Mediocracy

a few remarks on the discussion culture in online communities

This text is based on several years of my own experience in various online discussion communities, predominantly centered around Tolkien's invented languages. I have entered such communities as a beginner in this topic and can count myself now among the relatively few experts in the field. During this time, I have made a lot of observations: I have seen how other people interact with me, I have seen how they interact with other experts and I have seen different models for organizing online communities discussing a particular topic - Tolkien's invented languages.

Please note that often a message is misinterpreted or a strong initial reaction reconsidered over night - I have excluded all instances where opinions were reconsidered later (for any reason) from the examples below.

Inacceptable behavior offline - quite normal online

Let us imagine the following situation. I am interested in a bit of Ancient Egyptian, say I bought a ring with Egyptian design and would like to know what the Hieroglyphs on it mean. Imagine further I would know that at the local university there is an afternoon tea during which the Egyptian scholars meet in a relaxed atmosphere. There may be a world-famous professor as a guest present, there may be the local faculty, there will probably be assistants and students, maybe also a few people who are just interested - I know none of them yet. I enter the cafeteria and see different groups of people talking. What do I do?

Would I go in and say "Hey, I need this translation done urgently till Tuesday, 2pm?" Chances are that people would (quite correctly) consider that rather rude and would at best ignore me. Or would I sit next to two people discussing the interpretation of a particular sequence of Hieroglyphs in the tomb of Amenophis III and interrupt their discussion saying "I don't know what you're talking about, I never heard of nedschem-f verbs before - so tell me what that is in words that I can understand. And, by the way, I need this here translated."? Or, would I maybe go to a group where a nice student of Ancient Egyptian does translations for interested people, just join the queue, completely ignore that he tells the two people before me that they have made a list of translations of popular jewelry, it's right at the entrance and everyone should please try to look there first so that he has more time for the complicated requests and simply show my ring - after all, lists are for other people...? Or would I maybe ask someone: "Can U trnsleet tis 4 me? I need soon, lol." Maybe people would find it strange that someone not even able or willing to speak proper English would ask about Egyptian.

Or imagine I would just want to get to know the group - would I jump in and state confidently: "I can teach you ancient Egyptian? I know this very good book, you know?" Suppose a person comes in after me, sits down a little shyly and asks "Excuse me, do you know how to write 'love' in Hieroglyphs? Because I'd like to design a present for my wife." - would I confidently draw a few Hieroglyphs from memory and state "That is love in Egyptian?" Suppose the man next to me happens to be the local professor of ancient Egyptian - what might be the possible reaction I could expect to my invented Hieroglyphs?

All these ways of behaving would be very harmful to my chances of getting an answer to my question or getting to know the group. They would be socially unacceptable, and quite a few of the above actions would present me as a complete fool to the community.

Yet any of the behaviour above is not only seen in online discussion communities, it is in fact... quite normal. People post their requests for translations as demands (without even bothering to introduce), in some cases they even set deadlines and complain of these are not met; people disrupt technical discussion threads demanding an explanation, people ask for translations in barely decipherable chat slang, people lecture the real experts about the way things work - and hardly anyone even remarks about it any more.

So what is rude online?

It would seem from the above examples that it is very hard to do something that would be considered rude in an online community. The opposite is actually true - it is in fact quite easy (provided you are one of the people who actually know things).

I became aware of this rather weird phenomenon first by following what happened to Carl Hostetter, (among other things) editor of Vinyar Tengwar, arguably the most important publication in Tolkien linguistics. I knew when I met Carl for the first time that he had been banned from two mailing lists already and had vague ideas that maybe he would be a difficult person to talk to. He corrected a statement I had made in explaining some forms to a beginner, quoting passages in Tolkien's work that pretty much contradicted what I had said. Naturally I wasn't too happy - certainly my local reputation as an authority for Quenya got a scratch. But he was right - what he said was true and my explanation had been wrong, there was no twisting around it. So I learned two things immediately - I would have to explain things in a more careful way in the future - and Carl did know what he was talking about.

We got into some more discussions, and I found that it was, contrary to my previous idea, in fact quite easy to talk to him. I outlined a few more ideas of mine, he told me where I was wrong and where I might be on a good track, all in all I learned quite a lot about Elvish in a short time. He was banned from this forum a few days afterward for rude behaviour.

