Online Interaction types — what is there, what do I look for?

While going through the Spreadsheet I created as a tool after writing the last blogpost here, I realized that what was completely obvious to me, isn’t necessarily to others. Mostly because the whole argument about the details was mostly in my head.

So, let’s write it down:

To start, and to have a common vocabulary, we should set down a few basic communication model parameters:

  • Realtime versus Asynchronous.
  • One to one vs One to Many or even Many to Many
  • Closed vs Open
Realtime is the discussion we have at the breakfast table, or when we trashtalk our opponents inside a videogame, in a meeting, over the phone or even text or video chats. The key element is that it happens in real time, attendance is perceived and people generally consider it rude if you make them wait for an answer too long.Asynchronous communication is much more robust in regard to time constraints. In olden times, we simply knew that the messenger pigeon will take a while to deliver that missive to the King, so we waited. Letters took their time, and it was acknowledged that the recipient will then need time and effort to compose a proper answer.
One to One is a discussion with just two participants. That can be realtime (a phone call) or asynchronous (a letter).One to Many used to be the prerogative of official proclamations, public speeches and, later, newspapers and radio or tv broadcasts.
Many to Many is something that we have quite a lot today on the Internet. A group of people communicating within itself, or with another group of people. Sometimes in there, you have a few separate one‐to‐one conversations. Sometimes everyone is listening to just one person, sometimes everyone is broadcasting at once while no one listens.
Closed communications strive to be private — no one outside the elected circle may listen in — or they may listen in, but they are not allowed to participate.Open on the other hand is there for all to see, hear and join.

And on top of those models, we have the selectors by which people decide which communications they want to see or even participate in:

  • Serendipitous discovery
  • by topic
  • by curator

Serendipitous discovery of new topics, persons and discussions is something that is, in my mind, incredibly important these days. We need to be exposed to ideas and persons we wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. We often don’t know that we were missing an idea or something before we actually found it. I cannot search for unknown unknowns.

What I can look for are topics: Show me articles about that car I plan to buy. Or I’m looking for a place to discuss my new favorite game. Systems that make it easy for me to find those topics are helpful — but they tend to keep me in that bubble, I don’t often learn about things outside that topic.

Human Curators of content are incredibly important. Malcolm Gladwell calls them "Mavens" — a group of people that hunt out information about things and then strive to educate people about those. These curators are often very similar to a discovery by topic, because they usually have a theme, a thing that they are mostly interested in. But not exclusively so. Everyone has side hobbies, interests that are not obvious, and these make their way into the communication stream of a curator too.

Finally, we need to look at the different bits of communication and who owns them: This is less interesting in a face to face conversation in a room, without any technical tools, but gets really important very fast if you do things over the Internet.

Take this blog article here. It is written by me, posted on my Blog. I wholly own and control it — I can delete it if I want to, I can edit and revise it.

I also control the comments that are submitted on this Blog. If you have something to say about this and want to correct me, you can submit a comment here, that everyone will then be able to read.

But I will still own the comment in some sense — I will be able to hide it, delete it, even completely ban you from ever commenting again. Heck, WordPress even allows me to edit the comment, putting words into your mouths that you have never intended to write!

(I could have a variety of reasons to do so: I found what was written offensive. Or deemed it to be just not helpful for the discussion I wanted to have. Or I just don’t like the commentator. Some of these reasons can be completely legitimate, some are somewhat to very hostile)

If you want to assure ownership of your writing, you will have to do so on your own Blogpage. You could write an article of your own, pointing at mine and say whatever you want to say and I could not immediately delete it.

