Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Experimenting with IRC

So, today my students jumped into IRC using the private channel I'd created. The Mibbit widget assigns random handles to new users, which was perfect because I wanted the students to experiment and experience relatively anonymous communication (they weren't entirely anonymous, since they were all in a physical room together).

Their task, after playing around a bit with IRC was to go and explore Usenet groups through Google, and then report back what they were seeing in the IRC channel.

As I expected (well, actually, it was worse than I expected), there was basically no discussion of the task and much discussion of random things: alcohol, penis size (complete with drawings!), a blackout that occurred downtown. As the instructor, I tried a few times to refocus discussion back to Usenet by asking questions. The few who responded wrote very short answers without elaboration, and all of the noise of the other chatter made it impossible to focus on the topic.

All of this served as a perfect example of the problems with online chat, and it illustrated themes in Monday's and today's readings. Monday's reading by Brenda Danet (1998) on text and play in synchronous environments discussed gender and how it can be performed and "bended" online. A subtext of her argument was that people play in synchronous, text-based spaces.

Play is exactly what my students were doing (some, not all. I noted several who watched but did not contribute or who read Usenet group discussion instead). Especially given that there was no name, no identity, attached to those posts, they were free to be as goofy or provocative as they liked, with no risk or repercussion.

This also illustrated several points from today's reading by Kollock and Smith (1996). Their essay focused on Usenet and the problem of cooperation in online environments where there are few rules and little by way of sanctioning to stop unwanted behavior. Of concern to them is how to promote the collective good in online environments where it's so easy to be selfish.

Indeed, the behavior I saw was selfish behavior, primarily. That is: behavior meant to draw a response, to be clever, to make people laugh. And, that soon became the norm of the group. Effort on my part to draw us back to a task was ultimately stymied. This, then, also speaks to the power of norms in collectives, and the difficulty in shifting those norms when the group's will is elsewhere.

It also speaks to the free rider problem, although maybe that's not the right word. For those students who opted not to play or chatter off topic, why didn't they either play along with the chatter or try to push the group to the task? A few did, but then abandoned the effort (as did I). If more had begun to respond to the query, would the conversation have turned to the task? Probably.

It also raises the question of whether in these online text-based, relatively identity-free environments if people will generally devolve to the "lowest common denominator." Although that wasn't discussed explicitly in Kollock and Smith, it certainly is a concern in online interaction. If given the opportunity will people rise up to do the work being asked of them, or will they stoop to the basest of jokes and silliest of interactions?

I think people do and will rise if they see some benefit in it. There are plenty of people who participate in online groups, whether it's email lists or Usenet, and they do so because they get some social or functional benefit. But, getting that started is difficult, and requires the kinds of rules and moderation that Kollock and Smith speak to.


Danet, B. (1998). Text as mask: Gender, play, and performance on the Internet. In S. G. Jones (Ed.), Cybersociety 2.0: Revisiting computer-mediated communication and community (pp. 129-158). Thoudans Oaks, NJ: Sage.

Kollock, P. & Smith, M. (1996). Managing the virtual commons: Cooperation and conflict in computer communities. In S. C. Herring (Ed.), Computer-mediated communication: Linguistic, social and cross-cultural perspectives (pp.109-129). Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.


Kyle Snow said...
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Kyle Snow said...

The first thing that came to mind when I read your blog is that we as a class in com 430z were studying about how much of a problem this “noise” is on the internet, and yet a majority of us still chose not to handle the matter at hand. We knew what was going on, and all of us should have known that this was an experiment, and yet we still did exactly what we should not have done. We contributed to this free rider problem. I think this is proof of how strong of a problem this is, and how hard it is to try to fix.