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The Social Disease

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Stephen King once said that he could publish his grocery list and it would be a best seller.

Of course he was exaggerating -- maybe a bit -- but I couldn't help but think of that quote as I was reading a pretty good book about SEO.

I think we easily confuse popularity with quality. Search Engines have little to go on, so somebody came up with the idea that if a link was included editorially that it implied approval (or interest) from one work to the other. Collating and walking these webs could give us an idea of what pieces of content were interesting to the most number of people.

Of course, that's just an easy generalization and you can quickly find out why it's false: simply watch the news on television. On any evening, you'll see stories about people that do not impact world events, do not have great ideas, and do not lead any kind of movement. They are on TV simply because they are popular.

I've been very curious over the years as to how folks find things on the net, and it's definitely not quality. The idea that writing quality content is somehow magical is total bullshit. This is like saying that rock stars are at the top of the charts because they are the best singers or players in the world. Nobody who has ever been around musicians would ever believe that. Trust me, the guy who wrote iFart was not a quality maven.

Last week I started working on another small project. This time there's no AdSense -- lots of folks have their panties in a bunch about sites that have AdSense on them and quite frankly I've been there, done that. Through with that for a while. Time for something new. I decided to create an information hub around a random product. For this experiment I picked the maker of my home stereo system, but you could pick anything. (The site is still in development, but you are welcome to drop by, adcom-review. I picked "review" as the second word because it is the most searched-for term. Exploring further, I found that reviews for this brand are very hard to find, so it looks like the site's theme is going to be putting the most quality review information possible in a smallest amount of space. Should be easier to do because I'm a big fan of the gear.)

As part of that experiment, I bought a small $10 e-book about how to integrate your pages with Facebook. The guy recommended using Fivers to help spread the word that your fan page was available.

Sounded interesting -- always willing to pay a bit for advertising if it works -- so I came up with ten bucks and paid a couple of fivers to announce my site to their friends.

The results were very informative. Both of them posted something along the lines of "please like this page!" to all of their friends, which was fine. Not exactly a ringing personal endorsement but I didn't want to pay for an endorsement, I just wanted to pay for a megaphone.

The interesting part is that both of them came back to me and offered to guarantee likes for another five bucks.

Ugh.

From their standpoint, it was clear what I wanted: people saying they like my page. After all, what better to make something popular than to pretend it is already popular? Lots of very popular companies today (no, I will not name names) started out simply by faking their own popularity: creating dummy accounts and posting comments and links back and forth to each other, making the illusion of activity. One of the funniest things about the net is folks that complain about sites using gimmicks to trick them into visiting -- on sites that have used gimmicks to trick them into visiting. Enough to set your irony meter off on emergency mode.

Let's grow up and face what my new fiver friends were telling me: popularity can be engineered. You can pay somebody directly to like something, you can trick people into thinking other people like it, or you can associate what you're doing with somebody or something that's already popular. And that's just the beginning. This entire idea about using people's behavior as an indication to me the consumer of how valuable something is? It's crap. If it were true, I'd still be listening to the top 40 on the radio and watching "Dancing with the Stars". Yes, there's a huge majority of folks who do this, but I'm not one of them.

Examples of this effect are legion.

There was a story recently about a guy using Amazon's Mechanical Turk to pay folks to upvote things on Quora. Many a time I've visited Stack Overflow to find a question with the top answer as being of very poor quality -- it sounded good and worked, but it missed the larger point of the issue. How did it get upvoted? People recognize the answerer and voted them up based on their popularity. Everyday one of my friends on Facebook passes along something they consider innocuous -- a game, a catchy phrase, a joke, or whatever -- but it's purpose is to get me to visit a site. These are not items that are designed to improve people's lives: these are items designed to manipulate people's behavior.

As any movie promoter, agent, or marketing wonk will tell you, people can be engineered. More to the point, they are being engineered. It has been this way for centuries and it will continue to be so. (I do not especially like it. I refuse to watch television ads because I can't stand the manipulation that go into these things. But that's just me. My liking it or not will not change things one way or another.)

You see, we have a problem on the web. The web is either going to provide quality information to people or it is going to provide popular information to people. It's going to be the library or its going to be the dance hall. They are not the same thing. They are at cross-purposes. As long as we reward popularity, the system will increasingly become less useful to those of us seeking quality. And vice-versa. Indeed, there are many times when I want the most popular thing. Just not all the time.

The problem is rooted in people themselves and not in the computer systems that connect them.

The big deal now is social networks. But this is just going to be another version of the same thing, only more painful. We've been down this road with newspapers, we've been down this road with radio, with television, with web content, and now, social networks. Nothing is going to change the facts of human nature. This is a social disease, and social networking will just exacerbate it.

Anger and ranting and raving are not going to fix this. To fix this we need to both come up with new structures for our information and new ways of consuming it. Personally, I think we need a new browser that throws out everything but data (including links, ads, and other engagement devices) and provides that data in the simplest format possible to the consumer. Separate the data from the presentation. That's my solution. Anybody have any others?