Different communication systems handle this ownership differently — Twitter, Mastodon and similar systems don’t know any post‐comment separation. Everything is a post, and every post fully belongs to the person who made it. That has upsides (as no one can maliciously remove your contribution) but also downsides (no one can easily take stewardship of a discussion, not even with the noblest of intents)

Lastly, there are some concerns about safety: Sadly, there will always be people who use communication systems to harass others. They could use technology to stalk people, flood their screens with hateful messages or simply spread rumors and lies about them. A good system will need a few tools to address that:

  • mute a person (prevent them from talking to you. They can still see your content, but are unable to show up on your screen)
  • block a person (same as muting, but they will also be unable to see your content)
  • throw someone out of the whole communication network (they cannot interact with anyone on this system anymore, at all.)

Not all of these tools should be in everyone’s hands (I should be able to decide that someone cannot see my things anymore, but a complete ban needs a higher and accountable authority), and not all of these need to be applied for a lifetime — sometimes it is sufficient to mute someone on just this one conversation, or for just a month. Sometimes people learn after a ban and come back as a better person.

So, having set down some definitions and ideas, how does all that relate to what I expect from a system that allows me to interact with others on a daily basis?

  • In case you haven’t noticed — I love the serendipity aspect of the Internet. It is a machine that keeps showing me new and exciting things and people.
  • I also am more interested in persons than topics — so I have a greater need to follow those, instead of just subscribing to car‐news and roleplaying games.
  • Even if everyone comes with the very best intentions — moderation of a discussion is important. And I prefer if those moderation powers come in very small packages, limiting the scope of the moderation to just certain parts. If not, this can quickly sour a whole community if things go wrong.
  • I believe in ambient findability. That means that it should always be easy to see the whole discussion, and where they branch off. Threaded views are key for this.
  • Text — I love memes. Really. Communicating ideas and feelings with bits of moving pictures is a great thing. And I love gorgeous photography or a well‐made video. But to convey complex ideas, Text is still the best carrier. Sure, make it illustrated and hyperlinked text, where you can look up related information. But due to so many restrictions (screen size, disabilities, can’t have audio on because I’m in a quiet place, I just don’t have the bandwith because #Neuland)
  • Lastly, and this has nothing to do with the things I outlined above, whatever system we use to build our social media stream with, it should be as open, portable and vendor‐lockin‐free as possible. Because we learned the hard way what happens otherwise…

Social Media, from a persons perspective

I do love participating in social media. It was around 1994 when MiGri introduced me to the world of BBSes, the Fido net and everything online. To be honest, I haven’t regretted a single thing from that.

At some point, I ran my own BBS, I joined Usenet, installed AOL and CompuServe until was I actually able to get a „real“ dialup account at Hamburg University, and spent countless nights on IRC and online RPGs.

The upside of all this was always the same: Technology connected me to new topics and interesting people. That is what the Internet and especially Social Media is for me: A tool to get me introduced to new things and people.

Of course, I also want to use technology to stay in contact with them, but once I am connected to someone, life will..  find a way. Really, staying connected to someone is not what I need a particular tool for. If all fails, I’ll have their email address or a phone number.

But having conversations in a place that ensures that new voices will join that conversation regularly, especially new voices that are somehow still vetted to not be too obnoxious or disrupting, that is the true magic of the internet.

And for a good while, Google+ was the place that did that for me. I don’t know quite how this worked, but it did — whenever an interesting conversation happened, new faces popped up, and a click link on their profile let me know if they were also interesting.

(I realize I’m writing this in the past tense, even though the system will stay online for another 10 months from now. Well, write for the future, they say.)

The fact that the system never pretended to join „friends“ with each other, and adding someone to their circle was a decidedly one‐way action, ensured that your circle of acquaintances grew steadily. One could always decide to publish certain posts to only certain circles, but if you posted public, it was just that — a way to engage with a wide net of possibly unknown people.

At the same time, it was possible to keep a semblance of control over who appeared within your own comments. You could moderate the comments or even ban too obnoxious persons from your interactions.

