Archive for December, 2009

Behind every account is a human being

Friday, December 4th, 2009

vitruvian-man-1When I wrote about culture engines, the Favrd Crowd was a different group. It was smaller, sure, but more importantly it was transitioning from one way of thinking about the group to something different. Mere days after posting, two large meetings of people within the group occurred which caused such a significant change in how people interacted with each other that a month later the Favrd Crowd was a different group.

This article is my attempt to make sense of the community that developed around Favrd, Twitter, and Tumblr four months after I first took a deeper look.

An informal structure of the community

Internet-based communities are inherently different than physical communities in ways that are still poorly understood. We know the tools and we can see the consequences of how members interact, but the structure and dynamic of what is still a biological desire to be social but through technology originally built for tabulation and content creation is a mystery.

The Favrd Crowd exists in three spheres of interaction: public, private, and in person. With few exceptions[1] everyone joins the community through the public sphere. This consists of Twitter and Tumblr. Members sign up with either one or both and learn the rules of competition for Favrd, Favstar, and Tumblr’s Tumblarity. How one comes to terms with the group depends on their disposition. Some get stuck on the competition of getting a high number of stars for their tweets or a high Tumblarity, others ignore as best they can and concentrate on developing relationships with other members. Most end up with a mixture of both.

Recently there has been open discussion regarding members who are obsessed with the competition. What’s interesting is that those who are most successful with getting high rankings are well versed in the tricks that can be employed to getting a high score, but they concentrate on the original intention of the ‘game’ – to create something witty enough, clever enough, funny enough, or original enough that many will see its true value. This is the safeguard against an encroachment of marketers and consultants that suck out any originality of a new tool for the sake of being more effective and thus creating a hollow core, not unlike a parasite. What the discussion of the competition misses is that the people gaming the system for high scores are people just like their critics – they may reform and turn out to be as funny or clever as the best. But because this game requires more wit and intelligence than other games (like first-person shooters, Facebook games like Farmville, etc.), members will either have to reform or leave.

But the game isn’t everything. Long-term members, used to the rules and competition and more aware of their strengths and weaknesses, typically begin to realize that there are real people in the group who have similar interests, senses of humor, and life experiences. This can result in creative outputs that make up the culture engine; but I’ve realized that this happens infrequently, when two or more creative people with similar dispositions serendipitously work together on something new. Most of the time what happens is a friendship – one that wouldn’t have occurred because both are physically in different locations.

The friendships are fascinating. The Favrd Crowd is very far-flung, with strong presences in every English-speaking country, and a smattering of other places by people who have a firm enough grasp of English as well as Anglo, American, and Australian cultures to understand the jokes and to make their own. Throw in the difference in tastes and social norms of the cultures of each country (and each region of the United States), and there’s a lot that group members must know and understand to successfully fit in. This creates a situation of self-selection where the members are a homogenous group of a sort – there are many interests, tastes, and so on – but there’s an undercurrent of similarly-ordered mental lives that brings everyone together. We accept members because they think like us, not because they like the exact same things we do (though we like a lot of the same things). That means that by joining the community one is getting access to people who are compatible with their interests and tastes, now no longer limited by geography. Some people are gaining friends where, without the Favrd Crowd, they’d be without.

But friendships only start in the public sphere. They flourish on the private sphere. This level started with Twitter’s direct messages, which can only be seen by the the sender and the recipient – essentially a text messaging system. From there dialogues expand to instant messages, then text messages, phone calls, video chat, and eventually the ‘in person’ sphere (more on that later). This is where most of the communication for the culture engine occurs, and where members of the Favrd Crowd learn just how similar they are to others.

There’s an impressive amount of highly personal, potentially offensive, and deeply-felt content published to the public sphere, but not everyone is comfortable sharing those things to everyone, and there are many things best left to private messages anyway (that’s why there’s a taboo against making public anything discussed in private messages without both parties consent).

I admit I love thinking about all the things said in private messages that one never sees influence public posts. All the hidden friendships, petty fighting, relationships, projects born in private, and connections made. There are jokes and comments that show up on Twitter and Tumblr that while amusing on their own, have a whole other context for the two or more that know the source.

