I was listening to WNYC’s RadioLab on the weekend, particularly the recent episode, The New Normal?. The first section was a story about a tribe of Kenyan baboons studied by Robert Sapolsky. The group got tragically infected by tuberculosis and most of the alpha males died.
Now, baboons are notoriously aggressive and when new males join a tribe, much trouble ensues. But after the death of the alpha males, a new culture took hold, one of gentleness and acceptance. When new males joined the group they were accepted much more quickly than normal. Grooming increased, especially between males. The group had changed.
Initially, it seemed that this was just a temporary effect, but now, 20 years later, the group still behaves differently to any other baboon tribe even though most of the original members are long since dead. The culture of tolerance has endured and has been passed on not just through the teaching of baby baboons, but also through the conversion of incoming adolescent males whom, it was assumed, would have brought their violent culture in with them.
I couldn’t help but think of the different communities that I’ve been a part of over the years and the importance of first contact. What happens when you join a community influences your own behaviour there, like it or not. If someone is rude, aggressive or dismissive of you, then you are more likely to be rude, aggressive or dismissive back. When someone welcomes you to the community with warmth and openness, you return the favour to the next newbie to arrive.
Perhaps one step towards healthy online communities is to shoot all the alpha males (or females, for that matter) that barge in, beating their chest and picking fights with the youngsters. Metaphorically, of course.