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The Embrace of Death

By BehTong in Op-Ed
Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 03:48:50 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

I've observed this phenomenon repeatedly, in many, many things.

Something good always starts out with a small group of people who really care. But once it grows past a certain Threshold, it seems to dissipate and fade away.

It always begins with a small group of people who are on to something with a lot of potential. Let's say, the Internet. Or Slashdot. Or K5. Or something else altogether. These people are pioneering the way for something great, something revolutionary. Something that will change the world, so to speak.

And so, they tell friends, relatives, colleagues, people around them, about it. Slowly, some begin to be convinced, and so more and more people start coming in. Everyone is excited about what they're doing, and everyone is dedicated to make it succeed. And of course, they want to tell others all about it too, and get more people on board. Momentum increases.

And then, it approaches the Threshold. Nobody is even aware of it. But the day comes when it reaches the Threshold. There is now enough momentum that many people look around and see others all going for this Next Great Thing. And they think, "whatever this is, I want In! I don't wanna be left out!" And so, they hop on the bandwagon and embrace it. Of course, there's been bandwagon jumpers all along; only now, after the Threshold, the incoming bandwagon jumpers have outnumbered those who know what they're doing, why they're there, those who care. But it's hard to tell, because many of the bandwagon jumpers can talk the talk, too. The only difference is that they don't have the original "vision", so to speak. They're kinda just ... there.

And soon, it becomes clear that the momentum has gone. Many of the non-bandwagon-jumpers had suspected for a long time that the momentum was declining. It is now filled with people who don't really know why they're there (or they have the wrong idea why they're there -- they don't "get it"). And it's not their fault, either. They never intentionally ruined it all; it was all inadvertent. They never meant to spoil anything. But because they were there without knowing what it's really about, they have unconsciously detracted from its value. And because of the higher percentage of this group of people, the original vision, the original revolution, now changes direction drastically.

If it's fortunate, it continues growing, albeit in quite a different direction, and possibly failing to fulfill the original dream.

If it's not fortunate, it just stays stagnant and eventually gets dumped on the wayside.

And so, Yet Another Great Potential Thing becomes just another unfulfilled dream. Why did it happen? It clearly wasn't the fault of the founders. Neither was it the fault of the masses who joined in toward the end (they never intentionally did anything to bring about the demise). But clearly, something is wrong.

Is there a solution? Somebody asked me (in the diary entry) if I knew of any solution... so far, I've only observed this phenomenon, but can't really think of any solution. Any ideas? Or is this problem even solvable??


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The Embrace of Death | 23 comments (19 topical, 4 editorial, 0 hidden)
Lack of leadership (3.54 / 11) (#2)
by GreenCrackBaby on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 10:51:50 AM EST

I've seen the same thing happen many times. The culprit? Lack of leadership.

It's a leader's job to motivate and reinforce the initial vision. Without that, how can you possibly expect newcomers to understand what they are part of.

It's like soup. (4.40 / 22) (#3)
by Seumas on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 10:54:12 AM EST

I understand the feeling, completely. It does apply to Slashdot, K5, the Internet, BBSs, music, books, movies and life.

The question is, what makes so many of us fear the death of these things? Is it because we're elitist bastards or is it because any group containing a number of people exceeding a non-specific threshold becomes marginalized by the distributed intellect, experience and maturity (the majority of people are stupid, theory)?

It isn't that we even fear the death of these things. It's that we fear that they will become overwhelmed by the averages of the masses and no longer remain our little niche. I consider it as making soup.

If I'm alone and making soup for dinner, I can put in exactly what I like and tailor it for my specific taste. When more people join me for dinner, I have to take into consideration their own tastes. By the time everyone has taken out what they don't like, you're left with a bland broth. You can get bland broth anywhere. My special, tasty, yummy soup -- you could only get that from me. And the select group of people in the world that agreed with my taste in soup enjoyed joining me for a meal. But once enough people got their hands in the pot, it became a tasteless warm water that everyone could eat (if not enjoy). And since it's just bland water now, instead of a small group of people savoring each spoonful as they put it in their mouths, it's a large group of people, feeding like a hungry sow at the trough, slopping it about until it leaves splattered marks on their face and on the ground by their feet.

