Most of my friends have been on the internet, and I’ve spent many years as part of various internet communities, many of which I have moderated as either part of the mod team or the sole creator. (this also applies to irl communities, but the pattern is more obvious with online ones)
There’s a pattern that inevitably emerges, something like this:
- Community forms based off of a common interest, personality, value set, etc. We’ll describe “people who strongly share the interest/personality/value” as Possums: people who like a specific culture. These people have nothing against anybody, they just only feel a strong sense of community from really particular sorts of people, and tend to actively seek out and form niche or cultivated communities. To them, “friendly and welcoming” community is insufficient to give them a sense of belonging, so they have to actively work to create it. Possums tend to (but not always) be the originators of communities.
- This community becomes successful and fun
- Community starts attracting Otters: People who like most cultures. They can find a way to get along with anybody, they don’t have specific standards, they are widely tolerant. They’re mostly ok with whatever sort of community comes their way, as long as it’s friendly and welcoming. These Otters see the Possum community and happily enter, delighted to find all these fine lovely folk and their interesting subculture.
(e.g., in a christian chatroom, otters would be atheists who want to discuss religion; in a rationality chatroom, it would be members who don’t practice rationality but like talking with rationalists)
- Community grows to have more and more Otters, as they invite their friends. Communities tend to acquire Otters faster than Possums, because the selectivity of Possums means that only a few of them will gravitate towards the culture, while nearly any Otter will like it. Gradually the community grows diluted until some Otters start entering who don’t share the Possum goals even a little bit – or even start inviting Possum friends with rival goals. (e.g., members who actively dislike rationality practices in the rationality server).
- Possums realize the community culture is not what it used to be and not what they wanted, so they try to moderate. The mods might just kick and ban those farthest from community culture, but more frequently they’ll try to dampen the blow and subsequent outrage by using a constitution, laws, and removal process, usually involving voting and way too much discussion.
- The Otters like each other, and kicking an Otter makes all of the other Otters members really unhappy. There are long debates about whether or not what the Possum moderator did was the Right Thing and whether the laws or constitution are working correctly or whether they should split off and form their own chat room
- The new chat room is formed, usually by Otters. Some of the members join both chats, but the majority are split, as the aforementioned debates generated a lot of hostility
- Rinse and repeat—
One problem is when Otters misinterpret Possum ideology. In Otterland where everyone has Otternorms, everyone is welcomed with open arms no matter who they are, and it takes seriously grievous offenses to get rejected from Otterland.
Possums with Possumnorms don’t have this system. In Possumland, not sharing the core culture is all it takes to get kicked out, and it’s not considered a grievous offense.
So when Otters enter Possumland, they see someone get kicked out, and get upset that Possums treat “dissenting thought” as a “grievous offense.” Possums, of course, don’t view it this way at all. They think the people they kick out are great and would love to interact with them in every context… outside of Possumland.
Otters and Possums tend to get into the “is elitism good” discussion – Otters will generally say things like “I want an inclusive and tolerant environment” and “I don’t want people to have to watch their every step” and “The thought of testing or filtering people for being good enough for admission here makes me really uncomfortable.” Otters tend to have experienced a lot of rejection in the past, and don’t want anybody else to suffer that feeling.
Possums are on the other side, saying “but you can’t just have a free for all,” or “this community is here for a specific purpose and it’s ok to get rid of people who don’t want it” and “I like having strict admission standards” and “we shouldn’t have to tolerate people who actively detract from conversation”
I think at the core of this is Otters interpreting Possum censorship as something personal, because their standard for feeling a sense of belonging is just ‘human decency’, and it’s difficult for them to empathize with a motivation of exclusion based on things beyond ‘human decency.’
I don’t really have a point with this, but I am interested in methods we can take to help preemptively solve this inevitable Otter vs. Possum clash and the dilution of group members. One idea is to have a periodic ‘chat splitting,’ where every 3-6 months (or when membership hits a certain number) there is a new forum/chatroom made, and people have to choose which group to join. This would help separate the Otters from the Possums in a way that is inevitable, thus hopefully creates no hard feelings. It could also be a giant explosion of drama, who knows.
