Monday, 27 August 2012

Building a sustainable community that avoids group-think and embraces cultural evolution.

Having thought about the dynamics at play regarding Atheismplus over the weekend, I figured I would try and crystallise my ideas into a general guide for creating as inclusive a community* as possible, one that guards against group-think and facilitates both internal (community) and external (social) cultural evolution. It would be utterly contradictory and hypocritical for me to view this guide as anything other than one person's thoughts, an embryonic seed at best, but it does represent the kind of community I am waiting to emerge before I would consider committing myself again. I can only assume that I am not the only one.

Should those people leading the momentum behind Atheismplus wish to heed any of this advice I'd be more than happy for them to take it. If not, I care not. I do not expect this vision to materialise suddenly in its full form anyhow; I'm not naive enough to think there are not, in all likelihood, several evolutionary steps still to play through before that were to happen. If Atheismplus wants to go a different route, then that is entirely their choice to make. I only hope that emotions cool soon and we can actually get down to some serious inter-community discourse.

First of all I want to share a few structural and cultural components that I believe are necessary to create and maintain a sustainable community. Although I have written this with Atheismplus in mind, I think many, if not all, of the points are likely to be applicable to most communities that eek to be more than simply an interest group. As I've said previously, I hold no political allegiance one way or the other, so I wouldn't be surprised if those who identify as either left or right both find objections or concerns regarding these ideas. After that, I want to share a few ideas for some shared culture that embraces the principles I've laid out, shared culture that does not run the risk of centralising the community or facilitating group-think.

Structural components of a sustainable community:

  • The community structure should be as horizontal as possible. Either you could limit this community to being an autonomous part of a wider community, or else seek to found an affiliation, or federation, of groups, individuals and organisations that together strive to cross-promote each others work and collaborate as much as possible. Either way, such cross-promotion should be used to maintain a conscious balance in the diversity of discourse, both in terms of subject and of authorship.
  • The functions and duties of positions of authority should be as transparent and, where applicable, as crowd-sourced as possible, across all scales organisation.
  • Revolving positions of authority can promote greater diversity, both within the affiliated groups of the community and in any overarching administrative structures, of which their should be as few as possible (a media contact point, promotion and awareness, political lobbying, an open-source arbitration process etc).
  • An agreement should exist on the assumption that nobody speaks for anyone else but themselves, unless speaking as a representative with a consensual mandate, on whatever scale. So simple (yet so staggering common in this debate), but just because individual A said X, does not mean that all others who affiliate under the same moniker as A also believe X, nor that it is official policy of the group unless otherwise stated (and even then one should treat it with caution unless there is evidence of a consensus process having been implemented. Individual A could easily be speaking from an emotional state and proclaiming personal, assumed belief and not fact, thereby absolving affiliated others of assumed belief in X).
  • Whether crowd-sourced community guidelines are created for the community as a whole or by individual groups and organisations themselves, they are vital to possess along with mechanisms for grievances to be heard (prior to any incident that threatens to get out of hand). My personal preference is for a 90% or so approval benchmark for acceptance of a guideline or procedural process; this represents a strong mandate that even those who get ideas voted down should be able to accept, yet flexible enough to avoid bloc-voting tactics (it would be interesting to see if there were any studies on the levels of voluntary acquiescence to consensus at various levels). It is important to have a set of guidelines with a sufficient enough mandate to act as an objective framework that everyone can have confidence in appealing to. I've had experience in this regard (anecdotal, I admit) and the impression that it was an absolutely crucial component was apparent almost immediately.
  • With these guidelines, moderators should have an agreed mandate to use whatever powers they have been given, by consensus, to ensure that guidelines are followed. Some issues may be destined to end in flame war, at least at first; for these, all you need is somewhere to park it, away from the main message boards where with luck it will die a slow death. If not, people are free to ignore it. For persistent offenders you shouldn't be scared to suspend or revoke accounts. It's not a free-speech issue; nobody is stopping them spewing shit on Twitter or anywhere else, its just the consensus-derived authority of a group of people choosing to stop you metaphorically stalking them and screaming in their face 24/7.

