Gift Hub, n00bs, Philanthropy 2173, Philantopic

N00bs in philanthropy

One thing I’ve learned about the Holden/GiveWell controversy is how n00bish people in the philanthropic community are about the Web. A n00b is nerdspeak for a “newbie”. One of its contexts is when it’s used to describe someone who doesn’t understand the mores of the particular online community you’re in.

The original reaction by Lucy Bernholz to the affair was probably the most n00bish of them all:

…The complaint appears to be rampant self-promotion, violating the rules of the MetaFilter community. Holden has been “rampantly self-promoting” from the day I met him, has pissed off old-line philanthropy for this reason as well, and I find it simply odd that it makes folks mad. Maybe they just envy his consistent promotion of GiveWell?

This was critiqued quite well by Jeff Trexler. You don’t go off on online communities because they represent the wisdom of the crowd (or the mob if you’re on the sharp end of an online community’s collective pointed stick). Only a n00b would do this. One thing you learn as you become more and more versed in the Web’s peculiar intricacies is that you don’t dismiss other people’s opinions and in fact, a more nuanced and honest appraisal of the matter is almost always appreciated by readers. I’ve found that most of the lead opinion makers in online communities are that way because they voice their opinions well and in a manner that is usually emotionally appealing.

Phil Cubeta seems to have enraged them as well with his nutty and ill-advised comments about GiveWell. I’ve been less and less enamored of GiftHub and its alter blog, Wealth Bondage because of its pseudo-arcane references to classical and Victorian-era literature. I happen to have majored in English literature (with a focus on literary theory). However, I think it’s not always a good idea to show people what you have learned and what they have yet to learn. It’s better to share and to add to the conversation. That’s old-school Web culture.

Phil is getting raked over the coals over at MetaFilter. That’s right — he managed to annoy MetaFilter users in two separate comment threads within less than a week. MetaFilter is fundamentally democratic when it comes to online discussion and tends to dismiss anything that speaks of academic, ivory-tower intellectualism. Most online communities prefer online opinion making that is inclusive of the various cultural and academic backgrounds of their users. There’s room for academic allusions but just not if you’re talking to a general thread composed of a general set of users. Phil had to alter his discursive style to suit the needs of a diverse community but not until several commenters took him to task. And he would have found this out had he done the normal thing that you do when you join a community. You lurk, find out how things are done, lurk some more, sound out people on topics and generally try to be helpful. In fact, Phil got this comment from a MetaFilter user in response to one of his hamhanded comments:

Is there a culture of bullying on Metafi, is it condoned, does it spill over into raids and witch hunts, and what can or should be done to turn it around?
posted by PhilCubeta at 12:23 PM on January 13

No, no, no, nothing, and nothing. Try being a member for more than a week.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 12:26 PM on January 13 [10 favorites]

And that’s how online communities work — you get no love just for being there a few days. It takes work to drive up your reputational currency. That’s how it is in the real world as well. And another thing, don’t accuse an entire community of bullying. It’s an unwinnable war even if you’re right. And frankly, MetaFilter, in my opinion, is one of the best communities on the Web — you don’t get points with me by thrashing MetaFilter without even really being part of it.

There are further examples as well. Mitch Nauffts says that the lessons learned from the Givewell fracas were:

  • Viral marketing (the point of which seems to be to deceive the gullible and unsuspecting) is an idea whose time has passed;
  • Online communities are a poor substitute for the real thing;
  • Unless you live in Myanmar or Zimbabwe, anonymity is the refuge of cowards;
  • Arrogance will always come back to bit you in the a**;
  • Self-righteousness, in any context, is a singularly unattractive quality.

I agree with the last two points but the first three, pertaining to online communities and viral marketing are way, way off base. And eventually, the commenters took him to task. It’s n00bish to raise a 1990s-style debate about whether online communities are just as good as offline ones. Sigh. And it’s a pretty huge leap in logic to go from GiveWell to saying that viral marketing doesn’t make sense. Or that anonymity is for cowards — which seems to be a swipe at all of the MetaFilter members. It shows a lack of familiarity with online communities and frankly, commits the same n00bish mistake of trying to tackle an online community head-on with very little participation in that community.

My word of advice: Don’t be a n00b online. It makes the nonprofit sector look like a bunch of Web wannabes. Take a long, doubly long time to post and don’t shoot from the hip. It almost never works to be glib when you join an online community that may have its own long-held sense of ritual, jargon and custom.

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5 Comments

  • On 01.18.08 Stephanie Strom said:

    I am, decidedly unwisely, ignoring your advice to avoid being an online nOOb.

