observe


I have chosen the mediated discussion entitled Custard-Filled Speed Bumps, a new idea posted on halfbakery.com. This is their description of the site:

The Halfbakery is a communal database of original, fictitious inventions, edited by its users. It was created by people who like to speculate, both as a form of satire and as a form of creative expression.

And this is an excerpt from the guidelines that the participants adhere to:

As the "about" page states, the halfbakery hosts both serious ideas and ideas intended as satire. (Mostly because the site maintainers didn't want to have to tell the two apart.) When someone, especially someone new, posts an idea intended not to be taken seriously, there are two groups of reactions from the audience:
  • Users make funny remarks, or suggest modifications to the idea also intended as humor, or remark on how funny the idea is, or vote for it.

  • Users don't seem to react to the humor in the idea at all; instead, they discuss it as if it were meant seriously, point out obvious flaws, or point to similar existing examples, and vote against it.
In the first case, the idea was funny. Good job.

In the second case, the idea was not funny. Not because people didn't understand that it was intended as a joke - they usually pick this up very quickly - but it was a joke that just didn't work.

If this happens, don't tell people that your idea was meant tongue-in-cheek, and that they're obviously intellectually inferior because they didn't "get" that. Except for very few individual users, that is not the problem. The problem is that the users got bored, abandoned your joke, and are instead kicking the material around that the joke was based on. Not because they don't see the joke, but because the joke really wasn't that entertaining.

Get over your frustration, delete the non-starter if you want, and come back when you've got another idea - serious or funny - you want to try out. It's okay. If the other users were always funny, they'd be highly acclaimed comedy writers and have no time to hang out on a website.

The two participants that I find particularly interesting in this posting are the original poster riposte and one of the other participants UnaBubba.  This web site has a relatively small, but dedicated following which allows the study of a small online societal subgroup. Observing a post's progress provides information on established members of the society and transient encounters common on the web. It is possible to observe attempts to fit in, or come up against established rule (some written, some assumed).

It seems that the site has an established 'tone of voice' which fall into several categories:
  • dry humor
  • authority
  • moral position
  • scientific or technological background
  • confident computer user
  • concise
  • and maybe others....

Adopting some or all of these styles is similar to Goffman's description of an individual who "projects a definition of the situation when he enters the presence of others".

Posting a new idea is a social gamble, relating to Hlland & Skinner's ideas of risk. If successful, marked by responses, the reward is increased status and prestige plus an official rating system (measured in croissants). Posting is seen as the action of a member of the group, but it is possible, as with much of the web, for someone with not previous contact with the society to make contact. Some write from established positions of accepted society group members, others skillfully write as if long time posters. The readers then have little to base assessment of the 'real' poster, as Goffman's "ungovernable aspects" are almost non existant - tone and content can be mostly controlled. Although, as Goffman indicates:

"the arts of piercing an individual's effort at calculated unintentionality seems better developed than our capacity to manipulate our own behaviour".

Success of a post seems to rely heavily on the initial projection of the definition of the situation, and here riposte seems to have succeeded (as indicted by suportive posts and votes). Even an established player must reestablish a 'role' as a participant in a new topic as this may be the crucial "first impression" which so much is based on. Soon after his post, riposte obtains support of other established members on success criteria:

"Y'know, this might actually be a viable idea. What's more, I ran a patent search and didn't find anything like this"

But another poster is able to provide a subtle critacism, and a boost to their own prestige by implying the the halfbaked idea actually already exists.

On the 29th of March 2001, our second character enters the discussion. His "first impression" seems to miss the mark, as measured by reference of his comments in another's reply (which appears to be an established method of prestige recognition). UnaBubba's first post is also a criticism of riposte, suggestive of Goffman's "subtle aggressiveness" which he identifies as the approach of a lower societal status. This attack is limited to within the groups "working consensus", by a popular "protective practice", humour.

In the thread, riposte generally plays a role of expert/responder. He is thus able to led support to approaches to his idea that he approves of by replying to the subject of another's post. In not replying to UnaBubba, riposte demonstrates a "defensive practice".

It is also clear through the thread, that successful society members play with their own prescribed format, testing and confronting its limits. As Simmel describes it:

"A society is ... a structure which consists of beings who stand inside and outside of it at the same time."

Although Wes corrects riposte, I feel this adds validity to the expression 'given off' by riposte as he thanks Wes, as it suggests to the reader that they are "observing the unobserved".

UnaBubba on the other hand seems to be unsuccessful. However, viewing his personal profile (another unique insight the web often offers), it is clear that in many post UnaBubba is successful. Did he then 'fail' this time due to a bad first impression? He continues to try to fit into the humour categorization, and then on March 29th 2001, tries to switch roles into a scientific position.

UnaBubba uses site specific slang "Baked". I feel that the unease expressed by the informant in Holland & Skinner's study at "talking about this" definition of slang particular to a small social group is part of the slang's power. Membership of the society is established in knowing the terms and therefore implying sharing experiences of the others in your group.

riposte further concretes his prestige postion, dwelling on the positive vote count, and spurred on by this, he posts what could be considered a whole new idea. A second "first impression" in a way. It is worth noting, that apart from in the eyes of regular users, this strong position is only valid within this post. This supports the strong supportive behaviour between regular posters. And the lack of support for "outsiders".

riposte's March 30th post seems out of character, is this a glimpse of riposte's true fragments? It marks an end to conversation for a considerable time, before a new "first impression" starts things again.

Throughout the thread, UnaBubba maintains a high level of direct responce to previous posts, with riposte no longer posting, Una Bubba can assume position of narrator/controller. Una Bubba feels the need to act in this role when a new poster uses capitals (which a large web society view as shouting). The response is the most openly aggressive of the thread, a strong assertion that DIABLO is an outsider:

"HEY, DIABLO...QUIT YELLING, YOU MORON!!!"

This seems to be a heavy handed technique of implying prestige in definition to those outside of the society.

Sketch

The sketch of this interaction is based on the idea of a organic form that grows to represent prestige and presence in the thread.