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February 4, 2013

[2b2k] Are all good conversations echo chambers?

Bora Zivkovic, the blog editor at Scientific American, has a great post about bad comment threads. This is a topic that has come up every day this week, which may just be a coincidence, or perhaps is a sign that the Zeitgeist is recognizing that when it talks to itself, it sounds like an idiot.

Bora cites a not-yet-published paper that presents evidence that a nasty, polarized comment thread can cause readers who arrive with no opinion about the paper’s topic to come to highly polarized opinions about it. This is in line with off-line research Cass Sunstein cites that suggests echo chambers increase polarization, except this new research indicates that it increases polarization even on first acquaintance. (Bora considers the echo chamber idea to be busted, citing a prior post that is closely aligned with the sort of arguments I’ve been making, although I am more worried about the effects of homophily — our tendency to hang out with people who agree with us — than he is.)

Much of Bora’s post is a thoughtful yet strongly voiced argument that it is the responsibility of the blog owner to facilitate good discussions by moderating comments. He writes:

So, if I write about a wonderful dinner I had last night, and somewhere in there mention that one of the ingredients was a GMO product, but hey, it was tasty, then a comment blasting GMOs is trolling.

Really? Then why did Bora go out of his way to mention that it was a GMO product? He seems to me to be trolling for a response. Now, I think Bora just picked a bad example in this case, but it does show that the concept of “off-topic” contains a boatload of norms and assumptions. And Bora should be fine with this, since his piece begins by encouraging bloggers to claim their conversation space as their own, rather than treating it as a public space governed by the First Amendment. It’s up to the blogger to do what’s necessary to enable the type of conversations that the blogger wants. All of which I agree with.

Nevertheless, Bora’s particular concept of being on-topic highlights a perpetual problem of conversation and knowledge. He makes a very strong case — nicely argued — for why he nukes climate-change denials from his comment thread. Read his post, but the boiled down version is: (a) These comments are without worth because they do not cite real evidence and most of them are astroturf anyway. (b) They create a polarized environment that has the bad effect of raising unjustified doubts in the minds of readers of the post (as per the research he mentions at the beginning of his post). (c) They prevent conversation from advancing thought because they stall the conversation at first principles. Sounds right to me. And I agree with his subsequent denial of the echo chamber effect as well:

The commenting threads are not a place to showcase the whole spectrum of opinions, no matter how outrageous some of them are, but to educate your readers, and to, in turn, get educated by your readers who always know something you don’t.

But this is why the echo chamber idea is so slippery. Conversation consists of the iteration of small differences upon a vast ground of agreement. A discussion of a scientific topic among readers of Scientific American has value insofar as they can assume that, say, evolution is an established theory, that assertions need to be backed by facts of a certain evidentiary sort (e.g., “God told me” doesn’t count), that some assertions are outside of the scope of discussion (“Evolution is good/evil”), etc. These are criteria of a successful conversation, but they are also the marks of an echo chamber. The good Scientific American conversation that Bora curates looks like an echo chamber to the climate change deniers and the creationists. If one looks only at the structure of the conversation, disregarding all the content and norms, the two conversations are indistinguishable.

But now I have to be really clear about what I’m not saying. I am not saying that there’s no difference between creationists and evolutionary biologists, or that they are equally true. I am not saying that both conversations follow the same rules of evidence. I am certainly not saying that their rules of evidence are equally likely to lead to scientific truths. I am not even saying that Bora needs to throw open the doors of his comments. I’m saying something much more modest than that: To each side, the other’s conversation looks like a bunch of people who are reinforcing one another in their wrong beliefs by repeating those beliefs as if they were obviously right. Even the conversation I deeply believe is furthering our understanding — the evolutionary biologists, if you haven’t guessed where I stand on this issue — has the structure of an echo chamber.

This seems to me to have two implications.

First, it should keep us alert to the issue that Bora’s post tries to resolve. He encourages us to exclude views challenging settled science because including ignorant trolls leads casual visitors to think that the issues discussed are still in play. But climate change denial and creationist sites also want to promote good conversations (by their lights), and thus Bora is apparently recommending that those sites also should exclude those who are challenging the settled beliefs that form the enabling ground of conversation — even though in this case it would mean removing comments from all those science-y folks who keep “trolling” them. It seems to me that this leads to a polarized culture in which the echo chamber problem gets worse. Now, I continue to believe that Bora is basically right in his recommendation. I just am not as happy about it as he seems to be. Perhaps Bora is in practice agreeing with Too Big to Know’s recommendation that we recognize that knowledge is fragmented and is not going to bring us all together.

