Saturday, December 23, 2006

Does Groupthink Extend to On-line Photo Forums?

Jaron Lanier's essay, "Beware The Online Collective" is the inspiration for this entry. His article is available at the web site at this URL,9171,1570745,00.html.

The sub-headline reads, "Web guru Jaron Lanier worries that,in the world of the Web, individual creativity is being replaced by dangerous groupthink."

Lanier writes in his newest essay that,

"Collectives tend to be mean, to designate official enemies, to be violent, and to discourage creative, rigorous thought. Fascists, communists, religious cults, criminal "families" — there has been no end to the varieties of human collectives, but it seems to me that these examples have quite a lot in common. I wonder if some aspect of human nature evolved in the context of competing packs. We might be genetically wired to be vulnerable to the lure of the mob." end quoted excerpt

This Lanier essay, "Beware The Online Collective" really resonates with me. I see tendencies toward groupthink in a lot of online photography forums. Alarming tendencies. I've blogged before about brand wars and camera wars,and so Lanier's two essays about collective thinking or groupthink have resonated with me. I've been the subject of a pretty fair amount of resentment for my outspoken opinions about cameras and lenses. I've taken a lot of shit from people for my opinions on Nikon's engineering decisions in its prime lens lineup (of which I own most of) and its AF lens lineup (which I own a lot of). I've made a hell of a lot more contributions to on-line discussions than many people have. I'm an independent thinker. And I actually write stuff that points out REAL-WORLD weaknesses and deficiencies in the photo equipment that I have bought. I am not a brand-loyalist kind of guy. I don't follow along with the group on many issues. I pride myself on telling things as I see them,and of bringing up weaknesses and limitations in cameras,lenses,and software. I talk about MY experiences and my needs and how those two things jibe with different brands of cameras,and dozens and dozens of lenses, not just one model or one brand of camera and half a doxen lenses made within the last five years. I've owned two Fuji d-slr's, four Nikon d-slr models, and one Canon dslr. Currently I own about 40 Nikkor lenses (one or two lenses a year over 20+ years,and 40-some lenses is not so hard to understand) and a handful of Canon lenses. I've been shooting all-digital since February 2001. I love photography,and have since 1973. I acquire cameras and lenses and learn to USE them; I don't buy and sell stuff off like today's newbie hobbyist does. I have a 24-year old 105mm f/2.5 AiS,and a 29 year old Nikon FM which is my favorite film camera. I bought the 85mm 1.4 and the 135mm f/2 in 1987 as AiS lenses, and then later replaced them in the 2000's in their AF-D versions. I buy a lens to learn how to use it,and plan to KEEP it as part of my arsenal of equipment. I don't buy lenses that don't appeal to me,and I usually buy used lenses in good condition.

My own,personal involvement with the Internet goes back only to the late 1990's. Lanier,like a few university professors,engineers,and techno-geeks, has been around the "Internet" since it was not the Internet, but the ancestral origins of what is now the Internet. Message boards, lists, Usenet discussion groups,and all those other things that are now "the Internet" were around before the world wide web and easy e-mail came on the scene. Lanier's one of those long-time,pre-world wide web Internet guys who was out there back when there were NOT 100,000 newcomers arriving mothly,with a new computer and no knowledge of netiquette. Ever retrieved your e-mail using an application named simply Pine? I started that way. Do you remember Netscape 1.0? I do. I'm not a truly old-hand like some 1980's college physics professor who occasionally looked at message boards on the university's five computer teminals, but I am far from a "newbie".

Over the last year or so,myself,and other posters on various Internet sites have commented and or written posts or blogs on the increasing problem of rude groupthink behavior,name-calling,poor signal-to-noise ratios,arrogance masquerading as knowledge, clannishness, mob-rule, warring tribal-like behaviors,and just basically RUDE,PERSONAL attacks on people whose views they disagree with,etc,etc. David Pogue addresses the issue of on-line rudeness in his New York Times column this week,eerily echoing Jaron Lanier's Time Magazine essay on rude,anonymous behavior on the Internet.