It's hard to appreciate bland water.
I just read K5 for the articles.

Related to an 'everything2' posting I made... (3.00 / 2) (#6)
by Speare on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 11:05:49 AM EST

I posted the following node to everything2: Life-Cycle of an Online Community. It was intended more to deal with online communities like EverQuest, etc., but it holds true for many online communities including weblogs.

It's just a smidgen longer than I think k5 replies should be, otherwise I'd just mark it up right here, but it's a quick read.

[ e d @ h a l l e y . c c ]
Communities change (3.87 / 8) (#7)
by botono9 on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 11:23:12 AM EST

You start out with a small group of people who have come together to build a community because they have common goals in mind. So at first it is "great". Everyone is participating the way everyone else expects them to, because you are all tight knit and know what the other want. Then more and more people start flooding in, with their own ideas about what they want to get out of and put into the community. So the community changes, which is inevitable. It doesn't really die (unless, of course, it is shut down), it just changes. And maybe those changes don't jive with what you originally planned, but you know what? Life never follows the plans of men. You cannot expect a community to remain true to it's original mission and also grow at the same time. Too many different opinions and personalities are coming in for that to happen. You either change with the community, or leave it and start a new one (or join a new one, and therefore change it).

I think everyone "really" gets it in their own way. That's what is great about communities like k5. There is something for everyone!

"Guns are real. Blue uniforms are real. Cops are social fiction."
--Robert Anton Wilson

Population control? (3.77 / 9) (#8)
by jabber on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 11:42:50 AM EST

Maybe K5 should charge admission... After all, that's the way Country Clubs maintain the high standard of their membership. A higher population will invariably bring with it 'noise'. Bad elements creep in and are not policed adequatelly, and a single rotten apple spoils the bunch.

But is this necessarily a flaw of the community, or rather the inability of the members to continue to derive value from the resource? Reading /. at a sufficiently high threshold is still interesting. Reading at -1 is amusing. Reading at -1 is also still interesting, but takes more effort to separate the worthwhile from the worthless.

I think what you're asking for is that effortless feeling of exclusivity that can not survive an inclusive environment. Short of elitist access control, it can't be done. And even if it were done, it would just be a Country Club sauna, where a bunch of rich (in whatever currency matters) snobs would steep int their own stink.

Social exclusivity is a kind of inbreeding. Variety is better for evolution. Whose well-being concerns you? The site that goes to pot when the trolls and flamers outnumber the consciencious posters? Or those posters who derive maximum value from a site, contribute as much as they reasonably can, and move on when the heathen fail to dig their latreene far enough away from the camp?

[TINK5C] |"Is K5 my kapusta intellectual teddy bear?"| "Yes"

I blame "user-friendliness" (3.40 / 10) (#9)
by CyberQuog on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 11:57:39 AM EST

I find that the more "user-friendly" something is, the more immature, mediocre, and just plain stupid people there are. When something becomes extremly easy to use, a lot of people who would not have normally have used it, start to. As the average IQ of the population using the tool (or community, or whatever) goes down, it has to become more and more "friendly". The developers spend all their time making things look pretty, instead of actually adding new things. In the process losing much of it's original power and effectiveness.
Not that there is anything wrong with making a tool easy to use, but features should never be excluded for the sake of making something look nice.

