Open and Closed Communities

I think we’re misserved by moralizing about openness because it’s not as simple as “open equals good and closed equals bad.” It’s a spectrum. And when we talk about “velvet ropes” and “country clubs” and calling “bullshit,” it strikes me as accusatory and, ultimately, distracting.

Josh Miller's A False Dichotomy: Why Fred Wilson is wrong about openness.

Josh's insights about open not always equalling open are good ones, insightful. It's actually something that I've observed myself, and like to refer to in my head as "The 4chan rule." It goes like this: Any online group that functions as an actual community must have a certain amount of "closed-ness." This manifests in one of two ways: either the community is closed off "physically," as Josh's site Branch encourages, wherein no one is allowed to become a member of a group without an invitation; or, the community is closed culturally, as 4chan is. In 4chan's case, without even having identity anyone can join and participate in theory, and no one would even know you are the new kid on the block! But, as if to make up for this openness, interactions on 4chan are as scripted as a Japanese tea ceremony. Not knowing those scripts mark you as much as an outsider as unceremoniously gulping down a giant mug of tea would in the tea house.

Point, Josh.

But, the issue Josh tiptoes around is this: as with everything in life, you've got to pick your poison. Where some amount of closed-ness is a fact of online life, the social mechanisms of an open platform are simply more open and transparent than those on a closed platform. Prior to receiving an invite to Branch, I simply had no idea how one would go about getting an invitation. There is some system that governs who's in and who's out, it's just not at all clear what it is. In the case of 4chan or the AVC comments, it's pretty damn simple, if I take the time to find out. And that's the point: these open communities aren't handing anybody anything, they don't give a rats ass who you are. Instead, what matters to them is a more fundamental type of respect: respect for the community, its members, its culture and customs. When you sit there baffled about how to be a good resident of these communities, the real thing you're doing is saying, "it's not worth my time to find out."

Question: if a community isn't worth your time, why are you worth their time? Josh is right: he is a visitor in the AVC community, and they aren't open to his thoughts and no fucks were given. Now, let's delineate that it's not that they think Josh is a terrible person, they just aren't particularly concerned with Josh one way or another. Why should they be? Fred never says, "anyone can come in and get up on a pedestal and begin shouting their agenda," Fred says, "anyone can come in and be a regular." Anyone can come in and be a member of the community, so long as they actually take the time to do it.

Point, AVC and 4chan.

The fact is, online communities aren't static, definable objects, but rather, forces of collective attention. For hundreds of years, collective attention was harnessed through hierarchy: we were all in our giant rowboat, and a captain would say row, and everyone would row in that direction, and we'd all be listening to Nick Carter telling us he wants us back, or Bill Clinton swearing he'd not had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, because that was what our leaders had passed down to us. Then the 00's hit and we were all given personal hovercraft and it was pandemonium: most of us were gazing into Justin Bieber's cherub cheeks, but a few of us randomly stumbled onto Leeroy Jenkins (who at least had chicken), or were busy being riveted by Cassandra Clare's epic plagiarism drama. In the absence of a heirarchical decision making structure, decisions about what everybody should pay attention to — or shouldn't — aren't made, so much as intuited.

It's all well and good when you get to be captain, and the idea of an orderly space where everyone waits their turn to speak is a pretty little fantasy, but often the most efficient place to be is that razor thin edge between operational and chaos. For those of us who've grown to love this "second place," it's exactly that noise and mess that we thrive on: it's the dull roar of millions of people chattily driving around their hover crafts, with no where in particular they have to be.