It is with sincere humility that I offer for your consideration, a treatise regarding the fortunate phenomenon that is Abovetopsecret.com, and the
common cycles of reactions that I observed as I matured as a member of our community. The reason I am compelled to share this is because of the
‘echoes’ of similarity between what I have experienced, and what it appears to me, many other members experience as they participate in the
community. Perhaps most striking to me is the fact that regardless of tenure, position, or level of participation in the community, all are subject
to varying degrees of what I consider to be:
“The stages of the journey into the community of ATS”
*** I post this as a member - please do not consider this in any way, form, or aspect, representative of the Above Network or ATS' ownership or
Those of you who may have run across my contributions before may recall, I frequently excuse my verbosity and make a pledge to struggle to restrain
it, for the sake of mercy to unsuspecting readers, and (if you'll indulge the pretense) as an act of self-discipline. In this instance, I intend to
make no such effort. I will be as verbose as it takes to get my point across; hopefully you can forgive my tendency to occasionally restate the
obvious. Furthermore, I will be engaging in a dangerous practice: namely, that of generalization. As you may notice in my signature, it is something
I resist overlooking by nature, simply because generalization is too often the broadest brush-stroke that gives rise to the pettiest of arguments.
Volumes could be written which describe the folly of generalization and the power it can bestow upon those who are disinclined to agree for the sake
There are a number of premises that are important to acknowledge as we discuss something as general as the ‘experiences of an ATS user’. I will
not belabor the obvious ‘technical’ user experiences such as the initial shock of discovering a plethora of topics, ranging from the ridiculous to
the sublime; the sheer volume of content in which you can easily lose yourself, or the common experience of most any user anywhere on the Internet,
such as learning the limitations and uses of the tools and interface as provided by the host.
We must also acknowledge the presence of the Terms and Conditions, which offer our community the means to restrain passion of conviction and palliate
the conflict of opinion that can arise, while offering the consistent hope of an equitable and productive membership as a reasonable supposition.
“Stages of the journey?”
First of all, why “journey
I consider it a journey because it is nearly impossible to experience anything without embracing the notion of a ‘before’ and ‘after’, such
linear experiences are all journeys to one extent or another. Almost any activity that carries us from one environment to another involves having to
reassess your perceptions, gauge your situation, and adjust your behavior or mindset accordingly; and finally, to digest your experiences in light of
the relative changes between where you once were, and where you are now.
I selected the imagery of stages as a not-so-subtle parallel to Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief. (Originally “denial”,
“anger”, “bargaining”, “depression”, and “acceptance”; but some add “Shock or Disbelief” and “guilt” to make seven.) However,
given that we are not discussing grief, I see the stages as taking a distinctly different form. In fact, I believe that any comparison between the
two beyond the convenience of structure would be inappropriate. I make no pretension of claiming this is the most adequate model of generalization,
but it will do for my purposes.
What is “Abovetopsecret.com
For any site like this, in which numerous people participate for different reasons, and or with disparate intentions, no one definition will satisfy
the whole of the community. I suspect most will concede that the answer will align itself most closely with the intention and efforts of the
progenitors and administrators; although even creators can lose undetermined degrees of control, even if only temporarily, for various reasons.
It may surprise some, and may even elicit some defiance, that regardless of what the members (or even the progenitors) consider the ‘correct’
answer, it never is, and never will be, “their” definition that prevails. Only posterity with its enhanced blessing of hindsight can hope to
correctly summarize the nature and impact of a construct such as “abovetopsecret.com”. Of course, it is in the nature of enterprise that such
eventualities be foreseen and influenced, so the prerogative of a definition again, defers to the progenitors.
That specific ‘desired’ definition will have a sway on the experiences of the inbound new member, as well as the experiences of the ‘resident’
member who must endure the evolution and growth of the interplay between what could, and what should be, both of which are subjective notions.
Stage one: “Discovery”
You might think that stage one would vary according to the manner in which you came to ATS. But the reasons for being here are so varied that the
first stage has to include any cause of initial contact. The presumption is that the interest in the target information was legitimate and enduring.
Whether it was accidental, recommended, topical searches, or other motivations that bring you to ATS, it appears that the initial stage is commonly
represented in the recognition of a new resource, potentially unfiltered by a specific agenda, or at least devoid of disingenuity, and more attractive
than that which one can see collected in other topically focused sites or MSM sources.
