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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Echo in the Echo Chamber

I've been running a little experiment over on reddit. Make no mistakes, I understand the current culture of the Eve Online subreddit. I know it's not very open to my playstyle. But it's also one of those sites to which I've never paid much attention. I prefer a more substantive read than what the links on that newsgroup-wannabe-remake give. But some bloggers are really high on reddit, so I thought I'd go ahead and check out the dope that is the subreddit /r/eve.

Well, it's an interesting place alright. It's chock full of funny pictures and from time to time some really good stories. It's also an extreme echo chamber, and a poor reflection of all that Eve Online is. In case you're wondering what I mean, let me lay it out for you.

An echo chamber is a place where "information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission inside an "enclosed" space, often drowning out outside views." This is per the Wikipedia explanation of an echo chamber as it applies to media. So does reddit do this? Does it prompt what is in essence groupthink and suppress outside views?

Yes, it does and here is why. It is sad but true the mechanism which makes reddit an echo chamber was originally created to combat spam - the scourge of the Internet age. In an attempt to stop spam, reddit enacted the karma point system. Posters get positive karma points for up votes. They get negative karma points for down votes. The worse your karma, the harder it is for you to post anything. In some fantasy vision of how the internet works, this would stop reddit spammers dead in their tracks.

That's hopelessly naive. Instead the system has become the reward for a primal habit loop - one most people are unaware they have. Furthermore, I believe it's been subverted into an echo chamber amplification device. With a game like Eve Online it's easy. Just get all your alliance mates to upvote a post of which you approve and you generate lots of positive karma points for that post. The more alliance mates you have, the more up votes you create. Peer pressure and an instinctual desire for approval does the rest. And as we all know (don't we?) peer pressure is the single strongest enforcer of social habit to ever come into existence.

Currently I am re-reading a book called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. The last portion of the book speaks to the power of peer pressure, which is a form of social habit. Without it, the Montgomery bus boycott and the Freedom Summer project would never have happened. In that instance, peer pressure was used to get people involved and to create social change. When it appeared that every member of the black community would boycott, that ensured practically every member of the black community would join the boycott. No one wanted to be pointed at and accused of not participating when they believed everyone else would be participating. In that instance, it served the greater good - Montgomery Alabama buses were desegregated, and Martin Luther King Jr. was catapulted onto the national stage. Unfortunately peer pressure is much more likely to be used to maintain the status quo and support echo chambers.

So how does this apply to /r/eve? Simple, every up or down vote is peer pressure. It says "I approve of what your are saying" or it says "I don't approve of what you are saying." People are social animals. We crave (there's that habit loop again) acceptance. We want up votes, not down votes. So we say those things that get us up voted. Furthermore, we post stuff with which other subscribers, people in our social group, are familiar and comfortable in order to garner their up votes, because they will reject anything else no matter what.

Here is a case to that last point from the same book. Remember the song "Hey ya!" by OutKast? Great song right? It spent like nine weeks at the top of the chart right? Well, not initially. The interesting thing about that song is it broke many of the familiar trends in modern hip-hop of the time. I mean really, where did that Beetles-esk stuff come from anyway? Though every indication the music industry had said it would be a smash hit, when it originally aired most people changed the radio station (yes, they can track that.) People HATED the song. It didn't conform to what they thought a good song should be like. They were not comfortable with it so they rejected it by turning to a different station - the quintessential down vote.

The music industry had to backstep quickly. They pulled the song from the airwaves while they figured out what went wrong. When they understood it was because the song was so different, they started sandwiching it between very familiar songs by well established artists like Beyoncé. They put it between songs that are known as "sticky." These are songs listeners almost never change the dial on. So listeners got a sticky song, then "Hey Ya!" and then another sticky song. They stopped changing the station and soon everyone was singing "Hey Ya!" as their idea of "familiar" and "normal" was actively manipulated.

This cannot happen on reddit (actually it can but more on that in a minute.) Reddit as a company does not have enough control of the postings for this to ever be. They, as a business, cannot sandwich uncomfortable (unpopular) posts between comfortable (popular) ones. Reddit just doesn't work that way.

