Differences & similarities: the virtual & the real

December 20, 2006

Just over a week ago I summarised my understanding of three natural numbers: 5 as the effect limit of the short term memory, 15 as a natural limit on deep trust and 150 (the Dunbar number) as a natural limit on acquaintances, normally interpreted as a limited number of individuals in respect of whom one can maintain some degree of knowledge. The Dunbar number was originally raised on the Value Networks list serve (VNL) in the context of a possible limit on the viable membership of a network or virtual community. I promised at the time to look at the implications of social atomism for using these numbers. I will do that, but in a separate blog later this week. I found that reflecting on the VNL discussion raised more than enough issues for one blog. This was especially true as the postings by Scott Allen, and his supporting references, have made me rethink some long established positions. A change which has also been influenced by my own experience of the blogosphere. This is, to warn you, a mini-essay over 3000 words in length; it is fragmented in nature and its composition has taken some days and as a result I have failed to post for some days. It is in effect a series of thoughts which will end up as a chapter of the book or possibly an article so comments however harsh would be appreciated. The one thing I had not addressed, but have left for a Christmas holiday blog is the question of trust in a virtual community.

One aspect of the natural numbers manifested itself in the VNL conversations. I picked up all the postings in a smart mail box and the number of participants is less than 15, although there will be many lurkers, and the active disputants are 5 in number. I have seen a similar pattern in ActKM and elsewhere.
To make this easier (and allow for navigation) the fragments are organised under headings as follows:

  1. Context & Participants
  2. Signals and validation
  3. Stereotyping
  4. Deception
  5. Story telling in virtual spaces
  6. The nature of virtual interaction
  7. Tools

There is no particular order to this by the way.

Context & Participants

The main players in the VNL conversation have been Scott Allen as protagonist of the virtual, supported by some impressive academic research, opposed by Matt Moore and Charles Ehin as supporters of f2f. Rosanna Tarsiero has veered between lecturing, the dispensation of wise sayings and the odd attempt to reconcile conflicting parties. She told me off at one point but then refused to answer the counter. Eileen Clegg explored the issue of stereotyping in some depth with some fascinating personal stories. David Hawthorn, Valdis Krebs, Graham Douglas, Verna Alee, Randall Moss, Martyn Cleaver, Lilly Evans and myself made the odd intervention. David Coleman raised the question of story and asked me a specific question in respect of stories which I attempt to answer below. In addition to this Andy Roberts upset a few people by expressing amazement at an American attempting to use irony. Han, the ever reliable Han, intervened as to bring our attention to his STARS method. John Maloney interjected the odd fulmination in the style of Welsh Baptist preachers of my youth: attempting to ensure that we kept to the faith; that was affectionate humour John before you overreact. The use of the delightful word fulmination is stolen from Matt Moore who used it for the first time in response to one of John’s posting.

Now its interesting to note that many of those players are active on other list serves and many of the rules of interaction (and expectations) between the parties are established. I have met a few, others I have only come to know thought on line interactions over time. I have criticised and supported most of the players over time and have been criticised and supported in my turn. Mostly good humored, although on one occasion I was flamed as a troll for what I considered legitimate criticism. Matt by the way is starting to take over my general role of curmudgeon and teller of the emperor that he has no clothes in these list serves which is giving me more space to, on occasion but I promise, not to excess, act in a reasonable, moderate and temperate manner.

Signals and validation

Are there more or less signals available to us in a virtual community than when we meet face to face (f2f)? How do the different signals allow us to build trust? I suggested in one response that there were more clues face-to-face (f2f) and Charles cited scientific evidence along the same lines. Human communication is after all more than just listening to words, its also about observation of physical, chemical and other signals and I thought taking that position would not be controversial. Scott Allen in an insightful response challenged me, arguing that on line your entire history can be traced as you chat. He expressed this as follows:

Online, your entire history – all of our past CMC conversations, all of your writings on a particular topic, references to you by other sources, the deep reflective thinking of a blog, etc., are all available to me with a couple of mouse clicks. And not only can I see what you have said about yourself, but I can see what others have said about you. Those clues / context aren’t available in f2f.