And now the hunt is on, to find a similar platform that does the same for me and my peeps. And as we learned, we are looking for a very specific feature set:

  • The basics:
    • Safety (don’t open me to lawsuits, don’t put me in danger of malware or bad people)
    • privacy (don’t expose my data without my consent)
    • it should just work“
  • The socials
    • built for serendipity, so focus on public or at least semi‐public interactions
    • be abuse‐aware: Allow moderation, banning and the like.
  • The nitty‐gritty
    • don’t have a complicated backend that I need to learn to post or moderate
    • discussions attached to a post are good, nay, mandatory
    • threaded discussions are even better
    • emphasise on text. It can be rich‐text, it can involve pictures and videos, but text is still where discussions happen.
  • The open
    • don’t be a closed silo
    • don’t belong to a single company
    • ideally, be federated and allow for moving between instances

So far, none of the systems I know ticks all the boxes though…

Bob and the Internet

This is the story of Bob: Bob is active in her chosen field, which exposes her to some wider audience. As Bob does things that people value, she has a podium on which to speak and she uses it to some effect.

Alas, Bob has a problem. For some reason, some folks don’t like her. Where she posts, there are often arguments, accusations of some kind, to the point where people publicly get into (verbal) fights about the perceived innocence or guilt of Bob and others.

Bob of course defends herself, and friends of hers join in, calling those out who deal in reprehensible behaviour. She makes a convincing case that she is the victim here, and gets increasingly vocal about it over time.

Eventually, friends become enemies, communities splinter and sometimes even the police needs to get involved when some people cross lines into doxxing, actual death threats or worse.

Poor Bob, you probably think.

But maybe we should take a dispassionate look at Bob. We may find that sometimes, she is either completely on the defence. Mostly though, Bob is doing full‐on attacks on those who have slighted her.

For her, people are apparently either useful, background noise or, well, enemies. And once you are her enemy, or are not immediately distancing yourself from those enemies, Bob will remember you forever.

Occasionally, Bob will admit to err on factual things, but she certainly is always right in her assessment of interpersonal relations. And yes, she is the undoubtedly the victim here, because, have you seen what Steve did?

If a situation escalates, it is never Bobs fault. If people cry foul, they are harassers. If they want to have no part of the drama, they are enablers. If someone on her side oversteps some line, it is their fault, certainly not Bobs for inciting them.

Still poor Bob?

Look up the vocabulary that describes an Abuser. You will find terms like Gaslighting. Victim Playing, DARVO, Stalking, Belittling, Controlling who is allowed to talk with whom.. If you’re online, you will also find all the rhetoric tricks too: Hiding behind technicalities, ad hominem attacks, Whataboutism and so on.

Bob portrays all the quality of a narcissistic, highly abusive person.

There are many Bobs online, and I am often not sure if they are simply broken persons or just plain evil.

Before I get to know a Bob, I usually assume that she simply has problems parsing emotions through text, that I didn’t make my point or argument clear enough. Because I have that problem myself: Often enough, I don’t know how the other person wanted me to perceive them, what they really wanted to say.

Online interactions are often fleeting or brief. That means that I miss a half‐sentence or misread things. English isn’t my first language, and often enough, I converse with people who are also non native english speakers. So I allow for a wide range of misinterpretations, attribute to human error what could also be malice.

Sadly enough, that plays right into Bobs hand, reinforcing the notion that she is blameless, and everyone else is wrong. Bob sits secure in her perfect perch, and laps up the attention she receives, slowly ruining the online life of others.

Don’t give in to the Bobs. Resist that. Stop interacting with them, even when they bait you to it. It is hard. It can be very painful. And you do not have to stay in an online place where a Bob resides. We don’t owe a Bob anything at all.

But we do owe the community we want to live in. Identify the Bobs in there and then make it clear that they need to demonstrate a willingness and effort to be civil, to be polite and to be mindful of how others perceive their voice — or they will be shunned and shut out.

Do not ask Alice to “make up with Bob, for the sake of the community”. This will allow Bob to further mess with Alice. In the end, Alice will have only the option of more suffering from Bob, or to leave the community that continues to allow Bobs presence.

