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.
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
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.
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.