I've written a couple of blog entries dealing with the ever-increasing number of nasty,confrontational,and otherwise aggressively acting people on the Internet photography forums. Myself,and quite a number of other people have posted threads or written articles exploring the issues behind WHY there's so much "trolling" on the popular photography forums and boards by people with either hidden agendas or zealous ONE-brand agendas. Usually, the trolling involves people who have very deep brand loyalty agendas, such as ultra-loyal Canon or Nikon or Leica or Zeiss fans who will stir up trouble. It's gotten to the point now when almost anybody asks a question or makes a comment about a weakness in a brand or camera model, that some groupthinking Fanboi will pop out of the bushes and club the 'offender' to death while shouting out "Troll,troll!". Brand loyalism and zealotry has turned many forums into groupthink experiments in progress. A good case in point: for about two years now, Canon's sports and news camera, the 1D Mark II has had double the pixel count of the Nikon D2h sports and news camera models. The Canon has 8.2 megapixels, the Nikons 4.1 megapixels. Canon has had full-frame 24x36 sensors for several years, Nikon has nothing even close. Either of these two topics,broached in the wrong way will bring out the groupthinking Nikon Fanbois who will soundly criticise the poster who asks questions which dare expose any weakness about the "Brand". Hell, if the poster who asks a question is not a member in good standing, he'll be publicly tarred and feathered. Often by two or three men at one time. It's groupthink. Mob rule. It's everywhere now.

I've made mention of "Fanbois", which is a Japanese term,the plural of Fanboi. Japan has many,many very devout Nikon Fanbois, who absolutely worship everything Nikon makes,has made, and will ever make. Another term I have used is "brand warrior". I have also used the term I coined, which is One Brand Zealot. I've never heard the term One Brand Zealot before, but I did a blog entry mentioning them not that long ago. I have become very aware that in on-line photography forums, there exists a certain percentage of people who are EXTREMELY sensitive to what they perceive as criticism of their favorite brand, or model, of camera and also their favorite lenses. As well as computer platforms, Mac or Windows. These One Brand Zealots have become MUCH,much more numerous over the last few years,as digital cameras have proliferated. What if Jaron Lanier is correct when he writes, "We might be genetically wired to be vulnerable to the lure of the mob". Huh? Is it possible that we might be vulnerable to the mob mentality at some genetic level? Is that why the degree of brand-bashing,character assasinations,and closed-mindedness and groupthink has escalated so,so rapidly since the introduction of the sub-$1000 d-slr cameras, the EOS Digital Rebel and then a year later, the Nikon D70? The various on-line photo forums do seem to be very vulnerable to a mob mentality, filled with rudeness and closed-minded,fanatical devotion to particular,individual cameras. And lenses. It's weird,the way many people now interpret adult discussion and honest evaluations of engineering decisions, manufacturing problems, and quality control issues as "personal insults" to "their brand". It's become almost ridiculous.

The term "newbie" is an Internet vocabulary term. Many people are not aware of what it really means. The D70 was the SINGLE best-selling Nikon camera in over 60 years of Nikon camera making history. The D70 got a LOT of both internet newbies and photographic newbies onto web photo sites like pBase and Flickr.The Canon Digital Rebel and the Nikon D70 launched the largest two armies of newbies EVER to come into d-slr photography at one time. I remember the Canon AE-1 influx in the 1970's...I've seen huge influxes of people into the hobby before, but the D-Rebel and the D70 were absolutely HOME RUN cameras, sales-wise; they were in a very real manner of speaking positively huge,like the Biblical floods.