    Online communities like Metafilter may be “fundamentally democratic” — but only among their mostly young, mostly white and Asian, mostly affluent and mostly technocentric members. There’s a distinct us v. them tone to your post, which describes a system that requires new members to “lurk” on the sidelines and learn to censor themselves before participating. How is that democratic? Seems to me that a true democracy would welcome the addition of “n00bs” and their literary references as another perspective, not an annoying dissonance that should be shamed and harassed into compliance.

    One of the definitions of “democratic” is “treating persons of all classes in the same way; not snobbish.” What you’re describing seems to me the opposite of that.

    P.S. At least this nOOb knows that Elie did not engage in sockpuppetry, so far as we know to date.

  • On 01.18.08 Allan Benamer said:

    Thanks, Stephanie, for responding.

    It’s important here to separate the community from the software that runs it. I don’t consider it censorship if everyone has pretty much the same access levels to creating posts on the site. Getting lambasted by your peers in the community may lead to opprobrium for you but it’s not the same as having the software prevent you from posting. That’s what I mean by online communities being fundamentally democratic in that the means to posting is equally accessible to everyone.

    For the MetaFilter community, your assertion that democracy should not be “snobbish”won’t make any sense to them. The software pretty much allows everyone to be treated equally — assuming that everyone can read enough English to follow directions, they can post.

    When I say lurk, it’s really a good idea. It’s a tactical consideration instead of a strategic one. If your end goal is to have your voice heard, lurking is a great preliminary tactic to understanding the folkways of the online community you’re entering. It doesn’t imply that you should be meek when you finally do post. However, lurking will give you an opportunity to phrase your initial posts in a way that is acceptable to members in that community. It’s really quite common and I don’t think it implies self-censorship.

    Another point you make is understandable but not really of tactical use when engaging an online community:

    “Seems to me that a true democracy would welcome the addition of ‘n00bs’ and their literary references as another perspective, not an annoying dissonance that should be shamed and harassed into compliance.”

    I said fundamentally democratic, not wholly democratic. ;) The platform for democratic action is there but Web-based communities have leaders and followers just like any meatspace community and there’s no guarantee that the Web will follow some platonic ideal of community any more than an offline one will. These communities are built on software platforms that guarantee access, they don’t guarantee people listening to you and the software will not protect you from getting harassed.

    The point you make about MetaFilter’s demographic composition, their whiteness and their Asianness, their youth etc., doesn’t really apply to other Web communities. My comments on n00bism actually apply to many kinds of Web communities, not just MetaFilter. Simply put, you’ll be treated as a n00b by multiple communities if you fail to observe their customs.

    For many communities, it might not be necessary to lurk but mature and large communities definitely have their own customs. I’m not a professional news person like you Stephanie, but were I to jump into newser or any of the host of journalism forums, I’d probably find myself running into a whole host of professional attitudes and jargon that I would have to learn about.

    P.S. You really didn’t think Elie had a sockpuppet named Talia? I thought he had confessed to this and was assessed a fine?

  • On 01.21.08 Aaron said:

    It is often completely stunning to me just how out of touch the nonprofit sector remains when it comes to technology. As I have often found a lot of satisfaction in working to bring this part of the business world up to date and into cutting edge technology, I feel like I am often pulling teeth.

    Getting the private sector to update, and adopt technology is often not easy. Getting a nonprofit organization to see the value in updating or adopt a new technology is like fighting a boxing match!

    Trying to move this sector into not only adopting but understanding new technology is an ever harder battle to fight. In the end though.. I think its important that it happens, and its worth it.

  • On 01.21.08 Allan Benamer said:

    Hehe… that’s one of the reasons I wrote this blog. I’ve found though that it’s not a matter of technology but more like the mindset necessary to use the tools correctly. I’ve been in an online group of one kind or another since I was 16. That’s something like 21 years of online activity. (Man, I’m a geezer) And generally speaking, you don’t get points by accusing entire communities of some odious activity.

    You should also check out Beth’s Blog at http://beth.typepad.com. Beth tries to gently introduce social media tools to nonprofits.

  • On 01.22.08 Chris said:

    Stephanie Strom: “P.S. At least this nOOb knows that Elie did not engage in sockpuppetry, so far as we know to date.”

    Are you the Stephanie Strom who wrote the NYTimes article about Elie’s self-admitted sockpuppetry and the resultant punishment/fine? The one that was published on the 15th of January, three days before your “so far as we know to date” assessment? This one: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/15/us/15givewell.html?_r=1&oref=slogin ?

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