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(Vanity) Internet Forums and Social Dynamics, Part V: Like Sand Through the Hourglass
grey_whiskers ^ | 07-29-2012 | grey_whiskers

Posted on 07/29/2012 9:52:57 PM PDT by grey_whiskers

This is a belated fifth post in a series on Internet Forums and Social Dynamics. In Part I, I pointed out how the internet self-selects into mutually exclusive groups according to common interests or beliefs. Part II provided an amusing look at the reactions within a group when posters to a forum go against the prevailing groupthink. Then Part III showed how segregation of internet groups occurs not only by interests but by common levels of intellect, sophistication, or expertise in a subject. And most recently, Part IV showed how the sheer size and untamed nature of the Internet, and the presence of different groups with different levels of expertise, and no natural overarching recognized authority (it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Honest!) meant that people even with the best of intentions could end up seriously misleading other people even when they meant to do the opposite. The current post takes up several of these threads and attempts to unravel them slightly, in order to re-weave the strands into a new picture; this time, not looking at the Internet in isolation, but in the context of larger society, for good or for ill.

Let us begin by pointing out that even though the internet (and its children, social networking and instant communication) seem to natural and inevitable, that they are in fact a wondrous anomaly: for most of human history, news traveled slowly. Quickly and more-or-less completely within a town, more slowly and in a more general way to neighboring towns, in a leisurely and half-hearted way to neighboring states and provinces, and quite slowly and incompletely on a continental or intercontinental scale. This was due to two features: limitations on transmission speed, and limitations on bandwidth. The town gossip only has to keep track of the naughty bits about the neighboring farmer’s daughter, and not much background is needed: everyone knows her already, so the crux of the message (I saw her sneaking off to the barn in the middle of the night last night) is all that needs to be told, and this can be done easily over the back picket fence or at market day. Going between towns (there was a flood the next town over, or the church burned down) meant that some details had to be sacrificed for brevity, as well as filtering of news so only the most important items (of general interest) were passed on: travelers between towns simply did not have time or energy to remember -- and to update in real time -- all the myriad social details to exchange between towns. And besides, nobody in the next town cared that much about the gossip, as there were likely doings enough in one’s own town. And similarly, as the distances got further and further, the news spread would become more infrequent and about larger and larger issues; aside from the logistical difficulties of a central authority trying to keep up with all of the gossip throughout all the towns, retaining and sorting the information “in real time” would be an impossible task. On the other hand, news being disseminated from on high (e.g. a royal proclamation) could be broadcast relatively quickly and easily -- if laws were passed to hold sway over an entire kingdom, not much customization was necessary, reducing the bandwidth requirements; and if there were more local implementations, these could be originated and disseminated by the various governors, satraps, and administrators and broadcast only as necessary within their own spheres of influence.

One can make a fair approximation to the situation by borrowing from the Dilbert comic strip:

 As technology improved (first roads and horses; then ships; then the telegraph and the railroads), it became possible to increase both the frequency and the bandwidth of news in both directions; to the point that great reliance is placed upon “official” dispatches not just for receiving civil commands and orders, but travel for people is becoming more commonplace, and news itself is regularly sent, to the point that people rely on it -- for example, consider the novel The Count of Monte Cristo: the Count brags of having traveled across Europe to keep an appointment and arriving while the clock is still chiming the top of the hour for his scheduled arrival; and if this is not enough, there is a later episode where a banker loses a half-million francs speculating on stocks due to a (false) telegraphic dispatch involving the movements of a foreign king. As a result of the possibility of gaining information in near-real-time, those who concatenated and distributed the news gained power over public impressions -- by the timing, tone, and prevalence given to the stories, as well as those stories suppressed or left to wither on the vine, or to die an untimely death without being told. And all at the whim of those who held the power over the dissemination of knowledge.

Now, it is a commonplace that the great superiority of the internet is that it has restored democracy to the flow of information; and that, as a result, it is harder for the powers that be to control opinions as easily as done of old (think back, for those old enough to remember it, to Walter Cronkite solemnly intoning “And that’s the way it is...” at the end of each broadcast. The lying bastard.) But, as it turns out, this statement may not be as true as it seems at first glance.