EDIT: Just to be clear, I'm not advocating surrender. My solution is to organize on the browser-side, using multiple cues from various sources. Add a bit of machine-learning, and some p2p goodness, and you can have a much better experience without all the trade-offs involved in the current way of doing things. Corporate, popularity-driven systems tend to congregate around hubs: Facebook, Google, MySpace, HackerNews, etc. Can't have a dance hall without having a dance hall. Seems to me that the problem is that by putting the smarts in the hubs, we are always coding to the lowest common denominator. Data should go in the hubs. Smarts should go with the person (whether those smarts actually live in the cloud or not is not germane here) Remember that the entire purpose of HTML was that the user could flexibly choose how to display and process the information. I think we should get back to that idea. It was a good one.

10 Comments

According to me, what you're inherently describing is the long tail [1]. The long tail is a popularity contest on the far left side of the graph. In the tail the graph is about serving a specific audience anywhere from a few to a tens of thousands.

In the tail your site/book/video/game/app/what-not works because people like it, have a use for it, learn from it, are able to do something important in their lives in a more appealing way, ... . People in the tail know why they are there and probably like what they've got going.

However, if your ambition is popularity you're aiming for the far left side of the graph and you've got a big problem. That is, in the tail, when your popularity grows with just 1% you're likely to jump over thousands of other graph constituents by moving to the left. Grow another 1% and again make an enormous leap to the left. The closer you get to the left-end side of the graph however the less headway 1% will make. Hence, you'll need to start increasing your popularity with 2%, then 5%, then 10% and so on. Each leap forward will yield smaller result and the entire improvement effort will become more frustrating.

In the long tail the left-most 5% might hold 60% or 70% or the entire market/audience/what-not. Hence, in order to join those ranks you need to be doing something very right. In other words, it's very very hard work with highly uncertain outcomes.

The long tail and the left-sided head are two completely different worlds.

[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPQViNNOAkw

Clearly, new information structures aren't going to do the trick. You're going to have to engineer better humans.

Luckily, that's a technique that's worked splendidly in the past!

I don't mean to pick apart the article but I don't think machine learning is at the stage where it is ready to determine the trustworthiness of data and deliver it. I've studied trust in multi-node systems, and machine learning and from the research conventions I have gone to. Judging from those machine learning still has trouble in environments where the data is not predictable (image recognition in natural environments), not standardized (image recognition in moving environments), and for web based learning is not accurate when it requires the computer to determine the trustworthiness of a source of data. I can't find the article but the methods used involved sources other trustworthy sources linked to. Very page rank like. However the computer ended up learning to trust untrustworthy sites.

As for humans trusting "social proof"? That is one of the oldest mental short cuts in human nature, and is certainly here to stay.

What's the name of the ebook?

San,

You mean the SEO book mentioned? It's 'The Art of SEO'

Haven't finished reading it yet, so I'm not prepared to give a review, but so far it seems well worth the money. It's definitely got me thinking through a lot of tough problems.

How can the library and the dance hall coexist? I proposed one idea "Saving forums from themselves with shared hierarchical white lists" http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=920110

Ideas are cheap, I hope some-one in better health can take that idea and make something of it.

There is always a way to cure the disease.
So it is better to give any visitor the best content.

qna,

Thanks for the comment.

I have no idea what you are talking about.

Yes, you should always want to provide the best content. But this is just a question of how to act properly in the world, not how to help people find your work.The problem is that quality is not the metric for people finding your work, popularity is. I think I'm asking the question "What is 4 + 4?" and your answer is "Duck" -- Your comment does not pertain to my question.

I'm just not tracking. If you could explain yourself further, that'd be great.

"Search Engines have little to go on, so somebody came up with the idea that if a link was included editorially that it implied approval (or interest) from one work to the other."

Well, that's not far from the truth, but you have to put it in context. The original algorithms for Google and Yahoo search engines were meant for scientific white papers within a university setting. The assumption is the more citations a paper has the more credible it is; hence when searched it should appear at the top of the list.

This inherent flaw fails in the internet because scientific white papers assume the stewardship and editing of people within the academia, often professors who will vouch for the quality of such work. The internet has no such screening process, and has a much more massive volume of content, and as such can be more easily gamed.


Ok, where is the "like button"! ;) Just kidding.
Although, I do like and agree your browser idea. In fact once upon a time i had a blog, then i realised all i wanted was an RSS feed for text.. i'm not interested in UI fluff. For me, Google Reader is the best there is to offer for a lot of the web content these days.

Nice post.

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This page contains a single entry by DanielBMarkham published on January 9, 2011 9:46 AM.

Wikileaks: the "Yes But" Story was the previous entry in this blog.

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  • shaun: Ok, where is the "like button"! ;) Just kidding. read more
  • Jon Limjap: "Search Engines have little to go on, so somebody came read more
  • DanielBMarkham: qna, Thanks for the comment. I have no idea what read more
  • qna: There is always a way to cure the disease. So read more
  • Alan Crowe: How can the library and the dance hall coexist? I read more
  • DanielBMarkham: San, You mean the SEO book mentioned? It's 'The Art read more
  • San: What's the name of the ebook? read more
  • Brian: I don't mean to pick apart the article but I read more
  • Amy Hoy: Clearly, new information structures aren't going to do the trick. read more
  • Steven Devijver: According to me, what you're inherently describing is the long read more

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Recently I created a list of books that hackers recommend to each other -- what are the books super hackers use to help guide them form their own startups and make millions? hn-books might be a site you'd like to check out.
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