This is the third salvo in Michael Rutherford’s regular column, Fire for Effect. Take it away Mike…
Generalizations. We love to use them and we chafe when we spot others using them. We love the notions implied by the noun: AFOL. I know, it’s actually an acronym… but an acronym is just a type of noun… so shut your grammar-nazi mouth already! The notion AFOL, what does it suggest? What do you think about when you hear it? If you’re reading this text, the odds are that you self-identify as an AFOL. The acronym suggests that AFOL is a thing. If it is a thing, then it has traits that describe the thing, right? A denotative description would be a definition. I’m not about that today, no definition is required. No list of criteria which when applied to the subject, describe that subject in consistent and accurate detail. Nope. Today I’m feeling connotative. I speak in terms of trends, norms and ambiguous suggestions that are often affiliated with the subject.
WARNING! We are now leaving the realm of absolutes and categoricals! Variations, or even substantial deltas between my proffered connotations of the term AFOL and your personal traits are to be expected! This does not indicate a catastrophic cognitive disconnect, or even that a water landing is imminent. I do ask that you remain focused and keep your seat belt fastened while we pass through this turbulent airspace. I’m talking about AFOLs as a population and offering some unflattering observations (Duh… Want a pat on the back? You’ve come to the wrong shop brother!) I’m not talking about you, or that guy next to you… or even old boy who lives way down town (on the other side of the tracks… yeah, not even that guy). I’m talking population level generalities… and I challenge you all: Come back at me at the same level. With counter observations (or arguments even!) that apply to the AFOL as a population. Remember, if AFOL is a thing, then some generalizations should apply.
So let’s talk generalizations. Here are TWO generalizations about AFOLs that I am pretty comfortable throwing out there for public consumption. They may seem contradictory on first examination, but try these generalizations on for size:
AFOLs are sensitive people.
AFOLs are insensitive people.
SENSITIVE: AFOLs are quiet, introverted, creative people who persue a hobby that begins with a spark of inspiration and then takes form at a table, or a keyboard. Usually in their home and often in hours of darkness. Maybe with some music playing in the background or a favorite movie. It’s an exercise in two parts: first in creativity and then in sharing. Communication regarding their MOCs often take place in an on-line context and is often tumultuous and fraught with peril. They often chafe at negative observations by fellow hobbyists regarding their MOCs, and they thrive on praise. (STOP! This is a description, not a value judgement! Don’t be so sensitive!). The AFOL is sensitive… to their own feelings.
INSENSITIVE: AFOLs look at one another’s work and often engage in rhetoric that biologists and tarot card readers both describe as snarky, smarmy, venomous, vicious, clever and perhaps even… snide. A large telecom company recently had to replace more than 100K miles of fiber optic cable because a conversation between AFOLs reached a blistering 7.6 on the Brigs and Stratton SNARKDEX. As you know, most commercial FO cable succumbs to heat induced breakage at 6.3! (I would tell you not to feel judged… but we are in the INSENSITIVE paragraph, so you probably wouldn’t even notice). The AFOL is insensitive… to the feelings of other AFOLs.
I know. These generalizations apply neither to you, nor to most of your friends… But remember two things. First, I am implying that most of us are hypocritical. Second, if you disagree (Hypocrite!) then you should by all means, bust my bwalls here! So AFOLs are sensitive and mean? How does that appear in nature? Is it like gangs of really mean sissies? Like a pack of rabid pansy bullies?
Yea. Pansy bullies! So much so, that new comers are often turned off quickly, and that damages the hobby overall. This is why I think this topic is even remotely relevant. Because good builders often get bludgeoned off the stage before their builds and skills ever even come close to fruition.
Yea! And know what else?
No, what else?
I believe this so firmly, that after some prompting by Absurde, I decided to lay it all out… which brings me to the thesis of this very essay!
THESIS: The Sensitive / Insensitive Dichotomy is endemic within the AFOL culture and readily observable in AFOL on-line group behavior.
