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Come, join us, brains is good food... - John C. Kirk

Oct. 18th, 2006

03:47 am - Come, join us, brains is good food...

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Continuing my recent series of "meta" LiveJournal posts (i.e. posting about posting itself), here are my thoughts on the "gay rights" meme that was going round a few weeks ago. It's taken me a while to find time to do this, so it's not exactly topical anymore, but I think the general principles are still valid.

Giving a bit of background on this, mainly for the benefit of people who only read my LJ, the idea of memes comes from Richard Dawkins, in an analogy with genes. The basic idea is that a meme is a small piece of information which will try to duplicate itself, and its success can be measured by the number of people who have it in their brain. For instance, suppose that someone sneezes and you say "Gesundheit!" or "Bless you!" - this is something that you're probably doing because you've seen several other people doing it, and by doing it yourself you encourage others to emulate you. It's an interesting theory, and you can find out more about it on Wikipedia or in his book The Selfish Gene.

In the context of LiveJournal, it's taken on a slightly different meaning; this doesn't quite fit the original definition, but it's near enough that I use it in my journal. It's generally used to mean a short piece of text or an image which lots of people are posting, normally as variants on a theme rather than absolutely identical. For instance, there might be a "which starship are you?" quiz on a website, and then I could post the results in my journal saying "Woohoo, I'm the USS Excelsior!" along with a link that other people can use to take the test themselves. I like to think that I'm more meme-resistant than the average person on LJ, so I only post the memes which strike me as particularly interesting/amusing. As for the rest, I think they're generally harmless enough, but I try to maintain a fairly high "signal to noise" ratio here and I tend not to read journals which lean the other way.

Having said that, there are some memes which annoy me, by being similar to chain letters. I haven't encountered any "real" chain letters (via paper mail) in a long time, but I do see email versions going around from time to time. The basic formula goes like this: "If you do what you're told, and pass this on to several other people, then something good will come to you. If you break the chain, something bad will happen to you." There are lots of email hoaxes which only use the first part of this, e.g. "please forward this message to everyone you know, and if it gets sent to 10,000 people then Bill Gates will pay for you all to go to Disneyland". The threats have traditionally relied on superstition, e.g. "a man in Yorkshire threw this letter away rather than sending it on, and he was struck by lightning the next day".

This all fits in with one of my personality traits - I really don't like it when people threaten me. In fact, rather than making me cooperate, it's far more likely that I will do the opposite of what the other person wants. (I've phrased that carefully, so that I'm not inviting people to use blatant reverse psychology on me!)

Moving on to specific examples, the first one is from last year, via bazzalisk, which you can read here, along with my comments. Basically, it's a long list which ends with the line "Repost this if you believe homophobia is wrong".

Digressing into propositional logic for a moment, one of the basic rules is transposition: "a implies b if and only if not-b implies not-a". For instance, saying "if it is raining then the pavement is wet" is logically equivalent to saying "if the pavement isn't wet then it's not raining"; either both statements are true or both statements are false.

Coming back to the line I quoted, it says "if you believe X then repost this". This is then equivalent to saying "if you don't repost this then you don't believe X". I am nobody's sock puppet. I write my journal in my own words, unless I choose to quote from someone else, and I don't like it when people try to dictate terms to me or draw conclusions about me based on things that I haven't said.

I also think that a meme like this would rapidly get tedious, if you wind up with a page full of identical posts in your "friends view". For instance, here's an idea for a meme - I will find a photo of a poppy field, and post the URL for it here. At 11am on Remembrance Sunday, everyone who wishes to participate can post to their journal with the photo at that URL. Does this seem like a good idea? Personally, I think that it would annoy people if it worked, since they would then have to skip back several pages looking for the last post they actually recognised. I think it would make more sense to change your icon for the day, although it may depend on whether the icon would match the subject of whatever you're posting about. (As an aside, I'll be on duty on Remembrance Sunday, so I won't be posting anything to LJ at 11am.)

A related problem with this type of herd behaviour is that I sometimes doubt people's sincerity. For instance, my basic understanding of theatre etiquette is that a standing ovation should be reserved for a truly outstanding performance, as opposed to the normal applause at the end of a play which is basic good manners. However, I've been to a few plays where there's a gradual ripple effect: some people stand up, and then other people nearby follow their example, and it seems as if people are standing just because they feel uncomfortable about remaining seated, rather than because they truly feel that they have witnessed something exceptional. The problem with this is that it "devalues the currency", i.e. it removes an effective way for you as the audience to demonstrate your appreciation to the cast.