I'm not so sure about this. (3.33 / 6) (#11)
by Seumas on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 12:35:44 PM EST

I deal with a lot of unix administrators (HPUX, AIX, Solaris, etc.) and they very often tend to be complete assholes -- even if they know what they're doing. I suppose this may just be my impression because I end up being in the position of saving their asses when their servers are horked and they're too stressed to be civilized, but even that doesn't grant one a license to be a prick.
I just read K5 for the articles.
[ Parent ]
Assholes... (3.00 / 3) (#13)
by CyberQuog on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 03:17:30 PM EST

I actually agree, I was commenting on attracting more of the immature script kiddie type, then the assholes. In any group of people, there will always be assholes, but when things start getting so user-friendly your grandmother can use it, it starts to attract all the immature 12 year old little kids. Which I dislike much more than the assholes. You can at least ignore assholes in a community (for the most part). It's hard to ignore a DoS attack from an ub3R- h4x0R.

[ Parent ]
Yes, there *is* a solution: Use your nose! (4.57 / 14) (#12)
by tmoertel on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 02:37:55 PM EST

It's amazing that this topic should come up so directly in this story, since I just finished posting about this very issue and one possible solution in It's that darn bell curve ... and "scent" in the discussion about Off the Horizon. (You may want to check it out for more information, including one tidbit that might defend against the dilution of k5.)

The problem that BehTong articulates so well is that a community is represented by a collection of information, and over time the collection tends to be diluted by waves of new contributors, many who do not understand the community's underlying culture. After the Threshold, when the Masses arrive, the culture is flooded to the point where the magic is lost (or more precisely cannot be found), and the community dies.

It's important to realize that the magic part of the community still exists after the initial floods come. It's just too hard to find. The noise hides the signal, and we tune out, we move on. And then the magic really dies.

One solution to this kind of problem is to make use of scent -- tiny pieces of information that you can use to sniff out the information that you consider most valuable -- to rearrange or re-prioritize the information in our community's collection of information. We want to rearrange our collection so that the magic stuff is easy to find and the noisy stuff is hidden away in the corners.

To use k5 as an example, the rating system allows us to provide scent regarding stories and comments. Let's say that you find a comment particularly insightful and rate it a 5. You've just provided scent that will help other community members find that comment. Likewise, if you rate another comment as a 1, you will be providing scent (a stinky one) that will help people avoid the comment. K5, nice site that it is, will kindly average out all the individual scent contributions into a composite scent, and rearrange the site's contents according to it. The sweet smelling comments are first, the stinky ones are last (or hidden).

The system works well as long as the community has a single culture to which most of its members adhere. But that also makes it susceptible to dilution and flooding. When the Masses arrive, they will provide scent based on their culture, not the culture of the "old" community. Because of their large numbers, their scent will overwhelm the old-comminity scent, and the community will lose its magic and die.

K5 is not immune. When the Masses arrive, it will suffer a similar fate unless its rating system is changed.

So, how can we change the system to avoid its untimely death?

One way is to use correlated scent. If Joe and I rate things similarly (we have strongly correlated scent preferences), I'll trust scent left by Joe. If Biff and I disagree on how we rate things, I'll ignore scent left by Biff. It's that simple. (Plus a little math. ;-)

If this system is used consistently, it allows for something amazing: The old community members and the new Masses can peacefully coexist as two independent yet overlapping communities! Where they share interests, they share information. Where their interests diverge, they each see their respectively valued information. (Actually, it's a bit cooler than that. The reality is that every member of the community has a customized version of the community in which information is rearranged based on how valuable he or she is likely to find it.)

Correlated scent has been used by other online communities to great success. For example, Amazon uses it to make sure that books you are likely to want appear in your list of recommendations. They couldn't use a one-size-fits all system because peoples' opinions on books vary greatly.

One great thing about k5, is that it already collects enough scent information to allow for correlated scent. The programming would mostly be straightforward, but it would probably require an extra join here and there.

So, to answer BehTong's original question, "Is there a solution?" Yes. And it's realistic.

My blog | LectroTest

[ Disagree? Reply. ]

Everythink does this (3.50 / 2) (#14)
by Erf on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 06:22:57 PM EST

A while ago, joshv posted a comment about his prototype site called Everythink. It implements a rating system like you describe. It seems to me to be a general discussion-oriented community kind of thing, and seemed like a good example of what you're talking about.

joshv, if you're reading this, how does that system seem to be working out? (Sorry, I haven't really had time to join...)

