The Dark Side of Community

It’s been a week of somewhat downbeat posts. I was thinking we should put together something more positive to end the week, when I saw Barbara Steinberg’s link on the Online Facilitation Community of Practice to a speech by US Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez yesterday. It’s dark, but it’s also a reminder of how we human beings have the capacity to turn everything good that we have towards darker or outright evil ends.

Gonzalez was making a speech to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. He points out that the internet has provided an environment for child pornographers and pederasts to “find community”, not merely in a passive sense; the power of the group creates a dynamic that actively encourages them and incites escalation.

“Before the Internet, these pedophiles were isolated—unwelcome even in most adult bookstores. Through the Internet, they have found a community. Offenders can bond with each other, and the Internet acts as a tool for legitimizing and validating their behavior in their minds. It emboldens them.

And this is where the Internet’s vicious cycle leads to the trends I mentioned above. The pedophiles seek to build larger collections of photographs and videos, as a license into their community. As they become de-sensitized to the images they have, they seek more graphic, more heinous, and more disturbing material.

At some point, the pedophiles meet strong incentives not just to collect images, but to produce new ones themselves. Part of it is the desire to see novel and more graphic images, with younger and younger children. And today’s technology makes it easier and less costly for anyone to produce these images and distribute them widely.”

Read the full speech here (thanks for the link Barbara).

Gonzales’ point resonates with a comment made by the owner of a Japanese suicide website in a 2004 report by the BBC on the growing phenomenon, especially in Japan, of websites where seriously depressed people gather to share information on ways of dying, and company to die with.

“It’s a virtual world where you can talk about subjects you can’t discuss in real life. There are some vicious sites which really encourage people to die, and when you get in a group there’s a momentum which makes it hard to stop – people become irrational. But my site is not like that. I started it because I had tried twice to kill myself. I think it has saved my life – because it has enabled me to open up about things online. And I believe it can help others too.”

So my question is this: if the potential of the technology, and the human drive towards community is so strong among truly evil people, and those who are alienated and lost, then why cannot large organisations leverage it for good? Yes, we have good examples, shining examples, but sometimes it feels like a terrible, slow struggle. Why do pornographers and suicides find this stuff so easy, and the rest of us do not?

I look forward to more positive notes next week. Promise.

3 Comments so far

Hello Patrick,

Interesting question. Some observations:

It’s interesting that the two examples you choose happen to be about sex and death (paging Dr Freud). Paedophiles are driven by a perverted version of the most fundamental human desire there is - the sexual desire to reproduce. Suicidal depressives are driven by a desire to end their awful, soul-destroying pain. These are both poweful motivations to collaborate with others.

I would suggest that we are actually quite good at forming communities around things we actually care about. And these can be positive or neutral things such as sports teams, churches, parent-teacher associations. The internet has revolutionised the lives of many people. If you live a conservative, rural community and you happen to be “different” in some way (say, gay or a comics afficianardo or a scrabble enthusiast) then online community can be a wonderful thing.

Isn’t the problem with most organisational communities of practice is that most people simply don’t care enough? There simply isn’t that much at stake?

Posted on April 23, 2006 at 12:56 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Hey Matt

You’re probably right, and if we took more trouble to find out what people actually care about then we might have more success with organisational CoPs. Of course (heaven forbid!) we might find that they don’t care much for anything to do with work…

Thinking about this over the weekend, I realised also that sense of identity plays a big role in community affiliation, and suppressed or subterranean identities can be released spectacularly when they find fellowship… Elias Canetti wrote a wonderful book called “Crowds and Power” in the 1960s out of his experience of Fascism…

As for sex and death, I did have a third example of “spontanous community formation” which relates to neither: the rise of the Falungong movement in China (though death comes in so far as the Chinese crackdown has lead to a martyrdom complex similar to early Christianity).



Posted on April 24, 2006 at 08:52 AM | Comment permalink

I would agree with the point about the reciprocal relationship between identity (I think Wenger talks about it in some his writing) & community.

Of course, we have multiple identities. How do we manage these multiple identities & what tools do we use?

I see blogs as one of these tools. Along with social networking software.

Posted on April 27, 2006 at 11:31 AM | Comment permalink

Page 1 of 1 pages

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.

Comment Guidelines: Basic XHTML is allowed (<strong>, <em>, <a>) Line breaks and paragraphs are automatically generated. URLs are automatically converted into links.