Thursday, April 24, 2008
  Are we building Universities or Amphitheaters?
Advertising-supported media gains much more from your attention than it does from your edification. This is not coincidence. It is fundamental and inherent. There is a huge economic incentive to grab your attention, and there is no economic incentive at all to give you something worth reading.
Giles Bowkett

This explains why so many “social news aggregators” head downhill towards idiocrity so quickly that they produce small sonic booms.

For the site owners, the money is in flame wars and troll-fests. Such things quickly drive out all useful information, but they bring slavering crowds into the amphitheater to watch the Christians battle the Lions. And as far as an advertisement for little blue pills is concerned, a slavering non compos mentis is actually worth more than a single, thoughtful programmer seeking self-improvement. Such folks often block advertisements, and even if they see them they won’t buy products just because of an animated, glitzy pitch.

We know a little something about preventing trolls and encouraging thoughtful discussion on the web. But what I have observed is this: we only see lip service of these ideas in sites that are built for making money through traffic. We only see a serious attempt to maintain a site’s value and character when the site owner has an ulterior motive for maintaining a quality social experience.

For example, Hacker News and The Joel on Software Discussion Group. YCombinator profits from having quality developers pitch their ideas to YCombinator for launching. FogCreek profits from having quality developers pitch FogCreek’s software and job board service to their employers. Neither profit from doubling their readership at the expense of driving their core audience away. Both have founders with strong opinions about how to maintain a social site (here and here).

At their best, such sites resemble our rosy view of Universities of old: places of learning where people shared and debated ideas for the purpose of advancing knowledge.I say at their best. Not always, of course, but far more frequently than the traffic-motivated sites, and that’s good enough for me.

I think Giles has nailed it neatly in that paragraph. If you are interested in edification, you have to spend your time in places where people stand to benefit from your edification, not where people stand to gain from your hanging around clicking on things.

post scriptum:

This post does not say anything about whether Universities are better than Amphitheaters, or whether people who build Universities are somehow more noble than people who build Amphitheaters. I mentioned YCombinator. I have read that they give their investees t-shirts reading “Make something people want.” Statistically speaking, people want amphitheaters. The people who build them are making something people want.

This post is not about whether Amphitheaters are reprehensible in some grand, social-engineering sense. Or about the nobility of founding a University. It is simply a speculation about what sorts of factors conspire to make one site behave like an Amphitheater and another site behave like a University. And also a far smaller thing that is of little importance to anyone except you and I, namely, a suggestion as to where should we spend our time learning how to make what people want.

Comments on “Are we building Universities or Amphitheaters?:
I think there's still edification to be found on proggit, though certainly with a higher noise ratio nowadays. dons, jeresig, nostrademons, newton_dave, and a few others still make edifying comments there.

I read links posted on programming.reddit.com, although I no longer actively participate in reddit discussions.
This explains why so many “social news aggregators” head downhill towards idiocrity so quickly that they produce small sonic booms.

For the site owners, the money is in flame wars and troll-fests. Such things quickly drive out all useful information, but they bring slavering crowds into the amphitheater to watch the Christians battle the Lions.

This strikes me as an accelerated version of trends in other media. Just like the site owners you mention, heads of big media companies need to address this question before everything becomes distraction driven.
This post has been removed by the author.
Most sites just follow the trend. I often wonder if it just comes down to people wanting to push their opinion or be entertained, but nothing in between. For most people, learning is hard, and no fun.

I dont buy your causality. You seem to indicate the social link sites enjoy their devolution, I would simply say that none of their base ideas have succeeded in scaling. Delicious digg reddit, all these systems work on volume, they only support whatever the most people vote for. There will never be room for a niche to grow in these places, no matter how many javascript-closures-for-templating.programming.reddit.com specializations you make.

The math is unambiguous. These sites will assuredly devolve to content that meets the absolute minimum requirements for the most number of people to click "vote up". At this point, all we've said is that democracy is insufficient for generating interesting content as the average taste is very, well, average.

No one has tried to make a community site that provides the kind of refined moderation to counter the overburdening influences of unwashed masses that show up when your site gets popular. The one and only counter example I can think of is slashdot, which has specific types of moderation as well as a nebulous meta-moderation that I've never really understood, and it too scales relatively short distances (0-5 in 99.9% of cases), and moderation is scoped to discussion only.

The way to prevent lions v. christians is to be able to identify the people who keep throwing lions in and the people who really love those shows and to down-mod the hell out of both of them. In all likelihood the unwashed masses like both the spectacles which makes direct meta-moderation a non-starter as you'd still have a feedback loop pointing you at average. You end up having to do statistical group analysis, identifying groups who meta-moderate the same, further reinforcing voting within the group, refining, generalizing, specializing nested group hierarchies. "Implementation left to user," we just need someone brave & dumb enough to step up and get us past "vote" and "vote up/vote down", which are really the only approaches we've seen.

Given the complexity of the problem, I really dont think its fair to say the rapid mediocritization of social sites is by design or even that its a boon for attracting eyeballs. No one's made a social system that scales yet, but surely its a topic that will undergoe continued improvement. Something with better nuance than "vote up vote down"

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Reg Braithwaite

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