Let us turn to a well-recognized sociological phenomenon: the opinion cascade. It has been observed that when a certain critical mass of people within a population holds an idea in common, or failing that, when a critical mass of “movers and shakers” and/or “thought leaders” express that idea, then the idea *rapidly* propagates throughout the population and becomes part of the common knowledge. There is a physical analogy to this which may make the idea clearer. Consider either pouring a bag of sugar into a bowl, or watching the sand pile up in the lower half of an hourglass. The grains tend to pile up into a cone in the center of the container; as more and more grains pile up, the force of gravity exerts pressure upon grains lower down. If enough grains (and weight) push down too hard on a lower portion of the pile, and avalanche will occur, allowing the pile to re-shape itself and the grains to rush downhill in obedience to gravity’s call. The analogy to opinion cascades is obvious; the analogy to individual people, less so. Sure, each grain of sugar, or of sand, is under the force of gravity But what keeps an individual grain from succumbing to the force of gravity? Two things, in fact. One is the shape of the pile around the grain (a grain in the center with a lot of support under it will not cascade as easily as a grain with not much under it); and the other is the details of the shape of that individual grain and those around it; the rougher the grains are (and therefore, the higher the friction), the more weight has to be piled upon it before it will slip. Think of it this way: one can easily make a pile of sugar, or sand, or charcoal briquets -- they all have rough edges and have resistance to sliding. But just try to pour out a pyramid of marbles (all smooth and polished) and see how well that goes!

So what does this have to do with the internet? Well, two things. The blessed “Wild West” feel of the internet allows a LOT of people to hang out in their own corner: feminists over here, atheists over there, Freepers yet another place, Catholics still another. And, as people hang out in their own corner, they can become (somewhat) insulated from the mass culture (gravity, as it were) being impressed upon them from outside (the press fawning over the President, Bill Maher’s latest adventure in autofellation, the degradations of Hollywood). This might correspond to the shape of the pile of sand in one’s immediate vicinity -- if you hear a lot from people which contradicts the mass message, you are more resistant to it. But that is not the entire story. As it turns out, just as politics makes for strange bedfellows, so too does the internet. One can find alliances of groups with certain interests or values in common -- for example, the social conservatives may make an uneasy alliance with the men’s rights advocates in order to forestall abortion and divorce, and yet have nothing in common with the pickup artist community who also has an interest in men’s issues. Or the gender feminists might form a limited alliance with the homosexuals as concerns the patriarchy, but become divided over the issue of funding for breast cancer vs. AIDS research. And these type of divisions would correspond to how much friction an individual feels according to the subgroups he identifies with; that is, with how much he identifies with that group and consciously chooses their opinions over the mass culture or mass programming.

So far, so good. But why is this so important to point out? After all, if the Internet is split, surely it is too hard to control everything, so why bother? The answer is this. Think back to the hourglass simile. The force of gravity, like the cultural impressions from the centers of power, are continuous: gravity does not get tired and go away. So that any change, any slippage, is (outside external effort, that is), both irrevocable and cumulative. Piles of sand do not suddenly flow uphill and become *more* compact: any resistance by the pile to gravity, is a holding action, a rearguard maneuver. And secondly, the very strength of the pile, that which gives it its resistance to change, can act as a disadvantage. This is for three reasons. The first is that any opinions shared within a subset of the internet, some subculture, are only going to be known and promulgated *within* that subculture, unless some way can be found to broadcast them to everyone at once. But the means of “mass broadcasting” are in the hands of the system! Secondly, just as the friction between related subgroups means that contrary ideas will automatically be adopted just because they appear in the mass media, so too, ideas from other subcultures will not easily be adopted or transmitted easily either. The resistance to flow works in *all* directions. And the third reason, is that in human cultures, many people are not “grains of sand” at all, but more like marbles or ball bearings: that is, they don’t want to cause friction, but instead prefer to go with the flow. And these people will follow gravity naturally, listening to anything which sounds “official” or “authoritative” : and in going with the flow they will fail to provide support or resistance for anyone else -- helping to make opinion cascades even easier.

Is it any wonder, then, that our first call as responsible citizens is to *be informed*? Or, for the other side, that the counterculture which has long sought our demise first tried to lay the seed by what they called, “Consciousness raising?”

Now that we know how the game is played, it is high time we start fighting back. And, like sand through the hourglass, the hour is late. We do not have much time left.

TOPICS: Computers/Internet; Conspiracy; Politics; Society
KEYWORDS: freedom; internet; propaganda; sociology; whiskersvanity
1 posted on 07/29/2012 9:53:11 PM PDT by grey_whiskers
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To: neverdem; SunkenCiv; Cindy; LucyT; decimon; freedumb2003; ding_dong_daddy_from_dumas; Tax-chick; ...
*PING* to "Days of Our Lives" themed birdcage liner...
2 posted on 07/29/2012 9:58:16 PM PDT by grey_whiskers (The opinions are solely those of the author and are subject to change without notice.)
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To: grey_whiskers


3 posted on 07/29/2012 10:25:55 PM PDT by Rocky (Obama is pure evil.)
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To: Rocky
"Huh?" to which part?