Being humans, eventually good online friends will want to meet in person. Even if they may be different in the flesh, physical interaction is a desire for even those in the group who struggle with social anxiety (and there are many). Tweetups have existed for as long as people have used Twitter to find new people, but with one exception[2], get-togethers of only Favrd Crowd people are a recent phenomenon. In fact the first big meetups of the Favrd Crowd were days after I published my article on culture engines, one in New York City and the other in Boston. Both were unprecedented and both changed the dynamic of the group.

One reason was that one meetup was a private party of friends, and the other was open to anyone who wanted to come. The former party generated friction because it just so happened to include several of the most popular and envied members of the Favrd Crowd. The debate the erupted (and quickly subsided) almost tore the online community apart – but a curious thing happened: instead of splitting up into factions the group developed a deeper interconnectedness. The biggest change was the people felt compelled to share their feelings, express their love for members of the group, and open up in ways that was previously more guarded. This was brought on equally by the peacemakers in the group, but also because members realized they could get lots of stars and raise their Tumblarity by doing so – that’s why people who routinely post pictures of themselves and write about their daily lives on Tumblr have a higher Tumblarity score.

Before I continue, I want to point out that I think this development has severely retarded the Favrd Crowd’s ability to create new and interesting things and to develop further as a culture engine. So many people are wasting their public sphere efforts on trying to appear more human and emotive instead of creating the podcasts, comics, videos, music, literature, and other forms of expression that the group has great potential to generate. Some of the content related to this outpouring is genuine and heartfelt – and is a healthy part of the group dynamic – it’s the oversharing-for-the-sake-of-more-points content that is the real problem. Everyone struggles in life, and getting to share it with like-minded people who honestly care is one of the Favrd Crowd’s most amazing attributes (among these: marriages and relationships, new babies, health scares, cancer, caring for children who are sick and suffering, dealing with abusive or unhealthy relationships, and so on). But some people feed on the group sentiment only to play the game.

In about a month and a half another primarily-Favrd Crowd meetup will happen in San Francisco. By all accounts this will be the biggest one yet, combining people who went to either parties in August with new group members and on the further reaches of the social web of the group. So many online friends will get to meet for the first time, others will get another chance at face-to-face time, and in general the Favrd Crowd will get a glimpse of what might happen if everyone moved from all over the world to one place. That’s an implausible outcome – but an outcome which would be glorious and extremely beneficial to everyone in the group.[3]

In addition, people are meeting up all the time. Some are visiting online friends in the same region, others make a point of spending time with Favrd Crowd people in whatever city they’re visiting. Still others are even changing their vacation and travel plans to go out of their way to visit people only roughly nearby. These are people who come from vastly different backgrounds and with unique personal histories, but who have found a connection strong enough to compel them to spend time together. Meeting people online has a reputation for being a letdown, because the variables and unknowns of who a person is offline is so vast that sometimes people are nothing like their online personas. But the challenges of succeeding socially in the Favrd Crowd, and the similarities needed to fit in, mean that most people are pleasantly surprised upon first meeting another member (this is based on anecdotal evidence, but I’m guessing the number of times that a physical meeting of Favrd Crowd members was negative is so small to be inconsequential. People naturally chose those they feel comfortable with online, and that translates almost perfectly offline). Making offline connections is the most important next step after finding new interesting people in the Favrd Crowd.

The group dynamic

What drives the Favrd Crowd is friction. By friction, I mean the agitation of people with different ideas and different ways of expressing them. But then, every community is driven by friction – especially creative communities. There is a quote from The Third Man that sums this up in a way that Favrd Crowd members would appreciate:

…In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

It should be no surprise that the creator of Favrd, Dean Cameron Allen alludes to this on his personal site.

The frictions come from the core reason of the group’s existence: to make something that others appreciate. Here are a few of the sources:

  • Those more concerned with crafting great things vs. those who want a high score
  • Those more concerned with making things vs. those who are in it for the people
  • Highbrow vs. lowbrow vs. hilobrow[4]
  • Those who feel left out vs. those who don’t

These frictions are in reality imaginary. People perceive these as boundaries and try to play along because it’s simpler to adhere to a black-and-white understanding of things. But just as in the rest of existence, it’s mostly a gray area. For example, people work hard to make great things partly because they enjoy it but also because they want to make things that others enjoy.