Also, possibly normalizing the social differences between Otters and Possums and loudly labeling chatrooms by their spectrum on the Otter-Opossum scale. That way, if someone knows they’re stepping foot into Possum territory, they know that being kicked is more likely, and it’s also probably not personal at all.
There’s also lots of ways to try to filter out Otters from joining in the first place, like tests for entry, interviews, and trial periods. Otters tend to have little problem finding cultures in general to join, as they aren’t very selective, so I don’t think keeping Otters out of heavy Possum territory will actually be problematic for them at all.
Also strongly adjacent reading: Well Kept Gardens Die By Pacifism
10 thoughts on “Internet communities: Otters vs. Possums”
Interesting. What I’m getting from this, combined with the “evaporative cooling” effect, is that any group who’s moderators don’t rule through terror and have a banlist almost as long as the membership list are kinda gonna turn into low quality groups, unless the GOAL of the group is purely tolerance of everything, including intolerance. Something I would argue is not going to produce high quality discussion.
I have a lengthy and thoughtful reply more directly concerning the content of your Possum Principle, but I did want to share this: a very real world demonstration of your principle outlined in a Inverse article (that I seem unable to link) called “Delta-8-THC: The Rise and Fall of a Cannabis Wild West”. However, this highlights the potentially very dangerous and harmful impact of Otters (though moreso the “Oppopossum” if such a ridiculous lexical construct should be allowed). The Oppopossums have crashed into the community upon the smell of American Greenbacks to be made on the backs of American Green, caring little about the science and mostly about the extraction (pun intended) of knowledge from the community… Oppopossums bereft of regard for the community and general safety, a consequence of selling one’s soul in worship of the almighty dollar.
The community seems generally accepting, permissible, and even perhaps welcoming of the otters who seem mostly to be well-intentioned dilettantes… the Oppopossums though, seem to cause concern (rightfully so if I am to pass a value-based judgement)
I think otter/possum split may need a few more categories to take into account motivations behind some choices made. I myself fall more into possum for my interests but am an otter by policy. I think something more akin to the political compass (control/freedom and information/community axis) could work.
Eg, not long ago there was a push in anime memes Reddit to start instilling “tolerance” rules on the board above and beyond Reddit’s rules. My own information on this is low since I don’t frequent the board, I’ve only heard about it. Regardless this is an otter board that should not have attracted possums if they were looking to focus singularly on their interest.
The recent Libertarian party kerfuffle seems more otter/possum-like although the split is ideological between two groups of possums who (at best) hold similar ideals but different with preferred levels of freedom.
I think in many ways this mirrors Bartley’s taxonomy if player types.
Extremely late to this but this is super interesting. I guess one of the other hard things is that a lot of possums might not really realize that they are that. Like, if you asked them, “Do you prefer an open and tolerant community” they would say “yes” but if you also asked them, “Do you think the community should adhere to certain norms and focuses” they would also say “yes.” The dissonance might not really register.
As someone with a pretty decent following online, have you tried to set up any communities that have a high entry cost (even just in terms of needing approval to get in)? What’s the success been like? Those seem tough to establish, but it would be interesting to see some do well.
Sometimes I wonder if political organizations might do better if they had a steeper entry cost.
Very interesting, I like what you have written.
Even at seemingly unimportant levels this occurs. The pattern you described happened in the Grateful Dead subreddit of all places. Possums were (generally) older fans, or people who were focused solely on the more musical aspects of the Grateful Dead. Otters (generally) seemed to be newer fans, converted by John Mayer’s presence in Dead and Co.(another incarnation of the band post Jerry Garcia), or simply attracted to the community, music, and/or drugs. Possums seemed to think the wave of posts about the non-Grateful Dead material was an attack on their identity, memories of their youth, and the purpose of the subreddit. Otters said that the subreddit was to discuss all aspects of the Dead and their culture. The infighting began occurring at the moderator level, and some possums went off and started a new Grateful Dead subreddit. I think this pattern in inescapable once an interest crosses the border into lifestyle or identity. The exile of dissenting thought is viewed by possums as necessary to protect their identity.
Interesting, I’ve been studying up on a similar effect recently. Evaporative Cooling.
Unless the barrier of entry to a community is sufficiently high (it doesn’t have to be super difficult, mind), the average quality of its content will begin to degrade.
Also related: https://meaningness.com/geeks-mops-sociopaths