...doin' the things a particle can...
[ Parent ]

Scents (3.00 / 3) (#15)
by BehTong on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 08:08:34 PM EST

I must say, this is an absolutely cool concept! So basically, you're allowing the Masses to come in, with all their diverse, divergent "tastes", but you still keep the "original magic", so to speak, and leave a scent to attract those who are actually interested and really care. Of course, this is from an individual point of view; from others' POV's, they're just finding what suits them. So instead of one size trying to fit all, you have variable sizes to be suited to what people would want.

This is a very interesting concept to implement in weblogs and other media like this. I wonder how it would generalize to other situations? For example, for those who think the "Internet is dying", what would a scent-based system look like? How would such a thing be implemented and how useful would it be?

Also, I wonder if this can actually be generalized to a social (i.e., non-computer) setting. Can't think of any examples off-hand, but I suppose anywhere there's a community, this Embrace of Death phenomenon occurs, and it'd be interesting to see how the scent idea generalizes to these other situations.

Beh Tong Kah Beh Si!
[ Parent ]

sharing scorefiles (4.00 / 1) (#18)
by clover_kicker on Tue Jan 16, 2001 at 09:20:08 AM EST

ISTR reading about a scheme like this for usenet. The idea was to do analysis on scorefiles, and if people were found to have similar tastes in what constituted a good post/thread, you could set it up to automatically update your scorefile.

I don't know if the scheme was ever implemented, anyone remember this? I read about it ~1995 or so...
I am the very model of a K5 personality.
I intersperse obscenity with tedious banality.

[ Parent ]
Possibly GroupLens or strn? (4.00 / 1) (#21)
by caadams on Tue Jan 16, 2001 at 09:50:54 PM EST

The GroupLens project was aimed at similar "collaborative filtering" goals for Usenet. There were a few other prototype systems for automatic collaborative filtering, but none of them became widely popular.

The strn newsreader had some features for manually sharing scorefiles over the Internet around that time. A few people in the talk.bizarre newsgroup really liked the feature, but it never became widely popular and the sharing features were not ported to trn 4.0.

--caadams (author of the strn features)

[ Parent ]

My thoughts... (3.25 / 4) (#16)
by Zenith on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 08:27:22 PM EST

The problem when an idea become bigger is it loses the organisation it have, it also lose the closeness of people. When a community was first formed, there would be about 10 people on it, okay everyone would easily recognise whois is who and get to know the personality and they style. A sense of closeness was formed, thus they tell their friends and family about this beautiful little community, and more join, and then we start to have problems, once the number of people exceed certain limit, that closeness bond the community start to brake down. Why? Because people can not longer know all the people as easily, as get bigger the origanisation brakes down, then the whole system brake down.

How can we fix this problem?

What we need to do is to brake the community down into section once it gets big, so there sense of closeness still exist (people who share the similar interest would be in a sub-community and keep dividing down). Thus also maintain the origanisation of the community. This will solve the problem of origanisation and keep the community alive, but another issue to tackle is the amount of junk messages.

Once the community flourish there tends to be people who want to ruin it, therefore, a group of people should be there to either delete or move the junk post down. The need to make the site as clean and interesting as possible. This group should consist of people from both the admin and the people in the community, this would make sure no bais is been carried out.

"Truth is what people conceit, but in reality there is no real truth, just opinions." - Zenith

millions of people exactly like me (4.55 / 9) (#17)
by kazeus on Tue Jan 16, 2001 at 08:21:02 AM EST

First off, let me warn you: I am one of the unwashed masses. I was attracted to the thriving community here like an ant to a picnic. As you read this, I am slowly but surely dragging K5 into an AOL-esque oblivion. If rusty and inoshiro were dead, I'm sure they would be rolling in their graves.

