Friday, July 28, 2017

Lord of the Flies: Difficult Truths, Questions, and Burnout Within the Online Paleocommunity

It is with a bit of heavy heart that I write this. That it even has warranted this much thought on my part compels me though. I feel we have reached a sort of tipping point and, for lack of a better term, a crisis as goes this circus we call the online paleocommunity. We have been witnessing a startling attrition in the number and quality of blogs, fruitful interchanges, and general positive social media encounters. We have seen some very talented and valuable individuals decrease their engagement or fall off completely within the community. We need to be asking some very hard and difficult questions at all levels. In order to get at these difficult aspects I myself have to play a bit of the heel, the bad guy so it may seem. I am doing this in order to stem what I perceive as a growing burnout, disillusionment, and fatigue within a social community that is actually somewhat new and unparalleled in intellectual history - the online paleocommunity. I think we should take a moment to realize that it is a special and unique place and one worth fighting for. Where else in the history of science have we seen a meeting of multiple strata of interested parties get together in such intellectual, engaging, and profitable way? But there are problems to face and some rather ugly truths and questions need asking. In speaking so bluntly I ask simply for your open mind, reason, and an effort to grasp at nuance. And know that in casting such a wide net I don't fall outside its bounds.

So with that it mind, and I think that is a fair opening statement, we shall proceed.

Special Unique Times With Special Unique Problems

When I was a young grommet of about 10 years of age leafing through Gregory S. Paul's Predatory Dinosaurs of the World for the umpteenth time I had no inkling that one day children of my age, likewise possessed mentally with all things dinosaur, would have unfettered access to not only some of the best minds in the field of paleontology but due to the growing open-access movement direct access to many of the original scientific texts. So if you are a young dinosaur grommet - and I use that term endearingly because I was once just like you - realize that you are living in a very privileged and special time. So don't take it for granted.

But more importantly don't abuse it.

What do I mean by don't abuse it? First off I think for some of these younger paleo-grommets we should burst their bubble as to what the working schedule of a professional academic is actually like, because I think it might be eye opening. Not working as a professional academic myself, but having been around them in various permutations, I'll give you my ballpark estimate of what their daily schedule is like. I would wager that, conservatively, 50% or more of their day is spent doing boring bureaucratic stuff. Yup, exchanging emails, going to faculty meeting, writing grant requests, paper requests, fee waivers, maintaining funding because original research and testing is quite expensive. So the vast majority of time is not even spent on the work they are most known for. If they are  professional academics they are also, by necessity, probably teachers. Some may actually like teaching and thrive doing it. Some probably just teach as a means to an end, a way to allow time for research. In any case you can bet that teaching, office hours, grading, making tests, preparing lab - all that stuff - is gonna take up the bulk of the rest of the time of a professional academic, probably upwards of 4o% although again I might be lowballing this. That leaves  probably less than 10% of time dedicated to new and original research, blogging, writing papers, hypothesizing i.e. "pushing the field further".

In other words - regardless of the actual time break downs - the real "fun" work of paleontology gets squelched into a relatively tiny compartment compared to the obligations of bureaucracy, teaching, and other more tedious details.

And it is somewhere in that 10% of time professional academic have to follow new leads, research, hypothesize, and think of new ideas that their social media time is met too. What does this mean for you young dinosaur grommets? It means that you should not hit up such and such with extreme and lengthy questions, ask for them to do research for you, and don't expect that they have time to consult on your expose or fact check your document. Google it!! Wikipedia!! You have access to more information at your fingertips than we ever did! I'm not going to name any names and it is not my intention for the parties involved to be harassed or shamed in any ways but I recently saw on social media a well known researcher given a list of over 3000 genera with lengths and weight estimates and asked to correct, augment, and fix said list. Please kids, just don't. It might be naivety but realize that time is no luxury for professional academics and the more burdens and requests you place on such people you can expect more and more social media burnout and people dropping out. This is why we can't have nice things folks!!