Now I think this is a fair point. I have found, and previously confessed, that disclosure on a blog can be deeper than f2f,in terms of conversations with strangers. When you blog you start to be more confessional in revealing what you think, and the origins of those thoughts, than you would be in a casual conversation with a stranger. Less so I think for really deep disclosure, but then that takes more than one meeting to achieve. So I think the case is proven that blogs have allowed people to know other bloggers better than in most f2f exchanges in other than conditions of deep trust. Matt made the legitimate point that not everyone blogs, so this mechanism is not always available. I think he should blog by the way but that is the evangelism of a recent convert speaking.

It is also true that the speed with which I can check up on someone is far greater in a virtual environment, and I have more resources available to me. If they blog then a skim of their postings gives me a understanding of where they are coming from, and what sort of things concern them. So overall I agree with Scott to a large degree but with some qualifications.. The virtual has capabilities that are not present in the physical, but the reverse is also true. However there is a clear danger of confusing the process of validation of information sources with the stimulation and interpretation of biological signals; both are useful but our brains have had more co-evolutionary development time with the latter than the former. In a f2f environment I may have fewer information resources available, but I can “look them in the eyes”, unlike the virtual. In a social setting I can observe and learn from the dynamics of their interaction with other participants. This includes testing their ability to respond quickly to a challenge or question. In certain contexts that can be important. If some one can only contribute asynchronously, after reflection then the nature of possible interactions is different from someone who has the ability to think on their feet. I have also found that people who really know their subject are usually confident in direct discussion and less inclined to take offense if they are challenged. This is not always for the best, and reflection and response is also valuable, but it is not necessarily privileged over debate. Mind you that applies to both the virtual and to the real. There is an old question-answer saying: Why is it that catholics and jews are the only ones to make jokes about their religion? Don’t they take it seriously? to which the answer is; Well they know they are right, so they can afford to joke.


The argument was made that in a virtual environment you are less likely to stereotype people. Examples were given of making assumptions about sex and race during virtual transactions which proved false when a physical meeting took place. In effect the web creates a virtual world in which our physical appearance and mannerisms do not pre-determine a response. Anonymity in virtual communities has long provided this sort of advantage, but it also has its dark side. One of the most profound but deeply depressing books I had read on this is Rosanne Allucquére Stone’s The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age which documents some fascinating, and in some cases revolting stories of the negative impact of not having f2f type validation. It also documents some of its many new possibilities. Now there is an interesting angle here. Look at the ease with which pederasts groom young people in virtual communities. The social contact and f2f clues and setting that would at least limit such activity is less present. Stereotypes seem to have evolved in human systems to allow some automated response – both positive and negative in practice. They are triggered by a mixture of clues. In a virtual environment we have more limited stimuli (although we can access more information). It follows that the way in which stereotypes form, and the nature of their challenge will be different. I am not sure what those differences are, or if the difference is good or bad, but it will change the nature of interaction and social validation in radical ways.

There is an interesting question of cognitive efficiency here which may explain why we stereotype and it takes us back to the Dunbar number with its implied limitation on acquaintances. In effect we know around 50 people, have some knowledge of another other fifty and lump the rest into types based on minimal clues. Stereotyping is one of the ways we have evolved to handle large volumes of stimuli. The sort of clues we pick up early on create those stereotypes. Now this can happen virtually and physically, its just that the clues are different. People also indulge in name calling and stereotyping in virtual communities, with the danger of more rapid propagation than in a physical one. Again the point is that the environments are similar but different. Stereotyping in general is a process of cognitive efficiency in humans, a way of creating a response given a restricted number of maintainable acquaintances. As such it is bound to appear in large virtual communities as it does in real life. In real life context can challenge those stereotypes and some CE methods, for example archetype extraction, are designed to challenge negative stereotyping such as racism. Challenge, friction with reality is necessary if stereotyping is not to be taken to excess and in a virtual network there is a continuing danger of what I call ideological clumping; like calls to like in a virtual environment and dissent is reduced.


