Links: Crime and punishment, the fiction we read, power and access, genius, Outlier, and more

* “Mom Who Overslept While Son Walked to School Could Get 10 Years in Prison.” More modern madness enabled by extreme wealth.

* “When Popular Fiction Isn’t Popular: Genre, Literary, and the Myths of Popularity,” or, “Which kinds of book actually sell?”

* How “New Nuclear” Power Could Save the Planet—If Regulators Would Allow It. And, in addition, How Solar Power Could Slay the Fossil Fuel Empire by 2030. Exciting times.

* “Access Denied: The media, after access:” an essay more interesting than the title implies, and it could be read profitably in tandem with Arts & Entertainments by Christopher Beha.

* “Ink & Inclination: Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934–1995,” an excellent review though it does not make me want to read the work under review. I’ve not read much Murdoch. Where should I start?

* A Chance Encounter, Reddit Marketing, and Forever Pants: One Startup’s Story. I have a pair. They’re great!

* Blank Space: What Kind of Genius Is Max Martin?

* Why people are angry about rising college costs.

* Why Chris Blattman worries that experimental social science is headed in the wrong direction.

* Is There a Future for the Professions? The writer must be around Philip Roth’s age, because I never recognized the veneration of “the professions” found in many of Roth’s books. Today, “developer” matters, and most other fields just don’t. The phrase “barriers to entry” never appears. Neither does “student loans.”

* After Paris and Beirut, It’s Time to Rein in Saudi Arabia, a point made too infrequently.

* When nothing is cool: On why so much academic criticism is completely, wildly bogus and trend-driven.

* A 26-year-old MIT graduate is turning heads over his theory that income inequality is actually about housing.

The moderator problem: How Reddit and related news sites decline

Online communities often grow from a small, enthusiastic, intelligent niche group that is relatively self-policing to a larger, amorphous group that becomes stupider at a rate that’s an exponent of the number of users (the linked book is excellent on this topic). Initial moderators are usually enthusiasts and small groups are more like communities than cities. Later moderators, though, are usually adversely selected: What kind of person would voluntarily spend lots of time and energy policing a community for no money? Consequently, online community decline is often exacerbated by the moderator or moderators who eventually take over or seek power.

The psychology of someone who is willing to moderate a Reddit subsection—or any similar site, like many mailing lists—is not good. This sort of person is willing to spend a time at a thankless task that is hard to do well and rarely if ever remunerative.

Those who start at that task do so optimistically but often quit as their lives change or the task becomes more onerous. Who gets left? People with axes to grind; people with no sense of perspective; petty tyrants; and so on. I don’t use Reddit much for many reasons, but low moderator quality is one. I rarely bother messaging them because doing so is largely a waste of time.

The problem with moderators is not dissimilar from the problem of users: People who regularly have something interesting to say and the means to say it well get blogs, as I wrote in “Social news sites and forums should encourage users to blog.” Those who don’t stay on Reddit. The average Reddit contributor has little stake in long-term reputation—unlike bloggers, journalists, and academics who use real names—and that shows in the quality and quantity of posts. That may not hurt the site—the popularity of bad TV shows over many years demonstrates lowest-common denominator issues—but it should hurt in terms of high-quality users.

A form of Gresham’s Law applies to social sites and to moderators: bad commentary pushes out the good, and smart people flee stupid comments. One could alternately call this a tragedy of the commons, in which communal spaces become overrun with spam or commentary so stupid that it might as well be spam.

Reddit and similar sites can have an orthogonal problem, however, as they become so afraid of self-interested commentary or posts that they forbid it—thus causing smart people to go elsewhere with their thoughts, and leaving the dregs unwilling or able to create standalone communities or blogs.

This may be part of the reason why Reddit—even on the “good” subsections—tend to be better for beginners: anyone who gets past the beginning stages needs more expert advice than Redditors can provide. The same is happening to Hacker News, too, or it has already happened, though not as severely: Hacker News has an advantage in that its survival and the intelligent commentary on it is tied to a business that is in turn tied to ideas. Its moderators have a stronger incentive to get it right, since they’re not driven primarily by ego or overwhelming fear of “spam.”

That being said, anyone who has seen an unmoderated forum is aware of the fact that unmoderated forums are unusable. So getting rid of moderators is not a solution. In general the mechanisms of exit, voice, and loyalty, as described by Hirshman at the link, apply on the level of online communities. But constantly shifting for newer communities where smart people congregate is at best difficult and at worst a waste of time in and of itself. Reddit has to some extent worked on this problem through the sub-Reddit system, which is a better-than-nothing solution but not a great one.

Maybe there is no good solution to this from the perspective of smart users other than withdrawal. Better blogs written by smart individuals or groups are better than virtually any online, Reddit-like community I’ve found. Which is too bad. But I doubt most people in latter-day moderator positions are even willing or able to read this post, and, if they are, I don’t think they’ll understand it, and, if they do, I don’t think they’ll accept any of it.

Social news sites and forums should encourage users to blog

In online forum culture, there’s a strong bias against linking to a poster’s own blog. That bias often slides into strict rule enforcement that degrades the quality of the forum itself, because most people who regularly produce substantive writing will want their own, ideally non-transient, forum for such writing. A blog provides that and most websites don’t. That means sites like Reddit—which has an overly strong opposition to what they call “blogspam”—tend towards intellectual vacuousness.

