Subject: Re: newbie question
From: Erik Naggum <>
Date: Sat, 29 Jun 2002 01:11:47 GMT
Newsgroups: comp.lang.lisp
Message-ID: <>

* Pierpaolo BERNARDI
| Right.  Do you have any theory about why it is so?

  The simplest reason of all for why people leave USENET is the meta-debate.

  Nowhere outside of USENET do we find more bickering about the forum itself or
  the participants or language or whatever.  Is it "human" to do so?  I think
  not.  It is _stupid_ to do so, because every time someone has a personal
  coping problem that he needs to "share", like in some virtual group-hug, the
  signal-to-noise ratio drops.  Tehnical discussions however heated usually
  contain enough signal that the signal-to-noise ratio remains unchanged from
  normal discussion, and they are usually fairly quickly resolved as long as
  the technical is what matters.

  Everywhere I have been in real-life fora, I have seen a pattern: If people
  are focused on what they are doing with their time and maintain a clear sense
  of purpose, they develop a friendly atmosphere where helping each other reach
  their common and often also personal goals facilitates that atmosphere, from
  teamwork to large political bodies.  This is how USENET started.  But as soon
  as someone develops a different agenda, usually related to personal prestige
  or some other stupid emotional needs, it goes all animal.  For some bizarre
  reason, a behavioral pattern evolves that you do not find in animals who are
  fighting for something useful like food, but instead for their "rank" in some
  group.  As rational beings, they will make absolutely _no_ use of the result
  in normal discourse, but once they turn animal the next time, they seem to
  remember their "rank" and seek to do something about it.  My cat and I have
  had these fights over the years, especially when I have brought home another
  female that threatens to outrank her.  Cats tend to learn, but dogs will try
  again and again in subtle ways to check if their leader is still strong
  enough, and if a dog believes itself to be able to challenge the leader of
  the pack, it will just have to be killed if you do not want to fight it on
  dog terms.  Soem people on USENET behave in ways that suggest that the adage
  "on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" was not a joke.

  The solution to these problems is very simple: _Focus_ on what you came here
  to do.  If you came to ask for help because you are stuck, stay focused on
  that purpose.  If you feel bad because something you thought you had grasped
  slipped out of reach, it is nobody's business.  If you feel stupid because
  something you said was indeed stupid and you should have known better, you do
  _not_ help by complaining that somebody should have ensured that you did not
  feel bad.  If you need a security blanket, USENET is probably not for you.

  So why do we have these infertile meta-debates?  My guess is that some people
  have some sort of need to Do Something about perceived Unfairness.  That they
  are themselves usually grossly unfair does not bother them at all, of course,
  unless someone calls them on it, in which case they go insane and actually
  argue that they are in their right and the victim cannot even defend himself
  from their unfair, false, and misleading accusations.  People who react this
  way was the reason that more intelligent people fought wars to establish the
  rule of law and due process.  It is precisely to prevent the abuse of power
  by the emotionally disturbed and morally outraged that modern society evolved
  and developed mechanisms to protect suspected terrorists from incarceration
  and inhuman treatment, loss of freedom, torture, etc, just because some mad
  and angry child in power has lost his marbles, for instance.  The importance
  of a legal framework is frequently underestimated by people who think the
  police and the government are somehow their enemies, and so they discard the
  very mechanism they could have used to improve their condition, and regress
  to some animal form of revenge, instead of justice, where their own feelings
  guide their actions.  In the absence of rights and protecting authorities,
  every man is on his own defender of last resort.  However, human society has
  regulated justifiable defense since Roman Law ("moderamen inculpatæ tutelæ")
  and probably before that, and this regulation is quite necessary -- several
  large religions lack an upper bound on the amount of force allowable against
  some real or perceived aggressor.  Religion being the strongest expression of
  emotion, the passion and fervor of the moral outrage must be curbed lest it
  destroy the innocent and Lynch law rule.

  There is nothing worse than a group of people who manage to convince each
  other that what they are doing is proper and just.  Because of the strong
  elements of groupthink among even seemingly rational people, we poor, limited
  humans are in _very_ strong need of something that transcends the individual
  and curtails the expression of individual revenge responses when hurt.  We
  are _not_ a peaceful animal (even the cat that sleeps on my shoulders as I
  type is a murderer and unbelievably ferocious when some other female cat has
  invaded her territory, which is hard to believe if you visit a web site like  We have historically survived
  by maintaining close-knit groups and adhering to the judgment of its leaders,
  but this is turning out to be the worst of all possible human traits as the
  group becomes too large for any one person to recognize and deal with, the
  number of judgments too high for any one person to internalize, the amount of
  new information too much for any one person to process -- groupthink is what
  holds us back as a species, severely limiting our ability to discover new and
  relevant truth.  Yet, even the very concept of majority in a democracy has
  been challenged when a sizeable group of people make obviously wrong choices:
  Jörg Haider, Jean-Marie Le Pen, George W. Bush, all have been challenged and
  resisted by people who knew better -- the frail consensus upon which society
  rests its trust in itself may have been hurt, but the situation would have
  been worse had nobody resisted and challenged these bad choices.

  My conjecture here is that these equally tireless and fruitless meta-debates
  are attempts to obtain a consensus on some principles of operation, lacking
  any authority has the physical power to hurt people if they disobey them.  I
  maintain that society has evolved into a relatively peaceful rule of law
  because we have found a sufficiently large club to hit people with and have
  found something that people actually agree on sufficiently that we can stand
  by and let the authorities hit people with said club.  However, this has not
  evolved on the Net.  In this particular sense, it retains its anarchic nature
  and meta-debates indicate that some people object not only to what they see
  as hitting, but to the very existence of the club.  I believe the latter is
  more important than the former.  Many people rebel against the concept of
  authority as such, not to any particular authority, and have such a hard time
  accepting that somebody else is an authority that it becomes necessary for
  them to _discuss_ this.  Like dogs who have to test the strength and power of
  their perceived pack leader, people who think in such terms behave in similar
  ways, even though there is no pack and no leader.  For such people, the waste
  that is the meta-debate is an important aspect to their existence -- because
  they think in terms of "rank", they also have to establish it if it differs
  from their expectations, and the more inflated their own expectations, the
  more they have to fight.

  The meta-debate does, however, tell everyone what your _real_ priorities are
  (and you will have to excuse my interest in the matter as I am frequently
  targeted by these meta-debates): _Instead_ of getting your work or research
  done, politics is way more important to you.  It seems to me that people who
  have newsgroup politics as their main concern should find some way to deal
  with this away and apart from the people who think the system will work
  itself out if people just stick to the topics at hand.  And remember -- if
  you expect to accept responsibility of what you post, you post with a valid
  e-mail address to which people can send personal mail that does not belong in
  the newsgroup.  Meta-debates, however, would probably not work this way, as
  the most important aspect of them seems to be the group hug effect.
  Guide to non-spammers: If you want to send me a business proposal, please be
  specific and do not put "business proposal" in the Subject header.  If it is
  urgent, do not use the word "urgent".  If you need an immediate answer, give
  me a reason, do not shout "for your immediate attention".  Thank you.