Monday, September 04, 2006

Clay Shirky knew what was wrong with Reddit years before Reddit existed

That's a longer than average post title for me. I spent a while trying to come up with something more concise but that essentially sums up the purpose of this post. If I think of a shorter title before publishing I'll change it which of course means I'll have to change this opening paragraph as well. There's an insight for regular readers who may have wondered about my thought processes when I'm writing - I spend quite a bit of time thinking about what I'll write and quite a bit of time actually composing the posts but to an extent I'm making this shit up as I go along.

I've had a bit of a train of thought going on in my head for the past few days about the main "social" web services I use and how they make me angry. I had a stab at YouTube last night and today the target is the social bookmarking site Reddit. Calling it that will probably make me instantly unpopular with its regular users and will probably confuse sensible people who don't give a crap about Web 2.0 terms like "social bookmarking" (or even "Web 2.0" for that matter.) So a brief summary - people submit links to stuff they think is cool. Other people either like it and vote for it, which increases the link's prominence, or they dislike it and vote against it which reduces its prominence.

Several popular and long-running sites including BoingBoing, Fark and Slashdot do this but they are moderated - a small number of people running the site control what gets seen. Reddit is one of the wave of sites devolving most if not all of this control to users. The current undisputed king in this field is Digg (I think I'll deal with Digg another day) but Reddit has its own strengths. What's that saying about happy families and unhappy families? It seems that these link aggregating sites that succeed have their own sort of success but when they fail, they all fail the same way.

The success of these sites is twofold. First, there is far too much out there in the world for one person to discover so it's nice to get a helping hand occasionally. As a web user/reader it's helpful to see what other people find interesting. Personally, I find 98% of the web to be crap so any help getting to the good stuff is appreciated. Second, content creators like these sites because they can deliver a massive number of eyeballs to the content creator's site. Of course you have to be doing something of value for these sites to be of any help but there are a lot of very interesting sites with high quality content that wouldn't get noticed without help.

None of my posts have ever featured prominently on either Reddit or Digg. A few have been posted by various people (occasionally even by myself - a cardinal sin to some purists) and gotten some small attention but nothing huge. I think it's impossible to predict what will be popular on these sites. I find a lot of their big hits boring and I submit many things that get ignored. I've had submissions (not my own stuff) to both Reddit and Digg promoted to their front pages but I can't for the life of me say why some stuff hits it big while others disappear. I think everything I submit is good. I won't be submitting this post to Reddit (it seems a bit gratuitous, plus I think I'm saying some things a lot of Redditors don't want to hear) but hey, if anyone else feels like it, knock yourselves out.

Reddit's success is that it gathers more and more users who generate more and more content which gives you more reason to return and find more things. Reddit's failure is that as it gets more and more users submitting more and more content you're overwhelmed with more crap. Boring crap, self-serving crap and outright spam. It seems that every other day someone's posting something along the lines of "Why does Reddit suck so much now? It used to be way better." It's an unavoidable fact of life that people suck. Which is to say, a certain percentage of any random group of people are going to suck by your standards no matter how you measure suckage so as any group gets larger, the number of people in that group that you think suck is going to increase.

Clay Shirky wrote the classic piece "A Group is its own worst enemy" that deals with these issues in 2003, hence me saying he knew what was wrong with Reddit before Reddit even existed. He is a lot more intelligent than me and has a lot more experience. But even I experienced the collapse of Usenet and IRC. It always happens: any medium that does not control access will inevitably collapse under the weight of its own success. I won't waste time exhaustively rehashing his points but I'll give a few highlights.

If this sort of thing interests you, the article (which was originally a presentation he gave) is well worth reading. WARNING: only read it if you're willing to admit being a geek. If you read it and enjoy it then you really are a geek. If you enjoy it so much you feel compelled to extol its virtues in a blog post, well, there's no hope for you.

The first real eye-opener for me was when he pointed out these issues were dealt with long before the internet, "in a book by W.R. Bion called "Experiences in Groups," written in the middle of the last century. Bion was a psychologist who was doing group therapy with groups of neurotics. (Drawing parallels between that and the Internet is left as an exercise for the reader.)" I love his sense of humour as well as his insights.

And for Reddit's central paradox, namely, having no moderator is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness, he has this to offer: "Geoff Cohen has a great observation about this. He said 'The likelihood that any unmoderated group will eventually get into a flame-war about whether or not to have a moderator approaches one as time increases.'" Which is to say, the argument about moderation is inevitable. It is also inevitable that said debate will be passionate and get extremely nasty.

And Clay is a solutions man, it isn't enough for him to point out problems. He has solutions to offer as well: "So there's this question 'What is required to make a large, long-lived online group successful?' and I think I can now answer with some confidence: 'It depends.' I'm hoping to flesh that answer out a little bit in the next ten years." I love that as an answer: hell if I know but I'm hoping to work it out.

And then he gets really sacrilegious: "It has to be hard to do at least some things on the system for some users, or the core group will not have the tools that they need to defend themselves. Now, this pulls against the cardinal virtue of ease of use. But ease of use is wrong."

Anyone in IT in general and the web in particular hears the mantra all the time: ease of use is job #1. But he's absolutely right that you have to make some things hard in order for a group to succeed. If you make everything easy for everybody then you're making things easy for dickheads. If you place reasonable hurdles for certain things you won't slow down committed users at all (the ones who make a group succeed) but you might slow down dickheads (the ones who make groups fail).

So in summary, the one thing that makes me really angry about Reddit is people obsessing over these really old issues as if they are being experienced for the first time (that and pissy little bitch comments in response to submissions - but you can vote down comments too). It seems as though some people are able to balance two completely contradictory thoughts in their heads: 1. Reddit is good because it is a real meritocracy, submissions are voted up and down according to user preferences. 2. Why won't these goddam people behave exactly how I want them to on Reddit? I'm surprised the cognitive dissonance doesn't make their brains implode. Guys, the first step towards a solution is talking to someone aged over 25 occasionally. I know old people are boring but sometimes they know things.

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