I remember and dPreview before the Digital Rebel and D70 days....the on-line photo community was comprised of vastly different people than are there today. Old-time Internet people showed much more appreciation,and tolerance, for people with different experiences and different opinions. Things are a heck of a lot more One Brand Zealot-like these days. There are now more than ever a lot of relatively inexperienced people spouting off on the web about photo topics. One such fellow, Cousin Hank,I'll call him, bought his first interchangeable lens Nikon, a D70, in the summer of 2004. He now regularly defends his favorite camera company,and his favorite lenses, as if he's got a vast array of experience under his belt. As far as I can tell, he has owned a 24-120 VR, the 60 Micro, 70-300 ED,then an 80-200 Nikon 2-ring zoom,a Tamron 28-75/2.8 which was sold off and was then replaced by the 28-70 AF-S,and maybe another lens I missed in my research the other day; wow, five or six lenses over two and a half years, and he posts like an expert,and constantly loves to reinforce the capabilities of individual lenses,while taking potshots at people who point out that the 60 Micro is NOT a good portrait lens,and has focusing issues that hamper it at distance,and that it is NOT all that sharp at portrait distances or longer. Our good Cousin comes off affably to those who also like the annointed lenses,and seems to be a nice,friendly guy; but beware making comments that don't worship the 28-70 AF-S--the Cousin will go off on you,in public forums. And yet, our fair cousin has developed a cult of personality around himself. But remember, he's been shooting an interchangeable lens camera since summer 2004. And he's owned under a dozen lenses;although he comes off like an old hand,he's relatively quite new.

As Mr. Lanier asks in the conclusion of his article,
"What's to stop an online mass of anonymous but connected people from suddenly turning into a mean mob, just like masses of people have time and time again in the history of every human culture? It's amazing that details in the design of online software can bring out such varied potentials in human behavior. It's time to think about that power on a moral basis. From the Dec. 25, 2006 issue of TIME magazine" End of qouted passage. It seems as if even some real egghead types agree with my line of thinking. And no, it's not just MY opinion...the big photography forums and boards of the web have their Peter Phan and their T3's,as well as some other folks who are,really, pretty much One Brand Zealots whose job it is to spread dis-information.

I myself am not a One Brand Zealot. I've owned several Nikon d-slr models,beginning in Feb 2001 of the Nikon D1, then the Fuji S1 Pro, then the Fuji S2 Pro in August of its intro year, then the Nikon D1h a year later, then the Nikon D70 in June of 2004, then after half a year of D70 use, I put the D70 away in favor of a Canon EOS 20D I bought in Feb. 2005. My last d-slr purchase was the Nikon D2x in May,2005. I still use the 20D and D2x for almost all of my shooting,and still have the S2 and D70. I use the D70 as a travel/party camera,since it's the smallest and lightest dslr I own. But for my "serious" use, I use the D2x,and I use the Canon for sepia-tone work and for use with manual-focus specialty lenses using a Nikon lens to EOS-body adapter. I can't seem to sell off any of these bodies. My old S1 Pro and five Nikkor lenses returned recently from a roughly 18-month loan to a forumer Fuji SLR Forum member,whom I've never met personally,a nice fellow who lives in London,England whose equipment had been ripped off by burglars,so now I have a few more lenses floating around.

There is now, more than ever, an increasingly shrill chorus of defenders of the faith on the Internet's photography outlets. There are a TON of people who absolutely believe that the BEST pictures can only be made by a Canon. Or a Nikon. Or a Fuji. In about that order is where the One Brand Zealots are distributed. There are also the cult of personality people who appear to be a bit more moderate, but who actually represent the "party line" or the collective group-think positions quite well. They appear at first glance to be well-reasoned individuals, but there is an increasing tendency that I,and many others have noticed: a sort of group consensus exists about the relative quality of preferred tools in the various forums; those who dare question the group-think position about the tools will be dealt with,either angrily and aggressively, or alternately through much apparently polite writing that basically tells the dissenter that he's not welcome, that only the favored paty line be expressed,and that the 1)camera models 2)lenses and 3)engineering and software decisions are all "perfectly fine". No need for any engineering suggestions,no need for anything but the status quo. No need for ANY NEW IMPROVEMENTS, ever, in what the One Brand Manufacturer has offered for sale. There's a goodly number of people who defend the status quo,and their favorite manufactures against all criticism. They say things like, "Everything is great with my favorite products,so,shut up and go buy a @#$*. There are some "cult lenses", like Nikon's 85 1.4 AF-D and 28-70 AF-S that have cult followers that border on the fanatic in their defense of these two lenses,against and and ALL criticisms,however minor. Some of these lenses have even been given nicknames,like Cream Machine and The Beast. Groupthink is all about drowning out all the voices of dissent and disagreement. Groupthink is about feel-good unity,no challenges to the status quo,and on everybody being in lock-step unanimity.