Now my experience is a bit different as I am not a career academic, nor do I think it was the right path for me in any case. But the crux of the issue remains the same… time. I don't have to sift through bureaucracy nor do I have the responsibility and energy that is demanded of being a teacher. For me my path involved decoupling paleontology from financial realities. Fortunately my day job involves lots of driving and I get to do my best thinking while driving, which is why I have a backlog of ideas and material I have yet to unpack!! Frustratingly the stresses encountered in the online paleocommunity sometime act as a distraction from getting the work done that I need to get done. But the point remains, whether someone does this stuff as a passionate hobby or are career academics those in the online community need to realize that time is our most limiting asset which we need to spend wisely!!

The Boy's Club of Online Paleo - whether we like it or not

Leading from this it is also time we face the fact that the online paleo-community, especially the dinosaur aspect, is dominated by young males. Now, you can ascribe whatever cultural reasons, biases, biological determinisms or whatevers to why this is. There have been some valiant efforts to make paleontology more amenable to female retention and inclusion. Certainly some females may have their perspective on how things can be improved and I'm not discounting their truth but I'm just noting what I see and what I think we will continue to see - a bit of a boy's club. I doubt we will ever see exact parity in the genders for paleontology both professional or in the online community. For now I'm just going to go with an observation of "it is it what it is" and that boys love dinosaurs. Especially the big and violent ones.

From this observation, that a big chunk of the online pale-community (esp dinosaurs) is dominated by young males, we can start to extrapolate some general observations of the young male psyche because that is where the problem (mainly) lies. I'm sorry to inform you young bloods, and I speak from experience, but I'm gonna make a sweepingly blunt generalization that young males are the least empathetic, most anti-social, most cruel, and generally the most vile and violent sexo-social caste in any human population. I'm sorry guys its true. There is a reason that we send you off to war and you do it so splendidly and without question. There is a reason that Lord of the Flies was about a group of boys stranded on an island, not a group of elderly women. There is a reason that behind the vile comments on social media is almost always a young male. There is a reason for Gamer-gate. There is a reason for the alt-right. That reason is young males and all the conditions, trappings, and baggage incumbent upon you.

The Prevalence of Autism & Mental Illness Signals Within the Community

Again this might not be the most deft treatment of the subject but if we start with the observation that young males dominate the online paleocommunity - and that this probably won't change in the foreseeable future - we can start to arrive at better answers by asking the right questions. Before we do that I feel we must address little discussed truths about the online paleocommunity that encompasses both genders and probably run the gamut from novice to professional.

That difficult truth is that I believe there is a higher than normal incidence of mental conditions and mental illnesses in the online paleocommunity. Austism and the subtype Aspergers syndrome I suspect are especially common within the field from aficionados to even esteemed thinkers. An immersive subject such as paleontology provides a natural intellectual pasture where people lacking in social skills and prone to obsessive interests can flourish. Especially online where social interaction is devoid of the nuance of face to face contact and one can literally spend countless hours going down whatever wormhole one finds themselves in. I myself probably fall somewhere on the spectrum to a very slight degree given my propensity to obsess on subjects and really dive into them to an extreme degree.
Working from the perspective that a big chunk of people online might be on the autistic spectrum, have difficulty with social pragmatics, and find a natural refuge in paleontology might prove useful if you are having trouble distinguishing between classic autistic type thought processes (i.e. lack of social cues & pragmatics but no ill intent to harm) or if someone is just trolling (out to harm).

That people who find themselves somewhere on the autistic spectrum might have a predilection towards paleontology should come as no great surprise. I've often discussed the connection between dinosaurs and autistic children with my mom who is a professional child speech therapist, indeed simply google autism and dinosaurs and you will see that there has been much discussion in these regards.