It’s not hard to appreciate both a studied critique of a modern absurdity, and a well-crafted poop joke.

The us-versus-them mentality is common everywhere (it’s a source of wars, bigotry, racism, prejudice, etc.), and it works to drive the Favrd Crowd apart while simultaneously inspiring members to create great things.

However, the people involved in these frictions take on certain roles. The most egregious instigators are forced out of the group, shunned by being blocked or ignored or belittled. But there are active and accepted members of the group who regularly play up the frictions – they play a special role because they force others who are more timid to confront the realities of all of our bad traits. While this role usually makes the group (or any social group) stronger, in the case of the Favrd Crowd it also created a plague of feel-good posts that inhibits some members from realizing their full creative potential.

The human element

Sure, most content on the internet was made by real people. And most of what isn’t made by real people isn’t worth consuming anyway. Yet there is a distance between the creator and the consumer for most instances. An author will write an article – people will read it, but most of the time the author gets no feedback, response, or even knows how much of their work was read and how much was skimmed or skipped.

That dynamic is different within the Favrd Crowd. If a person likes what someone created, they can star or ‘like it’. If they really like it, a person could retweet, reblog, or (my personal favorite) contact the creator privately to commend the person. That feedback is invaluable to an author’s development and well-being. As much as we may try to downplay the importance of stars and hearts (likes on Tumblr look like hearts), it feels good to know that one’s peers appreciated their work. At the same time, finding that no one could be bothered to acknowledge a tweet or recording or anything else with something as easy to do as click an icon, that can hurt. We can feel bad, work harder on the next thing, or rationalize the disappointment to minimize the hurt – but it affects people in real ways. At the same time, one can feel slighted for petty things that may in reality have no meaning. For example, I once was convinced that a person in the group hated me simply because they never responded to my Twitter @ replies in any way. It turned out they simply didn’t read replies from people they didn’t follow (the only way to see @ replies from people a user doesn’t follow is to go to a separate page on the Twitter site).

The ease of finding like people online helps many people who are lonely and have the time and energy to convince themselves that every interaction in an online community has an equivalent to in-person interactions. Frictions often start because of this, and there is a steep learning curve involved to understanding that another person’s online life is only part of their existence. There are offline friends, family, work, play, and we are all doing other things in addition to being online, even if being online happens most of the time nowadays.

With the Favrd Crowd’s increasing use of the ‘in person’ sphere, this distinction blurs and it becomes harder to come to terms with the limitations of online interaction.

At the same time, this sphere is bringing people closer together. Despite being a generally cohesive group, there are sub-groups that exist. These are people brought even closer because of similarities: a love of comic books; a shared sense of humor; being gay, lesbian, or transgendered; a love of the same music, and so on. The old ways of finding these connections offline are very inefficient. Meeting though organizations like school (especially college), work, bar, clubs, etc. can help but all are limited by geography. Even other online communities are limited because they typically concentrate on a particular interest. The Favrd Crowd gelled because of humor, and humor doesn’t require direct experience by everyone for something to be funny. But a group that bonds by humor need to find the same things funny. As I discussed in my article about culture engines, this brings together people of similar mentality regardless of experience or interests, and creates workable melting pot. But the metaphor of a melting pot is a paradox: people who are really different don’t really get along (there’s evidence that neighborhoods with people of different ethnicities and beliefs are fractured and people stick to their own group).

The Favrd Crowd is becoming less a group of people trying to be funny, and more a group trying to live together. Despite my earlier mention of the implausibility of everyone moving to one place, there are already large clumps of people, and some are even moving to those areas partly because other members of the group already live there. The main locations are San Francisco, Chicago, and New York; smaller clumps exist in Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Boston, and Pittsburgh (and many more I can’t think of). The willingness to move is hindered greatly by issues of family, making a living, and liking the location. For example, not everyone wants to live in the San Francisco Bay area, and some people think Chicago is full of very angry people and has awful weather. The problem is that once people meet in person, they realize how much more fun spending time in person is and would rather have it that way, but have too much else invested in where they live now. I’m not sure what will happen with the issue of geographical distance. There will always be people in an online community that are far flung. There is one instance of a couple meeting through the group and one is trying to emigrate to the US, but that kind of situation will likely remain a rarity.