What had happened? Had he called someone an ass? Had he interrupted a discussion? Had he made demands from people in the forum? Had he explained things in technical terminology and called other people stupid for not being able to follow his words? Neither of these - to the best of my recalling what he had done is that he had held a 14-year old to the same standard as me, that he asked her not to present things about Tolkien's languages as facts which cannot be inferred from his writings. The 14-year old became angry, called him mean, Carl asked for an apology since he had never said anything mean, at this point the forum administration came in, decided that Carl's behaviour was inappropriate, he refused to acknowlegde that and - was banned.

So, going back to the initial game of imagination - imagine an undergraduate student goes to the Egyptian tea hour, explains some visitor Hieroglyphs, the visiting guest professor reminds her that she's wrong and should stick to the facts, she gets angry, complains and the Dean of Humanities steps in and bars the visiting professor from the university grounds.

Do you find this a far-fetched? So do I, but I saw it happening.

The second thing that happened is that I figured out the more I knew about Elvish, the more difficult it became for other people to accept corrections from me. In the days when I didn't know for sure, I would often say "I think that isn't right..." or ask it as a question "Do you think that is correct?" - people sometimes took the advice, sometimes not. Later, when I had looked at some problem from all angles, I would say "That isn't right because..." - because I knew for a fact that it was wrong. I admit that it probably is easier to accept a softer statement as feedback - but does it really make sense to tell someone who claims that 45 + 14 would be 68 "Do you think that is really correct? I believe the result is 59..." In other words, does it make sense to cast fact as possibility just because some people feel better about it?

There seems a strong urge not to accept that someone else might be vastly more knowledgeable about a topic than oneself in some people. I had made once the experience that after correcting someone's Elvish translation, he posted my whole explanation with commas changed as he thought right! While I readily admit that my German comma rules have deteriorated by writing predominantly in English, I still maintain that correcting Elvish in a forum dedicated to Tolkien's languages has more relevance than correcting details of German. But presumably it was important for his well-being to identify an area where he could beat me.

I discovered quite soon that being rude is easy online. I was called rude once for "not having the decency to select a good avatar (the small picture which is always added to one's posts)". Why this would possibly be important and who defines what a good avatar is is still a mystery to me. In fact, as I will discuss later, in some communities about any negative remark, regardless of intention or common sense, is considered rude!

Explanations from site owners, admins and moderators

I did mention the above discrepancy between rudeness online and in real life many times to people in charge of the administration of online communities, asking for their explanation. Here is the list as given to me.

"This is not a university."

At the core of this argument lies the following idea: I illustrated online behaviour which is inappropriate in real life at the example of the Egyptian departmental afternoon tea at the university. However, if an online community does not compare to this afternoon tea meeting but rather to a different real life situation, then maybe in that situation the same set of behaviour is entirely appropriate. In other words, the answer tells me I am asking for the wrong stadards.

To illustrate this a bit, I have been compared to a professor emeritus of math stepping into a kindergarden and criticizing the way counting is taught. I wonder if the participants in this forum were aware that they were regarded by the forum administration as kids in a kindergarden under the care of... whom? The admin team? I doubt the majority of forum users would accept the kindergarden as an appropriate comparison if asked.

Before investigating the explanation in detail, let me first state that it (almost painfully) obvious to anyone who is working in academia that online discussion communities are no university: The scientific world is characterized by very efficient mechanisms to sort out good ideas from bad ones. One cannot simply publish any idea in a journal or go to a meeting and give a talk about an idea, instead there is a careful selection process involved and ideas are judged in peer-review processes if they are worth presenting or just a waste of time. No such mechanisms are usually in place in online discussions, and hence the comparison to real scientific work makes no sense.

This happens to be the reason I choose the relaxed setup of an afternoon tea in the Egyptology department where anyone can walk in - while it is possible to encounter world-leading experts there, the person entering does not know - on the particular day only students may be present. What all people in the room share however is an interest in a specific topic, regardless their academic qualification.

But are there perhaps other still more appropriate situations? Should we compare things to a school? Or the boasting of boys in the schoolbreak? Still to the kindergarden? Or to a club meeting? What is a forum?

