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twitter-naziA short time ago, A friend sent a message to me asking for some assistance.  Her teenage daughter was spending more time online than was desirable, and my friend asked if I knew of an app or router setting that could limit her daughter’s usage.  I told my friend I assumed such things existed and that I would do a little research and get back to her.

Turns out I was lying.  I didn’t do any research at all.  Instead I just thought about it for a day, then got back to my friend and said “I think you’re looking for a technological solution to a behavioral problem.  This is a mistake.”

Luckily, my friend had already realized this and had taken appropriate steps.

I see a similar problem all over the Internet.  Specifically in social media.  In a nutshell, social media seems to be heavy on the ‘media’ and light on the ‘social’.

By nature, most humans are not inherently nice.  This is a by-product of being a species that clawed its way to the top of the food chain.  However, we are also very social creatures, so we have had to develop a toolkit we can use so that we can occupy the same spaces without resorting to violence.  And we have done so, in a variety of ways (which I will hereafter refer to collectively as ‘the social contract’).  Unfortunately, this has led the social web to the erroneous conclusion that the social contract springs into existence spontaneously and organically.  It doesn’t.  Rather, the social contract is painstakingly constructed and is constantly renegotiated.  What makes this process possible is the fact that all participants are effectively empowered to enforce the social contract.  The reason people don’t walk into bars and scream obscenities at strangers is that doing so results in paying a real, usually immediate social price.

It is this characteristic that social media glaringly lacks.  In many ways, it actually provides an opposite situation.  In the real world, if a person enters into an ongoing social situation and begins to act belligerently toward the participants, the social group itself will deal with the intruder.  This most often simply manifests itself in the removal of the newcomer.  Sometimes this is managed by someone in authority (the owner of an establishment, or some form of security personnel, for example).  Other times it is handled by the social group themselves (in my experience it almost never necessitates any kind of physical intervention).  Regardless of the particulars, though, it is not the social group that pays the price for the intrusion but rather the intruders themselves.

Not so in social media.  In this case, if an existing social group (say a Twitter discussion thread) is joined by someone inclined to act belligerently, the group has no power to address the situation.  The few tools they are given to use in these situations are woefully insufficient.  Usually they amount to nothing more than some kind of block/mute/ignore function.  Because of this, in social media it is the group that pays the price for an individual’s antisocial behavior, rather the individual causing the problem.

The real-world equivalent would be someone walking into a bar and shouting obscenities, in response to which everyone in the bar simply puts their fingers in their ears and chants “I’m not listening.  I’m not listening.”

Foolishness.  Utter foolishness.  Not least because it would never – ever – work.  There is nothing about this kind of group behavior that in any realistic way would discourage said antisocial behavior.  Quite the opposite, actually.

This is why social media is inherently broken.  And it appears that it’s going to stay broken, because the people who are in a position to fix it show little desire to do so (for various reasons, most of which are money).

Which is why, I’m sorry to say, I have decided to pretty much cease my personal participation in social media.  Not completely – just mostly.  I just don’t find much fun in playing with broken toys.  I’m not deleting any accounts just yet, though, mainly because I have hope that in the future at least some areas of social media will figure this crap out and give the people the tools necessary to enforce the social contract.

This hope is not completely unfounded.  There are some areas of the Internet that have large social components and still manage to have a functioning social contract.  Most notable among these are video games (not all of them, unfortunately).  This typically manifests in the form of some kind of guild/clan system, where the players themselves are given the ability to administer the social contract.  These kind of systems allow for like-minded people to form their own social groups that are subject to a group-determined code of conduct that is enforced by the group.  Just like in the real world.

I’m not suggesting that Facebook or Twitter start using a guild system.  What I’m saying is that those systems prove that social spaces on the Internet can function properly.  All it takes is an awareness of where the actual power in the social contract resides.

So I’ll keep checking in from time to time.

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I’ve been using Twitter since late 2008. At first I didn’t think much of it, viewing it (as many people do) as a vehicle through which people share the insipid minutiae of their lives.  But I had enough of a general interest in social media to check it out, so I took it for a spin to see if I liked it.  At first I had trouble “getting” it, and it was very difficult for me to get used to the character limit.  I decided to take this as a challenge and as an opportunity to develop some skills I obviously needed.  Once I got somewhat used to the platform and began to look around, I quickly became enamored.