There are more than a few words to describe common first impressions: On the positive side we have seen awe of overwhelming amounts of information,
impressive idea exchanges, enticing position statements, bracing candor, gleeful ‘kid in a candy store’ compulsion to participate, the “Aha!”
discovery, and hopeful anticipation. On the negative side we have, apprehension (usually limited to the bias of the particular material viewed),
anger (regarding people’s freedom to discuss or propagate ideas the visitor finds repugnant), fear (that some of what is discussed may actually be
true or an apparently accepted ‘lie’), confusion (at the volume and variety of disparate and contradictory member contributions), and finally
despair (that ‘people are wrong’ on the internet, or ‘what I believe is viewed negatively’ by many members.)
Stage one is relatively short-lived. It encompasses, after all, a quick reaction to new input, often prior to fully appreciating the methodology of
the exchange of ideas in the community, and usually before a complete judgment can be rendered about the community as a whole (if the
abovetopsecret.com community is anything, it IS diverse.)
This stage usually concludes after a conscious decision is rendered regarding how the member will interface with the community. Once the initial
impact of discovery fades and the initial members’ assessments is setting in, Stage one evaporates into the ether.
In this, like any of the subsequent stages, the outward character and inward nature of the member attenuates potential outcomes of exchanges, and the
perceived value of membership in the community.
There is a definitive pattern that arises when a new member, in Stage one, begins to assert their presence. Many times, these patterns can be
generalized by the immediate nature of the topic, and the capacity the member has to express themselves and absorb the concepts of others. There will
be difficulty if the new member has a preconceived notion that differs from the reality of the community.
At the risk of alienating some, or giving a poor impression by oversight or incompleteness, I will generalize the character that members can choose to
move from Stage one “Discovery” to Stage two “Engaging.”
Generalization is an act of synthesis, and as in cooking a meal, leaving out small elements from the final product can change the flavor of the result
dramatically, so bear with me as I undertake to cook up some profiles of characteristic behavior as we move into Stage two.
Stage Two: “Engaging”
The very first post of any member varies in form and purpose as dramatically as the differences between the many topics to which the
abovetopsecret.com community provides access. There are those who approach their membership with zeal and passion, some of which are purely internal
or personal, others less so.
I could no more describe all the nuances of the choices members make in this phase than I could describe the ‘typical’ ATS member (actually there
is NO typical member, just as there is no ‘typical’ person). But there are certain elements of the choices that do survive generalization.
At the moment, it is difficult to embrace any other notion than abovetopsecret.com is a discussion forum. Perhaps an adequate description of such
forums would be that it is an internet site that may contain several categories of information, consisting of distinct sub-forums made up of threads
which are collections of individual posts.
Generally speaking, a member’s past experience with other such internet entities will dictate how they approach abovetopsecret.com. In the odd
scenario where a member has had no exposure to this kind of community idea exchange platforms, it is much more likely that they will not bear with
them the bad habits of other less refined or less moderated communities. However those members require more patience and stewardship if they are to
thrive as members and contribute meaningfully to any ongoing dialogue, as they lack contextual understanding of how we communicate with one
The Terms and Conditions are an essential component of the culture of abovetopsecret.com. It is both a comprehensive control over behavior and a
simplistic code of common understanding when interfacing with the community on behalf of the progenitor’s model of business.
Members can choose to be overt actors within a thread, and the underlying principle of membership implies contribution. Not all members contribute,
opting instead to ‘lurk’ (read only) although the percentages of lurker vs. participants is unavailable to me (and in fact changes over time), it
seems unlikely that lurkers figure prominently in the community aspect of abovetopsecret.com as they are not visible, they neither add nor detract
from the self-perceived value of the community as a whole. Thus aside from passive traffic metrics (within the business model), they are non-extant
and irrelevant to this particular treatise.
In considering the flow of Stage two, I could not escape the constant variable (ironic phrasing there) of member personality. Some members even with
similar personalities may present totally different styles of contribution because of intent, or bias. So the elements of engaging require in my
estimation a fundamental distillation of core aspects.
