Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, March 9, 2009

flamethrowers and fire extinguishers

I keep chewing on the problem of blog architecture: If the basic structure is going to be based on posts-plus-comments, how could thoughtful, sane, reasonable posts and comments be encouraged? Can that structure be re-engineered so that the “choice architecture” nudges people towards something other than snarkery and contempt?

As I have noted in my previous posts on this subject, the karma-based moderation system at Slashdot is the most famous example of such an attempt, and has been imitated in various ways. Another example within the hacker world is reddit, which simplifies the Slashdot system into a thumbs-up and thumbs-down model. Interestingly, reddit is happy to let you give your opinion about a link you haven't even followed. If you’re logged in, you can just run down the page clicking up or down arrows at your pleasure. You can do the same for comments, though you at least have to look at them, if only out of the corner of your eye. Perhaps not surprisingly, reddit is known for its exceptionally fierce flame wars. What would you expect from a site where you arenudged towards giving opinions about stories you haven't even read?

Paul Graham, an internet entrepreneur who helped fund reddit, has started an alternative to it called Hacker News. His primary goal here was to construct an architecture that would discourage the hostility and craziness that often seems to dominate reddit. As he has recently written:

It's pretty clear now that the broken windows theory applies to community sites as well. The theory is that minor forms of bad behavior encourage worse ones: that a neighborhood with lots of graffiti and broken windows becomes one where robberies occur. I was living in New York when Giuliani introduced the reforms that made the broken windows theory famous, and the transformation was miraculous. And I was a Reddit user when the opposite happened there, and the transformation was equally dramatic.

I'm not criticizing Steve and Alexis. What happened to Reddit didn't happen out of neglect. From the start they had a policy of censoring nothing except spam. Plus Reddit had different goals from Hacker News. Reddit was a startup, not a side project; its goal was to grow as fast as possible. Combine rapid growth and zero censorship, and the result is a free for all. But I don't think they'd do much differently if they were doing it again.

In other words, flame wars draw eyes. There are a lot of people out there who like participating in flame wars — who like breaking windows and just wants someone to provide them lots of windows to break. Paul Graham doesn't seem to have a problem with the existence of such people or even with sites that encourage them; but he does want to create a site that covers similar issues but promotes a different kind of conversation. How he does that, and whether it works, is a topic I’ll take up in another post.

1 comments:

  • Tony Comstock said...

    I share your interest in how technologies enhance or inhibit various sort of ideas, so I don't think it's a waste of time to contemplate this question.

    OTOH, I do notice that some blog writers/hosts have a talent for encouraging civil discourse. Leadership is long studied, but little understood.

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