I imagine that for everyone clicking his way into a forum it is something different - for me, working at a university, it naturally is something like an afternoon tea. Maybe for someone at school it appears mentally more like a lunchbreak discussion. For someone in the local sports club, it maybe is rather like a club meeting. But our individual mental picture of the thing can't be the relevant guide how to behave appropriately.

The answer is rather obvious - a forum is what it claims to be: It usually has a name, its different areas have names and ideally it also has a mission statement. Thus, if a forum is part of the 'Tolkien site' and is called 'Tolkien's invented languages' then people (including myself) will assume that its purpose is the discussion of Tolkien's invented languages (and not toying around with some elements of a self-invented language loosely based on Tolkien's work). On the other hand, if a forum is part of the 'roleplaying site' and advertizes itself as 'Elvish for roleplayers' then I would not think of starting a scholarly discussion in there - I just stay out since I am interested in Tolkien's Elvish only.

Strangely enough, all admins ever answering to me that the purpose of their forum is not scholarly discussion of Tolkien's languages would not think of renaming their forum more appropriately. The reason is plain - that's not what the users want. Tolkien enthusiasts as a rule want translations into Tolkien's Elvish, not any Elvish. I have once observed a group of people dissatisfied with the complexity of Tolkien's Sindadrin to create their own language based on a simplified version of Sindarin. The site has attracted about 1400 page hits since 2003 - my own page (discussing Tolkien's languages) gets this amount of attention within a bit more than a week.

Thus, I saw a virtual school advertizing the plan to "teach Sindarin and Quenya". Asking for details, an admin brought the "this is not a university" line along with the information that the real purpose is to "toy a bit with Tolkien's languages" without emphasizing accuracy. Why would I be rude if I judge something by the name it is advertized? If you advertize with Tolkien's name, then live with people holding you to that standard!

In real life, if I advertize to teach French whereas in reality people then are supposed to play a few word games and get to memorize forms I just believe to be French but which make every person in a restaurant in Paris laugh I would probably get into some trouble. Because it's dishonest. Why should it be different online?

"In our forum everyone is equal"

The idea behind this line is rather elusive, as the same argument can imply a bunch of never very well-defined ideas. Maybe it means that there will be no special treatment or special politeness for the experts, i.e. no discussion is so special that it may not be interrupted, or that no answer given is invalied, every opinion has to be heard and so on. Thus, there is no justification to demand either respectful behaviour or to correct someone (and appear better).

What is wrong with the idea is that it is quite evidently not how a forum works in reality. Because in reality people posting in a forum are not equal - there is one (usually larger) group which I will call beginners who ask questions and a (smaller) group, the experts, who answer the questions. Since a discussion forum can be seen as a place where a resource (i.e. knowledge) is exchanged, there is one group which brings the resource in and another one which consumes it.

In the real world, that usually implies that the group bringing the resource gets treated with some extra politeness. I need only to look back into the days when I was still active in a sail-plane club. We were all in the same club, but there were the people who knew how to do plane maintenance in winter (the experts) and the people who would come to fly on nice summer days and be at home in winter. Make an educated guess who always got first pick of the plane! Of course the experts would get the planes whenever they wanted and get a partial waiver of membership fees in addition - without them, no one would have been able to fly at all, and everyone wanted to keep them happy.

So, upon closer investigation the above argument is nothing but an attempt to deny recognition to the group which actually keeps the forum going by bringing their knowledge in.

Neither do I subscribe to the theory that all answers are equally valuable - my experience shows that people asking a question value the correct answer higher than any answer.

The problem with this version of forum organization philosophy, as well as (usually) with the previous is that it is never explicity stated. Chances are, if people would know beforehand that anyone can answer their question and no one will judge the accuracy of the answer that many questions would go unasked, if experts would know beforehand that they can get no acknowledgement of their efforts, they would not be there to answer.

"You can't expect kids to know the rules of scholarly debate"

The idea of this argument is easy - since the discussion forum is also attended by kids, one can't expect that the rules of debate are just as scholarly minded adults would have them. Instead, the rules are as kids would discuss.

