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Journal of somian (5953)

Tuesday March 27, 2007
10:45 PM

Dysfunctional communities and pretenses about them

[ #32813 ]

Things we tell ourselves aren't always true.

I fled towards the end of last year, as many others have before me, and found myself trying out IRC for a time, specifically the Freenode network and its #perl channel. What I like about having an online chat open during long periods while I hack at some project or other is the sense of life out there in the mental/spiritual sphere that I am occupying. The sense that other symbolic analysts "out there" are simultaneously engaged in similar pursuits, struggles and joys is an antidote for me to tedium or fatigue, one that I have come to feel is beneficial. But how far will one go to possess such a benefit? I recently had to ask myself that question when reality came up in my face with the alarming force and speed of a derailed train headed for a stone wall.

#perl on Freenode typically has at least 500 users listed as present in the channel. With that many users, there is bound to be a large variety of people with different opinions to express, or so you'd think. But the truth is that there are not so many different opinions being expressed, and I think I know why. I don't have all the answers, but I have some.

Of late, at any given time, maybe 6 or so people might be actually speaking. Most readers here will realize that having even 10% of 500 users - 50 people - all talking at once is totally unmanagable in any sense. No possible coherence can be made out of such a jumble of voices. So, it's a good thing that so few people generally speak at any given time. And since there are only so many slices of time - say 2 minute slices - in a 24 hour period, in reality in any given day or week, only a fraction of the 500 users are heard from. This poses a question I have never seen a (convincing) answer for: what exactly are the 450-odd people that I never see send anything to the channel, doing there? What are they getting out of it? Finally I can only guess that they are getting a benefit similar to what I described in my opening paragraph: briefly put, the chat keeps them company on some level. Perhaps for some more than others, loneliness or a sense of being disconnected from whatever people they have around them is a constant condition.

That's all been analyzed (probably to death) already in other places by writers with more skill and insight than I possess. What I was enjoying about #perl on Freenode was not merely the sensation of having a conversation going on nearby, however, but also I enjoy being active in the channel and discussing things with some of the participants. I don't represent myself as a helpful guy. In fact, I've been very vocal about not being there to help people with arbitrary requests for support of some sort (I word it this way because it is clear that some people are there with needs other than the supposed purpose of the channel - some want hand-holding; some want an argument to participate in; some want scripts written for them; etc) ... instead, I am vocally honest about the fact that I am there to discuss things that I am interested in (and fortunately for me that includes a lot of different areas); and if helping someone is a by-product or side effect of my conversing with others, I am extra happy.

People like us

People who are "like us" (hackers, programmers, technologists) who blog or do online journals have commented on a large number of occasions, that I have seen, about how IRC (and related forms of online realtime conferencing) can hurt their personal productivity, and how they had to make changes in their habits about it. Some have had to give it up entirely, others have made themselves allot only short spans in any given day to IRC. For myself, and I am a very addictive type of personality, I felt that I had finally reached a nice balance. I was doing IRC on Freenode's #perl with a continual sense of awareness of how many minutes were being given to any one conversation or topic or request for help from a user. That allowed me to feel that the long-term prospects of being a positively contributing participant on #perl were good. With that sense of balance, I offered to the channel owner, my services as an IRC chanop. So for the last 3 months I've been not only a regular participant but also someone charged with some responsibility to provide for maintaining order and a modicum of peaceful enjoyment for the users of the channel.

A lot of past experience had prepared me, I felt, for this role. I had been an active participant - sometimes a notoriously opinionated one - on Perlmonk's chatterbox since joining the site shortly after its beginning (since June 2000, to be precise). I'd spent plenty of time on IRC before and during that time. My time using realtime online conferencing media extends back to the days of CompuServe and its Forums.

I am finally coming to the realization, however, that the negative aspects of online chat "communities" extend beyond harm to personal productivity or even to one's physical health (lack of sleep, neglect of healthy lifestyle activities) or to one's family dynamics or social life. They seem to me to foster a number of different kinds of passivity combined with a willingness to submit to "groupthink" and a deadening of sensitivity to and even awareness of the wider realms of human existence outside of a small subset of humanity that programmer/computer geeks think of as "their type of people". And there is another kind of damage that is being done as well.

The #perl channel is perhaps one of the sicker communities I have ever come across, and if the reader's experience is not closely similar to mine, they may think I am either exaggerating or, conversely, unaware of how bizarre some channel on Network X that they have been in is. Rest assured that I am aware of Network X, and rest assured that I am on the other hand, not exaggerating.

Hypocrisy and self-delusion

A reader may well argue that online chat communities are simply a microcosm of what is prevalent in the post-industrial civilization which we are part of. And they would be right. What is strongly characteristic of #perl and channels similar to it is, however, that active participants rarely seem to achieve awareness of this. They clearly find it most congenial to speak in world-weary tones of how stupid the larger population is as a mass; of how idiotic the leaders of countries are, of what a shame it is that the world is such a mess. They thereby apply a sheen of superiority to themselves and each other as special ... a superior breed, perhaps forced unfairly to exist in this world of doltish ignorant cretins and liars with selfish motives. Trying to speak in positive, hopeful terms about the world at large and what its destiny might be, is a surefire way to make ones' self the immediate target of derision. That's pretty sick. But the negativity does not stop there.

I've written before in this Journal about groupthink and the fearsome phenomenon of mob behavior, the selection of those "different" as scapegoats, etc. The irony is that that people I meet online in such places as Perlmonks or #perl on Freenode do not understand to what degree they are part of a group and, over time, being influenced in their attitudes and shaped in their outlook by that group. The myth of staunch individualism and the sense that each is an entity unto itself, with only a loose affiliation to the others that they spend (in some cases) hours each day with, reigns over each participants' understanding of themselves. This sense of solitary independence of thought only disperses briefly when an external threat appears - typically either an Internet/IRC troll or a person egregiously breaking the rules of conduct of the channel in some unambiguous, unequivocal manner. At those times, the hidden, latent herd instinct or pack dynamic or multicellular organism reality becomes briefly revealed, and then goes back into hiding once the "threat" or disturbance is removed. It boggles the mind to realize that this collective delusion, this total disconnect between what people think their conciousness is up to, in contrast to what is really going on ... is repeated 10s of thousands of times over each and every day, to one degree or another, on IRC networks and in other chatrooms across the Internet. Day in, day out. 24/7/365, as we technogeeks like to say.

But rather than rehash that topic, as pertinent as it might be to #perl on Freenode, I am going to talk about how I think that such online chat locations actually damage the future of Free Software as a movement and an ideal, and how the hypocrisy of the typical chatroom/channel participant is coming to be reflected in the continuing narrow range of ethnicities and genders that comprise the "Open" Source world as seen both online and at conferences and conventions. Next time.