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.

Trolls, comments, and Slashdot: Thoughts on the response to Avatar

The vast majority of the comments attached to “Thoughts on James Cameron’s Avatar and Neal Stephenson’s ‘Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out’” are terrible. They tend toward mindless invective and avoid careful scrutiny of what I actually wrote; they’re quite different from the comments this blog normally gets, which is largely because I submitted the Avatar post to Slashdot, home of the trolls. One friend noted the vitriol and in an e-mail said, “Okay, the Slashdot link explains the overall tone of the comments your “Avatar” post is attracting.”

Part of the reason the comments are so bad is the hit and run nature of comments, especially on larger sites. If you have something substantial to say, and particularly if you regularly have something substantial to say, you tend to get a blog of your own. I wrote about this phenomenon in “Commenting on comments:”

In “Comment is King,” Virginia Heffernan writes in the New York Times, “What commenters don’t do is provide a sustained or inventive analysis of Applebaum’s work. In fact, critics hardly seem to connect one column to the next.” She notes that comments are often vitriolic and ignorant, which will hardly surprise those used to reading large, public forums.”

Furthermore, it’s easier and demands less thought to post hit and run comments than it is to really engage an argument. I deleted the worst offenders and sent e-mails to their authors with a pointer to Paul Graham’s How To Disagree; none responded, except for one guy who didn’t understand the point I was trying to make even after three e-mails, when I gave up (“never argue with fools because from a distance people can’t tell who is who”). The hope is that by consciously cultivating better comments and by not responding to random insults, the whole discussion might improve.

(Paul Graham has given the subject a lot of thought too: he even wrote an essay about trolls. As he says, “The core users of News.YC are mostly refugees from other sites that were overrun by trolls.”)

Not every comment I got one was terrible—this one, from a person named “Dutch Uncle,” was probably the best argued of the lot, and it mostly avoided ad hominem attacks. It, however, was very much the exception.

Most comments tended to deal in generalities and not to cite specific parts of my argument. In this respect, they have the same problems I see in freshmen papers, which often want to make generalizations and abstractions without the concrete base necessary. This happens so often that I’ve actually begun a keeping a list of all the things freshmen have told me are “human nature,” with a special eye toward placing contradictory elements next to each other, and in class I now ceaselessly emphasize specifics in arguments.

Since I’ve see this disease before, I’ve already thought about it, and I think the generalization problem is linked to the problem of close reading, which is a really hard skill to develop and one I didn’t develop in earnest till I was around 22 or 23. Even then it was only with a tremendous amount of effort and practice on my part. Close reading demands that you consider every aspect of a writer’s argument, that you pay attention to their word choices and their sentences, and that you don’t attribute to them opinions they don’t necessarily hold. Francine Prose wrote a whole book on the subject called Reading Like a Writer, but the book is a paradox: in order to develop the close reading skills she demonstrates, you have to be able to closely read her book in the first place, which is hard without good teaching.

Mentioning Francine Prose brings up one other common point I saw in the comments: few pointed to sources or ideas outside themselves, and allusions were rare. In the best writing I see, such elements are common. That isn’t to say every time you post a comment, you should cite four peer-reviewed sources and a couple of blog posts, but ideas are often stronger when they show evidence of learning and synthesis from others. In my Avatar post, I brought together Greg Egan, a New Yorker article, Alain de Botton citing Wilhelm Worringer, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, the Neal Stephenson essay, and Star Trek. Now, my argument about Avatar could still be totally wrong, like an essay with hundred citations, but at the very least other writers’ thoughts usually show that more thought has gone into an essay, or a comment. Almost every article in every newspaper and magazine piece worth reading cites at least half a dozen and often many more sources: quotes, other articles, journals, books, and more. That’s part of what make The Atlantic and The New Yorker so worth reading.

Citations area common because things that are really worth arguing about require incredible background knowledge to say anything intelligent. The big response I’ve had to many of the comments, especially the deleted ones, are suggestions to read more: read How Fiction Works, The Art of Criticism, and Reading Like a Writer, then post your angry Internet screeds after you’ve thought more about what you’re arguing. These kinds of pleas probably fall on the proverbially deaf ears, but at least with this post now I have somewhere to point bad commenters in the future.

I think one reason I find Slashdot conversations much less interesting than I did as a teenager isn’t because the nature of the site has changed, but because I’ve learned enough to have learned how hard it is to really know about something. Now I’m often more engaged by pure information and less often in invective and pure opinion, especially when that opinion isn’t backed up by much. The information/opinion binary is of course false, especially because the kind of information one presents often leaves pointers to one’s opinion, but it’s nonetheless useful to consider when you’re posting on Internet forums—or writing anywhere.

Incidentally, one reason I like reading Hacker News so much is that the site consciously tries to cultivate smarter, deeper conversation, much as I wish to; it’s trying to meld technical and cultural forces into a system that rewards and encourages high-content comments of the sort I mostly didn’t get regarding Avatar. I submitted the Avatar post to Hacker News before Slashdot, and the first, relatively good comment came from a Hacker News reader.