Well. I don't expect kids to properly conduct a scholarly debate - not even all adults have that skill. But in the world I grew up, I was taught politeness in the presence of people older or more experienced than me. When I was a kid, I wouldn't have dreamt of interrupting a debate of grown-ups to get my question answered - I would just wait till they were finished. And so on.

So, I don't expect kids to participate in scholarly debates if they don't feel up to it - but I expect them to recognize them and if they are beyond the level where they can participate comfortably just to stay out. Or ask very politely what this was all about. Likewise, I don't force people to enter a scholarly debate if I make a case why a form is wrong - but I expect them to either accept my correction, recogizing that I know what I'm talking about, or to argue properly why they disagree. What I consider inappropriate is disagreeing without being able to give evidence. It's as simple as that.

"What harm is done if our translations are not correct?"

In other words, why would someone invest time and possibly get into arguments just to make sure that a translation (or more generally a bit of advice) is as accurate as it gets? For something as trivial as a sentence translated into another language?

For starters, because often for the one asking the question it may be more important (we often don't kmow, most people don't tell what they need a translation for).

Suppose someone wants to surprise his significant other (who is a fan of Elvish) with a sentence. If that sentence is not translateable, not only is his surprise spoiled but he also looks a little stupid. So why would I want people to go through that? But it goes beyond that - people often ask for a tattoo in Elvish letters - I don't want to be the one telling someone that the piece of skin he's going to carry around for the rest of his life doesn't actually read 'estel' (hope) as he intended by 'grtk'.

From my (admittedly limited) experience in other communities outside Tolkien linguistics I also have reason to assume that the problem generalizes to things which are not as relatively unimportant as Elvish translations - suppose wrong advice about feeding a young animal is taken in an animal care forum - the animal may die. And so on.

So, we may note that it is never wise to trust information from any discussion forum completely and blindly, but beyond that that it would be in general a good rule to make information as accurate as possible - because some people will always believe it and possibly act on it in unexpected ways. Thus, I reject the argument that correctness doesn't matter so much, unless it is very clearly indicated that people cannot expect correct answers in the forum (but then - who asks?).

"Too much scholarly analysis in an explanation is discouraging for beginners"

The argument is that the level of scholarly debate in a forum designed for beginners should be reduced, because beginners are frustrated if presented with arguments they cannot follow. Thus, unnecessary complex corrections should not be done.

For all I know, at least as far as some beginners are concerned, the argument could be true. I have known people who were rather frustrated when a question they asked lead to 30 posts of expert discussion after which an answer was produced. On the other hand, the argument need not hold for everyone - people seeing heated discussions after their question, even without being able to follow the discussion, might also get the impression that their question was a tricky one and that people are nevertheless working hard to get a good answer. Which would make them appreciate the answer a bit more.

The same discussion acts like a stimulant on others - after seeing how intricate discussions are conducted, they want to participate and are encouraged to learn even more and experience success when they are able to follow such an exchange for the first time.

In any case, the statement contains an assumption about how the typical beginner in the forum is like and what is interesting for him, and while the assumption is definitely true for some people, it is also definitely untrue for others.

The obvious problem in trying to avoid scholarly debate is however that it arises naturally in corrections. Of course one can simply state that a given form is wrong, but if the person has seen the form somewhere (on a website) chances are that proof is required before the form is accepted. Now, some things can be relatively easily shown because Tolkien wrote a small paragraph to that effect and so on, but other things are more involved to prove, and usually that is how debate arises in the first place. So usually the alternative is not more or less scholarly discussion but rather scholarly discussion or accepting forms taught to beginners which can be proven wrong.

"Well, you may be right with the correction, but your tone is inappropriate"

This reply usually comes in the following situation: A beginner asks a question, someone gives an incorrect answer but doesn't indicate at all that he is not sure or is guessing and is subsequently corrected. Which, as his initial answer had the air of certainty, makes him look a little foolish, so he feels attacked.

Just consider the factual sequence of events: A person just make one mistake by providing incorrect information, made a (mabye unintended) deception about the likely accurateness of the answer (i.e. by omitting 'according to...', 'I believe...' or such qualifiers). Another person steps in and corrects the mistake. Who caused the situation, the correction and the subsequent foolish feeling? Well - the person giving the original incorrect answer. It is somewhat surprising that people having caused the situation, after having made a factual mistake and having made a deception, would feel in a position to demand extra courtesy. In my view, the only appropriate reply as the one just being corrected is to clench one's teeth, say thanks and try to learn to avoid the situation next time.