Those things that are unfamiliar and different will always invoke the "change the station" response. In reddit parlance, they will receive heaps of negative karma. Those things that are familiar and comfortable will get the up votes. Up voted redditors will continue to be allowed to post their familiar and comfortable stuff. The rest will be highly encouraged to go away - as I was it predictably turned out. Had I not done what I did on purpose, I probably would have given up - or gotten banned.

Why might I have gotten banned? I tested the supposition that unpopular posts, and the poster who submits them, would suffer extreme impediments to having a voice. During my experiment, I actively trolled two of the subscribers. The blog post I'd linked was already very unpopular. I made the post even MORE uncomfortable for /r/eve redditors - on purpose. I trolled them hard, to provoke a habit. I got negative karma out the wazoo. Within hours I was being told by reddit, "You've done that too much. Try again in 24 hours." It included posts linking other blogs and images - things reddit supposedly wanted me to post. It even restricted the comments I could make telling Eve redditors what a great story they had. The only thing I could do was vote, so I tried upvoting other submissions, and I'm not even certain those were recorded as my karma remained persistently negative for over two days. I had to go to this web site to learn how to game the reddit system so I could continue my experiment. Fortunately, I wasn't outright banned for gaming the system as some have been. However, I could see that coming, so decided my experiment was over after one more post and after one of the redditors called me on my ploy. Was he actively looking at the other legitimate subreddits I'd posted on to see why my karma had suddenly shot up? Why would he do that? What sort of dog did he have in that hunt? Interesting questions aren't they?

This is a serious problem for the Eve community. Why? Because it's so damn easy to manipulate redditors with this system, and reddit is huge. Reddit itself cannot control posts as the music industry controlled playlists. To do so would no doubt get it in trouble not only with it's subscribers but perhaps the authorities as well. That sort of tampering may be expected from the music industry, but not the Internet where everyone has the right to say anything (within decency limits.)

But just because reddit itself cannot control subreddit culture, that doesn't prevent outside groups from doing it. The Internet is awash in people's stories about having had extremely negative run ins with reddit bans precipitated by other redditors. All a group has to do is be organized enough to up vote what they approve and down vote anything they don't like, and report those who buck their system. They can then use the culture they've molded to perpetuate their own point of view. They can sandwich posts that basically say, "And we are all these things of which you approve," between awesome noob stories of life and PvP in New Eden, and they will find themselves approved of as well. That is so long as they have bent the norm to view their desired culture as familiar and accepted.

They don't even have to intercede every day. They just have to do it consistently until it becomes the norm. Over time, everyone will come to expect posts to conform to that norm. Those will be the familiar posts. The comfortable posts. Anyone coming into reddit unaware of this normative bias will internalize it. They will adopt it as their own. They will not tolerate anything that disturbs that comfort zone. The moment when other redditors start doing the down voting for them, the group pulling the strings can sit back, watch and smile. Mission accomplished.

In that way, a relatively small number of well coordinated individuals with a single purpose can shape the habits of the larger social group. In this instance, it's the 38,000 or so subscribers to /r/eve. It was once said that repeating a lie often enough will eventually make even the liar believe it. There is more wisdom to that statement than most give credit. But it isn't the lie that is the important part of that wisdom. It is the knowledge of how the lie transforms from something that goes against the familiar, to something that is familiar. Even if rationally we still know it's a lie, repeated constantly it will become so ingrained into our daily lives it will become familiar to us. We will expect to hear the lie. We will incorporate it into our routine and eventually accept that it is always going to be there. The lie becomes a familiar and accepted thing - the truth in other words. Another urban myth is born, or subreddit controlled.

Is this reddit's fault? Are their administrators culpable? No, they are just a company trying to make money in a cutthroat business. They have to obtain subscribers to survive and they can do so as they see fit. The fact they seem to actively encourage this is nothing I will lose any sleep over. I don't have to use reddit. Hell, I don't even like reddit. It's so shallow compared to true Usenet as to make me laugh.