This is because it wasn’t long before I discovered some of my fellow Map Dorks.  Having easy access to a group of people who shared my love of maps, software and data was a totally new experience for me.  And it was rather thrilling.  The number of Map Dorks I followed grew quickly, and it wasn’t long before I realized that the mapping community was using Twitter as a tool rather than a platform.  It seemed less like being hit by a firehose of the universe’s random verbiage and more like sitting around in a bar at a conference.

I was completely sold the night I tried to follow a tutorial to set up a personal GeoServer map server in my home office.  I couldn’t get it to work, and after trying for a while I got frustrated and gave up.  I tossed a mention of my frustration into the void of my Twitter stream, and before long a guy named Steve sent me a Tweet to see if he could help.  Turned out Steve was the guy who wrote the tutorial, and his initial Tweet turned into a lengthy real-time support session (I don’t think we ever got it running.  The problem was that I thought I was good enough to get it up and running on an early beta version of Windows 7.  I wasn’t).

It was like answering a knock at the door to find a Jedi Knight saying “I felt a disturbance in the Force”.

I was floored by the experience, for a couple of reasons.  First was the sheer power of leveraging Twitter in such a fashion.  I still don’t understand why businesses don’t use Twitter in this manner to provide needed but not necessarily asked for customer support.  Seems to me like it would be a gold mine.

Second was that Steve was a nice enough guy to spend a bunch of his time helping somebody on the Internet that he had never met.  And as I looked back in time (and as I paid attention going forward), I found that Steve wasn’t the only Map Dork out there who behaved this way.  In fact, being open, accessible, helpful and informative turns out to be the norm for Map Dorks.  The reason my experiences with Twitter turned out so differently than other people I knew – the reason my experiences were so overwhelmingly positive – was simply because I had fallen in with good companions.  Because through Twitter I had met a group of people who were using Twitter as a tool to communicate, support, help, share and learn from each other.  In short, we were leveraging Twitter as a vehicle through which we could build a community.

And this process has proven to be ongoing and shows no signs of slowing.  Emily noticed the nature of this community when she started GISTribe.  At least, I assume she did since she chose the word ‘tribe’ rather than ‘committee’ or ‘twitter group’ or some similar nonsense.  GISTribe has done a great deal toward maintaining and growing our online community, as have a slew of channels on Slack.  People too numerous to mention have dedicated and continue to dedicate enormous amounts of their time and energy to the community, and because of it the network keeps growing and the support structure keeps getting stronger.

Like every community, ours sometimes encounters problems.  An incident occurred last week, the details of which I know little about.  I do know there was some teasing (I even participated a bit) and there were some hurt feelings.  While I don’t know the details (as I said), it appears that the entire thing started as a misunderstanding about the nature of this community.  That it is a community of peers (but not the kind that sit in Parliament).

An important, fundamental part of our community is our lack of hierarchy.  As people we are individualists, as professionals we are dedicated to the discipline, and as a group we are egalitarian as fuck.

And we all contribute to the community, as far as we are willing and able.  There are some who contribute more to the community and/or profession than others (some significantly so), and for this the community happily responds with gratitude and respect.  But not by bestowing celebrity.  In an egalitarian community, distinction is applied with an even hand.

As a community, it falls to all of us to maintain the social contract.  To see to it that our discussions are exchanges of ideas rather than hyperbolic assaults.  That our disagreements (even arguments) are differences of opinion rather than contests of will.

Sometimes this isn’t so easy and we screw things up.  But we’re human and we make mistakes so that’s okay.  And sometimes we just can’t make things work.  You may find yourself unable to reconcile your differences with another community member.  This also is okay.  It can and does happen to anyone (it has happened to me more than once).  Sometimes it’s best for the community if some of its members simply avoid contact with one another.  Twitter provides a variety of tools for use in such situations.  Use them, if need be.  The community will benefit.

Lastly, as an egalitarian community the only assigned tasks any of us have are the ones we assign to ourselves.  All other tasks become the responsibility of the group as a whole, and it falls upon all of us to see that they get done.

So what do you say we all grab a broom and clean up this mess so we can move forward?

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