"Why do you bother to reply if you don't like the tone of some people asking questions?"

In other words, why not just ignore rude posts and leave it to the admins to judge what an appropriate tone is - why give a reply that potentially leads to a heated discussion?

Because, as in real life, it is not easy to ignore rude questions and demands - obviously I have to read the post before I know if it is an interesting question or a rude demand, and once I have read it I am angry already. I would not call the police in real life (at least not initially) if someone unknown to me steps into my office and demands that I do something for him, I would tell him that I think his behaviour is not appropriate. Likewise, I feel that the same remark online (which, by the way, vents some of my anger) pointing towards basic courtesy is justified and calling the forum administration in every instance is an overkill.

On enthusiasm per se

As I indicated above, in some communities one is considered rude for simply making any negative statement. The reason behind this can be cast into the form of the following maxime: "However, enthusiasm for something, no matter how slim the chances of success, deserves if not encouragement, then respectful silence."

On first glance, this sounds like a nice way of thinking: If somebody invests his time and energy into something he likes to do, he should be encouraged. If you don't want to do so, then just let him do it and don't throw obstacles his way.

But consider how the maxime is actually meant: I once encountered a project building a Quenya dictionary. A person had got a mail from a friend containing a wordlist and was typing this wordlist entry by entry into html. Now, there are not so many wordlists of Quenya on the market - I did a few checks and found out that the list was, apart from unavildable errors and a few omissions (including the references to Tolkien) Helge Fauskanger's Quettaparma. Now, as you probably realize when I tell you that Helge Fauskanger's wordlists are freely available for download, this project made little sense to me. Apart from possible copyright infringement - we have Helge Fauskanger's wordlists, there is no need to retype them while omitting parts of the information, given the choice of the two lists, nobody would possibly want the new version. Thus, there was this person, investing his time and work into a task which was about as meaningful as making an handwritten copy of the local phone directory. But when I pointed out to him that we have this wordlist he was working on and that there would be other interesting projects to do things which we didn't have - everyone jumped at me for being... rude. And when the person asked if he should go on with the dictionary under these circumstances, everyone cheered him on happily. For all I know, it may have been finished. I have never seen anyone use it or heard of anyone using it though...

So, realizing that the above maxime is actually interpreted in this rather mind-boggling literal way by a large number of people, I should perhaps take some time to investigate it in more detail.

I'm not a philosopher and I don't want to discuss how the world might be if everyone would follow the maxime - maybe a better place, but for reasons outlined below I think rather not. Instead, let us first investigate if enthusiasm for something in the real world actually gets encouragement or respectful silence.

Clearly this is not the case at work - if I am very enthusiastic about learning Elvish while I should deal with customers, my boss is not going to encourage me or be respectfully silent - I'm going to be fired. It is also not true at school - if I am enthusiastic about Elvish in my French lessons, I fail the exam. It is not even true if I attend a club in my spare time - if I had been very enthusiastic about taking pictures while the others were doing plane maintenance in my aero club, they would have told me pronto to forget the photos and come and help. I think it is true in kindergarden (and interestingly enough, the person stating the maxime in the above form is the same comparing the forum under her care with a kindergarden), but as I stated above, I don't think people would agree that this is the appropriate comparison. So, in fact it is very difficult to find a situation in the real world where I could see the maxime at work, and just for this reason I doubt its general applicability.

But there are a number of points which could be raised: What about constructive critique? Could I not, by saying that in the present form something is wrong but by suggesting an alternative improve the end result of something? What about sharing my own experience? If I had tried an approach before and it did not work - would it not be fair to share this experience to give the other a chance not to repeat my mistakes? Would this in fact not improve the slim chances of success? What if somebody is demonstrably following a wrong approach - is it not fair to alert him?