What does bother me is all those, "I'm new to Eve Online and have a question" posts by new subscribers to /r/eve. Those noob posters don't know the version of reality they are getting is a carefully constructed, one sided view of everything Eve Online has to offer. There may be a world of different opinions that could help them make important decisions better, but they will not be seen by new redditors. The echo chamber will see to that.

Think about that the next time you peruse /r/eve, or any highly frequented and popular Eve metagame site. Ask yourself, "Is there groupthink going on here? Am I being manipulated? If so, by whom and to what end?" To me, the answer is obvious. But all you have to do is be aware of what is going on; that your Eve cultural habits may be purposeful constructs. Then you are prepared to make rational, informed decisions. Maybe you'll decide you like the constructed norm and your habit loop will remain unchanged. Maybe you'll decide you don't like it and change your Eve routine. Either way, at least you won't be a chump.

Watch Out


Bibliography:
    "Echo Chamber (media)." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 08 Oct. 2013. Web. 26 Aug. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Echo_chamber_(media)>.
      "Hey Ya!" Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Aug. 2013. Web. 26 Aug. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hey_Ya!>.
        Duhigg, Charles. Amazon.com: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (3520700000553): Charles Duhigg: Books. Random House, Feb. 2012. Web. 26 Aug. 2013. <http://www.amazon.com/The-Power-Habit-What-Business/dp/1400069289>.

        Chump: a foolish or easily deceived person.

        7 comments:

        1. I could have told you the results. I managed to get the all time low karma in the TEST alliance forum and then the all time highest karma gain when I rejoined them, by practically telling the same things.

          The only difference is that in the second term TEST was broke and begged for donations.

          Social people are barely more than bots. They do what the culture programs into them. Some of them can be liberated. Others ... well, they are bots, so there shouldn't be any ethical limits on how we use them for our purposes.

          ReplyDelete
        2. This is mighty enlightening and I am going to read the book you name-dropped.

          ReplyDelete
        3. "Ask yourself, "Is there groupthink going on here? Am I being manipulated? If so, by whom and to what end?" To me, the answer is obvious. "

          So what is the obvious answer? Whom and to what end?

          ReplyDelete
          Replies
          1. >Whom and to what end?

            People who believe that Eve must be played a certain way. And that anyone who wants to play a different way must be cast out. Advice about manufacturing and mining gets downvoted - because that crowd believes that PvP is the only "real" Eve.

            Delete
        4. The Fountain War was very interesting for /r/eve.

          We started to see a lot of votes on Reddit against Test and pro the CFC. It was really well marshaled.

          Of course Something Awful has long experience in organising effective internet campaigns such as Draw Mohammed Day etc.

          ReplyDelete
        5. I looked at /r/eve a couple of times to try and understand that part of the eve community. It is too much of this self referential mutual admiration / mutual hate society. I could not come to terms with it. Your article is a valuable piece of work in my very humble estimation.

          I more often visit the Eve Online forums. They are owned largely by a small but extremely vocal minority who relentlessly pursue their theme that hardcore PvP/Griefing is the only valid playstyle. Since they are the official forums it is very likely that these are the first contact point with the metagame for many new players. It creates a very stilted view of the attitudes and actions of a large portion of Eve's playerbase.

          It seems to be a very successful part of the metagame. The posting intensity of many posters their seems to preclude an active involvement in eve outside gatecamping and null sec mining.

          ReplyDelete
        6. What is really the deal with the "carebears suck" mentality?

          I like to think I don't sell industry short in Eve. I'm more of an exploding-spaceships kind of guy (though I do have maxed out mining skills and an Orca alt), but when I'm explaining to someone how Eve combat has real consequences, I can't do it without pointing out that (with some minor exceptions) every ship that explodes, every gun that fired on that ship, and every piece of ammo that was used in the destruction, was manufactured by a player industrialist, in a process that's more akin to actual supply chain management than standard MMO "crafting", and sold on what's essentially a real market, even if it only trades in space pixels. To leave out industry and trading when explaining Eve means you leave out what's ultimately the important thing about the combat! This is a disservice to Eve, no matter your playstyle.

          ReplyDelete

        Be civil, be responsible and most of all be kind. I will not tolerate poor form. There will be no James Hooks here. We are all better than that.