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Semiformalishmaybe

Alternate Universes and Discussions

For those of us taking part in the move of their social networking stuff to Google Plus, there've been the normal issues new social networks have; poor performance, grumbles about markup, tagging, some groups unhappy about policy, etc. One of the highly unsurprising (but rarely-discussed) emergent factors is the hosting of discussions and the crowds they draw. This is less of a factor for social networks that have very weak discussion capabilities (Twitter), those with very highly concentrated generation of content for discussion (Youtube, in the sense that while we all *can* make videos, the majority of us don't), things that are centralised more strongly by a filter (Slashdot, where everyone *can* blog on their user page and get the full comment thing going there, but most people use the frontpage instead, as bluntly-tuned as it is), or that don't have much discussion at all and are more purely for social networking (Orkut). Friendship is not transitive, and neither is can-stand-you. There are plenty of times I've seen someone I've friended on one of these networks start a topic, and a decent discussion followed, where I've wondered how things might've gone differently had I started that discussion and it had gone out to my circles (or circle-equivalent; I like the google term here). Likewise, there have been times where I've been loathe to participate in a friend's discussion on a topic because there are some people I strongly dislike with whom I'll be talking if I hop in.

Some of this comes from having lived on the edge of all sorts of social networks over my life, all of them which have seen the world in fairly different ways, and many of which had some parts of worldview where if you disagreed with them, you were tolerated-at-best rather than liked. That's natural for a philosophically active social group. All these things taken together mean that I'm always on the fringe of these groups, always at least a little unwelcome or a little bit condemned (often but not always from diametrically opposite sides or taking stands that will always have people a little grumbly). So, like anyone else, I like conversations on my own turf, not because I want to censor (or am likely to, unless someone is being highly uncivil), but because I like having the smattering of random folk being the people talking, rather than any particular hegemon. I have strong notions of what CMUites in general are like, with diffs from that for individuals I've known to know. Same with SFFers, Brecksvillians, and other generalisations over the groups and people I've known. Where there is eclecticity, there is no orthodoxy.

Some of this is something I identify as a fault that exists in me (that I've worked to shrink over the years, but it's a general human fault and can't be completely solved and some people don't even try); that when someone roundly criticises my ideas, I get defensive and unhappy and would like support, and I wish someone who agreed with me would show up and say so. As a philosopher, this is not a great fault; we're supposed to be independent and not suceptible to peer pressure, so I generally don't express this, but it's there. When I think someone's behaving improperly in an argument and then someone comes along and says "I think they're completely in the right and Pat's entirely wrong", I remember it, and while philosophically I walk my grumbles back, emotionally I remember it and if it happens enough, I'm unlikely to be friendly with them. I do my best not to take these things personally, but eventually it does feel personally. Sometimes it's rational to take it personally; if someone really is just showing up to pat a friend on the back and spit at whomever they're arguing with, they're not taking part in the philosophical discourse that should be happening, not really.

For social networks then, I wonder if the re-tweet/re-post model is really what we want; should we have another option to inline an open discussion by having it directly appear in our stream, so people who read us might join in without further ado? Do we want both?

I suspect social networks really should not be simple. We can have multiple mechanisms for similar things (re-post-with-separate-comment-section versus inline, the first so we might take a topic back to a separate group). If we're trying to model human communication, simplification is the enemy.


If I were to model how good someone is in philosophical discussion, I'd pin it down to four main factors:
*Having good intentions - This comes down to values, of course
*Having decent arguments - Does the line of thought leading to conclusions seem reasonably structured, see the big picture and fit into it, not imply other bad things, etc
*Having reasonable conclusions - Conclusions sometimes offend. This is usually either because the listener is excessively naïve/soft and their ideas could not work in the real world or because the ideas themselves are harsh even given an appropriately worldly perspective. This is directly a problem if we consider the process of reaching reflective equilibrium; harsh conclusions are sometimes accepted when the argument is tight enough and its foundations are other things we really strongly accept
*Being civil - I really believe in civility. Incivility is pragmatically bad because it closes ears and wastes time, and it's usually a sign of an unhinged attitude that suggests conclusions for catharsis rather than because they're good conclusions. People who can't control themselves should be booted from arguments (with no prejudice to their conclusions, just as we handle Godwin's law)

Finally (at least for this post; I have a longish queue of things I want to write about, but I want to sketch), my favourite science-fiction writer, Ken MacLeod, has framed human intelligence interestingly in his most recent blog entry. I'm still chewing on this; I probably won't blog on it further though.

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