The necessary corollary is one which I have grappled with discussing because I can't really discuss these issues without decoupling them from my own life, so I won't. In addition to the online paleontological community acting as a bit of a refuge to those on the autistic spectrum I also suspect that it attracts a fair number of people who, for whatever reasons, don't exactly fit into most mainstream elements of modern society. I suspect that in addition to high incidence of autism in the community that there is a high incidence of risk factors and associated characters emblematic of conditions referred to, for lack of a better term, mental illness. I say this because when I go down the checklist I meet most of these requirements and I suspect that there probably are a lot like me. I have been visited upon by depression most of my life and even an isolated manic episode. I've had troubles establishing relationships with people, dealt with loneliness, isolation, self doubt, low self esteem, jealousy, chemical dependency issues, addictions, numbing my emotions, and suicidal thoughts. For all my bluster I consider myself and meet the qualifications of being a highly sensitive person (HSP) who probably feels things deeper and more passionately than most. Highly sensitive males are not supposed to be "out" in American society and most are not.

I make the point of mentioning all of these aspects of my life I have sustained and lived through to show that each one of us is carrying the invisible battle scars and wounds of a life lived and invisible struggles not known to others. That, speaking for myself personally, sometimes the slightest poke or prod can unleash a lot of anger and grief barely simmering under the surface.

So when you see someone go off the rails, as I've done it myself, ask yourself: is this person always like this? Did he/she simply have a bad day? Is there more to the story that I don't know?

Online "Consensus", the Perils of Group think and Ideological Bubbles

One of the pitfalls I think we all should be wary of is the dangers of becoming too insular a community.  Such scenarios can quickly establish a path leading towards intellectual bubbles and group think. We also should be wary of calls towards consensus culled primarily from the online community. Such thinking negates the fact that many thinkers, professional included here, abstain from social media discussions of paleontology. They just don't do it. This can also create a skewed impression of what consensus really is and how nebulous a concept it is and will continue to be. The online community does not always reflect the full gamut of thought and opinion.

This creates a self reinforcing intellectual bubble where group think is primed to take over. Why? Because we are social animals discussing science on a social platform. Social primates are going to drift into group think if not steeled against it. Now I'm not going to say this is an insurmountable problem… yet. But we should be on guard against it.

Another pitfall we should be wary of is a tendency for almost a type of artificial democratic voting of ideas and willful confirmation bias. Sorry but this is destructive to the science when ideas are simply voted upon by a delegation not yet amenable to change or with the maturity to recognize that the once solid footing that their ideas once seemed to rest upon is crumbling beneath their feet. Again this is a byproduct of the youth and inexperience of many younger paleo - enthusiasts. Your brain is literally not yet fully formed. And life has not kicked your ass enough. But give it time, it will.

What to Do?

It may seem that I have painted a particularly bleak picture of the online paleo-community. Beholden by hordes of young males; many perhaps autistic; lacking social cues; rife with mental illness, isolation, anger, and the power of anonymity; intellectual fiefdoms developing; egos, egos, egos; large scale disengagement and attrition by any adults in the room; skewed consensus; Lord of the Flies brought to life.

With all of these negatives at hand how have things hobbled along so well to this point? I can only speak of my own personal recommendations and ideas for a more synergistic and positive online experience. I'm very amenable to hearing others thoughts and ideas and am certainly not above reproach or even innocent of many of the criticisms I myself have put forth.

Sometimes Its Good to Just Watch, Listen, and Learn From the Sidelines

Every once in a while I am pleasantly surprised by coming across a new commentator who admits to having read the my blog for some time but has more or less quietly lurked in the shadows. I really like you guys because you remind me of myself a bit. I didn't really get into commenting myself until after lurking for many years, and even now I generally peruse and monitor discussions rather than always feeling it necessary to throw in my two cents. You know, it is not really necessary to always chime in right?

