Eccentric Flower:201101/Why Wasnt I Consulted

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Why Wasn't I Consulted?

I believe Paul Ford has actually had The Key Profound Insight into the nature of the web as a medium.

No, seriously. I am one hundred percent sincere here. And I'd like you to go read this article, because my comments will not make a lot of sense until after you read it.

I'll wait.




What bolsters my belief that he is absolutely right is that this not only pinpoints the nature of the web, but it pinpoints my single greatest source of continual annoyance with it.

You see, I believe that not everyone's opinions are of equal value. (Often, when someone says that, it means "I think my opinions are more valuable than yours," but believe me, not when I say it. I place a very low valuation on my opinions, which is why I'm willing to fire them off so frequently. If I thought more highly of my opinions, I would hoard them.)

I am not interested in sifting through the clutter of opinions-like-assholes that weigh down, and possibly eventually suffocate, all that is great and good about the web. (In fact, if you'll pardon the digression, I'll generalize that even further: I'm not interested in any democratic media. I'm not interested in the common opinion or the common taste. It's not a highbrow/lowbrow thing; I'm interested in plenty of vulgar stuff. It's that usually the common taste in this country seems to run to topics or interests that don't fascinate me - things like NASCAR or professional wrestling or "American Idol" or movies with Will Ferrell.)

Similarly, it's not that the opinions-from-everybody pigpile doesn't contain some good stuff among the dross; it's that it's much easier for people to jeer or tear down than actually contribute something useful - contributing something useful takes actual effort - so trying to rake through the shitpile of common noise is, more and more often, not worth the effort to me.

And yet, because Ford is right, this problem is not going to go away, and it's going to get worse before it gets better. Because no one has yet made the job of sifting and filtering - the editor/moderator task, which badly needs to happen, all across all aspects of the web - rewarding in any way, much less remunerative. I think it will eventually become remunerative (I'm not sure it will ever become rewarding), but it may take quite a while. Meanwhile, more and more of the people who would normally be best-equipped to edit/moderate are going to wash their hands of the whole thing and leave the rest of us to find our own way out of the swill or drown in it.

I'm interested in a very broad set of opinions, even ones you may consider to be in outer space. (An opinion doesn't have to be correct or even sane to be of value to me.) The problem isn't what the opinion is; it's more about how it's expressed, and the quality (not nature) of its content.

One of the reasons I don't go out of my way to admit more people for commentary here is that I tend to work on a trust system. I'd like as many people reading these pages as my traffic can allow; but I'm not necessarily interested in having a lot of them commenting. I trust the people who comment here to always be attempting to contribute to a discussion, instead of attempting to mutilate one. If you have a logon here (which is fewer than fifty people, by the by), I have extended you that trust. That's my system, and it works well - on this site alone. Doesn't help me a bit with the rest of the web.

Ford holds out MetaFilter as a positive example. Now, MetaFilter is interesting in that it crowdsources not just the flood of opinions, but also the evaluation and moderation of those opinions. Judging content is no more rewarding or remunerative there than anywhere else, but if enough people volunteer to moderate a little, then it should work out. It's an interesting system. But in my opinion, it doesn't work, just as Wikipedia doesn't work*, because what happens is that the most active content-evaluators acquire evaluative power that is not proportional to the actual worth of their decisions - and god help you if you happen to disagree with their choices or their agenda. Or if they jump the rails, which happens on Wikipedia all the time (I don't use MetaFilter enough to know if it happens there). I suspect that the type of person who would volunteer for such a thankless role, even a tiny bit, is also the kind of person for whom - how can I put this gracefully - the meddling is its own reward; and that's exactly the kind of person I don't want standing astride my flow of information.

* Wikipedia appears to work because of its sheer size. The deeper you look behind the scenes, the more cracks you see. Unless Wikipedia changes the way it handles editing/moderation, which I doubt it ever will, I expect it to completely fall apart at some point in the future. It also urgently needs a way to be profitable. How long they can sustain it as is, I wouldn't care to guess, though. Could be quite a while.