In fact, as in the above examples, I can think of plenty of altruistic reasons to state negative things about what someone else is doing. Progress everywhere relies heavily on people pointing out flaws to each other, learning from past mistakes and not re-inventing the wheel every time they try something. Thus, I cannot see why respectful silence should be the answer in a case like discussed above or why a negative statement would have to be taken as rude in general - surely it would be wise to investigate if it can in fact used to advantage. Yet I was ultimately banned from a forum for stating that a project (which I had myself attempted one, two times participated in and three times watched other people trying and seen failure every time) was likely to fail - the reason being that I had insisted in stating "unproductive opinions". As if nothing productive could have been learned from previous experience - try wrapping your head around that!

An interlude on stupidity

Some people maintain that there are no stupid questions, but I know that to be wrong - I have asked a fair share myself. I would define a stupid question as one to which you could have worked out the answer easily yourself, if you just had been a little less lazy. For example, asking a question that has been answered above in a thread is stupid. Obviously, what is a stupid question and what not depends on knowledge and ability of the person asking - a beginner can't be expected to know too many things and hence has a much harder time to come up with a really stupid question than an expert. Please note also that I'd never conclude from a stupid question that the person asking it is stupid - for me these things are very different.

There are, in my view, also stupid replies and statements. Sometimes you just read a line and shake your head - this can't be serious. I remember a situation in which someone argued with an out of context quote from David Salo's book on Sindarin. I replied to the effect that taking context (like section heading) into account that what David Salo with the passage means would be something different. I got the answer "How can you possibly know what David Salo means! You are not David Salo." I discovered this rather late, and by that time Carl Hostetter had given the (obvious) reply "Because Thorsten can read English sentences and understands their meaning. If one would have to be David Salo to know what David Salo means in his book, there would be no point in selling it."

Now, I don't know about you, but I find this funny. Like an elaborate reply ending with the final conclusion that 2 plus 2 is 5. Like myself stressing the importance of citing a form correctly to type it wrongly in the very example where I want to illustrate my point. Personally, I think it's great if everyone shares a good laugh at this point and then goes on his business, as long as it is understood that the laugh is about the situation, not about the person.

But some people are touchy about that (apparently without investing much effort to avoid the situation). So while I like places where such a laugh is okay better, I can appreciate the argumet in other places that such replies are discouraged. It is, after all, a matter of personal attitude if one can laugh about oneself as well as about others.

Mediocracy

To this point, I have remarked on two slightly different themes - online behaviour that would be considered rude in the real world, and online conventions according to which any form of critique or correction is considered rude. While both are frequently encountered, the latter complex is in my view vastly more problematic than the first. True, it is annoying to have to put up with people interrupting a discussion, to read demands instead of polite requests and such like. But unless occuring very excessively, it does not harm the flow of information in a forum.

But imagine a forum in which any project, regardless how useless or unlikely to succeed is encouraged, where any negative statements and corrections are strongly discouraged and which advertizes itself as 'Tolkien language discussion group'. A newcomer will initially not know any of the internal workings and post his question there. Now, due to the huge amount of study needed to really become an expert, there will always be more people with half-knowledge than real experts. A fraction of them is usually tempted to assume the fame of expert status without the knowledge to back it up - so they might answer questions regardless if they are sure of the answer or not (others will probably do so for altruistic reasons because they feel no answer is worse than an incomplete or shaky one). But now comes the catch, because they experience that not only are they never called wrong, but also everyone is encouraging them to continue. The temptation to get even more encouragement by making up some answers would now possibly grow.

But the beginners are likewise happy - their questions get answered quickly, nobody ever tells them to read it up somewhere, instead everyone is extremely helpful and they observe that thanks to others they can quickly learn enough to answer questions (how are they supposed to know some of the answers they have heard are wrong?). The real experts face an uphill battle - who wants all the complications of Tolkien's work when the other people can explain Tolkien so much better in simple terms! In fact, almost everyone can feel good at first in this Tolkien study group - which has unfortunately after a while nothing to do with Tolkien at all.

It is a virtual academy, an escape reality in which everyone can feel like an expert, in which everything is encouraged and no one must ever feel bad for being wrong. To be very clear - if people want this, they should feel free to create such space - but they should not use "Tolkien studies" or such like to advertize it, because that's deception of the newcomers. Well, if you think more carefully, this self-deception is probably necessary to feel good - who would want to be an expert in a "grossly simplified version of Elvish loosely based on Sindarin" when we can be an expert in "Tolkien's Sindarin"?

