Monday, July 29, 2013

Digital Jargon

I once wrote a blog post talking about insular communities on the Internet, complete with shared quirks of language that help members of the group identify one another. In that particular post, I used fairly mundane examples of quirky language - mostly single phrases that function like passwords to the group, like Reddit's "What time does the narwhal bacon?"

Still loving this picture.

Some online communities have more specialized vocabulary than others. Sometimes an online community gets to a point where they have so many inside jokes that outsiders have trouble understanding people's messages. But sometimes - in rarer instances, admittedly - it's a conscious construction of a new way of speech. Sometimes it's so extensive that you, as an outsider, can't interpret basic statements without having prerequisite knowledge about the community.

Today, we're talking about two websites that are particularly insular in this way: TV Tropes and Less Wrong.

Let's start off with a disclaimer: I'm not actually a regular visitor to either of these websites, and it's hard to do justice to insular communities if you're speaking about them as an outsider. I'm not going to speak about these communities with the same amount of love that their own members would, because I don't really like these communities. It's also hard to justify harping on other people's use of language when everyone - including myself - has their own quirks of language. I'll try to keep the language discussion fairly explanatory, and only make stronger claims when we talk about phenomena that arise beyond the language itself.

TV Tropes is an encyclopedia of common conventions - referred to as tropes - found in fiction. All such tropes are submitted by the website's users, making TV Tropes a collaborative project in the same spirit of many other such projects on the Internet. Since launching in 2004, TV Tropes has put together hundreds of terms for the various tropes that appear in media, complete with examples of the trope from actual shows, books, and other media pieces. The site has gotten so extensive that any one trope page can send you through ten other trope pages so that you can keep up with the terminology.

For example, there's a trope called the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl". Just looking at this term (perhaps for the first time), could you guess what kind of trope this is describing? Maybe to some degree - "dream girl" might be pretty intuitive, though you might have trouble figuring out where "pixie" and "manic" factor in. So, curious, you look at the TV Tropes page.

The first two paragraphs (and the many examples lower in the page) probably help you understand what the trope is. You might, however, run into trouble with this sentence: "The Manic Pixie Dream Girl may be featured as the Second Love, in order to break the character out of The Mourning After." What the heck is "The Mourning After"? Maybe you could piece together some sort of idea, but you can't be sure, and now you're curious. There's a provided link that explains the trope for you, so why would you waste time inferring? "Second Love" is probably a more intuitive name than "The Mourning After", but the link is right there so why guess?

So you go to the trope page for "The Mourning After". When you start reading that, you get hit with new terms like "Cynicism Catalyst", "I Will Wait For You", and so on. You click on their links to pin down their definitions. Suddenly you're several links deep in tropes, and you're too intellectually curious to stop. You're probably the same kind of person who gets trapped on Cracked all day. In fact, I bet you've even went to Cracked to see what they had to say on TV Tropes. Good work.
Stolen from XKCD.

Unlike Cracked, the language used on TV Tropes gets obtuse very quickly, but people's love of pop culture gets the website lots of traffic. I would bet that most people who use the site appreciate the depth of analysis the website offers on their favorite TV shows and movies, and not much more beyond that. But there are some who get far more immersed in the TV Tropes jargon.

The TV Tropes website has a page treating real life as a series of tropes, where the "examples" chronicle instances where tropes appear in real life. Sometimes they seem fairly tongue-in-cheek, but the sheer number of examples demonstrates some people's eagerness to project their fictional terminology on their non-fictional world.

Then you have the "This Troper" pages, where contributors to TV Tropes post about themselves in terms of the tropes that they create. Here's one such example. Here's another. If you look through the big list of contributor pages, you'll see that not all of them are so creepily self-indulgent, but the behavior certainly has a presence among these pages.

And then you have "Troper Tales", shut down from TV Tropes proper but since continued on its own website. This is when tropers contribute examples of tropes by recounting events in their lives. It's usually more than a little depressing.

So, the community's got a decent number of people that are fairly detached from reality. How detached can these people possibly get?

Oh, what a question.

TV Tropes has featured its share of pedophilia apologists, and has gotten in trouble with Google over its extensive number of pages on rape. That is odious thing about having a collaborative website that can deal in graphic content - some people will use the website to show how enthusiastic they are about the graphic material. As evidenced by the previously linked YouTube videos above, TV Tropes' dedicated community is filled with undesirables.

However, we ought to remember that a website dedicated to talking about TV shows and consumable media probably isn't going to bring in the most sophisticated people. A lot of them are still in high school, and their strange fixation on fictional conventions might easily be as forgiven as DeviantArt's strangeness. If deconstructing fiction with code words and projecting their language onto their own lives is how they can make sense of their turbulent teenage world, then maybe TV Tropes' most laughable users are just going through a regrettable phase of their life.

Let's look at a community whose demographics are estimated by Alexa to over-represent graduate students on the Internet: Less Wrong.

oh god what's going to happen in my comments section

Compared to TV Tropes' ranking among the top 10,000 websites online, Less Wrong is fairly obscure and sits among the top 100,000. It is a community blog with its roots found in blog posts authored by Eliezer Yudkowsky, and with a viewership that is somewhere in the thousands. The average age of its self-reported members is in the late 20s, with most of them possessing an undergraduate degree or higher.