I don't want content to be tried by a jury. Juries have few uses outside a criminal courtroom. I don't want a group evaluation. I want content that has been judged by a single judge, or at worst a small panel of judges, and I want that judge to be a judge I personally trust. This is why film critics and their ilk have not lost value for me. I'm not interested in how many people vote up-or-down on a film; that tells me what the masses think of it, and while I don't say the masses are wrong, they may not represent my tastes. What I want is someone who does accurately represent my tastes, who has done the evaluative step for me, so that I can have some idea of whether seeing this film or this television show or reading this book is a waste of my time.

And with factual information, real advice on carpentry or computer programming or what-have-you, I want someone whose judgement I trust to have pre-evaluated the information for usefulness and accuracy, so that I know I'm not just listening to some idiot who likes to spout off without much pertinence to the real facts.

With pure opinion, it's a little different. I mean, obviously, I can't say "your tastes in cocktails are invalid," because you like what you like. (You may substitute any of several more controversial topics for "cocktails" in that phrase, but let's stick with a relatively harmless one for this example, okay?)

With opinion, what I want to know is 1) how much thought have you given that opinion and 2) how well do you express it. In other words, okay, your taste in cocktails doesn't agree with mine, but have you actually tried the drinks you don't like? How well and interestingly can you explain what you don't like about them, or what you do like about the drinks you like? What kind of a reading experience will your opinion provide for me?

If you just say "Martinis suck and anyone who likes them sucks too," that's not going to bring much value to the table. Alas, discourse on that level is the norm for the web. That's the stuff I want someone to filter out for me - I want someone to prescreen all the people who can't converse above the level of an eight-year-old schoolyard bully, and bring me only the Kingsley Amises and Charles Schumanns and Charles Bakers. (We're sticking to the cocktail topic for those examples.)

That is going to be the key factor in who gets to make money from the web in the future. The public may not know it yet, but a lot of smart people do. The thing is, it's been the only reliable way to make money from the web from day one - ask Google, whose entire existence is predicated on deciding what content to show a user - but it's going to get increasingly hard even for the little people to ignore. In this world of far too much content, with very little of it worth much, the people who are willing and able to sift through it well will come out on top. Right now they can't convince anyone to pay them to do it; but that will change.

And this is, inevitably, going to piss off people, because unfortunately a lot of people think their opinion is more valuable than it actually is. Ford:

"Why wasn't I consulted," which I abbreviate as WWIC, is the fundamental question of the web. It is the rule from which other rules are derived. Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.

Lurking beneath that statement, I spot a great deal of the ego/monomania that mars us as a species. We all want to be heard, even if our voice is of no value. We all want to be consulted because we all think that what we have to say is of great importance, even if it isn't. Well, it isn't. Very few of us have much to say that is worth a bent penny. I wish I could beat this into more people; it would save a lot of trouble down the road - it would prevent a lot of bad fiction from being written and a lot of bad music from being recorded and a lot of bad opinions from being spouted.

But, no, we have to have our say, no matter what; it's a compulsion. (At least I have the good grace to do it over here in this internet backwater where no one but my tolerant friends notice.)

So expect the inevitable backlash as the role of the Expert Filterer gets more and more and more essential. Expect people to say, "Well, wait, I have a right to be heard, I don't want someone relegating my opinions to the swill bucket!" Expect there to be a lot of noise and protestation over "elitism" and such words.

Do not expect them to try to say something that is more worth hearing, though. Shouting is always easier.


Thanks to Medley for the article link. See? Content filtered by trusted sources.


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Iain:

Turns out your piece mostly makes sense without reading the original article. Which is good, since it appears that a nerve was indeed struck, and ftrain.com seems to be getting hammered into nonresponsiveness. (The article is not only already in Google's database, but is the top response for that phrase.)

Also, even without having seen it, I would be willing to bet that the response of every professional librarian would be: "Yes? And? So? Is there something new here?" Instruction librarians in particular have the thankless job of teaching people that just because it's on the web doesn't mean it's any good, and trying to get them to understand how to evaluate sources. Also most faculty members. (Watching them try to get students to understand that Wikipedia may or may not be useful as a starting point but not for any real research makes me terribly glad that I was out of instruction by the time it came along. Never mind the whole "No, you can't just copy an article from there and hand it in as your work" issue.) But then, I suppose we're a bit self-selected for that sort of thing.

