choice architecture, continued

So, a further thought about Paul Graham’s Hacker News and its comments policy. (See yesterday’s post for details.) If reddit allows you to approve or disapprove of things you haven't even read, Hacker News appears not to allow you to disapprove of things at all: you can click the “up” arrow or . . . well, do nothing at all. Or so it appears. Because it turns out that when your karma points reach a certain threshold — apparently 100 — you suddenly acquire the opportunity to downvote a post/link. Interesting! It’s only when you have contributed value to the community that you are entrusted with the power of negativity.Something similar is being done at another hacker site, Stack Overflow, where upvotes add 10 karma or “reputation” points to a post’s author, while downvotes remove two reputation points from the post’s author — and one from the reputation of the person doing the downvoting. This too is interesting! Here you have to ask yourself before voting something down whether you feel strongly enough about it to take a chunk out of your own reputation to register your disapproval. Kinda like real life.These are great examples of “choice architecture,” but not quite of the “nudge” variety. They are more than nudging you to make certain kinds of decisions, though. Hacker News is allowing you to purchase power with good behavior, while Stack Overflow is subtly threatening people who consistently misbehave with expulsion from the community. I like these models very much, but at the moment I can't see how they could be applied to sites where there are just comments rather than votes on the value of posts. Regular old blogs — as ace commenter Tony Comstock remarks in relation to my previous post — may have to depend on the blogger’s own ability to model civil discourse and to gently manage comment threads. But I have seen many, many peaceable and thoughtful bloggers get overwhelmed by trolls and other hostile figures. So there is, I think, a desperate need to develop a choice architecture that works for the garden variety blog and its comment threads.

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.

the enemy of thought? really?

About three years ago I wrote an essay in which I claimed that “Right now, and for the foreseeable future, the blogosphere is the friend of information but the enemy of thought.” Well, don’t I feel foolish now, with a blog of my own and a presence on another most excellent one?No, actually. Well, I mean, yes, I do feel foolish, but not because of that statement. I still think I was right. The problem, as I said then, is the “architecture” of blogs, which is strangely invariant across the blogosphere. Everywhere you look, the post at the top of the page is the most recent; and almost everywhere you look, on blogs that enable comments, the comment at the top is the oldest. What this means is that time is the only criterion by which contributions to blogs are organized. The experience of reading blogs, and writing them too, is dominated by novelty rather than quality. On a news-focused blog, that makes sense; on an ideas-focused blog, not so much.One of the few exceptions to this rule is the famous karma-based moderation system on Slashdot, and even it is a partial exception. You still have to look at comments in chronological order — which makes sense, after all, since some comments respond to earlier ones — but at least you get to filter out comments the moderators have “modded down.” This is by no means a perfect system: as has been pointed out for many years, not all moderators are well-qualified to make their judgments, and they tend to display a herd mentality. (Not incidentally, the same problems affect editors of Wikipedia, which is why there’s an ongoing push from within the WikiWorld for more control over the editing process.) Moreover, the karma system doesn’t do anything to allow readers to rank and evaluate posts or authors. Slashdot has a Hall of Fame that allows you to see the most-visited and most-commented-upon posts, but those aren’t categories of quality — and that makes sense on Slashdot, which is primarily a (geeky) news blog. Digg and reddit also run what amounts to popularity contests. Not what I have in mind.I would like to see experiments with different versions of the karma system. For instance, what if, in addition to evaluating comments, readers evaluated posts? You may have noticed that you already have the ability to evaluate articles here on Culture11, according to a five-star rating system (though few people use the system, presumably because it’s not all that familiar to them). What if the same possibility were extended to blog posts? And what if when you visited a blog you had a choice between ordering the posts chronologically and ordering them by ranking?One consequence of ordering posts by ranking — at least if the ranking is from high to low! — might be the continuation of interesting conversations that now tend to peter out because of the pressure of novelty, the attention demanded by today’s Brand New Post. No doubt, many comment threads go on far beyond their proper lifespan, unnaturally extended by spleen and bile (usually from one or two commenters who just can’t let something go). But there are many other posts that deserve more attention than they get. On group blogs, especially on days when the bloggers are unusually active, some really worthwhile thoughts can be shoved down the page so fast that many readers never see them, or else are distracted from them by more recent events. If the best posts were more readily available, they would surely get more play, more comment, more attention.Such an architectural change would be helpful to bloggers as well as their readers. You can tell something about a post if it prompts many comments, but (as I suggested earlier in my remarks on Digg and reddit) you can’t tell much about its intellectual quality. Any blogger with half a brain knows how to write a post that will get people agitated enough to comment. But sometimes people can find a post really interesting and helpful without commenting on it. A rating system would help in such cases.More recommendations for the architectural renovation of the blogosphere are welcome!