How Software Affects Behaviour

Lengthy and interesting post on Slate Star Codex titled The Toxoplasma Of Rage. The whole thing is well worth a read as one explanation as to why so-called “Outrage culture” behaves in the way it does.

One section that jumped out was the part about how the nature of social media platforms affects the ways in which people behave, and cites Tumblr as an example.

Tumblr’s interface doesn’t allow you to comment on other people’s posts, per se. Instead, it lets you reblog them with your own commentary added. So if you want to tell someone they’re an idiot, your only option is to reblog their entire post to all your friends with the message “you are an idiot” below it.

Whoever invented this system either didn’t understand memetics, or understood memetics much too well….

…. I make fun of Tumblr social justice sometimes, but the problem isn’t with Tumblr social justice, it’s structural. Every community on Tumblr somehow gets enmeshed with the people most devoted to making that community miserable. The tiny Tumblr rationalist community somehow attracts, concentrates, and constantly reblogs stuff from the even tinier Tumblr community of people who hate rationalists and want them to be miserable (no, well-intentioned and intelligent critics, I am not talking about you). It’s like one of those rainforest ecosystems where every variety of rare endangered nocturnal spider hosts a parasite who has evolved for millions of years solely to parasitize that one spider species, and the parasites host parasites who have evolved for millions of years solely to parasitize them. If Tumblr social justice is worse than anything else, it’s mostly because everyone has a race and a gender so it’s easier to fire broad cannonades and just hit everybody.

Tumblr’s reblog policy makes it a hothouse for toxoplasma-style memes that spread via outrage. Following the ancient imperative of evolution, if memes spread by outrage they adapt to become as outrage-inducing as possible.

Which begs the question: to what extent do the design decisions taken by the developers of a social network determine the culture that develops? The above example suggests the decision of Tumblr not to have blog-style comments ended up fostering the aggressive call-out culture for which Tumblr is infamous.

In a similar way Twitter became a significantly more hostile place around the time they introduced the Retweet, which I don’t think is entirely a coincidence. And Jay Allen has suggested that the anonymous imageboard culture that’s developed through sites like 4chan is responsible for the toxicity of #GamerGate. Similar things have been said about the self-reinforcing echo-chambers of parts of Reddit.

Will the next generation of social media platforms learn anything from this? It’s really a diversity-in-tech issue. If a platform is developed by a term who are overwhelmingly young and male with homogeneous socio-political views, it will inevitably reflect their biases and blind spots. Sometimes you can spot those blind spots instantly; for example’s launching without a mute or block function demonstrated that nobody there knew anyone who’d been subjected to stalking or bullying online.

Human nature and wider society being what they are, it’s not possible to design out toxic behaviour entirely by technical means alone. But social media companies do need to think what sorts of behaviour their design decisions have the effect of rewarding, what sorts of behaviour they actively want to discourage, and what wider impact they might have.

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3 Responses to How Software Affects Behaviour

  1. The Other Tim Hall says:

    I was strongly inspired – as well as made to think very hard – by listening to Joel Spolsky & Jeff Atwood’s series of podcasts during the time they were building StackOverflow/StackExchange – the extent to which they considered very carefully community behaviour & how to (try to) create relatively well-behaved spaces. Ditto what Jeff is now doing with Discourse. Key lesson from all of this is – it’s hard, and it’s extremely easy to get wrong… eg Tumblr…

  2. Tim Hall says:

    I’m really not into podcasts (I’d rather read text and listen to music!), but I do remember Joel Spolsky blogging about issues like that.

    Don’t frequent Stack Exchange, so I don’t know how successful it was. I assume he avoided ello’s basic schoolboy errors.

  3. The Other Tim Hall says:

    Podcasts are good when decorating, I find…and there’s been a lot of that in the last few years :-) . StackExchange/Overflow are vg in many respects – and successful for it. Not familiar with Ello, so can’t comment.

    If you’d like to read some text (!) about where this has got to, here’s a couple of (IMO) good articles from Attwood on what he’s doing with Discourse.