Sunday, May 17, 2015

MUSHy identity, mission, and investment

Recent blog entries have analyzed why beliefs can thrive in the face of missing or lackluster corroboration...particularly forms of corroboration that are inherently unrepeatable, infeasible, or illogical. Such beliefs can persist indefinitely in the midst of a self-reinforcing group of followers, who are extremely Serious. In a number of instructive ways, the overall result eerily echoes a MUSH: an early internet example of a group of hobbyists maintaining and experiencing a fictional realm together.

For instance, the group itself collectively acts as the sole measurement of "accuracy" for the content. And the deficiency in outside corroboration doesn't reduce the genuinely satisfying mental benefits furnished by the combined contributions of the group and the content. Human culture contains a multitude of comparisons (the internet alone never ceases facilitating far-flung topical communities). A MUSH is especially suitable because it's small, mild, and uncomplicated. It's less predominant and ambitious than its Serious counterparts, yet the telling similarities show how MUSHy those can be.

As already mentioned, mental benefits attract individuals to the group and the content and then keep their attention thereafter. Extracting even more commitment demands the potent incentive of deep-seated connections. One of those effective connections is identity. Once again, a MUSH presents harmless, miniaturized manifestations of the phenomenon. In this case, its content offers lists of fanciful identities for the participants to "inhabit"...during the times when they're logged in and typing. Whatever the size of the role they play, they become familiar with filling it. They know it completely and comfortably. They're adapted to meeting its expectations. Abandoning the MUSH requires abandoning that accustomed (and entertaining) portion of their identity.

The molding of members' identities is typical of Serious groups too, but to a larger extent, of course. Unlike a MUSH identity, perhaps their Serious identity is supposed to be constant, like a mask that can't ever be dropped. Also unlike a MUSH, they may spend the majority of their daily lives surrounded by the group. Details aside, once they have firmly embedded their group role into their personal identities, nonchalant challenges to the content appear as aggressive challenges to pieces of them. When reevaluating an idea entails potentially breaking their identity, they have an excuse to avoid going through with it.

Other kinds of connections complement the connection to identity: a mission is an excellent second kind. Whereas handing over an identity clarifies whom someone is to be, handing over a mission further clarifies what they are to do. An unambiguous mission offers manifold gratifications. Minor or intermediate goals are chances for short-term victory, and simultaneously, grand or virtually unattainable goals are endless reasons to continue striving. With a mission, group members can see a need for their exertions—and themselves. Their actions have weight and direction. They can feel that they're accomplishing valuable progress. They're part of making circumstances "better"...as defined by the mission objective, at any rate. They're an asset to the team, so giving up would be a disappointing, selfish betrayal of the team's trust. The "missions" pursued during long-term in-depth MUSH participation probably sound uncaptivating at first, but the basic allure shouldn't be underestimated. An amplifying cycle is at work: an intensely felt connection has the effect of motivating greater involvement, and steadily expanding involvement has the effect of intensifying the feeling of connection.

Obviously, missions of all shapes and sizes are pervasive in Serious groups as well. Although repetitive passive contemplation of the content gradually hardens it in followers' thoughts, missions dramatically animate it in their lives. By affecting group behavior directly, the content accrues exciting meaningfulness and importance. For more than a few, inspiring missions might engross them so much that almost all of the content itself is peripheral—inconsequential minutiae that's little more than outdated decoration.

Carrying out a mission implies investing toward it, but more generally, any investments are a third kind of enduring connections to the group and content. Likelier than not, financial investment is only one of several types. In practice the rest might be more burdensome: sacrifices of time, effort, and competing opportunities. The common thread is that each investment raises the stakes. Thereafter, rejecting the group and the content has the expensive price of affirming that these formerly promising trade-offs were worthless all along.

For a MUSH, this risk isn't terribly chilling. Still, it does sway the decision to come back again and again. The time-consuming events and deeds of past sessions are partially intended to set the stage for intriguing future sessions; to walk away and never use that "stage" seems wasteful. Just by investing enough in something, no matter how little it is, the investor transfers a sentiment of ownership onto it. They acquire a well-founded interest in its fate. Additionally, active group socializing is an "investment", though that mercenary mindset is best avoided. Initiating enjoyable group interactions increases the perceived value of the group...for more interactions. After someone has given themselves into opening and preserving reliable companionship, including at shallow or casual levels, they're understandably reluctant to hastily discard it.

By contrast with these low-key instances, the routine investments associated with Serious groups are strict and obligatory. So this policy is plainly strategic, because forcing quick, large investments secures the loyalty of new followers. The more that they invest, the more determined they are to think that their venture is deserving. Moreover, before the investments are actually tried, an above average cost for the group and the content creates a pretense of above average worth to justify the cost. That pretense exploits the usual link from relative superiority to a relatively greater charge—good stuff usually isn't easy or free. On the other hand, the most savvy strategy of all might be a set of (maybe implicit) tiers: starting tiers stipulate low but non-zero investments, yet the group continually prods everyone to progress to tiers of greater investments.

Given the cumulative pull of these deep-seated connections, the relevant question isn't necessarily "How is it possible for Serious groups cluster around ideas with problematic corroboration and then sustain those ideas?", but "How could such groups possibly not exist when broadly similar elements apparently suffice for fueling decidedly unserious groups, like a MUSH that merely clusters around outlandish stories?"

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