I think the best example I've ever seen of when it worked properly was actually at a sports event rather than the theatre. This goes back to when I was at school, and we had relay races between the various boarding houses. Generally speaking, if there's a significant gap between teams by the time you get to the final runner then that person can't really do much about it. However, in one particular race I remember that a girl from my year started out in last place and ran amazingly quickly around the track; I'm not sure whether she wound up winning, but it was certainly close. The effect on the spectators was a bit like a Mexican wave, except that people stayed standing up afterwards. At first it was the people at one end of the track, and then as she came around the bend there were more people who could see her, and none of us could really believe what we were seeing, so we all stood up - partly to get a better view, and partly to give her credit for such a great achievement. I'm not really a sports fan, but that event has stuck in my mind ever since.

Regarding sincerity, this is also a problem that I have with petitions. I've been involved with a few in the past, either by signing them or by collecting signatures, but nowadays I'm rather dubious about whether they achieve anything, since there's a negligible effort involved. In other words, if I was sent a list of names who had apparently all said "Please do X", I wouldn't know whether they were all passionately concerned about the subject, or whether they were just trying to get rid of the person pestering them. A related issue is that some of the names/addresses might be fake, or that there might be duplicates. There's a Yes Minister episode ("The right to know") which describes this behaviour. Quoting from the book adaptation "I remarked that six books full of signatures could hardly be called insignificant. Humphrey suggested I look inside them. I did, and to my utter astonishment I saw that there were a handful of signatures in each book, about a hundred altogether at the most. A very cunning ploy - a press photo of a petition of six fat books is so much more impressive than a list of names on a sheet of Basildon Bond."

Taking a real life example, I was forwarded an email last December regarding the two boys (now men) who had killed Jamie Bulger. This had various flaws, as detailed here. In particular, it was objecting to the upcoming release of the killers, but they had already been released by the time the email reached me, so it was too late to stop that. For that matter, it didn't actually ask for anything specific, it just said "if you feel, as we do, that this is a grave miscarriage of justice .. copy and paste the entire email into a new email then add your name at the end, and send it to everyone you can! If you are the 500th person to sign, please forward this e-mail to: cust.ser.cs@gtnet.gov.uk". This message had built up quite a long list of names by the time it reached me (485), although curiously it didn't include the name of the person who'd forwarded it to me! If it had actually been a sensible petition, this would create certain logistical problems. On the one hand, if I sign my name as #486 and don't forward it to anyone then the chain stops with me (in which case there's no point in signing my name at all), and if everyone else at "my level" (i.e. everyone else who received a copy of the same email as me) does the same then the previous 485 people have basically wasted their time.

On the other hand, suppose that two of us sign our name and send it on to one other person each, and that both copies of the list make it to 500 names, so they are sent on to the relevant government official. At that point, the official has received two lists of 500 names, but they haven't received 1000 different names - 485 were identical between the two lists, so that means that there were 485 + 15 + 15 = 515 different names altogether. In fact, the email that I received was sent to 24 people altogether, so if everyone cooperates then this would lead to an exponential increase. For example, suppose that the original person (#1 on the list) sent it to 20 friends, and that each of them added their name at #2 then sent it to 20 new people, and so on. By the time you get to #500 you'd have 20499 copies of the list, each of which would have exactly the same name at the start. That's 1.6 x 10649 copies, or 16 quattuordecillion centillion cubic googols, which is unfortunately also significantly more than the number of atoms in the universe, so that's clearly not going to work. In practice, there will be lots of people who don't forward it on, but I think you will also wind up with people receiving duplicate copies. For instance, suppose that Alice forwards it on to Bob and Carol, and then they both forward it on to me. I now have two copies - one with Alice's and Bob's names, and one with Alice's and Carol's names. If I sign both, that's blatantly cheating. If I only sign one, I'm preventing the other person from being heard.

The point of all this maths is that gathering petitions by email just doesn't work. You need to have the list centred in one place, e.g. on a website. However, that still doesn't eliminate the problems of fake names and deliberate duplicates (essentially ballot box stuffing), and it's still something that doesn't require much effort (and therefore may not be taken seriously), and most importantly you still need to have a clear and sensible goal.

