Sunday, February 27, 2005

Forums and the Sociology of Knowledge

The Internet is an interesting thing. Bulletin Boards or forums especially so. One of the ways they are interesting is that they group people by interests. This isn't especially different than anything else in the world. Churchgoers find other churgoers at, surprise, church! Further, churchgoers have a certain working knowledge of the world. So the conversations one will have at church will vary greatly from the conversations one will have at the autoshop.

But you can see this again on various internet forums. Cycling forums for instance might have a certain political leaning towards environmentalism, they will share an understanding of how bicycles "should" fit into transportation and recreation in society. They will share certain orientations toward fitness.

These differ from other forums. Peak oil forums will share a specific understanding of resource depletion, and their conversations will reflect that understanding. They will share an understanding that modern society cannot go on without energy, and their responses recognize this. Some may want to solve the problem technologically, some may want everyone to live Amish-style to make the problem go away. Some will see no hope for modern society at all, with nothing but Mad Max in our future. These folks may store guns and plan on hiding out in Idaho somewhere.

Some contrarian economic forums see the same Mad Max future, the same 'hiding guns and gold coins in the basement' solution. But they will arrive at that conclusion based not on oil running low, but on the debt behavior of the United States.

Rapture forums see Mad Max as the result after they (somehow the posters are all certain they themselves are being raptured) are assumed. And so on. There are message boards for gun collectors, ex-Mormons, altar boys who were abused by priests, you name it. If there is a subject, there are dozens of message boards surrounding that subject.

This virtual community aspect is worth looking at all on its own, but not what I am interested in today. Today I am interested in how different the cultures- or shared knowledge base - of each of them are. For instance, on the peak oil sites, it's a known fact that Hubbert's peak is near. It's implicit in all the discussions. But, on the contrarian economic site, Hubbert's peak is simply an interesting possibility. And on a history site, an unlikely scenario. Who's right? Who knows? Eavesdropping on message boards is a wonderful study in how knowledge is socially constructed. Someone happens on a site because it covers an interesting topic. They hang around and internalize the common knowledge of that site. After a while they contribute to the discussion, externalizing the knowledge all over again. Devil's advocates are drummed out, or tolerated, but don't really cause much weakness in the shared knowledge. If anything DAs reinforce the important points for everyone else. Eventually a consensus emerges, at least on the important points.

This process reminds me of Hegel, Berger & Luckman, where the consensus drifts closer toward the (T)ruth as the various posters test each other back and forth and add new elements to the discussion. It's hard to know if any particular forum is right or wrong regarding the neumenal (T)ruth. Interestingly however, what if it was possible to take the internet in sum? Is the internet allowing a group mind (Mead), an international generalized other to evolve? Are humans as a whole getting closer to the (T)ruth, through this global conversation? Is a new human understanding emerging (more Mead)? Is it even possible for humans, who come from highly localized tribes, to utilize or participate in such a global understanding?

This is of course pretty out-there stuff, and it's hard to imagine that the (T)ruth contains as many UFOs, EOTWAWKI, and SHTF possibilties as the internet and the blogosphere contain. But again, who knows? Put your money down and watch it all unfold.

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