Thursday, March 24, 2011

Derelict Buildings and Benevolent Dictatorship

I was talking about the previous post to my guitar teacher, and we got into a conversation that ultimately was about whether people, when left to their own devices, are fundamentally good or fundamentally bad.  It was a revival of a theme I first ran across in Intro to Western Civilization the first year of college, basically Rousseau vs. Hobbes.

I was talking about dealing with troublemakers in online communities, and my guitar teacher knows a bit about this because he was manager of the forum for his band on their website for some years.  I contended that it was possible that troublemakers could be reformed, from the equivalent of office hours where they could talk and be listened to.  He contended that any online community would always have a destructive element, that any group left alone will deteriorate and start to post angry, stupid hateful posts.  His examples were some of the things that have popped up since the earthquake in Japan, which I won't quote here because the points of view are so abominable but harked back to WW2 and various old grudges.  I mentioned 4chan (content warning, caution before you click through) as an example, which does, yes, have some abominable content, but it hasn't been destroyed, and in fact has produced some valuable memes and content, at least for comedic value.  Would it be because it's so big, because it doesn't have an archive?  He still wasn't having it.  Groups of people, when left by themselves in anarchy, end up being destructive haters.

Well, yes, actually I agreed with that.  Which is why you need a manager of an online community, to set the tone and model the desired behavior and enforce guidelines.  Aha!  He thought he had me.  So people can be made to behave online when there's someone in charge, when there is someone there to enforce rules.  But that's not anarchy.  No, I agreed, that's a benevolent dictatorship.  I have always found myself in this kind of conversation defending paternalistic systems of rules.  I guess I have an overall schoolmarmish perspective on controlling and leading groups of people.  But if that person can take charge, then people can display their best selves, and the community won't necessarily succumb to haters and be destroyed.

Somewhere in there I made an analogy to derelict buildings.  Sure, they get their windows broken and graffiti if no one is looking after them, but if someone is looking after them and goes and fixes the window and removes the graffiti, then the vandalism stops.  Aha, he said again.  So, that's not anarchy.  No.  But I glanced out the window at the main street of the town where I live, with some of the lowest crime rates in the entire country.  No, it's not anarchy, but it works.

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