I’ve referred in the past to the phenomenon of “affinity posting”. The idea of affinity posting is you post not to spread information or start a discussion, but to demonstrate your membership in certain affinity groups. You’re a fan of Doctor Who or Twilight. You’re a beer drinker. You’re a teacher who belives the lecture is dead. You’re a pacifist. A libertarian. A skeptic. An ally.
I do a lot of affinity posting. So do you. If I retweet a John Oliver rant about the minimum wage, it’s probably not because there’s something particularly useful in the rant. It’s largely to show hey, I’m in this group too. You like this, I like this, and that’s a communion of sorts.
There’s nothing wrong with affinity posting, and lots of times it serves a good purpose. People have some pretty advanced ideas about what I believe and like and support before they meet me, and that’s nice. And it can be pleasant in a world where one feels like they struggle alone for a cause to see an internet full of others supporting this or that.
Where it gets complicated is where we begin to confuse affinity for other things. Take the folks that retweeted Dale’s Cone here:
Why did 223 people retweet this? It’s a bogus finding, and a short Google search would reveal that. More interestingly, it’s not really useful in any way. It’s hard to think of anybody who retweeted the cone looking at this cone and using it as a concrete tool to design instruction. It’s not an argument either, capable of persuading people.
The reason people retweet things like this is to say, more or less, “Hey, this is who I am.” And before you get too haughty about this, it might be wise to think of your own postings on Ferguson or the Clinton emails or the Pluto fly-by. Did you choose to retweet the stuff that expanded and challenged your understanding the most? Or did you retweet the things that most closely expressed who you are?
If you’re like me, it’s probably 80% affinity and 20% challenge. And you kind of have to do that on the web, because we read the web weirdly, as if everything a person posted is a T-shirt they are wearing. We say “Retweets do not equal endorsements”, but the very fact we have to say that proves the point. You can stray a bit, but not so far that people lose sight of who you are or the groups you belong to.
I won’t go into it too deeply, but I think affinity posting as an interaction model is lousy and keeps the web in an infantile state.
I’ve been thinking about an alternate way of thinking about re-posting the things of others: the metaphor of a personal library. In the library metaphor, B. F. Skinner’s works go into the library but Dale’s Cone does not, even though Dale’s cone expresses the truth-as-you-see-it better than Skinner does. In a library if we found books by nobody but post-structuralists, we’d think “This is a narrow thinker,” not “Thank God there is nothing I disagree with on these shelves!”
When I look at someone’s library, I don’t ask “Is this book correct?” or “Do you really agree with this person?!?” Instead, I ask “Is this worth reading? Why?”
In a digital world where storage cost is minimal, and pointing a link is free, the standards for inclusion are bound to be lower. Perhaps it’s more like a newspaper clippings archive, or a library’s vertical file.
In any case, this is the model we are starting to look at for fedwiki, to answer the question of “What does it mean when I fork something?” It doesn’t really mean “like” and it doesn’t map on to the current cultural semantics of reblogging and retweeting. To others it should signal that you think the thing forked is useful. If it is useful and known to be erroneous, you might want to add a note to that effect so it doesn’t spread unchallenged, but if it is true and not useful you’re encouraged to leave it where it is and not pull it into your library at all. If you want to share it to show who you are, put it on a t-shirt and take a selfie instead.
If you want another example of how thinking about distributed personal libaries is helpful to conceptualizing the web of the future, see Bret Victor’s Web of Alexandria.