Sticks and Stones: From the Playground to the Web

Man in pillory

Punishment, whether in abstract or concrete terms, is something most humans grow up knowing to avoid. From childhood, the messaging is consistent: “wrong” choices/actions/words = negative consequences. Whether it’s soap in the mouth, a spanking, standing in the corner, a time out, or loss of privileges, we’re trained to make the “right” choices/actions/words in order to avoid that pain. Who establishes “right” and “wrong” varies a bit from one community or culture to another, but ultimately those norms are communicated through rewards for adhering to them and punishment for failing to do so. 

In spite of recent real-world pivots away from punishing bad behaviors in favor of things like Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS), Chapter 4, “Social-Digital Know-How: The Arts and Sciences of Collective Intelligence,” of Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, notes how this long-standing social principle applies in the digital world. He first notes that “reciprocating cooperation, punishing noncooperators, and signalling a willingness to cooperate are useful for individual[s], as well as the groups they contribute to.” Later, he says, “Punishing those who break the institution’s rules is apparently essential to cultivating cooperation; ‘altruistic punishment’ may be the glue that holds society together.” First its our parents, then our classmates, and our colleagues; of course, it we do this online, too.

The challenge for those wishing to innovate is to find a way to subvert the rules that maintain the status quo without triggering those very same punishment mechanisms. I wrote my master’s thesis on this phenomenon in the social-problem novels of Industrial Revolution England. In each of the novels I highlighted as evidence, the heroine worked to protect those around her from the worst of the fallout hitting the working class, and in the end, was rewarded for her efforts by getting what she wanted for herself and then being removed from society to some idyllic, less industrial location, usually with a husband. Ultimately, even the writers whose books sought to spark change in their communities knew enough to punish, albeit relatively altruistically, their own characters for breaking those accepted rules. So this tension between progress and homeostasis is nothing new to the human race. 

Rules in the 3-dimensional world evolved over time and only changed from one community to another, requiring that one had to physically move to encounter those rules. Because a newcomer would be alone in their efforts to change any norms they disliked, these communities were often allowed to remain static for generations. Digital users, on the other hand, are able to interact with any number of unique communities on a daily basis. These overlaps allow for far more rapid evolution of community rules. While this has some advantages in terms of change agility, the lack of centralized leadership in these communities can mean that real change or progress is stymied by constant uncertainty about the rules of engagement. 

In “Get Lost, Troll: How Accusations of Trolling in Newspaper Comment Sections Impact the Debate,” Magnus Knustad explores the ways that calling out “trolls” in comment sections can impact the discourse within that community by potentially shutting down ideas that don’t agree with that of the majority. In this, he identifies the term “troll” as a type of punishment intended to alienate the person challenging the status quo opinion from the rest while also invalidating the ideas themselves, thus vanquishing two threats with one insult. Knustad notes this, as well, “The activities of trolls, real or imaginary, and how they are responded to, can affect how people communicate in comment sections, the trust between commenters, and the inclusion of all those who want to participate.” And this is the complexity of this method of encouraging conformity for the collective good: it exists for a reason, but its existence stifles collaboration and progress.

xkcd comic: throwing rocks

Until digital communities can reconcile this contradiction, meaningful growth will continue to languish under competing desires for coordination, cooperation, and collaboration, against our human need for continuity. It’s a battle between our basic needs and our self-actualized aspirations. The potential for what might come assuming we manage this, though, is mind blowing. 

Posted on September 27, 2020, in Blogs, Digital, Social Media, Society, Technology, Trust. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Emily,
    That is a very cool thesis! As much as we like to look at and celebrate progress, I do agree that to be human is to crave homeostasis and sometimes take comfort in the status quo. It makes me think why comments from trolls are so alarming. It seems they take away from the harmony between the creator, the content, and the people in the comments section. The ideal of establishing common ground and coming together is destroyed with an aggressive comment that not only disagrees with but also insults the person and aim of the post. It is interesting that using the term troll has a significant effect on the debate. I think this happens because the rest of the community is forced to pass their own judgment on the comment and alleged troll. Picking a side creates more divisiveness, which lends to a different type of discourse altogether. The next time I watch a Youtube video, I want to pay attention to what happens to the comments after one of the first trolls appears.

  2. Emily,

    I agree with you when you say a lack of centralized leadership can prevent growth and causes uncertainty in the community. The first presidential debate was last night, and I think the lack of leadership and the effect it had on successful communication was apparent. Thank you so much for the hopeful ending in your post: I needed some positivity today. And I love XKCD!

  3. Emily,
    It is interesting to see that you connected the idea of punishing to “Rheingold’s idea of “cultivating cooperation.” I believe that although some do not agree with all the existent rules in their society/online community, they need to follow that in order not to be fined or/and in order to keep the community going without complicated conflicts. Also, the definition of “trolls” by Magnus Knustad, which you introduced, is so intriguing that I learned they can affect how people communicate through comments. It is very remarkable that trolls are not just those who show up all of a sudden to perform tricks to random people but those who are engaged in boosting collaboration “for the collective good.” As you mentioned, I also believe that there will be a continuous struggle to find a balance between our needs and desires for cooperation in the online community.
    Thank you for the nice post,
    YJ

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