Humans are adept at, and to a degree accept deception. Think of a white lie to take the most obvious example. David Hawthorn rightly corrected Rosanna Tarsiero to point out that while deception is innate it is not necessarily evil. Some forms of deception are part of social convention. Virtual communities however are creating whole new spaces in which deception, the ability to have a second life is the name of the game. Deception here allows new identity and ways of working to be explored. However it can also be evil. Gaming of scores in eBay has reached the point where new uses of network analysis are emerging to help understand the way in which people reference other people to allow scams to be run. We have questions being asked about the consequences for social development as a result of many citizens spending time in a game-simulation world of rule based behaviour and response and permitted deception.

This last weekend I realised that I was sat running through my bloglines and technorati lists, drinking coffee and chatting with my children on MSN while outside there was a bright blue sky and a crisp winter day in Wiltshire. Fortunately sanity prevailed and a walk on the Pewsey Downs took precedence over the virtual. I used to take out the bike most Sunday mornings for a 50km ride, with the odd 100km and 200km thrown in if was a good day. Now I get up early and go on line. In a sense this is a form of self-deception, or displacement activity. Reduced social and environmental interaction may also result in an increasing tendency to deceive and a vulnerability to being deceived. It may allow be to avoid or rather evade the responsibilities of the all to physical present.

Now the issue of assumption of alternative persona, an easy thing in a virtual community, is not unknown in the physical world. The tradition of masks which pervades societies world wide is a ritualised form of deception. Virtual communities allow us to create sophisticated masks very easily and to change them and enable the consequent identities to persist. Here I do think that f2f has advantages, yes there are still con artists out there and anyone over 40 will remember Robert Redford in The Sting. You can be taken for a ride in a physical as well as a virtual world. However the presence of more signals, the ability to look someone in the eye to use the old cliche, the slower propogation time of errors; these all give us opportunities, but not immunity, which are not present to the same degree in the virtual.

However I accept that this is “not proven” with one study purporting to show that the single signal of a telephone conversation makes it more difficult to deceive than the multiple conversations of f2f. Early days and some contradictory evidence, but deception, its nature and to a degree its necessity in human systems is an interesting area for research.

Story telling in virtual spaces

In VNL David Coleman said:

skySpace empowers Skype users to tell stories by sharing their photos, video, audio, and documents via their skySpace homepage-either privately or to the community at large. Users personalize their skySpace homepage with backgrounds, images, layouts, borders, and fonts-eliciting a torrent of conversations from anyone who visits their home. skySpace users are rewarded with feedback on the number of visitors and their identities.

He then goes on to ask:

My question to the list and especially Dave Snowden is: I have heard you say “that stories are a great way to package up information in an understandable context (I am paraphrasing here).” Do you think a social network would be enhanced by people being able to swap stories like on skySpace? Would this kind of exchange engender trust (yes I saw the thread on trust)?

There are several questions raised here. The first relates to the degree in which tagging material in a public space constitutes creating a story. Now placing photographs, text and other material in some sort of sequence (the most obvious is time) creates a story. In effect there is a thread I can follow which has coherence and some form of intent. On the other hand simply creating a public database with tags that people can search on seems to me to be stretching the definition of a story. skySpace is interesting as it reverses the strucutre of alternatives such as U-Tube. The norm is to have a repository of material which is tagged on key words and author but has little other structure. In skySpace the strucuture comes at the start – it is my space. tags then create a structure within that space. Now a lot of the material in the space is anecdotal in nature. So I can find stories that add meaning to my interactions with their originator in a virtual space. The fact that the story teller is not present allows me to reflect on the content without the requirement to interact. This is both good and bad, but overall I think bad as one of the main values of story telling is the interaction between people. If you observe an anecdote circle then the energy levels are high, you hear laughter as well as serious, concentrating faces. That level of interaction is less likely in a virtual space.

