Norming and performing in online spaces

I’ve been asking for feedback on Thought Shrapnel from existing subscribers. One replied that he’d appreciate more ‘original content’ as opposed to my thoughts on other people’s work.

On reflection, I guess this is the way in which Discours.es (this blog) is different from Thought Shrapnel. This is the place where I record thoughts that are perhaps less fully-formed and which aren’t a direct prompt from someone else’s work.


So I posted on the Slack channel that I share with some friends and former colleagues:

It seems we’re using social media for social norming/policing in the absence of the state/religion.

I was asked to expand upon that a bit, so here goes…

One of the many different ways that I’ve introduced Open Badges is that we all display ‘badges’ of different types without necessarily realising it. For example, we choose to drive a certain type of car, or dress in a particular way. We’re using symbols as a shorthand to help others quickly decide whether we’re friend or foe, in our club or in a different league.

A lot of that comes down to trust. For example, this morning I went to pick up a parcel from our local Royal Mail delivery office. I’d just been for a run and had a hoodie on. He asked me (as he’s supposed to) for ID to prove that I live at the address listed on the ‘we missed you while you were out’ card. Interestingly, the same guy was on duty when, last week, I went to pick up my daughter’s shoes with a shirt on. He didn’t ask me for ID. The moral of the story? We use heuristics, with appearance and language being important markers.

(A brief aside: this is why I think emoji triplets could work so well with MoodleNet)

Things like nation states and organised religions give us a grand narrative within which we can organise our lives. They tell a story about who we are and the kind of things that are important to us. That’s why when I write or say words such as, ‘Englishman’, ‘Islam’, or ‘Switzerland’ there are related concepts that pop into your head. The words aren’t vague but they nevertheless connote as much as they denote.

What happens, then, when we begin to witness (as we have done in the 21st century) the decline of nation states and organised religions? How do we make sense of our lives? Well, we find our tribes. Thanks to the internet, and in particular social networks, it’s never been easier to find people who think and act like you. There’s no longer any need to conform to the logic of your geographical reality.

That means that social networks are the proximal cause of a whole raft of changes. Yes, Twitter might have played a hugely emancipatory role during the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011, but as the Snowden revelations demonstrated a couple of years later, social networks can also be used for exactly the opposite purpose.

What I think we’re seeing with social networks at the moment is the kind of ‘norming’ that we’ve only previously seen from the right of the political spectrum. This widely-shared post makes the point that left-wing activists have perhaps gone too far in expecting a kind of ‘moral purity’.

Callouts, for example, are necessary for identifying and addressing problematic behavior. But have they become the default response to fending off harm? Shutting down racist, sexist, and similar conversations protects vulnerable participants. But has it devolved into simply shutting down all dissenting ideas? When these tactics are liberally applied, without limit, inside marginalized groups, I believe they hold back movements by alienating both potential allies and their own members.

Nation states have a monopoly on violence and therefore have developed processes on when and how it should be used. Most organised religions use some kind of Golden Rule and have forgiveness as a key tenet. Unfortunately, ‘callout culture’ does not have due process and online mobs are not known for their forgiveness.

I see this in the online space all the time now: mobs of people, acting in bad faith, can make people they don’t know and will likely never meet miserable, or even try to ruin their lives and careers… And those mobs’ bad behaviors are continually rewarded, because it’s honestly easier to just give them what they want. We are ceding the social space to bad people, because they have the most time, the least morals and ethics, and are skilled at relentlessly attacking and harassing their targets.

I’m not sure I agree with “the least morals and ethics” as I think many of these attacks come from misplaced attempts at moral purity. I do, however, think that we should fear the mobs’ ability to relentlessly attack and harrass their targets.

We can all learn to be a little more tolerant of one another, and to choose the words we use carefully. However, as a privileged white dude who has been careful in my learning curve, I can’t help but think that sometimes the online mobs don’t see past my gender and race.