On second thought, don't answer that now, I'm going to bed (on staycation...)


4 posted on 07/29/2012 11:57:47 PM PDT by grey_whiskers (The opinions are solely those of the author and are subject to change without notice.)
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To: grey_whiskers
Just because I am informed and can express my opinion clearly does not mean that people will agree with me.

They may say "Oh he's a conservative. However reasonable he sounds he's just saying that to justify his selfish or old-fashioned lifestyle."

Or they might even agree with me but say "If I go around saying that I'll have a real hard time getting laid, so I won't."


Even here on Free Republic certain groups of conservatives have been kicked to the curb because their beliefs weren't sufficiently in line with the "Freepus Quo". So we have these long drawn out fights which often lead to mass exoduses of disgruntled ex-Freepers.

Those ex-Freepers go on to other "sand piles" where they no longer participate or connect with well-informed Freepers.

My own feeling is that electrons weigh very little. Atoms weigh much more. Actions in the real world make a bigger difference than statements in cyberspace. If you want to have a long term positive impact on your nation, then you need to act in the real world rather than post on bulletin boards.

To the extent that Free Republic helps to organize activities in the real world it is a good influence. To the extent that people gain knowledge and are helped in refining the arguments they will make in real world city council meetings, etc. it is a good influence.

To the extent that Free Republic allows some folks to segregate themselves from the real world and limit their political activity to fiery posts it is a bad influence.

But that isn't the fault of Free Republic, only the fault of the individual who chooses to use this great resource foolishly.

I'm not saying that you are guilty of this, only that any strategy limited to cyberspace is doomed to failure. I have probably been more guilty than most Freepers of "hiding" from the real world on Free Republic. I am just recently getting more active in the real world where I hope to make a more substantial impact.

5 posted on 07/30/2012 12:08:45 AM PDT by who_would_fardels_bear
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To: who_would_fardels_bear
A number of replies have gotten much ruder and snarky in the last 3 yrs here on FR.
Less tolerance and consideration. "More quick to snark."

Started about the first week of November in 2008 I think.

(yeah...I'll blame that black-hearted sob for as much as I can)
6 posted on 07/30/2012 4:25:57 AM PDT by Tainan (Cogito, ergo conservatus sum)
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To: Tainan
We have a choice between Obama and Romney.

If anything, the snarking will go nuclear.

7 posted on 07/30/2012 6:52:05 AM PDT by who_would_fardels_bear
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To: grey_whiskers

Thank you so very much for your insightful essay, dear grey_whiskers!

8 posted on 07/30/2012 8:06:52 AM PDT by Alamo-Girl
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To: who_would_fardels_bear
Hmmm, I guess I didn't write clearly enough then.

What I was trying to convey was that the banding of people into self-identified interest groups on the internet, and filtering information through those sources, would help to dilute the monopolistic controls of the airwaves, simple because people would have independent critical review of the propaganda. I did NOT intend to imply that writing things on the internet was going to be an effective way to set up countering memes bubbling up from the grass roots -- indeed I argued (as you noted) that it would be ineffectual.

Instead, we need to use the internet (and possibly the Rick Santellis of the world in the MSM) to communicate and organize the like minded into effective action (as seen with the Tea Parties, if only the GOP-e hadn't sold us out for a mess of Porkulus).


9 posted on 07/30/2012 9:56:47 PM PDT by grey_whiskers (The opinions are solely those of the author and are subject to change without notice.)
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To: grey_whiskers

Internet tribalism.

10 posted on 07/30/2012 9:59:28 PM PDT by commonguymd
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To: grey_whiskers; TheOldLady; WildHighlander57; netmilsmom; tomdavidd; Freeper; Gvl_M3; ...
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. . . . Article and # 9.

Thanks, grey_whiskers.

11 posted on 07/31/2012 5:51:24 AM PDT by LucyT (~ Countdown: Ninety-Seven days until November 6. ~)
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To: grey_whiskers
...we need to use the internet (and possibly the Rick Santellis of the world in the MSM) to communicate and organize the like minded into effective action...

Good idea...

12 posted on 07/31/2012 8:50:01 AM PDT by GOPJ (Political correctness is simply George Orwell's Newspeak by a non-threatening name. FR- Bernard Marx)
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To: commonguymd
Consider that phrase immediately STOLEN.


13 posted on 07/31/2012 7:33:12 PM PDT by grey_whiskers (The opinions are solely those of the author and are subject to change without notice.)
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