Additional thoughts

The Favrd Crowd is an exciting community. That several very different technologies could bring like-minded people together and make something new that has no offline equivalent points to an exciting future in human social organization. Its unique blend of creativity, competition, and togetherness makes for a warm environment for a certain type of person who normally has to work hard to find others like them. I don’t think the group is for everyone. Some members may be no more than outsiders appreciating the groups artistic output. Others may try to fit in when they would be better suited for other online communities. I have a partiality to the Favrd Crowd because these are the kinds of people I actively seek out in offline life. They are technologically savvy, find similar things amusing, are well-read enough to get obscure references (and curious enough to search for what they don’t get), honest enough to point out faults and wrongdoings but compassionate enough to accept others for who they are, liberal where it counts and conservative where it counts – I could go on and on. But in addition to being the people that I like, they are also the class of people who propel culture and society forward. The intelligent outcasts who both enjoy and suffer through life, who know what’s worth keeping and what’s worth challenging. It’s those people who are worth studying.

As much as I want to study every aspect of the group, I have my limitations. I am not an archivist and have no interest in cataloguing all the output of the group – oftentimes what I see is deleted or changed. Also being a member of the group I have a greater interest in participating than analyzing and will limit my exposure so that I can still enjoy the fruits of my friends and favorite producers. I can’t possibly follow everyone in the group – or even everyone who has a large influence – and I will ignore people I find offensive or not funny or those who just rub me the wrong way. And I am partial to those who I feel a real connection with, and will give them a much larger piece of my attention. Which means this article has real biases and that my view isn’t the whole view, just as no journalist or historian is ever completely objective. By disposition I like many different kinds of people and I hope that allows me to make a more nuanced and general set of observations.

There is little physical evidence of the existence of the Favrd Crowd, save for some postcards, some drawings, and the occasional household or apartment where everyone is involved. Yet the group plays a large role in the lives of hundreds of people, oftentimes expanding into real friendships, even jobs. The Favrd Crowd has a bright future, and its past, though short, is fascinating.

[1] Some people enter through a connection, most often because of a spouse or partner. Friends who join may have an advantage in knowing a member of the group offline, but they still have to work from the public sphere back for most connections.
[2] There may be others, but the only one I know of is quarterly meetup of Chicago Twitter users that is dominated by people in the Favrd Crowd.
[3] If only a third of my favorite people in the group were to move to one place, I’d drop everything and move without question.
[4] This is a modified explanation taken from my attempt to explain to a few people the reasoning behind my Twitter lists:

Highbrow and lowbrow should be easy to figure out. It doesn’t mean that high = good and low = bad. They’re both good – it’s just that some people write tweets that are based on high-level thinking (art, technology, high standards) and some are based on everyday functioning (the things we all do – e.g. bodily functions, sex, daily struggles).

Hilobrow is different.

If middlebrow even exists, I don’t even want to associate with it. It’s not like the Middle Way – it’s the schmaltzy appeal-to-everyone crap like Twilight books or fucking American Idol. Think of the stereotypical music that parents in the fifties and sixties listened to and you get the idea.

Back to hilobrow. Hilobrow embraces both the intellectual thinking and the daily reality that we all must struggle through constantly. Take Charles Bukowski – his writing is very specific and in the vein of Chaucer and Bocaccio but is mostly about drinking and fucking and going to the racetracks.

I learned about the hilobrow concept from, which celebrates hilobrow artists. I found them when they came up with a much more accurate breakdown of the generations of the twentieth century (for example, that the generation that had the biggest influence on my taste are the Anti-Anti-Utopians).

Hilobrow isn’t better than highbrow or lowbrow, all have their place. Everyone has a preference. I just happen to like the whole spectrum.

I mean, everyone poops but we also struggle with our identity and place in the universe.