There is a proverb that goes "Still water run deepest" which you may have heard before. Less well known is that there is an inverse to the proverb:  "Shallow water makes the most noise"

"Where the water ran smooth he found it Deepest: and on the contrary, Shallowest where it made most noise." Theres more danger in a Reserv'd and Silent, than in a Noisy, Babbling enemy

Put It in a Sandwich

The following is a rather simple and easily remembered formula to allow a more positive and fruit full exchange of ideas and criticism. When someone puts out a new idea, thought, or piece of art it is always like a little baby. You are going to be a little attached to it. You want to see it do well. When it is attacked it is normal to get a little defensive. Then arguments occur and all kinds of nastiness. This is how to sidestep such quarrelsome exchanges by simply bracketing your (constructive) criticism by putting a complimentary/positive statement both before and after the criticism. In other words put it in a sandwich.

Example of a positive art critique: " What an interesting design (positive opener). Have you come across the article suggesting such a feature was likely not there? (non-condesdending tone allowing person to answer) Again, thanks for sharing your work you obviously put a lot of effort into it!! Keep it up!! (positive closure)"

Is that so hard? And guess what it might leave both parties feeling better than before the exchange!?! Imagine that, feeling better after an internet exchange!!

How much better does the above feel to read and write as opposed to this: "I doubt it, that's kinda ridiculous. That is not how these things work."

There might be a good reason for the person doubting the accuracy of a picture. But have they given that reason? Nope they have not. Have they assumed that the person who did the picture has not read what they are speaking of? Yes, they made an assumption. Is it condescending? Yup. Have you learned anything or have you become more enlightened in any way? Nope and nope, in fact you probably feel a bit crummy.

Avoid "gotcha" statements, those are the worst. You can inform someone else about some knowledge they may not be privy to without being a holier than thou, know it all.

And finally take a loooooooong look in the mirror if you are the person always leveling criticisms at others without producing anything of your own. Your constant nit-picking and criticisms reflect more on your own dissatisfaction with yourself than a genuine desire to better and help out the other person. Take that cold shower.

If the ratio of criticism to creation is overly high in your online footprint you are part of the problem.

"Those who can, do. Those who can't criticize." Robin Sharma

Learn to Walk Away

Just do it. Walk away. It's not worth it. There is hardly ever a final word in most issues in paleo anyways.

If you are always getting into tifts maybe it is time to take a look in the mirror. Is it really because you are so superior and everyone else is a dumbass? Maybe when you realize that the common denominator in all of these exchanges is yourself then you can see where the problem lies.

Don't Be a Stalker or a Harasser

This has happened to me several times already. If someone bans you in one social media outlet do you take that as an invitation to find them on another and contact them there? If so, that is in my book stalking/harassing behavior and it does not feel good. It feels like what it is, a violation. If you do this you are part of the problem.

Realize that paleontology is more or less intellectual entertainment, a hobby. Even if you have a point if its got to the level of someone blocking you or disengaging from the exchange, just leave 'em alone. Walk away. It's not your job to be the self appointed grand poo-bha of all thing correct and true. No one owes you their time or to give you a forum, these are voluntary exchanges, not mandatory.

Don't Say Something to Someone That You Wouldn't Say Face to Face

Pretty self explanatory right? I'm guilty of not following this one myself sometimes. Maybe we all can get too easily emboldened by a type of anonymity and keyboard warrior bravado that the internet provides.

What you say on the internet, you own. After saying enough crappy things that becomes you. We should realize that even if we are discussing someone who is not currently engaged in the conversation - that doesn't mean that it won't get back to them. So think a bit about what you write.

Don't Pile Up On People

Even when someone behaves egregiously and have already been called out on it, don't feel like you have to dog pile on that person. Are you doing it for beneficial reasons or are you just trying to get your shots in? People are not defined by one post, by one drawing, by one exchange, or by one action. We have good days and bad days. Allow for some nuance in life. 
 Conclusions: A Better Version of Our Online Selves

I sincerely hope that people get the gist of what I'm saying. Granted that a big portion of my readership is actually the "young male demographic" which is the group I am most singling out and criticizing I do this at some risk. But I think a greater good is at stake and that is the strength and vibrancy of the online paleocommunity. I'm not the only person to notice a diminution of upper talent and people generally suffering burnout and attrition. So I felt compelled to call a spade a spade and if that means I got to play the heel, play the disciplinarian, give the masses of paleo-grommets a spanking, so be it.