THESIS DEVELOPMENT: Many on-line Lego fan based groups are dominated by a small cadre of original members who rely on habit and orthodoxy to lead, until challenged, at which time they attack the challenger with censor, character assignation and attacks in other forums to include the “attack critique” of their MOCs (insincere critique that is intended not to improve but to curtail future efforts). Further, this aggressive behavior often signals the beginning of that groups decline (in terms of notoriety, influence, and activity). Notoriety, influence and activity are relevant because they as much as anything else correspond with the group’s reason for exising in the first place (even though, such goals are seldom, if ever formally articulated any damn place).
Well, that is a pretty broad and pretty accusatory generalization! I would love to tell you it is all substantiated in highly detailed and methodologically sound statistical research paper you can read below. But nope. No hard science, no math. It’s a general assertion, and I rely on your personal experience to validate or invalidate the assertion. It’s not a categorical assertion. Exceptions abound! Maybe more exceptions today than at any time sense those distant Halcyon days of LUGNET… the friendliest place on the internet… If you have a LOT of time and an ASTOUNDING level of motivation, I invite you to investigate on your own. In fact, I encourage it! Don’t believe it because I said it! Believe it because you have seen it! The truth is rotting on the beaches of a distant land called MOCpages.
Go now to the ruins of MOCpages…the sprawling island Mecca of the damned! (Go in a Viking long-boat… it would look so cool in a movie!)
I offer MOCpages as a collection of examples of the Sensitive/Insensitive Dichotomy. Not the site itself. MOCpages has its own site-level problems that are not germane to my point today. I only want you to go there so you can see the huge collection of groups within the site. MOCpages was an excellent place for observing groups of AFOLs because there were so many of them ove the years and the corpses of those groups remain today! These long abandoned groups remain largely unchanged by time, awaiting your perusal.
Resting at anchor around the island of MOCpages. A fleet of the dead! They rock gently in the slack tide, tugging at anchor chains…lamps still burning… maybe guttering now and then. But most of these group pages are empty. The crew members are either missing or sleeping forever, their bones invisible beneath stinking green bilge water below decks. The conversation threads dangle lose from the rigging, or are closed, tied in perfect end-line knots, the last act of the long absent administrators… Ship Shape! Ready for your inspection! Waiting for years… undisturbed. Until you, unwitting traveler, set a sanded foot carefully down upon the sun and rain warped deck planks… By the gods, what mad quest brought you to this place? This ship of fools? The horror… The horror… Wait! What was that! rowntRee! You scared the crap out of me! What the hell are you doing here? Oh… this group is still active? Well, right on! I’m just here to look for examples of Rutherford assertion that AFOL groups are characterized by the polarized rhetoric of sensitivity and insensitivity… and that this intense polarity drives new members away from groups…
MOCpages was like a “group laboratory” where you could be member of numerous groups based on any selection criteria you could imagine. Groups of mostly older people, younger people, gender specific groups, groups for building styles, building topic, national or regional origin, focused on the “art”, or the “Art” or improvement, or torlling… groups for chat about Lego, or just chat about general topics. Game groups, contests, even religious factions (in their multitudes, forever and ever amen…) An endless collection of diverse groups. All semi-formatted and ready for comparison.
STOP: Science Check. It is true, that by exploiting MOCpages as an example of the community at large, I am drawing a false parallel between a smaller homogeneous population (people who have self-selected to be on MOCpages) and the larger general population (everybody else). This weakness in my data set selection is acknowledged. MOCpages is not… the same as…the larger AFOL population.
GO: I continue on the premise that MOCpages was a “pretty good” cross-section of the North American AFOL population, and to a lesser extent of the European AFOL population (I think the Europeans are better at avoiding hyper-concentration. To their credit, they maintain more hobby options with a smaller population).