I’ve seen people on Slashdot, Hacker News, and most notably Reddit decry blogspam. The decrying is sometimes justified: writing a weak, sloppy post and linking to or submitting it is a play for readers at the expense of the reader’s time. But there’s a very good to encourage linking to longer, more thoughtful writing: it’s often higher quality than most of what one finds in online forums.

Let’s use myself as an example. Some posts here take hours to write and reflects many more hours of deliberate research—which few (though not zero) forum posts do. Forums and social media encourage the ad-hoc and fast (that’s sometimes appropriate). While blogs can do the same, there’s a stronger cultural tendency, especially since the rise of Facebook and Twitter, to write more thoughtfully, more essayistically. Clearly this is not universal. It’s possible to find deeply thoughtful forum posts and dumb blog posts, but as a general tendency the rule holds. Even those who don’t consciously make the distinction between work on a free-standing blog and a temporary forum post probably intuitively feel the difference, though they may not have articulated it.

And there’s a good reason for people writing blogs to prefer depth: on blogs, the writer controls, or should control, their own content. I can export all my WordPress posts and take them with me to whatever the blogging platform of 2020 might be. That’s not true of Reddit. Anyone who invested heavily in a Slashdot identity circa 1999 – 2004 now feels like an idiot: that identity is basically worthless. Few people read Slashdot anymore. Any substantive comments are trapped there, invisible in the eyes of Google and Bing (which is like being invisible in the eyes of God).

By contrast, many of the substantive blogs out there are still out there. Work I published in 2009 can, and often is, still be relevant, while I can’t even keep track of the forum posts I wrote in 2009. They’re too disparate. Blogs act as repositories. Social news sites live in a perpetual present, with little sense of history or books. Few evidence any sign of outside reading, or knowledge that they’re not the first to contemplate most issues or problems.

In addition, the proliferation of social media sites means that the comparative advantage for blog writers has been moving towards depth, since on social media sites one-liners or short responses rule.

Online culture comments obsessively on itself. This is one such form of commentary, and it’s really about the way form tends to shape data—or, to use McLuhan’s often misunderstood formulation, the way medium affects message. There are many subtle gradations of online media, and I find the near-war between quasi social sites like Reddit and blogs to be fascinating.

The dislike on Reddit for blogs makes the discourse shallower and, to me, more boring. It’s too bad and also ensures that many people who do know a lot—who are experts—won’t bother going. If mods can kill a post that someone spent ten hours writing and editing, so that morons who could answer their own queries with a simple Google search can ask yet another inane question, why bother?

I’m being deliberately inflammatory in the preceding paragraph, but that’s what the situation deserves. People who know a lot will tend to avoid areas with a lot of novices or fools, and as novices grow into being experts, the fora that gave them their start will tend to be abandoned.

(Universities, incidentally, are usually too focused on depth at the expense of breadth and impact. They should focus more on rewarding impact, since much of the nominal “depth” in humanities departments if faux, but that’s another issue.)

I’m going to use Reddit as an example: most of the semi-specialized sub-Reddits, like the ones devoted to photography and writing, are only useful to absolute novices. Anyone who gets past that phase will get tired of the same basic questions and issues arising again and again. At the same time, those sections prevent or discourage users from posting their own material. Consequently, as users become more sophisticated, they drift away and gather their own audience, often in blogs or Flickr accounts or elsewhere. What’s left are a steady stream of novices, which is very useful when one is a novice but not at all useful when one outgrows the novice phase and wants to explore the deeper implications of a subject, art, or craft.

The importance of signaling and Kickstarter: It’s not just the money

Movie star Zach Braff raised two million dollars on Kickstarter, and in the process a bunch of people on the Internet (and some who should know better) wrote critical commentary—this Reddit post is a decent summary of the slightly angry “Why is a rich celebrity seeking other people’s money?” point of view. Some people also used the Kickstarter to write reasonable, illuminating commentary, as Dan Lewis did in “Zach Braff, Amanda Palmer, and the New 90-9-1 Rule: The Indifferent, the Haters, and the Ones who Love You.

But, for the most part, one important and subtle factor about Kickstarter got lost: Kickstarter functions as an easy-to-use signaling mechanism. Lots of people on Internet forums and real life say, “I want to see Garden State II or Season 3 of popular TV show X” or whatever. But the cliché is true: talk is cheap, and lots of people will say lots of things when they have nothing at stake.

Kickstarter, however, lets people put their money where their mouths are: instead of saying, “I want to see or read X,” they can say, “I want to see or read X so bad that I’m willing to pay $10 to make it happen.” That $10 is much louder than 10,000 posts. The money is important in and of itself, yes, but it also demonstrates that your fans care enough to give the creator something valuable.

Although I didn’t especially care for Garden State when I saw it in college, I can see why it appeals. My favorite movies are definitely worth way more to me than the relatively small amount of money I paid to see them. (Or, as economists would say in their racy, lascivious language, my consumer surplus is high, while it was pretty low for a movie like Spring Breakers and outright negative for awful movies.) How much is a movie like Blade Runner or the underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang worth to me? I don’t know, but if the team behind a movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang wanted to make another movie and tried Kickstarter, I’d give them some money (in Lewis’s term, I’m somewhere in the 9% of people interested but not super-fans; maybe I’m in the 12th to 15th percentile).

We’re still in the infancy of crowd-source funding, and it’s possible that we’ll see crowd-source funding morph towards being seen as an important signal too, and this blog post is a step in that direction.

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