One way to discourage the formation flash mobs on the intern
- I propose that the web site accept a comment from any user at any time, but refrain from publishing it until the start of the next "turn", where the web site has set a schedule for when a new turn begins: for one public discussion site, the optimal schedule might be for there to be 2 turns per day; for another, 3 turns per week.
- We might copy from the public-relations industry and describe the comment as being "embargoed" till the start of the next turn.
- The reason I think that might help is that the formation of a flash mob depends heavily on two conditions: strong emotions and the presence of "common knowledge".
- Let us discuss the second condition first. "Common knowledge" means a situation in which not only do I want to see the target of the mob get fired; not only do I *suspect* that many people will share my desire; but also I have tangible proof (in the form of statements by many people) of a widespread desire to see the target get fired; *and* I know that many others also have this tangible proof -- in other words, I know that many others know; and I know that many know that many know; and so on. This knowing that many know that many know, etc, produces a feeling of safety in numbers, which in turn produces a feeling of being insulated from any potential negative personal consequences of calling for the target to be fired. My hypothesis is that the creation of the right kinds of common knowledge requires several "round trips", where my publishing something which encourages or inspires some one else to publish something that in turn influences me is defined as one "round trip", and that increasing the round-trip time will help.
- Now let us discuss the first condition. Although it is very hard to prevent humans from having emotions (or even from having a particular emotion such as outrage), even very strong emotions don't last that long. A person tires of the emotion, then realizes that he or she should really figure out what is for dinner.
- In summary, if you are in charge of an online public discussion forum, please consider implementing a turn-based design, in which comments intended for the general readership are held or "embargoed" until the start of the next turn (and there is a public schedule for the turns). If one or 2 forums will do that, it is possible that even readers with no interest in preventing the formation of flash mobs will over time notice that they prefer those one or 2 forums (even though they might not know why they prefer them) leading to the growth of those forums and maybe leading to the design's being adopted by additional forums, which might eventually lead to a state of affairs in which most participants in online public discussions are aware of the distinction between the two types of forums (turn-based and not turn-based), which might possibly lead to a solution to the problem of internet flash mobs without the need to pass new legislation.
- By the way, another big advantage of adopting a turn-based design is to reduce impulsive commenting behavior, e.g., procrastination. The behaviors we engage in when we procrastinate are behaviors that quickly produces satisfaction or pleasure. The shorter the interval of time between the decision to engage in the behavior and the reward or spurt of pleasure, the more tempting the procrastinating behavior is when we are under stress or otherwise low on willpower. The turn-based design does not eliminate all the quick sources of pleasure to be had from writing a comment (because merely writing down my opinion is pleasurable to me and probably to many other people) but it does delay the pleasure of seeing the reactions of other people (particularly if upvotes and downvotes are embargoed till the start of the next turn as well as words, a condition already present on HN).
- It would be a mistake to discourage "round trips" too much. High-quality discussion depends on my responding to responses to what I have previously published. If that never happens, we say that the participants in the discussion are "talking past each other". But I think it is reasonable for us to hope and to expect that things can be arranged so that the turn-based design discourages flash mobs much more strongly that it discourages high-quality discussions. The excellent and reliable service at https://hnreplies.com is an example of an arrangement that encourages high-quality discussion by making the service's user aware of responses to what he or she has written regardless of the age of the comment being responded to.