Just know this: If you are 15 years old, what do you now think now about some of the things that the 10 year old version of yourself said online? You probably think of things a little differently now with more knowledge and life experience, right. Now with this observation in mind is it not too difficult to imagine that what you say now online at age 15 might be a tad different that what you say and think when you are 20, 25, 30? Remember what you say online you own so be careful about this, some things may come back to haunt you.

That also goes to giving a little credence and respect to any adults in the room. Remember in most cases that they have been in your shoes, they have been young paleo-grommets themselves. They have the intellectual context to have seen the oscillations in scientific discourse bounce back and forth before. To put it bluntly they have already forgotten more than you know. I'm not saying the adults are infallible or that you have to worship them or follow blindly. But let's interact in a way that preserves peoples sanity and does not drive them away. Because when all the adults are gone, and many are already leaving, what do we have left? Lord of the Flies is what we have left.


Ryan Dempsey said...

I don't know if this is something you have in the works or thought of, but your material is very much worthy of a book. It's consistently thought provoking and I think it would be a good way to express your ideas while not having to involve yourself with the community. The self-publishing sector increasingly commands respect.

From what I've seen, a big issue is the "enthusiast" portion being invested in the material the same way people get invested into DC Comics or Harry Potter. Rebelling against new scientific information with the same outrage and vigor that you would express against the new Batman costume. I don't question the depth and appreciation that they have for this material, just HOW they appreciate it. What they like are often aesthetic, which is totally fine; I have an enormous love for tail-dragging thunder lizards in volcanic swamps, but I understand that it's an aesthetic and don't see it as a relevant contemporary vision that I have to defend.

TL;DR the sooner fantasy death match discussion trends die the better.

Paleontology is so weird. Is there a "Marsupial Fandom" online that has these problems?

Duane Nash said...

Thanks for the comments and observations. I think the comparison to comic book fandom is excellent and will keep that in mind. I would love to write book(s) and have several ideas in mind. I would like to do books right though and have artistic control so self publication is probably the way. We'll see, I've had several people bring the idea up to me.

Nick Fonseca said...

I completely agree with you Duane. I should also say that the current discourse is in a lot of ways symptomatic of behavior online in general. Discourse in all facets of the web seems to be quite disgusting of late in my mind. In a lot of ways the internet has become a cesspit. I recall when it started how amazing it was supposed to be. It was geeky, but enjoyable. Now, you have to tread lightly or have your heart destroyed. I guess paleo just wasn't immune to what has happened. I remember when paleo was fun. Maybe early on it was all JP and awesomebro, but people genuinely enjoyed talking about the subject. Like you said about people backing away I can attest to that. My blog roll shrank majorly and I don't frequent the paleo pages as much as I used to. I recently took almost 4 months off from Facebook because so many people have been just horrible. I've taken to calling it Hatebook.In fact I've joined a few closed groups as they tend to weed out miscreants. I've also joined a modeling group as they are mostly civil to each other. It really is sad, I still love extinct creatures as much as when I was a kid and I hope I continue to do so. I will just have to walk lightly on the web and hope for a brighter future.

Duane Nash said...

@Nick Yeah in general internet chatter is hard to stomach. I do want to hold out hope, that some type of learning curve is at play that we can scarcely discern.

The Eurypterid said...

I haven't got to the 'paleontology work' bit yet (assuming four years and nothing from the BBC, that's where I'm headed) but I've already had minor experience with "Go tell them they're wrong" and so on. (...I hold my rambling to a high standard, okay? :P) I'd say anything working towards a friendlier, more open community is always a good thing- let's make sure we all act on it!

Jason Silviria said...

This was a very hard essay to read, but an important one, definitely one of your best and most mature. Thanks, Duane.