I ran three groups amidst the gigantic ghost fleet of groups. The first group I started was dedicated entirely to recruiting members for another group. It was called Metal Legion Recruiting Command. A year later I ran a sort of create your own Sci-fi adventure group called The Final Countdown. The last group was a MOC driven wargame called Decisive Action. All three groups were successful in my estimation. I leave it to any surviving group members in the Manifesto audience to characterize their value. More importantly though, I learned lots about prevailing AFOL cultural paradigms while I was running them.
Well, after anybody watches, joins and runs some MOCpages groups, certain trends emerge quite clearly. I refer here to trends in the way “groups” behave.
Focus on this notion: Group behavior. Not the behavior of individuals within a group.
Certain events transpire with such regularity, that I would describe them as a predictable cycle, or steps in a Group life-cycle. Here is a short and rough version of this typical AFOL group life-cycle.
- Most groups form very quickly after they are conceived. (Think we should? Yes! Let’s do it!)
- The formation of the group normally precedes any planning. (We will figure out all the boring details on the way!)
- Most growth takes place in the first week of the group’s life. (Indicated by the number of new names in threads, by day on MOCpages).
- Most home pages are devoid of mission / goal / purpose statements. (TLDR! TLDR!)
- There are almost no “bill of member rights” or similar statements.
- In the threads, most (More than half) of all questions asked go completely unanswered… ever.
- Questions that are answered are usually ASKED and ANSWERED by group admins/mods. The Founding members of the group. They engage in meaningful dialog, ignoring almost all other members.
- In most cases, discord erupts after growth has stopped. Discord during the early days of a group is rare. The discord is normally a slap fight between two idiots, or it is about authority (how decisions are made within the group). This second topic, “authority” is argued between new comers and the groups founding members.
- This is usually a powerful polarizing event, with a large vocal orthodoxy (the founding members and their supporters) and a smaller group of vocal rebels, the vast majority of group members however, never speak at all.
- The vocal orthodoxy normally asserts control by ejecting the rebels. And issuing proclamations that further incidents of rebellion will be met with the same swift justice.
- Some quiet paste-eater (a member of the previously silent majority) utters something about how the group is no fun anymore because of all the drama.
- There are usually a few brief discussions regarding the formation of new “fun” groups where drama will not be “allowed”.
- Another quiet paste-eater utters something like “hey guys, let’s get active!”. Nobody responds.
- The group quickly becomes inactive, most of the members moving to another new group, only to start this group life cycle all over again.
Two important reminders here.
First, this is MOCpages. Groups are often formed by children… but often, this label “children” is more a function of behavior than of actual age. So the term AFOL itself is a risky label. I acknowledge the slippery nature and some of the holes of my “AFOL Dichotomy” assertion! Men often act like children and some children behave as men.
Second, many groups avoid the pitfalls of this “group life cycle”. The MOCpages group “Lands of Mythron” springs to mind, an old and massive “game” based group. The staff there is on point, they fight the tides of group self-destruction. They also address questions quickly, mitigate the damage done by disruptive members and generally run a tight ship. I think I would be remiss if I did not offer then a hearty “Sail on you hearty dudes!” I just felt compelled to point those two things out, because I am asserting that most groups on MOCpages… suck. And they suck because of the conduct of group members.
REVIEW: AFOLs are sensitive about themselves, and insensitive to one another. This describes a broad swath of AFOL culture, but it is readily observable on MOCpages. The part of my assertion that I have not really developed here is that this conduct drives many talented builders away from the hobby needlessly. I fully acknowledge this underdevelopment as well. I can’t comment from an informed perspective on WHY individuals continue to post MOCs or suddenly stop posting MOCs. I can see them stop, but to say why they do so? That would be folly. I say only that I believe it is because the culture we create is one of “Take your licks newbie!” or “Newcomers eat last”. Like the culture one might expect to find in an ancient Egyptian stone quarry, or perhaps a slave barge.