Cultural components required for a sustainable community:

  • We must all completely flip the way we view critical critique, and those who would offer it, from the instinctively defensive and unconstructive assumption of conflict to an acknowledgement of what is in fact a compliment: someone has deemed your views worthy of time-spent constructing a rebuttal. Obviously this can and is achieved already everyday, though usually with issues that do not have unaddressed ideological belief, however small and subconscious, as their foundations. Those issues remain compartmentalised from our skeptical environment and, it seems to me, from our skeptical way of thinking (I speak here simply from my own experience, and not just about trolls). We need to collectively recognise these unspoken biases and apply the same level of critical thought (and respect) to all issues equally. A lot of lapses and biting of lips will be involved, I'm sure, but there is always “sorry”.
  • We need to create a culture that openly celebrates the best Devil's advocates out there. After all, to be a good Devil's advocate one needs to go all out in researching and trying to understand the rationales for what they may personally see as unsavory arguments and beliefs. We can't expect to have constructive debates (either for the inherent advance of knowledge or the for the perception of the audience) with sceptics or fundamentalists who do not share with us an objective framework for debate; a culture that promotes the playing of Devil's advocate in a constructive way is an alternative way to guard against the emergence of group-think.
  • The written word has its uses, obviously but it's shit for tackling social issues where advocates are often all to willing to insert whatever tone of voice or choice of interpretation is needed in order to validate pre-existing unexplored or unfounded beliefs. If we revive the Socratic tradition, actually utilise video technology to present crowd-sourced debates and arguments, we could take it to a whole new level. I'm sure that Socrates would be ribbing Plato hard now were they to know about Twitter, but there is no reason that we cannot harness the best bits of both direct debate and text.
  • There can be no taboos. I'm serious on this one, but it's gonna be tricky. It might be that some issues are so fresh or vulgar that time would be needed to develop the culture a bit first, get some training in as it were, before it starts to do more good than harm. But ultimately, everything that is out there in this sometimes beautiful, sometimes seemingly FUBAR world is best understood through critical, skeptical thought. It's just something we will need to deal with as it comes, and all try to (for want of a softer, less evocative word) self-police the community.
  • On 'self-policing', it would ideally be a natural consequence of the redefinition of how we see criticism, encouraging a culture of challenging each others views. It will mean learning to control instinctive, defensive tendencies at first, given the lack of critical discourse to date within our present communities on social issues. The best way to do this in my view is to have a code of conduct for debate (something we should already be using i.e. awareness of fallacies, respect etc), something we all subscribe, and hold each other, to. Furthermore, this will help us enter into debates and discussions in a constructive manner, under the assumption that everyone is coming from the same place, not in terms of views and issues, but in terms of method.
  • This is the central strand that runs through all of this advice: If you wish to have a sustainable community, it must be built through a shared culture of methodology, not a shared culture of content. This is the only way to avoid group-think, facilitate cultural evolution and be seen to be just the most damned reasonable and unobjectionable community the world has ever seen.

Here are some ideas that embody these principles, examples of shared culture that would both bind and challenge us as a community:

  1. A wiki for collating scientific evidence on social justice issues – It should be completely open to all, but moderated in the manner described above (very important), with room for debate on each entry. Entries could be tagged for filtering and debate purposes – tags should include, at a minimum, indicators of study quality (whether it is blinded, has a large sample group, area of funding etc), the appearance of objections with further room for debate, and the theme of the study. It wont matter how people approach adding entries, so long as it is sufficiently and effectively moderated by enough users. For the sake of being a user-friendly resource, as well as responsive to cultural evolution, the front page could consist of portals for the top ten or so issues voted up and down on a daily basis (obviously measures would need to be in place to ensure it doesn't become victim to foul play). I don't know if such a resource exists already (I have no time to research this blog as well as write it) but it would be a really useful resource to have to congregate around. It would also be a great media resource, should they find the inclination to actually start quoting evidence. If things get out of hand then folk could always turn to idea number three..
  1. Podcast, or preferably video-based production, for promoting diversity and quality debate – One or two regulars artful in the ways of the devils advocate play host to a different group or person each week, providing a constructive counter-balance to controversial and emotive issues. It would need to be meticulous in it's approach, crowd-sourcing opinion in advance of each episode. Evidence likely to be drawn upon for the debate would be compiled by each side in advance and available to the public. In order to act as an exemplar that the wider community would find constructive, it might be useful to mirror the structure of the debates on idea number three..
  1. Debate Arena – I've a feeling this sort of thing exists, but building one from scratch would give the element of community ownership and consensual design necessary to gain credibility. It could be cross-referenced with the wiki for contestants to draw upon evidence, with debates advertised in advance for research and audience awareness. Contestants could tag other people into the debate, either sourced in advance or drawn from the audience, should the debate require different expertise to advance. People could vote as the debate goes where they think points or arguments have been won, contribute to visualisations that show which way, and to what extent, a consensus is evolving and have the ability to award kudos points to people who uphold their debating standards under pressure. Participants would begin with their own interpretation of the context of the debate, before embarking on a series of 2 minute rounds (though this should be flexible on agreement, according to requirements). A maximum of one correction of a rebuttal, one rebuttal of your own and one argument to advance the debate allowed per round, to really allow for granular exploration of issues and avoid it simply becoming noise. Victory is declared if the crowd consensus reaches a certain level and remains there for two further rounds (a three strikes and you're out policy). Losers could of course seek a rematch, giving plenty of time to perfect your next material. With such a format, I would hope that over time there would emerge people who elevate this style of debate to an art form, applauded for their succinctness, speed of thought and clarity of communication. Debates would be transcribed using voice recognition, as well as being available for stream and download, with the transcript open to editing should errors be spotted. This would allow for easy citing in blogs and further debate. Personally, I would absolutely love to see any debate, interactive or otherwise, between DJ Grothe and Brian Dunning on whether skepticism is actually applicable to politics. I respect the work of both of them but I cannot ignore the possibility that two such prominent voices seem content, publicly at least, in knowing that they entirely disagree on an issue that should be regarded as a fundamental aspect of what skepticism actually is. That's just my opinion, but I'd be more than happy to debate it.