Second, the fact that we cannot structurally distinguish a good conversation from a bad echo chamber I think indicates that we don’t have a good theory of conversation. The echo chamber fear grows in the space that a theory of conversation should inhabit.

I don’t have a theory of conversation in my hip pocket to give you. But I presume that such a theory would include the notion, evident in Bora’s post, that conversations have aims, and that when a conversation is open to the entire world (a radically new phenomenon…thank you WWW!) those aims should be explicitly stated. Likewise for the norms of the conversation. I’m also pretty sure that conversations are never only about they say they’re about because they are always embedded in complex social environments. And because conversations iterate on differences on a vast ground of similarity, conversations rarely are about changing people’s minds about those grounds. Also, I personally would be suspicious of any theory of conversation that began by viewing conversations as composed fundamentally of messages that are encoded by the sender and decoded by the recipient; that is, I’m not at all convinced that we can get a theory of conversation out of an information-based theory of communication.

But I dunno. I’m confused by this entire topic. Nothing that a good conversation wouldn’t cure.

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August 16, 2012

Authors don’t scale. Topics do.

I suspect there’s a lot of truth in Richard MacManus’ post at ReadWriteWeb about where Web publishing is going. In particular, I think the growth of topic streams is pretty much close to inevitable, whether this occurs via Branch + Medium (and coming from Ev Williams, I suspect that at the very least they’ll give Web culture a very heavy nudge) and/or through other implementations.

Richard cites two sites for this insight: Anil Dash and Joshua Benton at the Nieman Journalism Lab. Excellent posts. But I want to throw in a structural reason why topics are on the rise rise: authors don’t scale.

It is certainly the case that the Web has removed the hold the old regime had over who got to publish. To a lesser but still hugely significant extent, the Web has loosened the hold the old regime had on who among the published gets attention; traditional publishers can still drive views via traditional marketing channels, but tons more authors/creators are coming to light outside of those channels. Further, the busting up of mass culture into self-forming networks of interest means that a far wider range of authors can be known to groups that care about them and their topics. Nevertheless, there is a limit within any one social network — and within any one human brain — to how many authors can be emotionally committed to.

There will always be authors who are read because readers have bonded with them through the authors’ work. And the Web has enlarged that pool of authors by enabling social groups to find their own set, even if many authors’ fame is localized within particular groups. But there are only so many authors you can love, and only so many blogs you can visit in a day.

Topics, on the other hand, are a natural way to handle the newly scaled web of creators. Topics are defined as the ideas we’re interested in, so, yes, we’re interested in them! They also provide a very useful way of faceting through the aggregated web of creators — slicing through the universe of authors to pull in what’s interesting and relevant to the topic. There may be only so many topics you can be interested in (at least when topics get formalized, because there’s no limit to the things our curiosity pulls us toward), but within a topic, you can pull in many more authors, many of whom will be previously unknown and most of whom’s names will go by unnoticed.

I would guess that we will forever see a, dialectic between topics and authors in which a topic brings an author to our attention to whom we then commit, and an author introduces a topic to which we then subscribe. But we’ve spent the past 15 years scaling authorship. We’re not done yet, but it’s certainly past time for progress in scaling topics.

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August 4, 2012

Ethanz on culture’s shaping of technology

I wasn’t sure how to title this post from a few weeks ago by Ethan Zuckerman. His own title is also inadequate: “Kenya, Power, and Questioning My Assumptions.” It’s not so much that the title is bad as that the post is too, too rich.

Holy cow, Ethan is a good writer. And this piece is superb in every direction. It’s structured around assumptions of his that were overturned by his visit to an “upscale slum” in Nairobi, exploring what might be needed from a power generating business he is involved in. (No, he’s not turning into a utilities baron.) In the course of the post, we learn at every level possible: about technology, economics, communities, Nairobi, and the persnickety ways culture shapes technology.

Ethan is special. If you know him or have heard him you already know that. So I would never want to generalize based on him. But he’s engaged in a style of writing that we simply would not have been able to find in the past, which meant that people didn’t bother writing it. Thank you, Internet!