Determining the nomenclature was difficult, and in the end I was drawn to label (or generalize) into a few basic characteristics. Among the reasons
members contribute, I find that they inform, commiserate, agitate, inspire, reject, or repulse. The method of engagement varies with the members
approach to any specific topic, but members generally retain a preferred approach sometimes even to the disdain of other members.
The “informing” poster is perhaps the rarest, preferring a journalistic style to passing information, sometimes not even bothering to invite a
dialogue on the topic. The “commiserator” deals in evoking emotion; either affirming or contradicting established memes, and often reveling in
the chaos of “comparison and contrast” chatter that follows their post. The “agitator” wishes to incite or provoke response; usually limiting
themselves to topics which offer themselves to bias or dogmatic conviction. The “inspirer” seeks to elicit input with more zeal than the others,
seeking to affirm, confirm, or approve the topic perspective. The “rejector” is also inclined to heated debate, although often these members
limit themselves to arguments which they are likely to challenge successfully, and rarely acceding or acquiescing when the argument goes against their
predilection. The “repulsor” is an offensive specialist with an array of tactics to obfuscate, complicate, deflect, and or otherwise render any
discussion too uncomfortable or too difficult to pursue without specific clarification; while this may seem a negative description, the repulsor is an
important balancer of arguments in that they force an effort to solidify the grounds of any discussion and actually contribute by their presence as
they reinforce the recognition of bias …. Unless they are not true contributors.
There is such a class of member who is not a true contributor. They are not actual members per se, as they apparently exist only to disrupt and
degrade any experience of other members. There are many reasons why such entities harass discussion forums, but most are founded upon simple
childishness, or organized evil, or a juvenile propensity to seek satisfaction by disruption and shock.
With these classes of member ‘engagement’ comes one last element. I have chosen to distinguish this proposed type because of its purity. The
“true questioner” is an engagement style which any member can adopt to find out something they don’t know. The true questioner offers a prima
facia compliment, the understanding that the questioned source – be it the community or a segment thereof, is worthy of enough respect to consider
as a legitimate and perhaps even trustworthy source of information. One can question as an agitator, a commiserator, or other type of questioner, but
the “true questioner” can be identified by the clarity of the question.
Engagement styles like these present themselves in their beginning as modus operandi of the members; they can evolve, devolve, become entrenched, or
undergo ascension as the member begins to appreciate the value of the community.
Whether a member comes to abovetopsecret.com to proselytize, understand, or fantasize becomes evident fairly quickly. While intent is never a
question which a member must answer, it sometimes becomes an overt matter of curiosity to other members; often to the detriment of the topic being
Members often find themselves navigating encounters which they had not anticipated, or had scripted in their minds differently than the outcome had
made evident. The evolution of expectation reveals yet another aspect of the member’s ideals or objectives. Each of these forces a new stage, one
which repeats over and over – almost in each thread, for every post. “Expectation” is a stage which is not so much about what exactly is
expected, but more about how members react to the binary model of expectation – positive or negative.
Stage Three: “Expectation”
There may be some members who routinely ask themselves, “Why am I posting this?” or “What is the point of this post?” but if that is so, it
appears less likely than that members post out of a compulsion to communicate. As a member of a community, or more generally, part of any group,
people express themselves to assert their relevance, or the relevance of their ideas. It is a small leap from that maxim to the more prideful
exercise of “being right” when others are “wrong.” Certainly self-perception and other egocentric concerns are important aspects of such
motivation. But in the virtual environment, ego takes on a flat and zero-sum nature for most who are more concerned about their topic of interest,
than the pleasantries of social agreement or faux-celebrity status.
Whereas few may be academically inclined in matters of social relevance (again, a very subjective notion) some are genuinely ‘experimenting’ with
their input – to see exactly what will come of their comment. Will another respond, affirm, deny, ridicule, compliment, or praise seems like a
valid set of expectations. Those who come to proselytize or indoctrinate, have a very short list of expectations, for they are convinced of their
position, and have not posted to examine challenges to it.
Others, less frequently, post in knee-jerk fashion; once again the expectation is limited… “Listen to me. This is the answer.”
Everyone (insofar as this treatise is concerned) knows that not to post is not to exist. You may absorb everything you read, but without the benefit
of feedback, a post is little more than a whimpering footnote. Part of the affirmation of successful posting is evoking a response of some kind. We
must therefore expect that a member whose posts are routinely unanswered will slowly lose the affirmation which renders value to their contributions.
