Social Systems Online (Old Draft)

Wrote this a while ago, left it in my draft folder in Windows Live Writer. Posting it as-is. RERO!

Was sent here (long after the post was submitted) by a friend of mine who knows my interest in using social science to deal with online issues. When eBay changed its feedback policy (and before this piece was posted), there was some discussion about both the perceived relevance of eBay and about alternatives to the feedback system. These are all very interesting, especially to those who frequently buy and sell things online. Here, the main point seems to be: eBay isn’t the only way to trade goods and money and eBay may even have failed, so we’ll look at what happened. There’s still room for selling and buying things online, and eBay can now be an example of what didn’t work.
Fair enough.

But the mention of Wikipedia and the “crowd control” angle bring about a broader point about social systems.
Social scientists in general (including economists, game theorists, etc.) are well-aware of many of the issues which are now being addressed with disillusion. And while several of those who were “illusioned” into thinking the ‘Net would change all the rules of social behavior are themselves social scientists, the disillusion depends less on any characteristic of social behaviour than on people’s expectations.
The same principle applies to both eBay and Wikipedia: people have been extremely optimistic and are now disappointed by what they perceive to be broken promises.
The notion that time may be a factor merits consideration. Not because of “biological time,” IMO that’s going a bit far. But maybe because of scale. The time needed to make decisions about a purchase, to write feedback about somebody else, to assess the value of an encyclopedia entry, to discuss things… That kind of time “doesn’t scale well.”
There’s a related issue, in terms of scale: the number of people involved. When some issues with Wikipedia’s management started surfacing, a year or two ago, and people started using Wikipedia as a proof that “crowds” aren’t self-regulated, some people (including those on CNET’s Buzz Out Loud) commented on scale. These comments were, IMHO, very insightful. Wikipedia was, in fact, a pretty decent example of self-regulation. But self-regulation doesn’t scale well and this dimension of the site “collapsed.” At least, that’s one way to put it.
The broad principle of scale is well-understood by technologists. What can work with some measure X (number of chips, number of visitors, etc.) may not work at 2X and is even more likely to fail at X^2. Seeing social systems in the same way may be a step in the right direction. It’s still misleading, because we’re talking about diverse human beings, but it’s a start.

In ethnography, we have quite a bit of experience with small groups of people which can be said to approximate the self-regulating ideal. Not really crowds. Loosely-joined group of maybe 30-40 people who get together through part of the year to accomplish some general tasks related to their survival. The technical term is “band” and foraging societies (of which very few remain, nowadays) could often be described using the “band” model. Some people (ethnographers and others, including Marx) have even been so taken by those “band” structures that they wanted to apply the same ideas to broader groups. One reason they failed is that these groups were not only self-regulating but also self-forming. Creating that kind of group from scratch is unlikely to result in the same type of self-regulation. Another reason is that the model doesn’t scale well. It’s easy to “grok”: a city neighbourhood is very different from a large village of the same population. They’re different models.
So, scale is an important factor to consider. eBay and Wikipedia have possibly been among the largest groups in human history to regulate themselves. People who were dependent on these sites for actual survival were few and far between. But the overall structures were still quite big. Maybe these sites just reached a break point. “Peak People,” if you will.
Or, maybe, other issues were at stake.
Size does matter, in a social system. But other things matter too. Including the internal structure of the group. “What kind of a group is it?”
Apart from being hierarchical or “fairly egalitarian,” groups can be goal-oriented, clustered, open, inward-looking, etc. All of these dimensions cut across one another: you can have a very hierarchical, closed, highly clustered, outward-looking, goal-oriented group with millions of member or with twenty.
Those group characteristics matter a lot, in terms of adaptation.
So, going back to Wikipedia (because it’s a better-known case of this than eBay). One reason the self-regulating dream didn’t come true might have to do with group structure. People interpreted the group to be extremely large, quite egalitarian, unclustered, open, outward-looking, and goal-oriented. It turns out that there was, within Wikipedia, a comparatively small, rather hierarchic, highly clustered, semi-closed, and inward-looking group acting as if they were survival-oriented (not oriented toward a specific task or goal).
Wikipedia worked for a while. More than many people seemed to realize, had succeeded at creating an actual “community”: a group of people who interact with one another on a fairly regular basis. This community included the “core” group of editors, those Wikipedians who seem to get a primary identity from their participation in Wikipedia. That community was quite large, but still fairly limited, in comparison with the number of people who use Wikipedia or who may casually edit some entries, on occasion.
From the outside, Wikipedia looked different from this. It looked like a fully-open model in which “anyone can edit,” out of their own interests, and nobody is “more equal” than the others. At that level, the difference with the reality wasn’t that significant. It was true that (just about) anyone could edit (just about) any entry. But the Wikipedia’s overall “social structure” included a “behind the scenes” group of people who took a stake in Wikipedia. Mostly through their time, passion, interest, instead of money or survival. But still, a group of people who were deeply invested in Wikipedia. Their behaviour was radically different from that of casual Wikipedians and, even more, from the Wikipedia-reading general public.
The difference was primarily one of social structure. The “in-group” wasn’t like other people associated with Wikipedia.
Probably a year or so ago, all those stories broke out about the apparent “cabal” which seems to regulate (and badmouth) some individual editors, and about the cultish aura surrounding “Jimbo.” Regardless of the factual accuracy of those stories (and I have little reason to doubt them), they showed how people perceived Wikipedia. Since then, people probably became disillusioned by Wikipedia. Utopia and dystopia might be just one step from one another.
One thing which would merit a lot more discussion is the assumption that the system itself can be self-regulating. It might be useful to look back at Adam Smith’s critique of the “invisible hand” concept, but there are many other ways to look at this.


Rough Type: Nicholas Carr’s Blog: Crowd control at eBay

Author: enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: