Anthropology on the Net

Being that I don’t visit remote cultures and commune with primitive tribes, you would think anthropology would be the last thing on my mind. But I’ve realized that I do spend an almost excessive amount of time in the company of strange characters – the denizens of internet message boards.

Could a handful of text-based forums reveal the same nuance and complexity as a full fledged African field study? Perhaps not, but the forums do contain numerous insights into niche culture and human interaction.

Origin and Organization

First there’s the question of origin. Where did a particular message board come from? Who started it and why? Most forums are centered on a specific topic, be it video games, politics, geographic location, sports teams, etc. This gives each participant a commonality, a tribal center. fohguild.org was the website of an Everquest uberguild. somethingawful.com is an internet humor “zine”. penny-arcade.com is a webcomic.

Next, there is the organization of the forum. This can mirror real-world organization very closely. There are usually moderators and administrators which can control the functions of the forum – deleting posts, banning disruptive posters, etc. Almost always the “leadership” of the forum is the “Old Guard”, a small council that controls the populace. They can either be benevolent, a sort of hippie “anything-goes” mentality, or totalitarian, banning anyone who strays from a narrow definition of behavior. Some boards even lack moderation (such as the ajc.com forums), and in turn devolve into spam and flamewars, rendering mature discussion all but impossible.

It’s interesting to note that most forums do not use any sort of democratic, representative moderation. Slashdot has implemented a merit-based system, where posts are voted on, increasing and decreasing “karma” of users. In turn, users with a high “karma” wield more control, and can possibly become moderators. This can lead to a quick delineation of good/bad posts, however discussion (free speech) can also be stifled. For example, it’s rare to ever see a well-written post with praise (or even respect) of Microsoft on slashdot, although there are certainly some intelligent Slashdot posters that work with Microsoft products. This is because that “thought” is buried in the court of public opinion, utilizing the weighted voting system. In some scenarios, a benevolent dictator (who left all posts equal) would be superior to a mob rule (of vote-slinging Linux fanatics).

Social Nuance and Jargon

There’s also the issue of social nuance. Every niche community develops a jargon and tone. This can often by inherited from the leadership, or spontaneously emerge from the collective community. For example, on slashdot, numerous in-jokes have become ingrained in the forum culture and are staples of almost every thread. “I for one welcome our new overlords” and “In soviet Russia…” are actually modifications and evolutions of cult one-liners (from the Simpsons and a comedian, respectively). (more Slashdot subculture stuff here).

On fohguild forums, there is a depository of lame and offtopic posts called the Retard Rickshaw. Often a particularly inane post will be followed up with IBTR (an abbreviation of “In before the rickshaw”), or even a picture of a barefoot asian hefting along one of the carts. Every established message board with a regular user-base develops these social nuances and niche jargon. However, the quirks aren’t arbitrary – they usually evolve (as memes do) from either some original rule, environmental restriction, or an in-joke that resonates with the community.

Schisms

Just as real-world communities can split and migrate, the same can occur in forum-world. Earlier this year, the fohguild screenshots forums (nsfw) underwent some housecleaning. There was a controversy about some particularly disruptive posters, many who would contribute nothing to threads but obscenity and nonsense. Of course, the screenshots forums always were an amalgam of madness. The line was crossed when a certain moderator, who had posed as a rather attractive female in show business, was outed as lanky male nerd (nsfw). The mod (Millie), turned Nazi, banning anyone who attempted to reveal the truth of his/her identity. The exiled formed their own message board (hoofshots.com), complete with many of the in-jokes and jargon that had lived in fohguild. Back on fohguild, the Gestapo-like cleansing continued until a sort of equilibrium was reached and the status-quo crept back into the tone of the board. Months later, however, the fohguild screenshots forum continues to stagnate, whereas hoofshots contains a vibrant community of dirty pictures, relationship rants, drunken posts, and video game reviews. Even now, new nonsense is catalyzing nuance to where hoofshots is not merely an instance of the old board, but an entirely different creature.

Conclusions

– Niche behavior and jargon is not arbitrary and does not arise spontaneously, it is derived and evolves from the set of environmental conditions.

– The ruling party of the forum sets the tone and behavior of the users of the forum. Too much moderation can lead to stagnation, too little can result in anarchy, rendering the board meaningless.

– Merit-based posting schemes can often result in a tyranny of the majority as differing ideas are voted out. A benevolent rule of a few balanced administrators can foster more discussion, where all users have equal posting abilities.

– Schisms are inevitable in any vibrant, passionate community. The freedom to simply “pack up and move” gives these splinter communities the ability to utilize the old culture as a base and evolve from there.

– Message boards are a readily available medium for anthropological and social study. They are cheap and widely available. Moreso, they provide the ability to manipulate environmental and external controls, and would give experimenters far more scientific validity then long term case studies “in the field”, where the observer inevitably entwines themselves with the population.

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