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Wednesday, April 27, 2011
More Gamification: Alix Levine RespondsYesterday I posted some thoughts on an article by Jarrett Brachman and Alix Levine for Foreign Policy on the concept of "gamification." Today, Alix Levine has a thoughtful response on her blog. And yes, you're going to have to go back and read all of this in order to follow my short response.
First off, let me say that I do think there's some value in the gamification model and it may provide a very useful tool for analyzing the behavior of online jihadists. I objected to what I saw as an implication in the article that success at the "game" might correlate to violent acts in the real world.
Levine has two major criticisms of my analysis, which focused on the case of Zach Chesser. First, she points out that Chesser moved from Islamic Awakening to Al Qimmah after he started seriously losing the "game" at IA, and that Al Qimmah is also gamified.
I acknowledged that move in my original post. What neither Levine nor I have cited is a clean record of how Chesser fared from a gamification perspective at Al Qimmah. As I said before, my archives of the forums don't include reliable data on "thank yous" and "rep points," although that is an oversight I'm going to try to rectify going forward. Levine doesn't cite this data either, which I assume means she doesn't have it, since if the data showed Chesser racking up points that would make her argument more powerful. Without that data, simply making this observation doesn't refute my point.
My recollection is that both the quality and volume of Chesser's posts dropped off prior to his arrest. What I can point to for evidence of this is Aaron Zelin's interview with Chesser shortly before his arrest in which he states he was pulling back on his online activity (referring to blogging and other social media) because "it is no longer in my interests to do these things necessarily."
The second major criticism Levine has for my analysis is the characterization of a thread discussing Chesser's arrest on the Islamic Awakening forum as a "roast," which she calls a "major exaggeration." I think this characterization is reasonable.
Most threads devoted to Muslim prisoners on IA are hagiographies. The thread on Chesser was a combination of some extraordinarily harsh criticisms, a handful of real defenses of Chesser on his merits, and some tepid "let's not attack a fellow Muslim" responses. You can read the thread for yourself in the following PDFs, Part 1 and Part 2. When compared to threads on other prisoners, such as Tarek Mehanna or Daniel Maldonado, I believe that the Chesser thread was a shocking rebuke.
One last point where I think I do deserve to be challenged. It's not completely clear to me that Chesser was seriously on the verge of committing a terrorist act or becoming a foreign fighter. As I discuss in my book, Jihad Joe (out in just two weeks now), it seemed to me that Chesser may have wanted to get caught.
On a different front, the case of Tarek Mehanna is also probably one to study. Like Chesser, I question whether Mehanna was likely to act out in the real world (an argument I raise at more length in the book). And Mehanna, in contrast to Chesser, was exceedingly good at the "game" -- and still is, even from prison. Both Chesser and Mehanna were indictable, but that's not the same thing as being genuinely "close to action."
Overall I think there's a lot of interesting analysis yet to be done on gamification, which is certainly an interesting and useful approach to looking at online jihadist activities but I stand by my argument that a linear correlation between online success and real world violence is not likely to stand up when the data comes in.
What I suspect instead is that it may be possible to design some useful algorithms that can spot useful trends in online jihadist behavior using the metrics they have so helpfully provided. By allowing the users to rate each other, they allow us to see which users are most interesting. I'm guessing when the smoke clears that we should be concerned when someone with a high volume of posting shows a "rep" score that starts strong then plummets.
But we need real numbers to move this debate forward. I'm guessing that someone like Aaron Weisburd might be keeping score. I look forward to further input from all sides.
Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.
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