Hermitix: Name it then fight it

Ideological purity is seductive, but so is heroin: they both end badly.

Back in the 90s when young people actually read comic books, one way or another people tended to pick a side between the big two: Marvel comics and D.C.

Even today, someone who reminisces on reading comic books back then is likely to revert back to this either/or’ism. They’ll say something like, “I really only read Marvel.” There was a certain logic to this, because each publishing company was effectively one giant standalone story, but there was a larger illogic to it because, you know, if you like an art form explore the whole space.

As a counter-example, music fans might agree that Kill Rock Stars or Sub Pop Records are reliable record labels, but you’d never meet a music fan who was like: “I only listen to Sub Pop.” That’s crazy.

Online communities, which tend to be organized around interest areas or affiliations, are making everyone into 90s comic book fans, weirdly. Philosopher of language and student of online communities, Peter Ludlow, talked about this on the Hermitix podcast released July 15.

There is something about these communities that have a way of fostering the belief that ideological purity is virtuous. You know like a beauty blog community goes from “maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline” to NO, IT IS DEFINITELY MAYBELLINE.

For a good treatment of how silly notions of ideological purity can get, particularly in apolitical contexts, check out the multipart series from The Last Podcast on the Left talking about Norwegian Black Metal (I can’t be bothered to dig up the link to the Spotify gulag where they have relegated their episodes now).


Once Ludlow pointed this tendency out it made a lot of sense to me. Here’s a possible way to think about it mechanically.

Whenever anyone joins an online community, first they try to figure out the lay of the land and see what the culture is. One example, 4chan used to do this troll where users sniffed out “newfags” by asking them if they could make a tri-force symbol in a response post (three triangles on two separate lines where the top one was in the middle of the bottom two like a pyramid). They always tried cutting and pasting someone else’s and that always came out wrong, crucially, only after the victim “newfag” hit enter. No clue if they still do this, but my guess is no.

It was a pathetic little initiation ritual. One google search and anyone could figure out how to tri-force correctly (but also no one ever did that). Once through that gate it was on to learning more subtle norms.

And once the norms have been learned, the next thing is achieving status. Not everyone hungers for status in communities, but those that do will likely be the most active participants. So in my mind the idea of how these communities mechanize purity becomes pretty easy to work out from here.

If the community you’re hanging out in is devoted to a soccer team, probably you’re not going to gain status by writing screeds about healthcare-for-all. That’s not on topic. You’re probably going to gain status by showing knowledge and insight about the topic.

It’s not hard to play this out from there and seeing how it becomes a space that rewards hewing more and more closely to some narrow set of ideas.

I’ve been complaining lately that Twitter has become a conformity enforcement machine, but I guess really all online communities are. It just took a long time for Twitter to figure out what Twitter was about. Now that seems pretty clear. So long Weird Twitter! You’re not on topic any longer.

Someone go figure out for me what the organizing moral tenets of r/GoneWild are, please; it’s been around too long not to have them.

Final thought

But here’s why it’s a relief for me to hear this social mechanic described: If it’s named it can be undermined. I’m not quite sure how someone would go about doing this yet, but now that the mechanic of enforced purification has been at least somewhat articulated, it can be deconstructed and maybe countered (perhaps with belittling).

Further what’s lacking on the internet are those spaces where one is forced to interact with folks who aren’t really like them as whole people. In real life we have family, school and (to a lesser extent) work: places where there’s a reward for getting along despite friction. That’s missing online. One can always scream at little cost on the web.

One way or another, seeing how it takes hold might provide a clue to inoculating more and more people against it.

After all, I was a hardcore Marvel kid back in the day and then eventually I got tempted and checked out D.C. You know what? Pretty good stuff.