Such members I propose will undoubtedly become less active as they allow themselves to feel increasingly disenfranchised within their areas of
Yet other posters seem able to effectively craft their contributions in such a manner as to directly challenge the community to respond. Few members
intend to simply plant their opinions and walk away. I recall diligently reviewing my previous posts to see whether someone found a flaw in my
reasoning or disagreed with my conclusions (if offered). I recall trying to evaluate the effectiveness of my argument or the understanding I had of a
topic by the content that followed my post, or the volume of contribution to a thread I authored. I suspect many can say the same.
There are some indicators to the stage of expectation which I feel may be appropriately tagged as relevant to the idea of how it become a pivotal
element in the evolution of the journey.
The expectation of posting (or creating a thread) is one that lends itself to the question of intent. Argumentation and sophism, bias or judgment,
can be embedded overtly or not within a thread or post. Such artifacts of communication reveal intent and often demonstrate the poster’s mindset at
the moment of creation of content. The subtlety or clumsiness of the embedding will dictate the nature of the responders, as well as their responses
in most cases.
How the responses are met, reveals more still.
Since early in the dawn of discussion boards the presence of ‘trolls’ was identified. One post wonders, fly-by posters, drop and run disruptors.
These elements are noise. Since they provide no real feedback I exclude them from a place within the set of members in the community, hence my
categorization of “trolls” as ‘noise’ in the environment.
When the expectation of the creators is not met by the members of the community, the creator will begin to respond in a variety of ways. They may
rail at the community; they may engage in bizarre or anti-social behavior, they may become obtuse non-communicators who entertain no dissent and
persist in their own trollish behavior.
The expectation stage marks the solidification of the member’s self-perceived place. By virtue of his or her own posturing they may feel their
‘position’ is suddenly not appealing, or too complicated to remedy. They may feel less inclined to ask, and more to tell; or they may begin to
formulate a bias regarding the community which will dictate the form and approach of all future contributions.
Some allow themselves the latitude of being incapable of convincing others to change their views without considering it a failure. They will limit
their participation into areas where their comfort is assured, rarely if ever, venturing into other forums. Others will become inclined to seek out
and befriend only those with whom they agree (although it is much more likely that they are actually seeking those who agree with them.)
Expectation leads members to evaluate the entire community based on their interactions with a very limited group of members. If those members
rejected the poster, the negativity will manifest itself eventually, if the poster receives affirmation, they will likely create a link to it (pardon
the Internet pun) so as to rely on it for future moments of doubt.
In the end, the committed member will have developed a community “social” landscape which becomes comfortable; and all disruption to that
landscape will be met as change; requiring immediate assessment as to whether it is to be accepted or rejected.
The community of abovetopsecret.com is based upon and cannot veer away from communications. The virtual society is bolstered by the Terms and
Conditions which creates a reasonable window of potential scenarios within the community. Lacking identity, there could be a strong impish urge to
behave foolishly since anonymity lacks repercussions. The administration of the site in accordance with the Terms and Conditions provides the promise
of an effort to maintain a mature and civil environment. When that expectation is not met, action is forced upon the established moderator core to
There are however, members who are not prepared to experience an environment such as this due to age, experience, or disposition. And there are also
those who are either unwilling, or ill-equipped to cope with the virtual social environment due to matters of choice. In such instances, the
expectation becomes more important than the member.
How a member reacts to the ability to successfully predict outcomes in threads and posts exchanges determines the foundation of their eventual
“self-inclusion” into the community. It may necessitate an understanding that they are visitors in a larger entity which they cannot directly
influence. It may further necessitate the acceptance of the community’s limitations, self-imposed or otherwise.
Stage Four: “Self-inclusion”
The seminal moment in any members’ tenure at abovetopsecret.com is the point, where whether by conscious decision or casual acceptance, they declare
themselves (to themselves) to be “a member” of ATS. It is a point where there is no longer a question that they are interested in the ‘life’
of the site, its status, its success, and its reputation.
At such a point, they will inevitably find themselves speaking in terms of ‘we’ and ‘us’. This is the most delicate stage.
A member may never reach this stage. It is possible to endure membership in a constant flux of consumership regarding abovetopsecret.com. Never
getting here may or may not behoove the community, but it is certainly no benefit to the business model which supports it. Stage four becomes the
point of commitment which allows members to feel virtual ownership of the site.
