June 26, 2014

Hubski – some observations

I’ve been a member of Hubski for about eight months.  Like many other members, I am a refugee from reddit.  In my case, I am not only a refugee but an actual exile, reddit having censored my posts because I committed the heinous crime of writing the content myself.  I am still moderately bitter about this – though, to be fair, reddit did post their policy and I blithely ignored it.  I won’t quibble over the guilty plea – but I will laugh at the policy.  “No more than 10% of your posts may be your own material,” sayeth the perky little cartoon character with the bent antenna sticking out of its bald pate.  What irks me is that if I had been truly cynical I could have simply polluted the site with nine reposts of nauseating celebrity news and cute puppy pictures for every one of my own essays – and I would have been in strict compliance.  Keeping up my karma score was never really a problem.  As it is, I look back on my reddit experience with no real fondness.  The tall spikes on my Google analytics charts were nice, but not much compensation for the lack of intelligent comments or coherent criticism.  Not to mention the outright ad hominem.  Or the fact that my posts swept off the pages like butterflies caught in the exhaust of a jet engine.  It seems a little indecent even to put Hubski in the same sentence with reddit.  Like putting an art critique in the same room with a dog fight.

I like Hubski.  If my data spikes are a little more anemic than they were in my reddit days, the volume and quality of the discourse more than make up for it.  I’m an odd user, I know, writing more posts than I read and tending to comment rather sporadically.  While I get the impression that some people actually live full time in Hubskiland, I am more of an itinerant artisan, laying out my wares on the virtual public square from time to time, waving virtually at people I know, smiling virtually at people I don’t.  It’s a pleasant place – wherever it is.

There seems to be a general anxiety, particularly among the more longstanding members, that, with time and expanding membership, Hubski is going to degenerate into something more redditesque.  To me, this seems unlikely.  While it is true that as the population goes up, the number of unpleasant people will inevitably go up with it, Hubski is moderated in an entirely different way than reddit – and that alone makes the probability that it will follow reddit’s destiny unlikely.

Hubski is moderated, from a functional point of view, by the individual member’s right to mute or ignore other member’s.  As a dedicated advocate of free speech, I was initially rather put off by the right to mute.  I think that if someone wants to argue anything – even that the world is flat – it does us more harm to shut them up than it does to go through the minor tedium of refuting them.  I lean toward J.S. Mill’s position with regard to censorship.  I made a personal resolution never to mute anyone – a resolution that I kept for approximately a month.  I discovered that the mute has at least one valid use.  It is a way to stop another member with an abundance of time and malice from conducting a personal crusade against your posts.  It is a sort of virtual equivalent to a restraining order, but with the advantage that it cannot be violated and does not require the approval of a judge – or a moderator.  Can it be abused?  Of course it can.  If a person just mutes people left and right who see things differently, that person undermines most of the benefit of rational discourse.  On the other hand, the promiscuous muter (or ignorer, for that matter) is wielding a double-edge sword.  No one likes being snubbed, and cutting off too many people is probably the quickest way to marginalize oneself.  I have only muted one member.  I consider it a dangerous right to be used only as a last resort – but without it I probably would have gotten sick of arguing with the person I muted.  I see no ethical justification for ignoring people – but I understand that this is my standard and not necessarily everyone else’s.

In any case, the right to mute or ignore (I don’t really know or care what hush does – it sounds like it should reduce that member’s font size) makes Hubski whatever the individual user wants it to be.  If you want to endure the dross and noise that comes with open membership, don’t mute or ignore anyone.  If you want to build a comforting little echo chamber you can bask in to relax – make your own tag and mute everybody except your five closest friends.  This is very different from reddit, where typically you got the dross and noise in addition to arbitrary moderation and irrational draconian site policies.  Unless mk and thenewgreen are struck by lightning, become afflicted by some personality-altering disorders, or are induced to sell to some nefarious 3rd party, I just don’t see Hubski mutating into anything like reddit.  This is not to say it cannot change, however.

The danger of letting people build protective walls around themselves is that they will be tempted to do just that.  Every time I hear the phrase “Hubski community” I mentally shake my head.  To me, a community is a group of people with tangible interdependencies.  Whether they like each other or not, they have to get along.  I have seen a certain level of emotional support offered up on Hubski from time to time, but if my car dies on the interstate I will probably not be logging in and begging members for immediate help.  Without any real need to stay on civil terms with members one doesn’t like, mute and ignore rights let Hubski fission into various little cliques and interest groups.  If I mute you and you ignore me, what can it possibly mean to say that we are part of the same community?  We might as well be living on different planets.  The problem this poses for members is just as I have said – it narrows their experience for the sake of intellectual comfort.  The problem it poses for mk and thenewgreen (and whoever else shares in their vision) is that, over time, Hubski may come to resemble reddit at least in that it will consist of a large collection of disinterested or even hostile camps.  I’ve already concluded that certain tags are functionally out of bounds for me.  It isn’t that they are in a hostile part of town where people disagree with my opinions, but rather that they are in a part of town where I evidently don’t exist.  Of course, it is nice to find someone who agrees with you now and then – but a steady diet of agreement is not a healthy diet for an active mind.  The best that we can hope for is that, while many members will sequester themselves one way or another, enough eclectic thinkers will remain at large to make this ongoing experiment a happy and welcoming success.

Every new member has the potential to bring something useful and enriching to the rest of us.  That is an exciting prospect.  Who are we to be bitter if some proportion of them either can’t or won’t?

See also: http://cadwaladr.blogspot.com/2014/10/hubski-thoughtful-web.html