-- 17:46, 6 January 2011 (GMT)


Bunny42:

I have a bad habit of believing Wikipedia, even though I acknowledge that it could be wrong, wrong, wrong. Same with Snopes, which I consult regularly. The thing is, it would be exceedingly difficult for a moderator to be completely objective, and, even if he is, he's gonna piss off a certain percentage of the readers. Who'd want that hassle? The trick must be for us to find someone whose opinions we trust (such as your favorite film critics) and hope that others take up the mantle of filterer/moderator.

Sean shakes his head that I question his sources so often. He does tend to follow blogs with a certain agenda, not all of them, but some. So I'm continually making him justify his source material. And he should. But I'm sure it's a little irritating, after a while.

As for wanting to be heard, I find it more a question of wanting to participate in an intelligent conversation, free of flaming and malicious snark. (Don't get me wrong, I do love it when you get snarky, because it's not aimed at me!) You touched a nerve, though, when you mentioned lack of research. I tend to allow others to do the digging, because they're interested in the subject, and then I learn as much as I can from what they write.

-- 20:51, 6 January 2011 (GMT)


Medley:

Ok, I've read this twice now and I have to ask, regarding: "With opinion, what I want to know is 1) how much thought have you given that opinion and 2) how well do you express it. In other words, okay, your taste in cocktails doesn't agree with mine, but have you actually tried the drinks you don't like? How well and interestingly can you explain what you don't like about them, or what you do like about the drinks you like?"

Why doesn't this same analysis apply to group affiliation, for you? That is:

With self-proclaimed group affiliation, what I want to know is 1) how much thought have you given that affiliation and 2) how well do you express it. In other words, okay, you choose to affiliate with groups I don't, but have you actually considered other affiliations, or no affiliation? How well and interestingly can you explain what you don't like about them, or what you do like about groups you affiliate with?"

I am not much of a joiner by nature and resist labels, but your earlier expression of distaste for stated group affiliations has been niggling at me. I'm not trying to stir up angst and am not offended if you choose not to revisit that discussion... but I tripped over that paragraph on opinion (which I agree with) each time I read it.


-- 21:29, 6 January 2011 (GMT)


Columbina:

No angst here, but I'm not sure I take your point. The same analysis does apply to group affiliation for me - that is, your third paragraph expresses my beliefs on the matter pretty well. Did I lead you to believe it wouldn't? (I'm aware that, on this whole group thing, I have not stated my case particularly lucidly.)

I think that's actually the problem I have with people who make group affiliation such a strong point of their identity; it tends to make me think that either

1) They have not examined that affiliation closely enough, and want to hang an identity or a status on it without really developing one of their own; or

2) They really do believe in the ideals and/or purposes of the group so strongly that it is a very important part of their identity, and that frightens me a little.

Put another way, I worry that if I meet someone who comes out strongly as a Democrat, that either they haven't given nearly enough thought on what "Democrat" means to them and are just using it as a convenient label, or they really do believe strongly and uncritically in the ideals of the Democratic party (whatever the hell they are). Either approach is far too unquestioning for me; either they're not questioning their own beliefs enough or they're not questioning Democrats enough.

Now I admit that this is unfair, and the reason it's unfair isn't dismissiveness but that I don't, personally, ever claim shallow affiliations. To me, when you claim to be a part of X, it implies a pretty thorough claim to be part of X. I don't do lip service. So, for example, I would never claim to be a Democrat, because if I made that claim it would imply general agreement with Democrat principles, which I do not have. I'm not even sure I achieve 50% agreement.

This is why I don't claim membership of much of anything, because I am a picker and chooser. I take bits of thing X that I like and discard all the rest, and thus don't think I can fairly claim any affiliation with thing X or with any other thing. It is probably not right of me to be suspicious of those who do, but I am.

Part of it is also sheer contrariness. If you say to me that you are a Democrat, my immediate impulse is going to be to try to trap you. "Oh yeah? So that means you agree with their [position of Democrats that I choose because I suspect it will be most personally obnoxious to the person I'm confronting]." Except I don't ever actually do that aloud, because I'm too polite - but it will affect the way I conduct conversations with you in the future. I'll figure either you are a kneejerk parroter of someone else's positions without analysis, or you're just picking some set of names to establish an identity, which is lazy.