Every action from the moment of ‘self-inclusion’ onward is one of contribution and stewardship. While occasionally the zeal of this level of
membership creates a few complications (mini-modding being one notable case,) it is the equivalent in the business model to becoming a ‘regular
customer’ to whom appreciation and consideration should be afforded, according to the conventional wisdom of commerce.
Self-inclusion manifests its delicacy in yet another very distinguishable way: an evident sense of elitism. While members may dabble in the casual
flummery of ego stroking they may fail to see the disincentive such attitudes offer to those who are averse to it. Ego gratification is of course a
surface incentive; but the more mature and worthy a person becomes, the less likely it is that they are to appreciate elitism. Those from whom the
community might benefit most will become further distanced from the community which espouses an elitist nature.
Once a member embraces abovetopsecret.com as more than just a website, every contribution is much more likely to be a labor of love, an effort to
augment, reinforce, and exemplify the freedom of expression the community nurtures.
In the beginning of any relationship, be it personal or otherwise, the evaluation of the benefits and sacrifices of the relationship must be
During self-inclusion (which is, in effect, a sudden change) that reconciliation becomes a given. Gone are the distinctions of one members discomfort
with other members’ freedom to disagree. The offense that might have been taken at one’s argument not being accepted (despite rational argument)
dissipates. The ability to exchange ideas, the value of dispassionate logic, the opportunity to contribute to a stream of inquiry and debate becomes
the currency of import. The currency of ego becomes a caricature of itself.
Despite the freedom to do otherwise, personal disdain and pandering become repulsive and usually openly frowned upon techniques of interaction.
Sadly, in such constructs, popularity is no benefit; such a tendency – to be well-regarded and well known – appears akin, whether true or not, of
considering oneself a ‘better’ member; and even the most miniscule exposure of human frailty or sensitivity invites the slings and arrows of those
who feel threatened or intimidated by the more popular member.
The final challenge is to nurture self-inclusion without reducing the task to appeals to personal glory. Successfully confronting ignorance becomes
the value-added element of the relationship. Self-inclusion can be a noble and surprisingly rewarding phase to reach. However it requires a very
important and fleeting component… faith in the nature of the community. Once the business model begins to assert itself above the ideal, regardless
of pragmatic considerations, inclusion in the community will begin to seem more like an effect than a cause. Such a paradigm shift brings with it a
pall of sober gravitas regarding the realities that haunt many inspired members…, that ultimately, they are not the center of the universe and would
be missed only superficially should they retire from the community.
To counter that eventuality, the community must appear to spontaneously become empowered to affect outcomes. Any successful outcome can denote and
imply influence and power. Most – if not all – humans seek libido dominus
, the desire to be of superior or ultimate consequence. In a
communal setting, this is a difficult thing to achieve without ‘war.’ Even in its least destructive sense, war is a conflict in which there are
winners and losers.
People seek to align themselves with the winning side; it is part of the survival drive. Self-inclusion is not a reckless step; and the more
thoughtfully approached, the more enduring the inclusion is to last. However, lacking any true threat to self, the protection of the ego becomes
necessary simply because it is the one thing that can be attacked via a virtual medium. Members may engage in such aggression because once
self-inclusion is established in the members mind, the presence of another antagonist might present a diminishment of the community in the member’s
Other more transparent issues can arise, such as bias born of ignorance or offense perceived by reason of a flawed or sensitive self-image. None of
these can be anticipated, but the members’ arrival at the self-inclusion stage will make them viable opportunities for conflict.
As we can see, the benefits of the members’ willingness to ‘belong’ may be balanced by the vulnerability to interpersonal conflict, and
depending on the character of the member, this can lead to either a withering of the commitment to the community, or the flowering of a contributor
who takes pride in the community itself.
If we presume that a member will endure the inevitable bumps and bruises of interacting with an ostensibly global community of people who derive
satisfaction from open dialogue; we can expect the relationship (virtual though it may be) to wax and wane in both pleasantries and irritation; much
like any normal relationship. Over time a library of experiences begins to accumulate in the member, some cherished and some that the member would
prefer to forget. The potential for the cumulative experience to last is largely dependent on factors both within and external to the individual, as
well as the community as a whole.