When the Leica M8 came online recently, with its severe blacks-turn out-as-magenta problem (excessive sensitivity to infrared), there were many aggressive attemps to drum out NON-M8 owners from the forum, including very technologically savvy posters like Joseph S. Wisniewski. Thank God that Joe piped up in a post as wrote something like, 'This is the Leica forum, the place to discuss Leica equipment, and not the Leica M-8 'owner's club forum'. I want people to have all the facts, so I'm posting here.' Those were pretty much Joe's words. What Joe did was to stand up to the bullying and the shit-flicking he was getting because he didn't actually OWN a Leica M-8 camera, but was interested in discussing the M8's actual and severe fault so that people could make a truly informed decision without being shouted down by Fanbois. The Leica Fanbois who had bought M8's ($5,000 cameras most people can not afford) were VERY pissed off that somebody with engineering expertise, and also a very Old School long-time Internet person was attempting to engage in sensible,unemotional,dispassionate equipment talk in the forum. The unstated groupthink reaction was somewhat like, "How dare an educated,experienced person dare speak about the weakness of a very expensive product with real-world PROBLEMS in a forum where we proud,few new M8 owners wish to huddle and talk about how great our new cameras are?" Thank God for a person who stood up to the groupthink,and the mob mentality, to point out that even though he did not own the camera model of the day himself, that he had the right to discuss that camera model. The typical Leica M8 buyer is a devoted Leica M user. Leica has a large number of rabid,devout fans. No wonder--they've had the highest production quality and standards for over 75 years,and have made a couple of the word's very-best cameras ever,and many of the best lenses. People deserve to hear the unvarnished TRUTH about how expensive cameras perform,no matter if the groupthinking Fanbois get their feathers ruffled.

It's kind of interesting how this groupthink has come to characterize so,so many of the on-line photography communities. Some people might take comfort in assuming that the tendency to succumb to mob rule and groupthink is somehow within the DNA of humans,and that we're therefore somehow not responsible for falling into groupthink and mob rule. The tendency I've seen over the past two years has been a pattern of forcing out those people who don't happen to agree with the collectives which have taken over so many of the various online photography forums,or who disagree with the Cult of Personality leaders within the various groups. As Lanier speculates, perphas humankind evolved in the type of environment where tribes warred with one another, and nobody wanted anybody to question the status quo. People who spoke unflatteringly about the group were drummed out of the group. People who showed any disloyalty to the group,say by associating with another group,or questioning the "group wisdom" were viewed as traitors. As Lanier writes, "Collectives tend to be mean, to designate official enemies, to be violent, and to discourage creative, rigorous thought." Something to think about before you make the next mean-spirited,smartass comment about somebody or something in an on-line photography forum, or leave your next asshole-like,rude,ceepy anonymous comment on a blog or website like David Pogue's New York Times technology blog site,etc,etc.

I find Lanier's essays "Digital Maoism" and "Beware The Online Collective" to be particularly relevant to the various on-line photography web sites and web boards that are popular these days.

Please see,9171,1570745,00.html for the full text of Jaron Lanier's essay.
Where you can find Lanier's essay "Digital Maoism",with a short introduction.

the discourse and viewpoints of several intellectuals regarding the essay Digital Maoism--some VERY interesting stuff here!

Additional reading:search out and learn about the internet vocabulary words "newbie" and "sock puppet",as well as "cult of personality".

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