If we assume that what newcomers on average want is a serious answer to their question based on Tolkien's languages and consider that in the above setup nobody is ever able to really increase his knowledge since there is almost no way to find out if something is right or wrong and there is really no incentive to learn as every attempt of translation is considered as great anyway, we could come to the conclusion that in the long run hardly anyone is really satisfied with the setup. The newcomers are dissatisfied once they discover that the answers they had obtained were in fact often incorrect, people willing to learn the languages after a time realize that there are no real answers to be had anywhere and eventually the community simply loses out in terms of attendance to other communities where there is real expert discussion and feedback can be obtained.

Nevertheless, the tendency to end up in the above situation is found surprisingly often. I will in the following call this situation "Mediocracy" since the forum atmosphere discourages any attempt at progress and growth of knowledge and hence creates a situation in which the one-eyed will always be king among the blind.

Why is mediocracy arising at all?

From a certain point of view it would seem odd that Mediocracy can arise at all. After all, the experts are the ones "controlling" the resource information which makes the forum work, so they should be in the best bargaining position to see their interests taken care off (as outlined above, that is what usually happens in real life). So, what then makes mediocracy possible?

I believe it is driven by a number of factors.

  • Mediocracy is ultimately driven by two very human tendencies - the desire to have knowledge without having to go through the painful process of acquiring it, and the desire to always appear and feel knowledgeable since often a link from knowledge to social status is made. Yet, feeling stupid is often the beginning of a learning process, and there is nothing wrong with realizing or admitting one does not know something.
  • This is aggravated by the so-called Dunning Kruger effect which is an observation that unskilled individuals tend to overestimate their ability whereas experts usually underestimate their ability. In other words, one has to have some measure of knowledge already to recognize how broad the gulf separating an expert from a non-expert really is, and many forum users simply undestimate it and assume they would need to know just a bit more to equal the experts.
  • Mediocracy is usually publicly advocated or defended by equality arguments taken out of context. While people are equal in their value as human beings, this does not mean that with respect to, say, the Quenya past tense, every opinion is of equal value or needs to be considered. In an information-exchanging environment, the amount of expertise determines value. Unfortunately, it is easy by shortening a position to create a strawman argument with shitstorm potential: Just represent 'not everyone is equally qualified to talk about the Quenya past tense' with the generalized 'So you think some users are better than others?' and excite a chorus of shouting. Also, arguments like 'we should vote on issue X' usually look very compelling on first glance - the problem is that factual correctness cannot be decided by democratic vote.
  • Often, mediocracy is even defended by forum moderators. First, because they are plainly afraid of the shitstorm scenario and want to be certain to create not even a hint of treating users unequally. Second, because they reason that in order to expand a forum userbase, newcomers must be made to feel especially welcome. The strategy behind this is that older forum members have a lot of time invested in creating their working relationships and have ties to a community and are hence unlikely to leave even if treated badly whereas newcomers have no such ties and will turn away if they make negative experiences. This reasoning is (though cynical and violating the equality argument explicitly) valid in the short term - however fails in the longer term once more experienced forum members have enough and retreat.
The same tendencies driving mediocracy presumably also can explain the double standards with respect to rudeness. In dealing with a true expert on a topic one is interested in, one can easily feel inferior or stupid. Likewise, envy is a natural reaction. I certainly did feel ignorant in some of my dealings with Carl Hostetter. It is not pleasant, but the realization of one's own lack of knowledge can be the beginning of a valuable learning experience.

Equally well, it can however turn into latent agression. Then, experts are percieved as 'full of themselves' or 'on ego-trips' and people feel justified to be rude. I would however argue that someone like Carl Hostetter how has pioneered so much of Elvish linguistics and on whose insights so much of the field rests has every reason to be proud of his achievements, and it is not up to people whose own achievement is to ask a question to criticize him for that. From my own experience, I might add that experts rarely intend to show off. Rather than highlight their name, they tend to downplay the true size of their contributions.

If these ideas are correct, mediocracy is, first and foremost, driven by very human factors, not by any meanness or evil spirit. However, if allowed to run its course, it ruins online communities whose value resides in exchanging valuable information. There is no easy way to combat it, but certainly understanding the underlying dynamics can be a first step.


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