Online community biases

There are a lot of discussion online about a huge number of different topics. That’s fantastic news, I’d love to had a learning tool that powerful when I was in school. To share some of my interests, and have other people to talk about “cool stuff” and learn from them. Online communities have speed up personal and technological growth intensely, allowing people from around the world to share knowledge and to feel close. But, on the other hand, these kind of communities get naturally and subtlety biased. While this is normal, and probably unavoidable, anyone participating should be aware that the so-called “real world”, or even the community as a whole, is not a perfect extrapolation of it.

Totally scientific data, properly labelled
Totally scientific data, properly labelled

It is quite spread the idea of the “1% rule” over the Internet. A1% of the community will be the most active, driving the discussion, generating the subjects that will be provoke discussion, etc. ~10% of the people will collaborate, comment, retweet, add their impressions… And the rest will just consume it and learn from it. This distribution seems to be present in any community big enough. It makes sense, there’s only a very limited number of people that can be creators (I’ll call them leaders), there is a bigger group of people willing to spend time and effort collaborating (I’ll call them participants), and then the rest that are interested, but not willing to spend a lot of time (I’ll call them consumers).

But, here is the interesting part. The 1% is not a perfect representation of the whole.In fact, it can (and normally will) be pretty biased. That’s something quite natural. After all, leaders are different from the majority of the community, or they won’t be leaders. But other than their tendency to stand up, to speak up, they can have a lot of significative biases.

For example, a clear example of that are so-called “hardcore gamers”. While the statistical profile of a “gamer” (someone that enjoys video games from time to time) is very very broad, the “hardcore gamer community” is the most vocal. The discussion about games is centred into big AAA games (GTAs, CoDs…), and, to a lesser degree, to big casual games (FarmVille, Candy Crush…) and interesting indie experiments (Gone Home). The main idea someone will get is that “gamers” are mainly young, male and like to play for hours, when that’s not a good statistical representation of the community. Keep in mind that 45% of players are female, and a third have over 35 years. There are discussions about “what is a game and what is not” (meaning, “I’ve decided that you’re not playing games, OK?”), entire genres that are often ignored by everyone, and a general perception on what “real gaming” should be. A very good indication of that are the recent rants against microtransactions[1]. Sure, they feel wrong for a lot of people that is used to get a whole game for a price, and play it all. But I’m afraid that a lot of people right now spend a small amount of time playing and they just don’t feel like committing to a game, and Free to Play model present advantages to that kind of player.

I really don't see the point denying that this a game. It may be a BAD game, though.
I really don’t see the point denying that this a game, even if is a BAD one.

I am not arguing that biases are good or bad. Some will be good, because will bring focus to a chaotic community, some will be bad because will represent a minority that think they are the only “real” members of the community. Probably each of us will have a different opinion about which ones are positive or negative. What I am trying to say is that they are unavoidable.

Let me focus in development, as is the one community that I am most interested in. In the general online developers community, there are some biases that I think are quite strong, and probably not perceived from leaders and participants (after all, it mostly resembles them).

The community is young. This is clearer in the participants group than in the leaders one, after all, wisdom and insight are a good qualities for being a leader, and those comes mostly with age. With youth comes new views to change the world, but also naïveté and inexperience.

It is driven mostly by Americans (and foreigners living in the US, to a certain degree), not only by the strong position US has in tech, but also because the online lingua franca is currently English. In particular, it is very centred into Silicon Valley because is where the most discussion-driven companies of the world are based. Both well established companies and start-ups.

The most talked technologies are web tech (both front-end and back-end), with mobile apps in a second place. There is comparatively few discussion about desktop applications (which are the basis of everyday work), and even less on areas like embedded systems or commerce backends (including banks).

All those biases (there are more, of course, but just to limit to these three) work together in ways that some times are curious. Like assuming that most people are able to earn a Silicon-Valley-level salary, or that access to a computer (or even worse, Internet) in your teens is granted. Also, grammar errors are unforgivable mistakes a lot of times that should be pointed (and forget about things like transcript conference talks). Products are only relevant when they’re launched in the US, and everyone went to an american High School (which, as depicted on media and comments seems to be the Worst.Place.Ever.). That hardware come, out of the blue, from time to time, so we can run software faster. Of course, I’m exaggerating, but not by much.

I may have a biased idea on how US High School is.
I may have a biased idea on how US High School is.

I don’t know, from my point of view, given that I don’t share a lot of those biases (I can’t honestly consider myself “young” anymore, I am a Spaniard living in Ireland, and I spent half of my career working on non web technologies[2]), sometimes I get baffled by online discussion, especially the ones that talk about the community (as opposed to the tech, which is a different issue). My main concern with all the system is that everyone (participants and consumers in particular) will assume that every single issue raised by leaders can be translated directly into the general community.

Just to show an example, there is a lot of discussion about what makes a great developer and the proper strategies to hire them. Some ideas that could work for hiring a young front-end developer in San Francisco may not work as well on other places, for different technologies. There is always discussion about being a founder in different countries, and, as you can imagine, the experiences are quite different. Different legal system, different business cultures, etc…

Being in contact with communities where you’re talking to what in many aspects are your peers is absolutely fantastic, You can relate to them in a lot of things. That’s why you’re part of the community. Heck, I learn a lot everyday. But we also need to take some distance some times, be a little critic on some subjects and try to adapt what we learn to our particularities. Because  chances are you’re  biased in a different way than the leaders and participants of the community.

1.I don’t like the microtransactions thing, but I just think that there is a business case for it.

2. Embedded software related to satellites and industrial control systems.

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