Monday, January 14, 2013

A Critique of modern discourse

A Metafilter story got me to writing about the problems with modern discourse as seen on the Internet. I thought I would spend some time refining and extending those thoughts here. By no means is this the definitive word on what's wrong with the internet, but I hope that a cogent summary might help fix things.

Time Pressure

1. First post phenomenon - On a site such as /., comments are sorted by default in the order they are received  This means that the first post gets the most feedback, and sets the tone for the rest of discussion. This results in a bunch of hasty, emotional, not well considered crap that then has to be moderated around in order to extract value.

2. 15 Minutes of fame. - Any post gets attention, and then gets pushed under by the oncoming store of other stories in 15 minutes, maybe a bit more if you're evil like Carmen Ortiz... but only a bit more. This means that any effort you do put into something isn't going to pay off much.

Text is Messy

3. Comments on a message board are usually undifferentiated text, sometimes with a bit of formatting. There is no easy way to tell visually what the meaning is without forcing oneself to read it all, and then start to draw out conclusions about structure, agreement/disagreement, etc.

Moderation is a kludge

4. Most moderation systems are a layer of code designed to filter out crap, and help extract some value from an otherwise overwhelming amount of undiluted text. Like spam filters, there are behaviors and techniques that get used to route around them.

  The most common form of moderation system is to have a ranking system (like/dislike), which turns commenting into a popularity contest. The funniest or most vocal viewpoints drown out everything else.

5. Popularity contests are 1 dimensional - There are lots of reasons someone might want to flag a post (which isn't quite granular enough for me, but you have to start somewhere)... agreeing with a post as "having value" is the standard here in the blue, but elsewhere it's a direct measure of the groupthink agreement. (/.  for example)

Wouldn't it be better to have multiple dimensions of ratings? Factual/wrong, Conservative/Liberal, Cheap/Expensive, True/Lie, etc.?  They wouldn't have to be the same set of things either, but it would be easier to code for lets say Funny, True, Insightful as separate (orthogonal) dimensions.

6. The missing half of Facebook - Facebook doesn't allow the inclusion of negative votes, so it's actually only 1/2 dimensional.

Anonymous people are assholes
7. Anonymity allows people to say things they'd not say in person. Remember the Id in Forbidden Planet?

So, how can we help fix it?
There are a number of strategies to be used to help fix this.

Use your blog more
The first is to blog more, and comment less. If you find yourself writing something in a comment that seems to be really insightful, make a more refined blog post out of it (linking back to the discussion for context). Blog posts are better than comments on someone else's site for a number of reasons:

  • You own the post, and can tweak it later if necessary. This times into and builds your reputation internet-wide, instead of in on little corner of it, subject to whim.
  • The post can be found later, as a stand-alone piece to be referenced, and can be more self-contained.
  • Time pressure is less because blog posts can stay "popular" for years. A few hits per month done a few dozen times means you're always getting feedback and links.
  • If you've already written about a particular view, link back to it, and perhaps tweak it a bit with improvements.
Build a better commenting system
Someone (me?) needs to come up with a better commenting/moderation system, that allows the multiple dimensional rating that I discussed above. It would be nice to discover visually how the arguments are inter-related about a given topic, to allow one to focus ones time better, and improve signal/(signal+noise) ratio.

Review your comments periodically
It would be good if we all where to re-read the things we've written with some distance of time, and get a better sense of ourselves. This can help us to all be better writers and readers.

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