The architecture of communication

I was thinking today about the Bay of Pigs fiasco–a classic example of “groupthink” in action. A bunch of guys supposedly hired for their ability to think through complex international scenarios somehow managed to use the biggest military in the world to plan an invasion that was overwhelmingly crushed within 3 days.

In retrospect,the Bay of Pigs Invasion looks like an idiotic idea; everyone should have realized this was going to be a colossal disaster. But ahead of time, everyone involved thought it was a great idea that would totally succeed, including a bunch of people who got killed during the invasion.

Groupthink happens when everyone starts advocating for the same bad ideas, either because they actually think they’re good ideas, or because individuals are afraid to speak up and say anything counter to the perceived group consensus.

There’s not much you can do abut dumb, but consensus we can fight.

The obvious first strategy is to just try to get people to think differently.

Some people are really agreeable people who are naturally inclined to go along with others and seek group harmony. These folks make great employees, but should not be the entirety of a decision-making body because they are terrible at rejecting bad ideas.

By contrast, some people are assholes who like to be difficult. While you might not want to look specifically for “assholes,” the inclusion of at least one person with a reputation for saying unpopular things in any decision-making group will ensure that after a disaster, there will be at least one person there to say, “I told you so.”

You may also be able to strategically use people with different backgrounds/training/experiences/etc. Different schools of thought often come up with vastly different explanations for how the world works, and so can bring different ideas to the table. By contrast, a group that is all communists or all libertarians is likely to miss something that is obvious to folks from other groups; a group that’s all ivy league grads or all farmers is likewise prone to miss something.

Be careful when mixing up your group; getting useless people into the mix just because they have some superficial trait that makes them seem different from others will not help. You want someone who actually brings a different and valuable perspective or ideas to the group, not someone who satisfies someone else’s political agenda about employment.

Alternatively, if you can’t change the group’s membership, you may be able to break down consensus by isolating people so that they can’t figure out what the others think. Structure the group so that  members can’t talk to each other in real life, or if that’s too inefficient, make everyone submit written reports on what they’re thinking before the talking begins. Having one member or part of the group that is geographically isolated–say, having some of your guys located in NY and some in Chicago–could also work.

But probably the easiest way to remove the urge to go along with bad ideas for the sake of group harmony is to remove the negative social repercussions for being an asshole.

Luckily for us, the technology for this already exists: anonymous internet messageboards. When people communicate anonymously, they are much more likely to say unpopular, assholish things like “your invasion plan is fucking delusional,” than they are in public, where they have to worry about being un-invited to Washington cocktail parties.

Anonymous is important. In fact, for truly good decision-making, you may have to go beyond anonymous to truly a-reputational posting with no recognizable names or handles.

The internet helpfully supplies us with communities with different degrees of anonymity. On Facebook, everyone uses their real names; Twitter has a mix of real names and anonymous handles where people still build up reputations; Reddit and blogs are pretty much all pseudonyms; 8Chan is totally anonymous with no names and no ability to build up a reputation.

Facebook is full of pretty messages about how you should Be Yourself! and support the latest good-feel political cause. Since approximately everyone on FB have friended their boss, grandmother, dentist, and everyone else they’ve ever met, (and even if you don’t, employers often look up prospective applicants’ FB profiles to see what they’ve been up to,) you can only post things on FB that won’t get you in trouble with your boss, grandmother, and pretty much everyone else you know.

I have often felt that Facebook is rather like a giant meta-brain, with every person an individual neuron sending messages out to everyone around them, and that so long as all of the neurons are messaging harmony, the brain is happy. But when one person is out of sync, sending out messages that don’t mesh with everyone else’s, it’s like having a rogue brain cell that’s firing at it’s own frequency, whenever it wants to, with the result that the meta-brain wants to purge the rogue cell before it causes epilepsy.

I know my position in the Facebook meta-brain, and it’s not a good one.

