Constraints in on line interaction

November 12, 2012

I withdrew from my last remaining listserv this morning.  I used to be active in several but generally I found them problematic.  They varied between over-curation by their founders or unconstrained free for all.  In the former case the founders in effect had a view, or position to which dissent was discouraged to the point of posts being delayed or censored.  In the latter anyone could say anything without any constraint.  Also they all (or at least the ones I was involved in) tend to be small in groups where most of the disputes are rehearsals of past interactions.

In contrast I have found wikipedia far more rewarding.  For a start the work you do has lasting value as wikipedia is the first hit on google searches for most subjects.  Secondly there are behaviour constraints that take time to learn, but which enable people of radically different views to work together.  Evidence is important and I note that in one case where an anon IP attacked the Cynefin page the fact that their assertions were demonstrably false (by reference to reliable sources) forced them to withdraw, while on their blog (yes I know who it was, its easy to trace an IP) they can assert falsehoods without correction if they are happy to censor comments.  Withdrawing to a world in which your own truth is all that is permitted, and all that happens vindicates your self-view is what Lacan called “perversion“.

As we evolve into a social world, and its still early days in that evolution, I think wikipedia has stumbled on something that works.  Contribution is moderated not by adjudicating on content but by some simple rules governing standards and mainly behaviour.  You can revert if you want, but carry on and you will be blocked even if you have right on your side.  There are voluntary boards where sources can be checked and so on.  I think it makes a critical point that the real constraint in human discourse is behavioural.   That is not to say that wikipedia is a polite place.  If you want to contribute it can get rough, especially if you want to push a personal position.  Its a bit like debates in the House of Commons, there are conventions but within those conventions you have free reign. 

Its the key point on complexity, constraints are everything.  Too many you get ossification and sterility, too few and you get nonsense.  Debate, differences, contradictions are essential to the emergence of meaning.  But evidence and behaviour are necessary constraints on any such exchange.

The picture is of an oil painting “The House of Commons”, 1833 by Sir George Hayter.  The Victorian House is a fascinating study as it represents the early emergence of real democracy in the United Kingdom.  I've just finished re-reading Trollope's Palliser novels which reminded me of this.  

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