This body of experiences leads to the arrival at the potential final stage of the ATS journey. This final stage is one of “totality.” It is the
stage most often assumed to exist, and yet most frequently, not achieved - and with good reason.
Stage five: “Totality”
If we consider abovetopsecret.com to be the host of a true community, we can begin to consider the community as a separate singular entity whose many
facets and collective experiences are all shared by members collectively. As members of a group, all are subject to the myriad of influences seen in
today’s world; and the members are susceptible to the same pressures and suggestions that they might experience in a non-virtual environment. The
desire to belong to ‘some’ group can be a factor, although in a virtual world where anonymity is the norm, it will never satisfy the ego drive
looking to affirm itself by associative reasoning.
Those mythical basement-dwelling people with no social skills cannot thrive here without the outward affirmation personal social contact provides.
The virtual environment, no matter how robust, makes for a poor substitute, so the irony is, most of the much caricatured 40-year old male living in
his mother’s basement with no life outside the Internet is not one which you will likely find on a site like abovetopsecret.com (although as with
all generalizations, exceptions should be expected.) “Totality” precludes the architecture of an engineered-imaginary persona because the
generation of content as is the norm in the community makes the exercise self-defeating in the long run. It is virtually impossible to become a
member of a community using a persona that is not ‘you’ in the most significant sense. Given enough time, ‘you’ will break through in the
community, despite the contrivance of an alternate persona.
Stage five “Totality” is a matter of expanding the members’ breadth of vision to include not only what is happening in current affairs in the
areas of interest, but retains a constant evaluation of the future of abovetopsecret.com in light of the place it has in the members’ lives. Among
the first considerations of totality is the idea of participating as a member in the capacity of Moderator.
Most who reach this stage understand implicitly that Moderators are no more than members whom the host organization has entrusted to exercise their
collective judgment to resolve irritations to the community on a case-by-case basis. In fact, members who have not reached this stage can often be
recognized by their confabulation of extended authority and overestimated influence that a moderator has. In time that view becomes a bit less
radically removed from reality and ultimately, if Moderatorship is in the cards, they learn that it is a simple volunteer duty one can assume should
the actual staff consider them trustworthy of independently responding to each miniature crisis while diligently adhering to the Terms and Conditions,
and knowing when it’s the appropriate time for a senior staff member to become directly involved. Other members reaching stage five know that
moderator duties are not “all that,” and one can be both a valuable member of the community and a critical contributor without having to carry the
euphemistic badge of moderator. It becomes clear that being a Moderator does not grant special privileges or access conveying any ego-gratification
other than what the individual self-realizes.
“Totality” bears a burden however that other stages of membership lack. It is a compulsion to internalize abovetopsecret.com into the members’
lives such as to ‘check up on it’ frequently, to review the submissions and posts of others with a critical eye, to expect that outside the
obvious business considerations that must exist to provide continuity, such things as cyber-bullying, virtual cliques, spamming, underhanded
commercialism by members, and hoaxing are dealt with according to the community’s values and most importantly, that such ‘values’ exist in
practice, as demonstrated by the actions of the community itself.
Where totality diverges from other stages is in the propensity for members to recall ‘the good old days’ where ‘things were better’. Members
in the totality stage recognize the ebb and flow of seasonal traffic and have seen the repeated dynamics which come into play as politically active
influences begin to attempt to manipulate the community in the struggle for political support during election season. These members are not easily
moved into the less resilient mindset of “ATS has gone downhill” or other such passé declarations; and generally recollect the differences
between ‘now’ and ‘then’ as less distracting than newer members or members with less personal commitment to the community.
I have labored to finish this treatment of the subject and while I believe I could spend months refining and redrafting the final piece; I would only
end up lengthening it. And I think it is safe to say, dear reader, that if you have stuck through this contribution thus far, you deserve my
gratitude and my compliments on your patience and resolve.
I offer no claim that this is an authoritative work, to be considered as anything other than my musings regarding a rather convoluted subject. And
within these words, I hope you can find something you can relate to; or perhaps improve upon.
I know that there are many directions in which this discussion can expand; but for the time being, I leave that to your collective wisdom.
Again, thank you for your diligence and patience.
edit on Mon Sep 13 2010 by DontTreadOnMe because: separating line was skewing the page