The Facebook architecture leads quickly to either saying nothing that could possibly offend anyone, (thus avoiding all forms of decision-making all together,) or competitive morality spirals in which everyone tries to prove that they are the best and most moral person in the room. (Which, again, does not necessarily lead to the best decision-making; being the guy who is most anti-communist does not mean you are the guy with the best ideas for how to overthrow Castro, for example.)

Twitter and bloggers are anonymous enough to say disagreeable things without worrying about it having major effects on their personal lives; they don’t have to worry about grandma bringing up their blog posts at Thanksgiving dinner, for example, unless they’ve told grandma about their blog. However, they may still worry about alienating their regular readers. For example, if you run a regular Feminist blog, but happen to think the latest scandal is nonsense and the person involved is making it all up, it’s probably not worth your while to bring it up and alienate your regular readers. If you’re the Wesleyan student paper, it’s a bad idea to run any articles even vaguely critical of #BlackLivesMatters.

Places like 8Chan run completely anonymously, eschewing even reputation. You have no idea if the person you’re talking to is the same guy you were talking to the other day, or even just a few seconds ago. Here, there are basically no negative repercussions for saying you think Ike’s invasion plan is made of horse feces. If you want to know all the reasons why your idea is dumb and you shouldn’t do it, 8Chan is probably the place to ask.

Any serious decision-making organization can set up its own totally anonymous internal messageboard that only members have access to, and then tell everyone that they’re not allowed to take real-life credit for things said on the board. Because once you’ve got anonymous, a-reputational, a-name communication, your next goal is to keep it that way. You have to make it clear–in the rules themselves–to everyone involved that the entire point of the anonymous, a-name messageboard is to prevent people from knowing whose ideas are whose, so that people can say things that disrupt group harmony without fear. Second, you have to make sure that no one tries to bypass the no reputations by just telling everyone who they are. You can do this by having strong rules against it, and/or by frequently claiming to be everyone else and stating in the rules that it is perfectly a-ok to pretend to be everyone else, precisely for this reason.

Obviously moderation is a fast route to groupthink; your small decision-making messageboard really shouldn’t need any moderation beyond the obvious, “don’t do anything illegal.”

The biggest reason you have to make this extra clear from the get-go is that anonymous, a-reputational boards seem to be anathema to certain personality types–just compare the number of women on Facebook with the number of women on Reddit–so any women in your decision-making group may strongly protest the system. (So may many of the men, for that matter.)

Personal experience suggests that men and women use communication for different ends. Men want to convey facts quickly and get everything done; women want to build relationships. Using real names and establishing reputations lets them do that. Being anonymous and anomized and unable to carry on a coherent conversation with another person from minute to minute makes this virtually impossible. Unfortunately, building relationships gets you right back to where we started, with people neglecting to say uncomfortable things in the interests of maintaining group harmony.

This basic architecture of communication also seems to have an actual effect on the kinds of moral and political memes that get expressed and thrive in each respective environment. As I mentioned above, Facebook slants strongly to the left; when people’s reputations are on the line, they want to look like good people, and they make themselves look like good people by professing deep concern for the welfare of others. As a result, reading Facebook is like jumping onto Cthulhu’s back as he flies through the Overton Window. By contrast, if you’ve ever wandered into /pol/, you know that 8Chan slants far to the right. If you’re going to post about your love of Nazis, you don’t want to do it in front of your boss, your grandma, and all of your friends and acquaintances. When you want to be self-interested, 8Chan is the place to go; without reputation, there’s no incentive to engage in holiness spirals.

I don’t know what such a system do to corporate or political decision making of the Bay of Pigs variety, but if your want your organization to look out for its own interests (this is generally accepted as the entire point of an organization,) then it may be useful to avoid pressures that encourage your organization to look out for other people’s interests at the expense of its own.

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13 thoughts on “The architecture of communication

  1. All interesting thoughts upon which to ruminate. Because I’m a woman my initial thought is to share my own experiences (relationships, not facts). I find that any discussions among women (online or in person) tend to devolve into everyone sharing their own personal experience about the topic. No actual ideas or ways forward are created. Not to be down on women, I like this kind of thing too, and I enjoy going around in the circle and telling about our birth stories, but I’d like a little, say, diversity in my conversations from time to time. Good thing I’m married.

