Yak Talk: Week of July 10th

Announcing regular contributors for #trends-and-futures, #complexity, and #online-governance-studies

In the fourth issue of Yak Talk, we continue to practice an experimental, but iterative approach to the Yak Collective newsletter. We are in this process of shaping a project that began as a weekly digest into something that is more editorial, engaging and reflective of Yak as a whole, although not necessarily comprehensive.

Going forward, Yak Talk writers will be covering specific “tracks”, which are topics that are informed by specific chat rooms in the YC Discord channel.

We will be covering:

  • #trends-and-futures – A survey of trends and futures in culture, finance, technology, etc.

  • #online-governance-studies – Studying models of governance for decentralized organizations and online communities.

  • #complexity – An open-ended study of complexity, from a spectrum of philosophical to scientific/empirical.

We are currently seeking writers to own the #complexity track for a 12-week commitment. If you’re interested, comment below or email us at yaktalk6@gmail.com.


The Path of Least Resistance and Brandolini’s Law

By Grigori Milov

Almost every online community seems to experience the same type of dysfunction. It starts with a majority of people choosing the path of least resistance. They default to observing others and copying behavior.

Repeating and reusing ideas and actions is easier and definitely less risky than proposing completely original ones. So, there is little surprise that in any group there are some people who follow this path.

Digital platforms, such as Twitter, prime us to behave exactly this way. In many cases an idea or a tweet can gain a lot of support because of this snowballing effect: after a few people express their support, the rest of the group typically follows suit.

Rene Girard called this effect "mimetic snowballing". Once it gets started, it can be quite difficult to stop. Yet someone in a group always can feel that this dynamics can lead to negative consequences and tries to apply brakes. This person is typically called In-Group Contrarian (IGC).

 “The appearance of this figure is as predictable as a mimetic snowballing itself” writes Geoff Shullenberger, lecturer at New York University.

And this leads to quite interesting development. Initially the IGC can sound legitimate concerns. But even in this case ingroups tend to dedicate more time and energy to attacking the contrarian than they do to fighting their enemies or trying to resolve the issue.

Which raises the questions: Do all groups inevitably create contrarians? Can this conflict between forces of homogenization and in-group contrarians be avoided? 

We discussed this at Yak Collective's Weekly Online Governance chat hosted by Venkatesh Rao.

Contrarians sometimes offer valuable perspectives that need to be heard, but the conflict can become an energy drain for the group. 

This reminds about effects described in Brandolini’s law (which is also known as “bullshit asymmetry principle”): The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.

So, how can we avoid this potential energy drain, or, in other words, the trap of the in-group contrarian and the subsequent scapegoating that often results? 

If you, as a consultant, find yourself inhabiting the In-Group Contrarian role, one way is to validate your critique by putting it to a simple test: Can it potentially add value to the group, or in other words, can a group build meaningful projects around these contrarian views?

We will definitely continue to explore this theme and maybe even put some of these concepts to a test.


The Oncoming “Cambrian Explosion of Virtual Spaces”

By Alex Wagner

Before 2020, Zoom was a previously unheard-of piece of teleconferencing software. In a single year it has become ubiquitous – a fixture in tens of millions of peoples’ lives. Gig-workers, professionals, and executives all know it’s bland interface, limited functionality, and often frustrating UX.

Probably the last adjective anyone would use to describe Zoom would be “fun”.

While trolls and artists have found interesting uses for the tool, for many, using Zoom is a monotonous experience.

Some have complained that their work days have turned into an endless parade of Zoom calls(a phenomenon being called “Zoom fatigue”. If that’s not bad enough, work zoom calls are often followed by family Zoom calls. Even family wills are being planned over Zoom.

Is this the future? More than half of the average person’s social interactions being mediated by a mediocre piece of teleconferencing software? And that’s with telehealth doctor’s visits notwithstanding.

Media occasionally touts Zoom as “a new kind of social network”, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone excited about it. Existing social networks are no different. Save for Tiktok, mainstream social media platforms have been largely stagnant for a while.

Facebook is a legacy product at this point. Twitter has some weird pockets and survives against all odds, but the ecosystem is far from perfect(cancel culture and trollbots abound). Online gaming is for gamers, and all the baggage that that community conjures.

One small sliver of good news in an otherwise apocalyptic year?

Weird online spaces are exploding.

We had “Weird Facebook”, Weird Twitter limps along, and Weird Tiktok is having it’s moment.

Through a proliferation of experimental online spaces, the internet is poised to be inoculated with a heroic dose of weird again.

One might count gamer-focused platforms Twitch and Discord for early rumblings in the weirding of online spaces.