    EDIT: Another idea for how the debate might be won - The synthesis ending. Basically, the audience can participate by buzzing in and proposing a synthesis answer to the debate. Either contestant can opt to agree with the synthesis proposal, and if the proposal gains consensus level within the crowd, the first of the contestants to have agreed wins the battle.

As I said, I'm not telling anyone to do anything, merely presenting my own ideal version of community in the hope that some people might see, understand and adopt some of my ideas. That's even the last I'm going to write on the matter. Between work and the baby, we've got too much on at the present for me to contribute further to the discussion on Atheismplus. Beyond replying to comments here and the odd tweet, I shall remove myself now and wish you all good luck.

* I have used 'community' as shorthand for what Benedict Anderson called the 'imagined community', different to a geographical community (of which I say nothing) in its scope and number.


Undoctrinated said...

I admire your passion and the breadth of the thought you've given to this. I very much agree with a few key points (devils advocacy, no taboos, wiki, etc.), while simultaneously missing the overall goal of a "community" that requires this degree of "structure" and or adherence to such a specific format.

In my opinion, there will be no "official community" for atheists. I believe that Secular Humanism is about the closest we will see to such a community. That being said, I feel as if the merits of critical, rational, logical, reasonable, skeptical thought are self evident and beneficial to everyone, no matter the "community. Simply finding, testing, promoting and adhering to demonstrably effective processes that lead to the discovery and application of truth in an empathetic manner should be paramount.

Thanks for the intellectual feast. I enjoyed it and will continue to "chew" on it.

Ben King said...

Thanks for the comment. I understand your point: ideally these 'rules' wouldn't even be formalised, they would simply be how we act. In such a case, we could be content knowing that the sustainable community aspect of it would simply emerge "undesigned".

This I feel is several evolutionary steps ahead of where we are now though. Working with what we've got (a society whose members are currently unable to escape exposure through their development to many sets of ideologies and unfounded beliefs), were we to want to consciously attempt to advance to such a stage I feel we would have to do it via a consensus method. If this limits the number who feel they can join, then so be it; numbers will grow over time through the example set by those who *have* consented to the rules.

Undoctrinated said...

I think you've touched on the reason for the backlash over atheismplus. It's almost as if an evolutionary "non-formalized" process can be the only way (for now anyway) to achieve anything resembling a community. The atheismplus camp had the audacity to become exclusive (by design). They did not require consensus, they insisted on group-think. It's no wonder it ruffled so many feathers.

Ben King said...

The non-formalised present of which you speak isn't fully what i hope to achieve though. Unspoken ideologies still create a naturally emerging formalisation e.g. Consider the proportion of influential skeptics who are vocally against neoliberal foreign policy compared to the global population. Extremely large discrepancy - that's not to provide a judgement one way or the other, merely to point out that our lack of diversity allows us to remain within the same fenced-garden of discourse, generating group-think which allows (particularly political) ideologies to remain unaddressed . Our shared culture outside of skepticism provides the undesigned formalisation that should be provided by a shared methodology. This will always lead to splits and conflict. Address these, and we can allow a fully non-formalised culture to develop.