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February 18, 2012

Back to the Future Past

I’ve spent most of today working on something I haven’t done since August 18, 2009: Publish an issue of my old newsletter, Joho.

I started it in around 1995 as an internal up-to-dater for Open Text where I was marketing vp. The idea was to share links, explain some stuff when I could, and crack wise. In other words, it was a lot like a blog that I folded up and sent through email once every few weeks. (In case you were wondering, Joho gets its name from this period: Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization.)

When I left Open Text, I opened up Joho as a free online newsletter. I’d post the hmtl and send out the text. Because we still didn’t have blogs, much of the content consisted of amusing emails from readers, with my occasional semi-amusing riposte.

As the new millennium dawned, I was blogging up a storm and thus felt less of a need — and had less time — to write up articles for a newsletter. And formatting it was a pain in the tuchus. Yes, I know it’s got all the usual hideous elements of my “design aesthetic” (as Jeff Goldenson, who works with me at the Library Innovation Lab, once called it with a straight face). But putting it into that format, and then taking it out so that I could do an ASCII-based version of it for pre-html email took more of a part of a day than I’d like to admit, even after automating as much of it as I could.

But now I’m getting ready to send out another issue. What prompted me was an article I’ve been working on about echo chambers, culture, and Reddit. It’s long for a blog post, but a good length for Joho. And, I have to admit that the publication of a new book undoubtedly is also at least a bit behind my decision to reach out to Joho’s subscribers. Shameful, I know.

I’ll post the linked table of contents here in a few days when I actually send out the newsletter. Until then, I’ll be revising drafts of the three articles in it, and feeling like a young man of 50 again.

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December 28, 2011

The end of blogging’s golden age

Brian Solis has responded to Jeremy Owyang’s provocative post declaring the end of the golden age of blogging. Here’s the comment I posted on Brian’s site:

I think in a sense it’s true that the golden age of blogging is over, but that’s a good thing. And not because of anything bad about blogging. On the contrary…

Blogging began when your choices were (roughly) to dive into the never-ending, transient conversational streams of the Internet, or create a page with such great effort that you didn’t want to go back and change it, and few could bother to create a different page in order to comment on yours. Blogs let us post whenever we had something to say, and came with commenting built in. The Net was already conversational; blogs let us make static posts — articles, home pages — conversational.

Thanks to that, we now take for granted that posts will be conversational. The golden age ended because when a rare metal is everywhere, it’s no longer rare. And in this case, that’s a great thing.

Yes, that metaphor sucks. An ecosystem is a better one. Since the Web began, we’ve been filling in the environmental niches. We now have many more ways to talk with one another. Blogs continue to be an incredibly important player in this ecosystem; thank of how rapidly knowledge and ideas have become part of our new public thanks to blogs. But the point of an ecosystem metaphor is that the goodness comes from the complexity and diversity of participants and their relations. I therefore do not mourn the passing of the golden age of any particular modality of conversation, so long as that means other modalities have joined in the happy fray.

Blogging isn’t golden! Long live blogging! :)

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October 11, 2010

Why it’s good to be boring on the Web

Casually and randomly click your way through the Web, and it’s as if you were to knock on the doors of random people around the world and were to see a startling set of stupidities, insults, and depravities.

Of course, if you actually were to knock on random doors and get to listen in on what’s going on in living rooms and bedrooms, you probably would be depressed. It’s even worse online because extremism — and not just in politics — drives up traffic.

That’s one reason why, despite the “Who cares what you had for breakfast?” crowd, it’s important that we’ve been filling the new social spaces — blogs, social networking sites, Twitter, messaging in all forms, shared creativity in every format — with the everyday and quotidian. When we don’t have to attract others by behaving outlandishly, we behave in the boring ways that make life livable. In so doing, we make the Net a better reflection of who we are.

And since we are taking the Net as the image of who we are, and since who we think we are is broadly determinative of who we become, this matters.

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September 28, 2010

Hoder in for 19.5

It’s hard to muster any enthusiasm for Iran’s sentencing Hossein Derakhshan — “Hoder” — to “only” 19.5 years in jail instead of executing him, as they had threatened.

Maybe the Canadian government can do something for Hoder since he holds dual Iranian-Canadian citizenship. I don’t want to have to wait until I’m almost 80 to hear that he’s free.