One example? Dr. Alok Kanojia hosting regular sessions giving life-changing clinical advice to gamers about depression, anxiety, and gaming in a healthy way.

Rapper Travis Scott’s 2017 Fortnite concert was also an early indicator of what is to come w/r/t how we can expect to see online spaces shift and grow to meet their users.

OnlyFans is it’s own phenomenon entirely.

And let’s not forget about the wide world of Minecraft.

There is a valid argument that the Internet used to be much weirder. From when it was first established as a consumer product, it has had nearly 30 years to mature from IRCs, the first MMORPGs, the first social media networks, and it would be impossible to catalog the many odd and wonderful experiments in online community here(but let us give a brief nod to Omegle, ChatRoulette, 4Chan, Reddit, Tumblr, and countless others).

So, where are these fabled and happening online spaces, you ask?

This piece was inspired by Devon Zuegel’s brief, but excellent tweet thread, in which she lists a handful of experimental online spaces.

It’s worth noting that these are experiments, and none of these are fully thriving communal spaces. To actually play with any of these “spaces”, you’ll want to message a friend to join you. The possible exception being Virus Room, which is designed for serendipitous meetings with strangers online.


Examples that come to mind:

(Descriptions added for clarity. List is slightly modified from Zuegel’s initial tweet. - ed.)

  • @ferossVirus Cafe - Promises “Meet a stranger in 2 minutes”. Fun interface, sounds, and UX.

  • Online TownFrom their site: “Online Town is a video-calling experience that lets multiple people hold separate conversations in parallel and lets you walk in, out and around those conversations just as easily as you would in real life. It’s also fun.” Seems very similar to @davidguttman's http://rambly.app, in employing 90’s RPG aesthetics into the app’s design.

  • MakeSpace - Like if Zoom was created by UX designers. Probably the most ProductHunt friendly of this bunch.

  • Cozy RoomAllows you to inhabit a two-dimensional room, arrange the furniture, and voice chat with your friends using an anthropomorphic circle as an avatar. Cute semi-spatial chat app.

This is only a partial list, and some of the newest “online space” apps being built. Weird online spaces are constantly emerging and then fading into the Land of Forgotten Websites. Some others, old and new: Scuttlebutt(a decentralized social network), wfh.town(a speculative map created collaboratively in Figma), Marissa’s Google Doc Quarantine Party(essentially an online stand-up comedy show meets Google Docs)


So where is this all headed?

One thing is for certain – many of us are only going to continue to spend more time online: for better, for worse, and for weird.


How Do You Define Complexity?

By Praful Mathur

That’s the question that looms over the #complexity channel in the Yak Collective’s Discord server. What's been most fascinating is how the group is finding examples in the natural world that demonstrate, firsthand, the effects and beauty of complexity. 

There have been more intellectual takes on how complexity underlies the nature of reality. Yet most of the conversation has meandered into looking for a definition of complexity which truly fits. Similar to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous remark as a threshold test for obscenity, it seems that complexity is also a matter of “I know it when I see it.” 

Yak member @Nitzan shared a fascinating video piece that details how, after a 70-year absence, the reintroduction of wolves fundamentally changed local ecologies in Yellowstone National Park.

Essentially, the reintroduction of wolves led to a decrease in the deer population, which caused fields to grow back. Newly abundant field vegetation prompted a return of other species, some that had not been seen in the area for decades.

The introduction of wolves into the ecosystem created a flywheel effect for other species, but the lesser known fact is that the introduction of wolves at Yosemite changed river beds themselves.

Another perspective w/r/t complexity is the possibility that lazy, simple actions look complex to humans, who construct elaborate narratives to explain simple phenomena.

In his piece, “The Art of Agile Leadership”, Venkatesh Rao gives the example of geese flying in a V-formation. Initially the v-formation was thought of by researchers as an elegant, and efficient way of flying as a group, with a lead alpha-goose bravely navigating the flock difficult weather. Later research revealed that the geese take turns leading the V, and that the nominal “lead goose” is just the least lazy member at that moment. 

Obviously, there is much to explore regarding the topic of complexity, with vast tracts of research in cybernetics and systems thinking, and in the context of solving specific large-scale problems, e.g. the compounding effects of systemic racism.

Yak Links

Read Shreeda’s report on Internet Writer Workflows, released earlier this week.

Apply to become a Yak here

Interested in hiring the Yak Collective? Send a message to vgr@ribbonfarm.com.

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The Yak Talk team is: Alex Wagner, Grigori MilovShreeda Segan, and Praful Mathur.

We are currently seeking one more contributor to cover the #complexity track for the newsletter. Comment below or reach out to Alex via Twitter.