I was approached by an Oxfam representative at Victoria station a few weeks ago, asking me to sign a petition; looking at their website, I'm guessing that it's the "I'm In" one, where people say "I think poverty is an injustice and I want to do something about it." I didn't actually look at the piece of paper that the guy wanted me to sign, but he described it in a similar way. Paraphrasing from memory, he said something like "We'll take these names along to the government and tell them to be fairer with money". That all sounds very nice, but it's also very vague. This is similar to the problem I had with the LibDem party manifesto at the local elections in May, where they said that they'd replace Council Tax with a "fair tax".

In both cases, I'm sure that the organisations have good intentions. However, I am reluctant to effectively sign a blank cheque by saying "here's my name, you can use it to say that I'm backing you up in whatever you decide to do", in case they say "Ok, John is in favour of executing all the poor people in the world". It may be significant that I post to LiveJournal (and other forums) using my real name, with a real photo of myself, so I am basically accountable for everything that I say. I know several other people who prefer to keep their online identities separate from real life, so if they want to distance themselves from their own words then hopefully it makes sense that I'd want to distance myself from other people's words, particularly if I don't even know what those words are going to be.

A similar example came up earlier today, when I came across a petition to restore a council grant to a local theatre: Restore the Grant! I had a look around their website, and one thing was conspicuous by its absence, namely the amount of money involved. They refer to it as "a drop in the ocean for Croydon Council", but they don't give any more detail than that. So, what exactly are they asking me to support? Are they saying that the council should cut funding to some other area in order to fund the theatre, and if so then which area? (I'd happily vote in favour of funding the theatre rather than speed-bumps, but I'd rather have doorstep recycling than the theatre.) Or are they saying that I should pay extra council tax, and if so then how much extra? I did have a glance at the council's finance report from last year (PDF), but since it's 91 pages long I only skimmed it, and I couldn't see anything relevant. If they were upfront with me then I might help them out, but as it stands I won't.

This brings me back to my original point, which was the recent gay rights meme. This consisted of the following text being posted in various journals:

"Why is it that, as a culture, we are more comfortable seeing two men holding guns than holding hands?" - Ernest Gaines

We would like to know who really believes in gay rights on LiveJournal. There is no bribe of a miracle or anything like that. If you truly believe in gay rights, then repost this and title the post as "Gay Rights". If you don't believe in gay rights, then just ignore this. Thanks.

I saw this, and chose not to repost it, because it falls into the trap of various things that I mentioned above. First of all, there's the implication involved - "if you believe in gay rights then repost this" is equivalent to saying "if you don't repost this then you don't believe in gay rights", which is echoed by the following line ("if you don't believe in gay rights then just ignore this"). Secondly, it's vague - which rights is it talking about? The right to have sex with a consenting adult without being arrested? The right to marry? The right to adopt? The right to give blood? The right to be Archbishop of Canterbury? The right to shoot any Welshman found within the city walls after sunset? Thirdly, who are "we"? By the time the text has been through several "generations", the people posting it will probably have no idea who originated it.

Doing a quick Google search, I can find quite a few websites that have posted the text, although I haven't looked at them all to see whether they agree with it. This meme also prompted quite a backlash, including this well written post which dissects it in more detail than I'm doing here and this list of parodies. dennyd (who I don't actually know) also came up with a good point in someone else's journal regarding the initial quote - if I saw two men with guns on a bus then that would make me far more uncomfortable than two men holding hands (assuming that they weren't in army/police uniforms).

I saw one person defending the text by saying (paraphrased from memory) "Look, you're an adult, you can make your own decisions - if you don't want to repost it then don't, nobody's watching you to keep score, so you don't need to come back here and tell me that you're not doing it". That sounds reasonable, but there's a catch - it means that the person who posted the text didn't actually mean what they said. (The quote from The Last Emperor which I mentioned in my previous post is also relevant here.) This is the tyranny of the form, having to repost something exactly as written without understanding it or even thinking about it. Worse, it's putting pressure on others to do the same thing, hence the zombie metaphor of the subject line. I value my ability to think for myself, and if I have to surrender that to fit in with a clique then I say no. This comic strip expresses my feelings quite well, particularly its conclusion: Fuck. That. Shit.

Anyway, that should conclude my Scrooge-like behaviour for the time being, so I can try to cover some of the lighter topics in my queue.

Edit: Corrected the numbers for petitions.