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May 20, 2000: how can we be in if there is no outside

Saturday

I've been thinking about man as a social animal and the notion of communities for a while.

As a long-time participant in on-line culture, I've belonged to several online communities. These "virtual" communities are supposedly opening people's eyes to the more flexible nature of community--communities in which the participants can't discriminate against each other on the basis of race or sex or etc. And the creation of communities that aren't spatial--where the people don't all live close to each other.

But really there's nothing new here. (On the other hand, there are people who challenge this whole online thing, arguing that you can't really know somebody over the computer. It's easy to turn that back at them and ask about the phone. Moreover, once you've met a few people who you've known for a long time online, it becomes pretty obvious that it's legit.)

My friend Ilana mentioned, in the journal she keeps about her and her husband's boating adventure, how she and a number of others went out to help a fellow boater in need, noting that it was motivated by 'hey, next time, it could be me'.

This comment rang both true and false for me. My intuition is that man being a "social animal" is hereditary, genetic, produced by evolution. What's the evolutionary advantage? Cooperation. Consider, as an extreme case, the protectiveness of a mother for her children (in many species, not just mankind). There's a clear evolutionary advantage there. Having a tribe get together to protect each other and the children seems a natural next step.

So I would tend to expect that people would actually have an ingrained desire to get together with other people and forge communities.

Of course, mankind got too smart for evolution at some point, and evolution shifted over to a force on cultures and civilizations. (Whichever government can manage to keep itself in power and keep invaders out wins.) So I can imagine that some amount of communal bonding, as in the boat case above, is based on conscious decision making--if we help now, others will help us later. But I still suspect it's built around something more instinctual.

Of course, making it rationally-based allows us to develop "communities" that perhaps we would never do instinctively. Anything that we have in common seems to forge communities. Usenet newsgroups, each of which is ostensibly a discussion forum for people interested in the same subject, almost always turn into communities which discuss anything under the sun instead of whatever the official topic is. [I believe L. Fitzgerald Sjöberg of Brunching Shuttlecocks noted this is true for all discussion forums everywhere, seeking immortality by calling it "Lore's Law", but I'm not logged in to look it up. (Update: Sjöberg's Law of Public Cliquishness)]

Everyone who boats forms a fluid community of 'everyone in the same area who boats'.

Everyone who smokes forms a community. (Consider that there is no stigma to trying to bum a smoke, but there is to begging for money.)

Everyone who's a fan of a particular organized sports team forms a community.

And god forbid if you should be a fan of the opposite team.

There's the rub. For some reason, we seem unable of forging communities, of introducing a new sense of 'us', without having to have some 'them' to look down on. With the sports teams, this is pretty obvious. I'll come back to the other examples in a minute.

Do we need a 'them' to have an 'us'? It doesn't really seem like it. You can form a club, and everyone who's not interested in joining the club isn't part of 'us'--but there's no reason to view the "outsiders" negatively, which is what concerns me.

Is this part of the tribal instinct? It's hard to say. What dangers did tribes defend themselves against? Predators, irregular food supply? They wouldn't need a negative 'them'. But if they had to defend against other tribes, then we might have learned an instinctive negative attitude towards 'them'. (We certainly seem to be built to distrust strangers, a very close concept.)

What concerns me is this: it seems like every community I can think of, they have a negative attitude towards those outside the community. In most of these cases, it seems rather justified. And yet, the very fact that they all have it makes me suspicious. Even though it sounds justified, are we being narrow-minded, trained by a genetic instinct?

Those of us who have been around in the online world for a long time have severe dislike and distrust for the vast majority of people new to the Internet. It's not just a knee-jerk reaction--"we were here first", that all the new people (and the media) attribute to us. It's because the old Internet had a wonderful set of values we all subscribed to that made us a happy, cooperative community; a set of values that worked really well. All these new people aren't playing by those rules, and it annoys us. The rules they're playing by aren't as conducive to everyone being happy; our rules were designed to maximize the happiness of everyone, whereas most new people seem to play by pure self-interest.

Reading Ilana's boating stories, one finds that the "true" boating community has a set of values and attitudes and manners, and that they look-down-on/get-annoyed-by the newbies, the weekenders, the people who don't play by those rules. Sometimes when I read that I feel a bit of sympathy for the outsiders: "How are they supposed to know the rules? What makes your rules right and their behaviors wrong?" But the analogy to my above Internet example is obvious, so I suspect the "good" boaters are in the right on this one.

What about smokers? The outsiders are the people who don't smoke. There doesn't really seem to be any animosity there; when somebody tries to bum a smoke from me, and I tell them I don't smoke (this has happened twice in the last two weeks), they don't yell at me, call me a fool, or any such thing. They just move on to the next person. (I think they even say 'thanks' sometimes.) But, on the other hand, smokers are up in arms about the advance of smoking restrictions. Let's face it, smokers are indifferent about the discomfort they cause non-smokers, and while that's not a purely negative reaction, it amounts to treating people as inferiors. (To use perhaps far too strong an analogy, that indifference, that attitude that the outsider's opinions are irrelevent, reminds me of the attitude towards slaves by their owners.)

About the only kind of community I can think of that's not like this are the non-artificial communities--communities of people who live close to each other, e.g. a neighborhood community. Never having been to the meeting of such a group, I don't know what they're like, but it's hard to believe that they would consider everyone who doesn't live in their community to be a bad person. ("Those fools not to live here in the greatest place on earth!") On the other hand, if we draw the us/them distinction differently, then I wonder. What about all the people who go through a neighborhood without living there? Neighborhoods always seem up in arms about them. Some neighborhoods become gated communities. Some have curfews and you can get in trouble for being in them on the streets after a certain time if you don't live there.

So, see, the problem is that while each of these negative attitudes sounds like it has a legitimate basis, I'm seeing a pattern that makes me wonder whether or not there's something deeper going on. Could it be that the instinct to make a 'them' when there's an 'us' always causes us to find some reason to dislike 'them'? Does that mean we should question just how valid it is to dislike those who are excluded (by us or by their own choice)?

Back in the early days of the Internet, before we started being invaded by the visigoths, we had a relatively well-working community. I don't remember being particularly negative towards people who weren't part of the online community. They weren't idiots for not having found the online world. But I can't remember those times to be sure we weren't still negative in our exclusion--there may have just been more negativity between the different network communities.

I wonder.


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attribution dammit: Not One of Us Peter Gabriel

Updated with correct name for the law June 20, 2000.