The problem of trolls is also very old, and probably goes back to the Internet’s beginnings—hence the need for a word like “troll,” with a definition in the Jargon File. As a result, I’m probably not going to change much by writing this, and to judge from my e-mail correspondent, trying to do so via e-mails and blog posts is mostly hopeless. But a part of me is an optimist who thinks or hopes change is possible and that by having a meta conversation about the nature of trolling, one can avoid the behavior in general, at least on a small scale. At Slashdot or Reddit scales, however, the hope fades, and one simply experiences the tragedy of the commons.

EDIT: Robin Hanson has an interesting alternate, but not mutually incompatible, theory in Why Comments Snark:

Comments disagree more than responding posts because post, but not comment, authors must attract readers. Post authors expect that reader experiences of a post will influence whether those readers come back for future posts. In contrast, comment authors less expect reader experience to influence future comment readership; folks read blog posts more because of the post author than who they expect to author comments there.

Microsoft Word and the fate of the word processor

There’s a fascinating discussion at Slashdot regarding the life (and death?) of Microsoft Word, the much used and much despised word processor. Jeremy Reimer of Ars Technica posits that Word is going to lose out to wiki-style online editing tools. Maybe he’s right, but I’m skeptical because I suspect that most documents are only read by a single person, and when they’re edited by multiple people, they still tend to revolve around a single person. Writing tends to work best in serial, not parallel, mode; this might be the subject of a future Grant Writing Confidential post. (Edit: See One Person, One Proposal: Don’t Split Grant Writing Tasks.)

Some of the Slashdot comments show the worst of Slashdot’s solipsism and narrow-mindedness, however. This one in particular is galling because its author obviously doesn’t know what he’s talking about. For example, he says that “If, by “professional writer,” you mean someone actually producing text, the main needs are a good text editor, which can be found many places.”

With all due respect, I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about. A good text editor, even one that’ll give diffs, is nowhere near as fast and as easy as Word’s track changes system. As Philip Greenspun, well-known Microsoft shill, says regarding his book writing project:

At least at Macmillan, everyone collaborates using Microsoft Word. I’d wanted to write my book in HTML using Emacs, the text editor I’ve been using since 1978. That way I wouldn’t have to do any extra work to produce the on-line edition and I wouldn’t be slowed down by leaving Emacs (the world’s most productive text editor, though a bit daunting for first-time users and useless for the kind of fancy formatting that one can do with Frame, Pagemaker, or Word). Macmillan said that the contract provision to use Word was non-negotiable and now I understand why.

Microsoft Word incorporates a fairly impressive revision control system. With revision control turned on, you can see what you originally wrote with a big line through it. If you put the mouse over the crossed-out text, Word tells you that “Angela Allen at Ziff Davis Press crossed this out on March 1, 1997 at 2:30 pm.” Similarly, new text shows up in a different color and Word remembers who added it. Finally, it is possible to define special styles for, say, Tech Reviewer Comments. These show up in a different color and won’t print in the final manuscript.

The original commenter says that free software can replace Word. I’d observe that a) everyone I have to collaborate with has Word and b) only one other person I know has Open, which also looks hideously ugly on OS X and, when I’ve tried to use it, crashes frequently. Most professional writers appear to use Word. That they don’t migrate en masse to text editors, which have been around since at least the 1970s, shows that there must be some advantage, even if it’s merely network effects, to using it.

Another commenter said that Word “has too large an installed base and there is too much inertia for people to change,” inspiring a third person to chime in, “You know, I’m sure they used to say the same thing about Wordperfect, remember them?”

And in those days, the total number of computers bought every year exceeded the entire previous install base, year after year. Since the neighborhood of the late ’90s, however, that hasn’t been true. Today, if you want to get people to switch operating systems/word processors/e-mail clients/whatever, you have to get people who already have computers to consciously change their behavior. This is really, really hard to do. That’s the difference between WordPerfect’s dominance in the ’80s and Word’s dominance today.

As Joel Spolsky says:

Microsoft grew up during the 1980s and 1990s, when the growth in personal computers was so dramatic that every year there were more new computers sold than the entire installed base. That meant that if you made a product that only worked on new computers, within a year or two it could take over the world even if nobody switched to your product. That was one of the reasons Word and Excel displaced WordPerfect and Lotus so thoroughly: Microsoft just waited for the next big wave of hardware upgrades and sold Windows, Word and Excel to corporations buying their next round of desktop computers (in some cases their first round).

According to the research firm Gardner, “For the year [2008], worldwide PC shipments totaled 302.2 million units…” But Forrester estimates that there are about a billion computers in use. Many of those are probably first-time buyers in developing countries, second computers, computers for children, used by the same person at home and at work, and so forth; nonetheless, even if every one of those new computers replaced a single old computer, it would still take more than three years for the market to churn. That’s a major difference, and the installed based issue is why Word (and office) aren’t going anywhere fast.

I don’t love Word and used Lotus Word Pro for years after it had been effectively abandoned because its styles functionality was (and still is) vastly superior to Word’s. But the program isn’t available for OS X and has died in IBM’s bowels. In the current computing world, it’s hard to imagine Word being superseded on the desktop; at some point in the future, a browser-based word processor might overtake it, but that day is still further off than many Internet prognosticators believe.

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