It never occurred to me that other users would feel free to radically alter the content of a question. Such behavior would seem to negate the point of posting questions at all. How could you expect to get answers to a question if anyone could easily change its meaning?
So I posted a couple more questions to Quora. The first simply asked if the user base was aware of this sort of thing (it turns out that they were. Worse – they approve of it). The second (which, of the two, I thought was less likely to offend) asked whether Quora should have more robust filters in place. Since Quora provides space to further elaborate, I used it to describe the aforementioned troll and my desire to automatically block such users.
Enter the horde of mindless, shambling, ravenous monsters. I was stunned by the vitriolic response my second question inspired. While I am quite aware of the speed with which any group of humans will mutate into the Howling Mob (there’s a reason they make us read Lord of the Flies in school), I am often caught off guard by the seeming innocuous things that serve as catalyst. I forget that the average human is a quivering mass of insecurities, and that their desperate need to belong often causes them to lash out at any perceived threat against the pony to which they’ve hitched their wagon.
As you probably know, this is not the first time I have encountered the Howling Mob online. In fact, it seems to happen to me with alarming frequency. Considering my own personality type, this is hardly surprising and it doesn’t actually bother me.
It did get me to wondering, though. Since human nature is what it is, and since every aspect of the Social Web is necessarily teeming with humans, why is it that I’ve never been assaulted by the Howling Mob at my particular favorite corner of the Social Web: Twitter? What is it about Twitter that makes it so different from my other experiences with the Social Web?
Of course, this launched a discussion on Twitter. After much discussion and even more thought, I think I finally figured out what the difference is: it’s a question of exposure. See, Quora does new users the disservice of immediately throwing them into the middle of the mob, there to claw their way to whatever position they can attain (Quora is by no means alone in this behavior. In fact, most of the Social Web functions this way. Just look at the stats and/or titles attached to users in any forum/group/site on the internet). Just like in high school, newcomers are forced to find their way in an environment where all the social lines have been drawn and all the camps have been populated, their leadership positions filled. Sometimes online communities can be open and accepting of new members. Usually, though, the Lord of the Flies mentality prevails.
Twitter does it differently. When you first join Twitter, you enter into their universe all alone, and you remain alone until you do something about it. Until you start following other users, the mob doesn’t really know you exist. And because you choose who you do and do not interact with on Twitter, the mob only enters into your life if you invite it (I’m pretty sure Facebook works in a very similar fashion, but I‘m not positive. For obvious reasons).
Something else that sets Twitter apart is its general lack of score-keeping. As far as I know, Twitter tracks precisely three things: how many people you follow, how many people follow you, and how many times you have ‘Tweeted’ (posted a message). And that’s it (again, I think Facebook is similar in this). While this information is tracked and is accessible, it doesn’t appear as though Twitter actually does anything with it. There never comes a time when you are ‘Super-Followed’ or become a ‘Global Tweeter’.
Herein lie the important differences. The small area of the Social Web that works for me is the one where the group I spend time amongst is a group of my choosing. More importantly, it’s the area where people aren’t necessarily trying to prove anything. Where it’s more about connecting and communicating than about score-keeping and imagined popularity.
So thanks but no thanks, Quora. If it’s all the same to you, I’ll pass on your Howling Mob and just stick with my neighborhood pub.