I agree there is a big problem with the paleo-community - professional and amateur alike - regarding destructively immature behavior. This may be in part that we’ve had trouble shaking off the notion that dinosaurs and prehistory are deemed subject matters exclusively for children by the mainstream media, a grievance eloquently expressed by Mark Witton and Douglas Henshall. Dinosaurs aren’t taken seriously as real flesh-and-blood animals, they’re stereotypical fantasy reptiles, the scaly, ridge-backed, tail-dragging dragons of many a modern children’s bedtime story, with Turok in St. George's place. That dinosaur-dragon connection is an integral part of commercial dinomania, and of infantile Neo-medievalist pop culture in general. Hence the “Awesome-Bro” obsession with assumed draconic “badassery” (i.e. the Jurassic Park franchise). This has a negative effect on professional paleontology because you have a lot of young, self-centered, naive personalities who get into the field and don’t have an adequate sense of self-control regarding their loaded opinions on taxonomy, morphology, behavior, etc., which I admit I was until very recently.

[“But Jason, weren’t dragons made up after ancient people dug up dinosaur bones? And aren’t they found in every culture on Earth?” No. “Dragon” has a very specific cultural context and should never be used a basket term for any large mythical reptile; Jung and Campbell were wrong. The word “dragon” comes from the Greek word δράκων (drákōn), which comes from δέρκομαι (dérkomai), which in turn comes from proto-Sanskrit दृश् (derḱ), meaning “to see clearly”. One might be reminded of the serpent in Genesis 3:5 (“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil”), yet most aspects of medieval Afro-European dragons are more similar to Indian cobras than Middle Eastern snakes (particularly their relationship with the mongoose, a.k.a. ichneumon) . But that’s a discussion for another time…]

I really appreciate your concern and sympathy regarding autistic members of the paleo-community, but please keep in the mind that the medical taxonomy of social impairments is horribly overlumped in the core-West, and that “autism” refers to a very specific physical-mental disorder. Too often, I find the term “autist” being thrown around on the Internet to describe anyone who takes seriously issue with problematic subject matter (e.g. shitty racist and sexist jokes) to the point of extreme, if justifiable, outrage. It is crass and hurtful.

Also, the “alt-right” problem extends FAR beyond apathetic young males, trust me.

Duane Nash said...

Thanks Jason,

Yes I can appreciate it being a hard read, it was a bit difficult to write, and even harder to press that button "publish" (do I really want to put this out there?) Interesting digression on dragons, but yeah subject for another time. I've almost given up on trying to talk seriously about dinosaurs or paleo in general to the the norms. Once they realize "geez this guy really thinks a lot about this shit" there eyes sort of glaze over and I know its kinda pointless. Point taken regarding autism. I but did a superficial reading of autism, young males, and dinosaur obsession.

strangetruther said...

I honestly hadn't noticed anyone on the dino-blogosphere dropping off, apart from Jaime Headdon. There does seem to be a rumbling about blogs starting to decline though. But that just means less competition for us!!

I find I disagree about dino-netters tending to be "on the spectrum". Far too many dino-types on and off the net are forever looking over their shoulder and worrying about what people will think, and letting that guide their theorising. Genuine Aspergers people are less people-oriented. Rudeness doesn't necessarily indicate Aspergers - in fact their rudeness tends to come from ignoring other people's feelings, not from making an effort to send a long rude message - or even many short ones. Marjanovic sometimes claims to have Asperger's tendencies but I'm sure that's not the reason he's rude, seeing how he careful he is that his comments don't offend a majority's strongly held opinions. That's why when he violates the majority's assumptions its always on something people don't care much about; it's also why his name doesn't need to be mentioned in any account of the evolution of dinobirds, humans or dogs.

Intellectual bubbles and Groupthink - EXACTLY! That's palaeo in a nutshell.

Yup - be nice. Yup - sandwich bad inside nice. In fact the ratio of three good to one bad comment is often quoted as good management advice. Doesn't apply though when people keep saying 2 + 2 = 5, take money for saying it, and block anyone who denies it. It's right that communities need honest informed policing; and the police, and the courts can't take politeness and tact to the point of indulgence.

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