Those of us who have been using the Internet for awhile have watched the waxing and waning popularity of a variety of discussion media – beginning with USENET newsgroups, then listservs and chatrooms, various types of conferencing interfaces, IRC channels, and now weblogs. A few of us even remember FIDONET and dial-up computer BBS fora prior to the general accessibility of the Internet. Blogs seem to be the latest in a long line of electronic discussion formats.
Researchers who study the social structure of computer-mediated communication (CMC) have noted that CMC discussions appear to evolve through one of a discrete set of predictable life-cycle progressions. Most start with a period of initial growth and enthusiasm, where participants join the forum and post actively. A very few discussions achieve an equilibrium of arrivals and departures that sustains them in a steady state over a long period. More often, they fall into decline; some slowly collapse in on themselves, like a white dwarf or neutron star, leaving only the charred husk of their former vibrant community. Others vanish like supernovas in the fiery violence of flame wars.
I will leave the metaphor at that, although if one thinks hard enough, there is probably some CMC parallel to the development of black holes.
What causes the eventual demise of most – perhaps ultimately all – CMC discussion fora? A branch of political economics, called public choice theory, offers at least one predictive model, a social analog to the theory of “lemons markets” in goods. Public choice theory predicts that volunteer organizations, such as professional societies, will tend to be dominated by individuals from the fringe of the organization, or by marginal practitioners of the profession. Why? Time is a scarce resource, and volunteerism is typically a time-intensive activity. The tangible rewards are typically quite modest; sometimes amounting only to slight social or reputational benefit. Economic man, as envisioned by economists – what my wife has dubbed the “maximal utility rationalizer” – will tend to use that scarce resource so as to capture the greatest value. The time used volunteering could be used to generate income, or to enjoy more relaxing leisure activities.
This implies that those most capable of contributing to the organization are likely to use those high-value skills in other, more rewarding ways. It also implies that those most active in the organization will be individuals from the fringe, for whom the visibility offered by participation advances their personal agendas, or is a reward in itself. Alternatively, those most active may be individuals of marginal skill, whose opportunities to use the volunteer time more profitably are limited.
CMC discussions display many of the same characteristics as volunteer organizations – they are time and labor intensive, and the rewards for participation are fairly modest. The time spent on CMC conversations could be used for more tangible pay-offs; to generate income, or secure tenure, or raise children, or go fishing, or many other high-value activities. Over time, the most interesting and skilled participants in a CMC forum will tend to put their skill toward those other activities. Those who remain active are increasingly those who literally have nothing better to do with their time. The lack of interesting posts discourages yet others from participating, and the forum enters a death spiral until it eventually fades away.
Alternatively, it may become dominated by crackpots and trolls looking for recognition or advancing marginal agendas. The collision of these volatile participants produces flame wars that swamp the forum signal with noise, driving the few remaining participants away. A good moderator can stave these outcomes off for awhile, but often they occur despite a moderator’s best efforts.
This model poses a number of difficult questions – first, what are those of us who are blogging, especially those who are blogging a lot, doing here? Second, are blog participants or their interactions in any way different from those in previous CMC media, such that we might expect blog life-cycle to be different? Does the model predict the ultimate fate of Times and Seasons, or can an onymous, LDS blog escape the predicted demise?
Special bonus question: Why doesn’t the Church, as a volunteer organization, succumb to the public choice “lemons” model? Or does it?