Seth Godin Wrong about Rubber-Necking and Virtual Communities

by Krishna on January 25, 2009

In a recent post, Seth Godin talked about rubber-necking and how it results in taxing the time of other drivers. A few years back, I did some research on traffic patterns, and the reality is that you don’t (necessarily) need anybody rubber-necking to create traffic jams. Even minor changes in traffic patterns can be the cause. See the video below, where there is no accident for anyone to indulge their curiosity. Innocent cautionary driving by some can create bottlenecks for everyone. Here is a more detailed explanation of traffic jams and Wikipedia has more on traffic congestion research and theories.

This is not really a post about traffic research. My point is that like Seth Godin, we are quick to attribute negative actions and motives to others and blame them for our predicament, even though we have no knowledge about what really happened. Like traffic jams, the issue may be complex and nuanced, but we are unaware of the intricacies. Blaming others is easy, but doesn’t advance us in the direction of solving the problem. If there is a problem with the system, asking people to behave better or be more careful doesn’t fix it.

Seth used his point to rant against trolls and flame wars. Asking readers to resist a desire to participate in such activity is praise-worthy, but is not very useful as a strategy to reduce those problems. If you have a community, you will never have perfect, pure users. Instead, every user will be motivated by different factors (sincere and/or mercenary) to remain and participate in the community. And like real-life communities, virtual communities will need a combination of leadership, positive and negative incentives, and policing (to name a few) to remain pleasant and useful to the community users.

If a virtual community turns ugly, don’t blame the users. Take a hard look at the creators. What did they do to avoid worsening of the community experience? Did they spend effort on putting the right policies into effect? Did they listen to users who complained about problems, and act upon them? Did they step in to protect the weakest members of the community? Or did they encourage spamming and bullying, because it drove up their page views and revenues? I guess you already know the answer.

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