It seems, after reading through what's been posted so far, that there are two ways to maintain a strong original vision in an open community (as opposed to a country club):
  1. Only bring in to the community people who already share the vision. This method is also known as preaching to the choir, or wanking.
  2. Bring anyone and everyone into the community, but make sure that they're thoroughly indoctrinated with the original vision before they're allowed to fully participate. This is also known as fascism.
Neither of these methods is very appealing. Incidentally, I would lump much of tmoertel's scent proposal (which I think is a Good Thing™) into this category, since those with the original vision would end up sniffing out those with a similar vision. I'm actually a pretty big fan of wanking in most circumstances. However, it's a lousy way to start a revolution. So I doubt that there's an acceptable solution to the problem.

I also doubt that it's a problem at all. I don't believe that value lies solely in adherence to a single ideal conversational convention or culture - I find it in active discussion, regardless of topic, slant or even tone. (To an extent. I'm not arguing in favor of flamefests. However, flames and the like don't present quite the same philosophical issues as a user who just doesn't get it.) Anyone who has a vision of a community that stays within the bounds of hir imagination is probably staring at a puppet theater. If the Great Potential Thing didn't include a way to handle change, it probably didn't have all that much potential to begin with.

For an interesting bit of perspective, visit ISCABBS. Try going into the Future of ISCABBS> forum and posting about how new users bring death to a community. The response, from a community that once depended on an annual flood of college students and is now starving for new users, will be very, very different from what you get here.

Why should we plant when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?
The cultures aren't bad (but the math is)... (none / 0) (#22)
by tmoertel on Wed Jan 17, 2001 at 01:27:19 PM EST

kazeus wrote:
I also doubt that [the culture mixing problem] is a problem at all. I don't believe that value lies solely in adherence to a single ideal conversational convention or culture - I find it in active discussion, regardless of topic, slant or even tone.

The problem is not that it is inherently bad to let new cultures blend with a community's original culture. The problem is that the mathematics behind sites like k5 ensure that a well-balanced community of differing cultures leads to the community's eventual demise. It's a math thing.

More specifically, online communities are collections of information. Some of the information is good; some is bad (for anybody's definition of "good" and "bad"). If you can't find the good information amidst the bad, or the signal amidst the noise, the value of the information, and hence the value of the community itself, is lost.

Consequently, it's vital to the success of a community that it be easy to find the good information in its overall collection of information. K5 does this by allowing its members to state their individual opinions about the goodness of its collection of information. K5 takes the opinions for a particular piece of information and blends them into a single composite rating which represents an overall "goodness" score. The most highly scored pieces of information are the most visible in the collection, making them easy to find.

This works well when most people agree on their definitions of goodness, in other words, when they share a similar culture. However, when you and I disagree on what is good, our ratings tend to cancel one another out. If a community's cultures are well balanced, which is what intuition would suggest would lead to the best, most interesting discussions, a funny thing happens: The overall ratings increasingly tend toward the middle value (e.g., for K5 it would be 3), and the good information becomes increasingly difficult to find. Eventually, all of the good information sinks into the sea of noise and is lost.

And that's the problem. It's not a people thing. It's a math thing.

My blog | LectroTest

[ Disagree? Reply. ]

[ Parent ]
noise is like a box of chocolates (none / 0) (#23)
by kazeus on Thu Jan 18, 2001 at 04:43:11 AM EST

Some of the information is good; some is bad (for anybody's definition of "good" and "bad"). If you can't find the good information amidst the bad, or the signal amidst the noise, the value of the information, and hence the value of the community itself, is lost.
And this is where things really get tricky. I would wager that almost everyone´s definition of a good post is going to include things like a coherent sentence structure and well-reasoned arguments. I can postulate people who would be interested in a post like ¨RED HAT RULZ!¨ but in realityland such folk will be greatly outnumbered.