In all honesty, “Take you licks!” is not a totally unappealing value to me. New guys adapt or get out of the way! We are doing something here, you want to play? Learn the rules and don’t be a cry baby! You don’t like the rules? The DUPLO blocks are over there, in the corner you paste eater!
Yea… Get in, get tough, get better and then get some! Ok, it will create a strong desire to improve… quickly! For young men and women maybe. But for kids? A football coach can yell “Rub grass on it and walk it off!” That’s fair. Encouraging resilience, and a thick skin is NOT a bad thing. But that’s coaching isn’t it? That’s teaching, showing, inculcating. It’s a harsh message that points the way toward development. Both in terms of physical toughness and a competitive mind-set. Tough yes, but also completely developmental. It occurs within a context that is defined by rules and unambiguous responsibility. And that is NOT what I’m talking about here.
I’m also not saying that if you form a group, you should surrender control to the first yahoo who says you should build Pirate and not Space (obviously, Space is a better theme… duh!) It’s your group. Dictate the purpose, direction, and function of the group you start. Long may you reign! My point is that if you assume the leadership position, there are implied responsibilities. They are not legal, not written down, not even universally understood, but if leaders embrace these implied responsibilities, their groups thrive. If they ignore them, their groups burn out quickly. AFOL groups tend to burn out quickly.
Implied responsibilities? The welfare of every group member is your responsibility (obviously limited to what happens within the group!). The right of every group member to speak and be heard. The right of every group member to contribute. The right of every group member to know how decisions are made (not to make the decisions… but at least to know how they are made). Bullying, provoking, taunting, trolling… all these natural school yard behaviors… they will occur and it is the group leaders JOB to make corrections. Not to tolerate, or ignore, or to deny, but to correct.
And again, I say that AFOLs do not show much interest in any of these topics. Many read this list of implied responsibilities and think: This is crap! None of this is my job! I just run a group where we talk about fire trucks… if this stuff happens, I’m not the world cop who has to stop it! I’m not the protector of the weak. But the thing is, you are exactly that.
Your not the world cop… but you are the Judge Dredd of your own little group! It IS YOUR JOB to stop that crap. Why? Who cares? Or why SHOULD we care? Because our failure to conduct these basic policing tasks within our own groups results in a hobby that is less welcoming to new talent. We create cruel neighborhoods where intelligent kids stop, assess, and then, seeing a teeming jungle of lawless knife wielding monkeys and not a community of creators… decide to take their talents elsewhere. I don’t mean to other Lego groups, I mean to other hobbies.
That’s the next generation we just sent packing!
That is why Lego might go the way of Zombies and Skateboarding. Lego could become less and less an Art form that transcend generations, always growing and improving… and slip into the shadow realm of products and fads that were big once, but have slipped largely back into obscurity. You should strive to prevent this.
Start groups. Maintain control of your groups. Ensure a just and fair climate in your groups. Recruit and retain members in for your groups. Teach, mentor, and encourage all members of your groups. Isolate and eject destructive individuals from your groups (yea… moral choices are real… no safety zone!). Do this because the hobby could wither in the blink of a generation. Water and weed the dam plants, they make oxygen and food! It is literally that simple.
Now, I fully expect that many of you will comment that the life cycle I describe above does not correspond with your personal experience. Did I say MANY of you? Ok, like three or four of you and I don’t dispute it for a moment, but try and look beyond your own experience. My assertion encompasses AFOL groups in general. Go to the ruins! Consult the scrolls you find in the forgotten archives! Or at least ask one another! Think about and attack my assertion from the population level. I am trying to talk about us (AFOLs) as a population. So, come back at me with observations about that same population. I know I know… this one guy and that other guy and old girl do not fit into the Sensitive/Insensitive Dichotomy. But does it describe “most of us”? No? Then describe “most of us” in your terms. Describe your take on AFOL group behavior. Not individual AFOL behavior.