The website is a space where people explore human biases and how they detract from making rational decisions, with an emphasis on preventing these biases from developing inaccurate perceptions. Now, that alone isn't anything special - blogs like You Are Not So Smart and portions of the developing online atheist movement are also in the business of addressing the many cognitive errors that people make. Less Wrong differs from these other spaces by having an emphasis on transhumanist concepts, and by having a specialized terminology that can be very difficult for the casual viewer to penetrate.

We'll do what we did for TV Tropes, and explore an example.

We look at Less Wrong's featured articles, and we click on the article "Secrets of the Eliminati", because that sounds strange and interesting. I start reading, and I get hit with the term "ontologically fundamental" in the first sentence. This term might be intuitive to people with some background in philosophy, but not to me. Luckily, our author explains the meaning of the term, but not long after that mental hiccup we hit the term "utility-maximizing AI". I know what we mean by artificial intelligence, and I have a vague sense of what 'utility' means, but I'm still left to infer what the author means when you mash the terms together.

Then I get hit with "blue-minimizing robot", and I guess that term was sufficiently odd enough that it merited a link to a new article explaining it. The article beyond the link explains that "blue-minimizing robot" is an entirely hypothetical device, and to fully explain its implications are going to involve other vague terms like "automatically strategic" and "lost purpose".

Also, hey! Don't you like these?

Like TV Tropes, Less Wrong uses lots of community-defined terms that refer to very specific concepts. Words and phrases like "the map and the territory", "antiprediction", "inside view", "steel man", and others all feature in the community's shared vocabulary. Not all of the terminology is home-grown either; sometimes technical terms start getting borrowed from existing fields - like the economist's "comparative advantage".

Unlike TV Tropes, whose terms are meant to apply to our understanding of fiction, Less Wrong's terms are meant to apply to our understanding of the real world. A term like "blue-minimizing robot" might not sound as creative as "manic pixie dream girl", but it's also a term meant to convey ideas that help shape understanding of AI (and ultimately intelligence). Since there are thousands of media pieces compared to our one reality, TV Tropes probably features a greater number of site-specific terms than Less Wrong does. But that doesn't mean that Less Wrong's terminology gets used any less frequently or passionately. Nor does it make their communication any less obtuse.

They have a page that compiles their quirky terminology - or at least, the parts of their terminology that they recognize are quirky. But a common response to people who don't quite understand their prose - or their arguments - is to advise them to "read the Sequences". The Sequences are a series of blog posts that form the foundation of most arguments on Less Wrong. They are also extremely long, supposedly longer than Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. This isn't exactly the most practical solution for the casual viewer.

Less Wrong's particular use of terminology and high demand of prerequisite knowledge make it a very hard community to penetrate. In a way, it's an ingenious filtration system. I've praised SomethingAwful in the past for its use of a paid model and strict moderation in order to maintain its quality, but Less Wrong manages to filter out its undesirables by just sort of...being themselves.

Their most dedicated members happen to be the sort of people who would actually read a bunch of really long blog posts about artificial intelligence and Bayesian epistemology (don't even ask), and then throw around a bunch of self-coined terms with one another. When people don't understand what they're going on about, they get pointed to the prerequisite reading. When that ends up being difficult or even disagreeable, the community doesn't seem to bat an eye about the loss of potential new members.

But hey, if the community wants exclusivity based on their personal standards (and I can't fault people for that), then they're doing a great job! They can attract exactly the kind of people that they want in their community, and that is something a lot of other online communities have trouble accomplishing.

Even the Internet has these. Except instead of institutional precedence, they have...blogs.

That said, there have been people on the inside and on the outside of the community to accuse Less Wrong of being a cult, or at least cult-like. Whether Less Wrong's community is actually cult-like is not a question I'm willing to address at the moment. If anything, it just makes me want to write a future blog post looking into online cults, since I honestly have no idea what an "online cult" would involve.

Perhaps the most interesting incident within the community was Roko's Basilisk, wherein someone posited what could be described as a new version of Pascal's Wager involving the singularity. This idea left members of the community with actual nightmares, and with many wondering about what they can do to help bring the singularity sooner. The internal response to this was a hasty mass-deletion by Yudkowsky himself.

In a lot of ways, TV Tropes and Less Wrong resemble each other. Their communities might be strange, but they also consist of fairly bright people with a passionate appreciation for their particular interests. Their websites feature a lot of well-crafted amateur content, and can sometimes leave you with some interesting thoughts if you decide to dig a little.

But what's really fascinating to me is the development of their vocabulary. The way they use their terminology to define themselves, their community, and their world is on a level beyond what I've seen in most major online communities. Perhaps there are many other online communities like them that I haven't happened to run into, but TV Tropes certainly has popular appeal and Less Wrong certainly dances with interesting topics. They may partially be cyberbalkanization at work, but they're also great examples of developed and self-sustaining online subcultures.

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