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September 1, 2010

OED goes paperless

The Oxford English Dictionary has announced that it will not print new editions on paper. Instead, there will be Web access and mobile apps.

According to the article in the Telegraph, “A team of 80 lexicographers has been working on the third edition of the OED – known as OED3 – for the past 21 years.”

It has been a long trajectory toward digitization for the OED. In the 1990s, the OED’s desire to produce a digital version (remember books on CD?) stimulated search engine innovation. To search the OED intelligently, the search engine would have to understand the structure of entries, so that it could distinguish the use of a word as that which is being defined, the use of it within a definition, the use of it within an illustrative quote, etc. SGML was perfect for this type of structure, and the Open Text SGML search engine came out of that research. Tim Bray [twitter:timbray] was one of the architects of that search engine, and went on to become one of the creators of XML. I’m going to assume that some of what Tim learned from the OED project was formative of his later thinking… (Disclosure: I worked at Open Text in the mid-1990s.)

On the other hand, initially, the OED didn’t want to attribute the origins of the word “blog” to Peter Merholz because he coined it in his own blog, and the OED would only accept print attributions. (See here, too.) the OED eventually got over this prejudice for printed sources, however, and gave Peter proper credit.

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June 22, 2010

More on internal posting

Seth Finkelstein has challenged yesterday’s post on Blogging and public thinking about whether being a blogger has caused us (some of us? most of us? a few of us?) to refashion our experiences in terms of posts we might make. He points to a post by Mark Dery that focuses on what I think is a misguided critique of Jeff Jarvis’ blogging of the “indecent” details of his medical treatment. [Disclosure: Jeff is a friend.] But, Seth’s point has less to do with the particularities of Mark’s critique than with some broader points Mark makes.

I suggest you read Seth’s comments (which are in the comments section of yesterday’s post), but I’m here going to post part of my reply, because it makes a follow-on point to what I was trying to say yesterday, so please pardon the self-quotage:

The idea that public media alter our inner narratives is hardly new. (Stephen Goldblatt’s book on Renaissance self-fashioning is a great work on this topic.) It seems to me to be a coherent history (resorting to coherence in the absence of evidence) to say we are moving from a time in which media structurally gave rise to celebrity (because the media were mass and one-way) to a new medium that gives rise to some Hegelian synthesis of celebrity and actual sociality. That is, in the age of broadcast, we fashioned experience so that we were stars of an imaginary broadcast; in the age of the Web, we fashion experience so that we are bloggers with a non-massive, semi-social, potentially interactive readership. Under this fact-free analysis, the Web’s fashioning of our experience should be understand in _contrast_ to the celebrity-based stories we made of our lives during the Age of Broadcast.

Note that since I don’t have access to the inner thoughts of all bloggers, I don’t have any actual evidence — thus the reference to coherence and fact-free analysis.

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June 21, 2010

Blogging and public thinking

Euan Semple takes a moment to reflect on how blogging has affected how he thinks:

Once you have a blog you notice more, you start to think “I might write about this on my blog” What do I want to say” “What will people’s reaction be”. Over time you get better at noticing and the better at noticing you get the more noticed you get!…

I do find the possibility that I might blog an experience transforms that experience. I begin to compose the post in my head, even if I know I’m not actually going to write about it. I did this to some extent before the seventh day of creation (G-d rested, looked at what He had created, and then we started blogging complaints about i), but I now find myself shaping experience according to how I might present that experience in public: finding the words, deciding what might be interesting in the experience to someone other than me. Blogging has given the public yet more of a grip on the shape of my private experience.

Blogging is not unique in this. I assume we all think about how we might tell others about something that just happened to us, imagining the anecdote told at dinner to one’s family, to one’s co-workers, or to other confidantes. If you kept a traditional diary, you might find that you are drafting your experiences with its blank pages in mind. But, for those of us who write personal blogs, the anticipated reading of your blog by people you don’t know creates drafts of experience — which ultimately become the experience — that are more written than told, more public than social, more composed than expressed.

Is that good? I dunno. I don’t even know if it’s generally true. I’ve worried before that the little homunculus in my brain that is always scribbling away is a personal mental disorder. (Shut up, homunculus! I don’t care what you say, I’m posting this anyway!)

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