Responsiveness, emergence and self-organization

by eskokilpi

I gave keynote speeches at two conferences this week. The organizers of the events did not suggest a (#) hashtag to be used by the delegates. There wasn’t any backchannel Twitter discussion going on in the audience. I felt strange.

I wasn’t able to listen and respond to real-time feedback. I was missing the self-regulation and self-organizing that social media make possible. This is what I have grown so accustomed to. I started to ponder on two questions: Is it becoming more common for responsiveness to be the missing ingredient in many communities? And can there be rules for responsiveness that help to create viable communities?

I know that there are problems with two-way communication. There are the people with a pre-set interpretative model. We all know the people who are grinding their axe at the back of the room. They are the know-alls and the one-point-of-view evangelists, the people who insist on bringing all conversations round to their particular issue.

I know that there are even bigger issues: All participants are never visible. Any given conversation on the Web may have a few active participants and several silent ones. This creates a fundamental imbalance in the system and gives the oddballs the opportunity to dominate the space in a way that would be much harder to do off-line.

What I felt at the conferences was a crucial disparity: they hear me talking, but I don’t hear them. The audience was both present and absent at the same time. A conference with a Twitter backchannel creates inputs from the official speakers and responses coming from the audience that is present, but also the online audiences elsewhere. The most important thing is that the primary inputs can then be further adjusted on the basis of the responses from the group. There is real-time emergent self-organizing going on.

Information flows are far too often unidirectional. The audience is present but in a passive, invisible way. The tyranny of the hatemonger results from this one-way flow and scarcity of feedback.

The volume is too high for any single individual to filter out the useless or plain repulsive. There are, however, ways to filter out the irrelevant and the obnoxious, but it requires people to respond. If you are a participant, you are also a moderator.

The quality control has to be handed to the community itself without any single individual being in control. The solution is fairly simple in theory. It is about responsiveness and a mix of negative and positive feedback.

You always rate what you see. The ratings coalesce algorithmically into something that is called karma in Slashdot. If your contributions are highly rated you get karma points. The karma you have earned means that your subsequent posts begin life at a higher level than posts by others. Your ratings also have a higher value than ratings given by people with fewer karma points. Dynamic rating is to posts what links are to websites.

The people worth following, the leaders, raise bottom up. Hierarchies in network architectures are natural and dynamic heterarchies. In fact this is the only way that there can be leaders in democratic systems. One “algorithm” tracks the value of contributions; the other tracks the value of contributors.

The Web 2.0 gave the audience a voice. What is happening at the moment is much more radical. It is not about representation but gestures and responses leading to emergence and self-organization. It is not about the message or the media any more. It is more about the rules of responsiveness. In a simplified way, you can express those rules as constant positive and negative feedback moving the whole system towards a particular direction based on the behaviour of the participants.

The definition of what is quality and what is crap is a result of the responsive interaction. It is not group think however, because the ratings of people with high “karma points” weigh more than the assessments of the average members. The huge problem is that the majority viewpoints get amplified, while minority opinions get silenced. This is why we need a new category to support quality. It is diversity.

Changing the algorithm to reward diversity of opinion means the emergence of a system that looks totally different. Instead of highlighting posts with high average ratings, the system could highlight posts that have triggered a high divergence of ratings. There are many +5 responses, but also many -5 responses. The posts that inspire strong responses either way, both positive and negative, could then rise to higher visibility. The system can thus reward controversial voices, not only popular ones.

A viable system needs to reward perspectives that deviate from the mainstream. We need perspectives that don’t aim to please everyone. The oddballs would still be marginalized but the thoughtful minorities who attract both admirers and critics would have a visible place in the ongoing process of creating the future in responsive collaboration.

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Thank you Steven Johnson