However virtual exchange will be enriched by exchanging stories which is something I can do via a blog. Cisco the human network (thanks to John M for the reference) which allows people to share stories, although they in effect support the Cisco marketing machine in doing so. I have previously referenced the digital story telling project of the BBC in Wales which allows people to create stories and then makes them available on line. But we don’t need anything special. List serves and blogs already allow people to engage in narrative interchange (anything to avoid the story telling word, even jargon). As far as I can see the vast bulk of material in these environments is narrative at least in part.

The nature of interaction

Scott Allen referenced a NYU study (J. A. Bargh, K. Y. A. McKenna, and G. M. Fitzsimons, “Can you see the real me? Activation and expression of the “true self” on the Internet,” Journal of Social Issues 58 (2002)) which describes four key differentiations

  1. You have greater anonymity, and are therefore free of your peer group, in effect you can adopt a different persona
  2. Outside of your usual social group, you have much more freedom to discuss your taboo or negative aspects (or those that may be perceived as negative
  3. The aspects of traditional face-to-face interactions that may make you anxious are absent
  4. You have more control over the conversational pace virtually

Now all those are true and worth amplification. I think there is also evidence that people feel freer to be aggressive over the telephone than they do f2f and even more so in writing. Some of the natural inhibitors of f2f are lost. Interestingly I don’t think this is as true for blogs, but that is a broadcast rather than a conversational-response mode which might explain it.

The other interesting phenomena is that it can be easier to get away with platitudes and avoid facing up to criticism in a virtual world. One of the behaviours I have observed is that some people in list serves seem to specialize in throwing in a quote or pious statement which all right people should agree with. A banal consensus is often sought and privileged over dissent or discussion. Challenged you often see offense, but also a withdrawal or refusal to engage. Now everyone is free to do this, however in a physical world it is more difficult. Group pressure tends to denigrate leaving the room and slamming the door, but such behaviour is a lot easier in a virtual community.


Now this is interesting – tools are a part of human evolution and along with stories one of two ways in which we externalize knowledge to transfer it to others with the need for genetic evolution or imitation of parents. The question arises as to whether tools should be made for humans or vice versa. Matt Moore argued humans should not have to conform with tools and also challenged Scott Allen as how welded he was to his computer. Scott took this question head on, admitting that his step son takes his laptop to the bathroom and sites there for an hour. I thought my habit of reading the New Statesman in the same position was bad enough but I am very impressed that Scott was prepared to own up to such an association. Moving to a serious response Scott said:

I’ve heard the mantra a thousand times that tools should be made for humans, rather than humans having to adapt to the tools, and while I agree in principle, there’s more to it than that. In fact, the use of tools, often in ways that weren’t intended in their design, fosters innovation, and we find new and sometimes better ways of doing things as a result of our adaptation to the tools. If we want to develop the best CMC skills we can, doesn’t it behoove us to step outside the box of imitating face-to-face behavior and instead explore ways in which CMC might actually even be an improvement over face-to-face interaction, if we take advantage of the nature of the medium?
The only compelling reason we should make tools to fit humans rather than train humans to fit tools is because it increases the speed and likelihood of adoption. That’s why it’s so important in an organization – because the likelihood of rejection increases the more training and adaptation is required.
But those who choose to adapt will excel because they have new tools and capabilities at their disposal and those who don’t may be left behind. The view that tools should completely fit our current paradigms of behavior fosters perpetuation of the status quo. The view that tools offer potentially new and better ways of doing things fosters innovation.

Again I think this is fair enough. However tools and human behavior co-evolve. They interact and both adapt accordingly. This is goodness. however when the tool becomes a fetishistic device and we use the tool regardless of its utility then things have gone too far. At the moment the amount of new tools available in the virtual world is increasingly daily. Some of these will adapt and in doing so will be adopted by humans. Others will attempt to force humans into unnatural behaviors and will be rejected. Others will be enforced by management or by social pressure. Another group of tools will (or already have) function like drugs or gambling and create pervert structures and addiction in which the tool becomes a fetishistic device rather than a tool. My view is that what matters is that tools are designed to stimulate, not restrict human interaction and social understanding. Games do not do this, and an excessive period of time in a virtual environment reduces interaction to the point where the myth outweighs reality.

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