The mess comes in when I try to judge what is well-reasoned, and what isn´t. My biases get in the way. I´m a classic bleeding heart, tax-n-spend liberal. When I read a post from a conservative point of view, I often forget about key assumptions that may implicitly underlay the arguments (Reaganomics works, premarital sex is unhealthy, gas prices are too high, etc). Although a great post will explicitly state these things, a merely good post might not, and if I´m not paying close attention I´ll rate it down because of it. This will not happen to the liberal posts. However much I might try to avoid it, my ratings will be skewed to the left of the political spectrum. Soon, the scent engine will figure out that I tend to agree with other liberals, and the top of my screen will become a meeting of the K5 Green Party.

However, if ratings are averaged over the entire userbase, my biases will be cancelled out by Rosie the Republican. Since almost everyone still desires things like good grammar and ample supporting evidence, the top of my screen will still be relatively well-written, but it won´t have my biases attached. The inconvenience of scrolling down the page to look for opinionated discussion seems like a small price to pay for this increased objectivity.

Of course, this argument doesn´t apply to emotionally ¨safe¨ conversations. In that case, you´re absolutely right: there is a problem, and it´s in the math. And kudos to you for pointing out what will probably be an effective solution.

Why should we plant when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?
[ Parent ]
I think it's the RATE of growth, not the size. (4.50 / 6) (#19)
by Deven on Tue Jan 16, 2001 at 10:56:38 AM EST

In any community, you have the "newbies" spending some time getting their bearings, learning the norms of the community and how it works, and coming to understand the values and vision the community shares. The established members of the community naturally tend to mentor these newbies, leading to the full integration of those newbies into the community as newly established members over time.

As long as a community remains small or grows slowly, this works well, and the community can keep its vision and remain cohesive indefinitely. It's really the way of ALL stable communities, if you think about it. Larger communities can never have the same sense of intimacy as small communities, but they tend to naturally subdivide into more intimate subcommunities for this very reason.

The problem seen with the Internet, Slashdot, K5 (et al) appears to be the result of explosive growth. Past a certain growth rate (which I don't know, and which probably varies between communities), the rate of incoming newbies exceeds the capabilities (or patience) of the established users to mentor them, especially when the newbies become the majority. This is probably most evident with AOL; it has had the most explosive growth of all, and it shouldn't be so surprising that "AOL user" has become equated with "rank newbie" in the minds of so many Internet denizens.

I think that the best way to keep a community whole is probably to limit the growth rate and/or have a more deliberate mentoring system for newbies. Advogato.org does some of this; you can't even post a reply to an article until someone on the "inside" lets you in. Seems to work; Advogato isn't plagued by junk like Slashdot is...


"Simple things should be simple, and complex things should be possible." - Alan Kay

Content diversity helps a lot (3.75 / 4) (#20)
by xrayspx on Tue Jan 16, 2001 at 06:50:21 PM EST

If you look at a site like slashdot, more or less all of their users are drawn to more or less all of the (frontpage) stories. Most of the writups for those stories are vague enough that most users feel compelled to reply and add their 2 cents, not counting for the moment the trolls and spammers. K5 has:

  • Enough diversity in the stories that not everyone is necessarily interested in each story.
  • Story writeups which are generally full enough that they comprise more than "Here, go here, read this, discuss", and we end up with better, topical discussion.
  • A decent moderation system that keeps noise down.
  • Users who care enough to write stories like this, which would never make it through the slashdot queue, unless written BY /. staff (Katz).

This is why I think something like plastic might make it, because it has enough story diversity to spread out a bazillion users across topics they're interested in. Who knows if slash moderation will work there any better than it did at slashdot, but I hope so for their sake.

I don't think anyone has sounded a death knell for K5, not by any stretch, of course, I still think slashdot is pretty ok too. And with more weblogs comes more diversity, not everyone will read K5, /., plastic, drop, smokedot, tarheel state online, etc. They will shake out to appropriate forums.
"I see one maggot, it all gets thrown away" -- My Wife

The Embrace of Death | 23 comments (19 topical, 4 editorial, 0 hidden)
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