    On the fact end, what makes you say FB leans left? Certainly that’s been my experience but I figured it was just my friend group. Is it the present of a greater % of women on FB?

    Tangentially, I’ve hung out with a few activist groups (my parents have had a major midlife crisis and sometimes when I visit I go along). There’s this huge thing about Consensus in these groups. We must always reach the Consensus by valuing every opinion. Of course I immediately noticed that I not about to say anything for fear of offending the many very exhausted and downtrodden oppressed people there. Judging from the body language of others, my feelings were not unique. I’m sure nothing I had to say would have been all that interesting to them and incidentally I prefer to listen and collect sociological experiences at such functions. But I’m not sure the Consensus represents the actual opinion of those group members.

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    • Oh hi, It’s nice to see you.

      I suspect that the very architecture of Facebook (the real names, easy meme sharing, habit of “friending” everyone you’ve ever met in your life, etc.) encourages the spread of liberal memes while dampening the spread of conservative ones.

      Basically, I suspect that the morals kids get vertically–from their parents or elders–tend to be aimed at keeping them alive. Doing nice things for others is nice, but it doesn’t do much good to impart a bunch of lofty ideals to your kids if they just end up dead. Morals that keep you alive but don’t care much either way about others I’d call ‘conservative.’

      By contrast, morals you get from your peers–vertically–are more likely to encourage you to sacrifice your own well-being for the sake of your peers. So you get things like people trying to display how great they are by attacking someone else for being “fatphobic,” leading to thee holiness spirals where everyone attacks everyone else.

      Whereas, when you’re talking to your family, holiness spirals don’t work. Chances are good, after all, that all one’s parents want you to do is to be successful and have lots of kids. Start pulling out words like “fatphobic” and they’ll look at you like you just grew another head (and maybe tell you you’re being a brat.)

      Interesting about the activist groups. I’ve been around a few of these sorts of people. “Consensus” is poison. If everything requires consensus, then nothing ever gets done.

      I don’t mind talking shop with other moms; I’ve learned some useful parenting-things that way. But I agree that the conversations tend to get dull.

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      • Vertical vs horizontal meme transmission and the types of morals transferred in each way–yes that must be it! I’ll have to keep this difference in mind when observing the world around me.

        With these consensus groups–this one particularly actually gets a lot done. Usually someone eventually makes the decision, and then activism happens, but there’s huge drama later about how that person (typically a white male) was too hierarchical. So then most of the white males learn to shut up, but the few who might be really masculine/leadership types in another circle stick out and make decisions and are later vilified. Ah well, that’s what always happens.

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  2. It seems to me more likely the failure Bay of Pigs was a result of the proxy war between the Blue and Red Empire than due to groupthink. I haven’t researched this. If that episode hasn’t been studied by a Neoreactionary, it should be. The Bay of Pigs is central to various Progressive narratives.

    Women and men are different. But personal relationship building among men results in personal authority. Personal authority is the best form of hierarchy. Hierarchy is vital to getting things done. Perhaps counter-intuitively I’ll argue that all else equal Having more explicit hierarchy in a group reduces group-think. Personal loyalty is already a step away from having to convince a mob of people, you only have to convince one person, your superior.

    There is a residual problem of him being incentivized to conform. Ak an elegant way to combine hierarchy and avoiding group think is: If a man risks speaking out things that disrupts social harmony, and he turns out to have been correct, he should rise up in the hierarchy.

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    • Just off the cuff, comparing the Bay of Pigs to the US invasion of Cuba during the Spanish-American war, I think our troops had far more support/people/weapons/etc. and a lot less playing around with subterfuge in the Spanish American war.

      In our world, alas. the man who speaks out and disrupts social harmony, then turns out to be correct, gets demoted and forgotten (or shot.)

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