And above all: Don’t give any attention to the Bobs. It’s what they want, what feeds their ego. It should of course be positive attention, but they don’t actually care if it is negative, so long as it keeps their ego fed.

So don’t.

Identify the Bobs. Explain them the rules. And shun them (and only them) when it becomes apparent that they won’t change.

I am on Mastodon now

Those who know me, are aware that I am some sort of Hipster. As such, I of course have to be ahead of all the latest trends and topics de jour. In social media, that means that I of course need to have a Mastodon handle. In case you haven’t heard of Mastodon, here’s a short summary:

  • Mastodon is a microblogging service based on GNU‐Social
  • Everyone can set up their own instance and then federate with other instances to create a global network
  • Identities are only unique within their instance. Same as email really, where you can have the same name on several domains.

So, what makes this different than, say Identi​.ca, Diaspora and similar things? For once, it already looks much more polished than Diaspora. And then it also manages to overcome quite a lot of the shortcomings that are inherent to the Twitter‐clones:

  • There is an expanded limit of 500 characters for each „toot“. That is wordy enough for me.
  • There are two extra timelines that you can see — everyone on the same Instance and everyone else who is somehow connected to the people in your instance. That ensures that you see things happening and get connected to folks right from the start.
  • The federation system gets rid of the pesky free‐speech vs moderation clash. More on that later.

So, what is it with the three timelines and the federation system? The basic setup is this: You have a home timeline, which shows everything from those folks you actively follow. You can follow users on your own instance, as well as those who are on any instance that is federated with the one you’re on. That basically means everyone, unless their instance is viewed as so toxic and bad that your admin has decided to get rid of them altogether. In effect, the Home timeline is what you’re used from all the other social networks.

On top of that, you have a „Local“ timeline. That list shows all the activity from everyone who is a user on the same instance as you. This immediately shows one reason why it is important to choose the correct instance to have your account in: If the instance you join is full of gaming nerds, you will have a very different experience than if it would be full of artists or political activists.

The third timeline is the Federated one. Here you basically see everyone who isn’t local or in your home stream, but somehow connected to one of those people. Friends of a friend so to speak. The exact rules are a bit more complicated, but that is the gist of it.

I really cannot stress how useful I found these extra two timelines. While I have no idea how many people are on the same instance as I am (octodon.local, chosen because the about page is simply spot on to my worldview.),  it apparently is exactly the right size: The local stream is busy, but not too busy. And as a result, people take the time to chime into conversations there and answer open questions. On other social networks, those questions would probably either not be seen, or drowned in the sea of everything else.

Now, with every new tech project, there are of course immediate philosophical differences: One of them is the use of FollowerBots. Those are bits of software that simply follow every person on a different instance that they learn of, making sure that the activity of those people becomes visible in the instance of that bot. As an end result, the bots aim to change the behaviour of that Federated timeline from showing friends‐of‐friends only to showing everyone. Personally, I am not yet sure if I like this. The upside is that if this bothers you, you can for example join an instance that blocks those bots.

The other issue seems to revolve around censorship and free speech. My own stance is that you can say what you want, but not everyone is required to listen to you. And the federation system of Mastodon allows for exactly this: Everyone can set up their own instance, and everyone can give being heard a good shot. But if you spout stuff that upsets people, they can make sure that you don’t show up in their timeline.

(You should be aware though, that the whole Mastodon concept is not very privacy‐oriented. There are lots of loopholes and pitfalls, and server admins can usually read everything on their instance if they absolutely want to.)

Still, the whole Federation system allows for a wide variety of needs on the whole free‐speech‐vs‐censorship spectrum. And that allowance in turn fosters a discussion about these very things, with the results of that discussion ending up in the code and settings of the various instances. (keep in mind that the whole thing is open source after all!)

I think I’ll use Mastodon for most of my daily status update needs for a week or so now, to see where I end up with this. See the results here: https://octodon.social/@JollyOrc