I want to base my mental identity of you on what you really believe - what's IN your suitcase, not the tags and stickers on the outside. I don't care if you've been to Paris (and are thus in the "been to Paris" affiliation); I want to know what you really thought of the place, what you hated, whether you actually saw anything or stayed in your hotel the whole time, whether you learned any French for the trip, how much French you learned on the trip, and so on. "I went to Paris and it was lovely" is not a very useful statement to me. "I saw the Eiffel Tower and you know, I kind of agree with the people when it was built who thought it was a monstrosity, and also the elevators hold about three people at a time and they smell bad, and the restaurant is too expensive" - now THAT is useful stuff.

All that can only come out via a slow process of discovery, so I understand why people resort to fast labels of convenience - but I just don't like them, and I'm such a stubborn person that a label often acts like a stop sign to me; it makes me disinclined to dig past that and find the real person underneath.

Going back to the analogy (sorry this is turning into an epic): WHAT your opinion is matters far less to me than how interestingly and how well and convincingly you present it. Similarly, WHAT your labels are matter far less to me than how interestingly and how well and how convincingly you share/communicate what you actually believe. A group affiliation, to me, most often is used as a conversation-stopper. You say "I'm a Democrat" and it's a fast way to get half the room to assume they agree with you completely (when they likely don't) and the other half to assume they disagree with you completely (when they likely don't). The half that is theoretically allied with you no longer needs to discuss your political views because they think they can assume solidarity; the half that is theoretically opposed to you no longer needs to discuss politics with you because they think they can assume that there is no common ground. Poof, that kills pretty much any chance to find out what you actually think, politically.

That's a fairly severe example - I admit there is rather less danger in, say, claiming an affiliation with a particular SF fandom. But even with something that should be that trivial, it's amazing how fast it stops true discovery because now the person with the affiliation has taken refuge behind a label.

-- 22:04, 6 January 2011 (GMT)


Jette:

Funny you should publish this just as I was having to deal with a moderation issue on the neighborhood Yahoo Group. Several of us took over the moderation of this group last year after it became ugly and useless because there were no enforced guidelines for posting.

In the past 18 months, I have had to deal with all kinds of vitriol, being called a censor and a "little Hitler" (my Jewish husband just loved that one, thank you) and ignorant people who weren't even on the list questioning my judgment in removing inflammatory posts.

But because we moderated so thoroughly and well, most of The Drama was backstage and unseen by our members. The list is now useful and productive, and neighbors are re-joining it and have complimented me on its success.

And after 18 months of dealing with the backstage contention, I am now burned out and looking for a new willing victim-I-mean-volunteer. Moderation is hard work and not terribly rewarding and it's easy to burn out. I can't imagine moderating over at Metafilter.

And as you know, I just moderated a subReddit for the past month, and some of that experience was frustrating, although I think that's a topic best addressed elsewhere. I will say I think the biggest problem was that "down votes" were anonymous; participants were seeing 1 or even more negative votes on a blog entry for no reason they could understand, that might not even be coming from members of the subReddit, and that dissuaded them from wanting to participate more. (I am also getting a lot of WWIC-style feedback on using Reddit in the first place, which I am trying to accept gracefully.)

-- 22:29, 6 January 2011 (GMT)


Columbina:

Yeah, I saw a little of that. That's exactly the kind of thing. Right now internet moderation is like, only one or two people ever bother to weed the flowerbeds, and they don't get paid for it, but unlike the real world, where they might occasionally get praised or usually just ignored, on the web they get yelled at for it.

-- 01:15, 7 January 2011 (GMT)


Medley:

"The same analysis does apply to group affiliation for me"

Ok - but you are not, apparently, as bothered when people have opinions as you are when they choose to affiliate or identify with a group. So there's some distinction going on...

I concur with the wish for true discovery (and one of my unwritten blog posts is a lament that I cannot spend as much time simply talking with people as I'd like), but I don't see labels as a 'refuge' in most cases so much as an implicit recognition of the need for efficiency. At the same time, I agree that labels ultimately convey very little information, absent consensus on a shared definition. And that very consensus (or lack thereof) can only be uncovered through conversation.


-- 15:59, 7 January 2011 (GMT)

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