Saturday, March 14, 2015

Internet Narratives (part 3); 3 ways to limit Comment decay

Note: nNot really part 3 but rather part four or five. I have a guest post by English and more versions of what is possible, to include a video game, the creation of fractal/branching never-ending stories (check out my own ongoing project to create something infinite) and the possible death of life for writers like myself: the creation of programs that will write more (quality and quantity-wise) than us.

I've talked about the nature of narratives today in a reply to what Franzen said about the lack of potential in the internet. Indeed, for anyone with a grain of imagination, there is much hope in what one can achieve with the internet (or the possibility of the connections within the internet's structures). I will say that, given what I've seen, there is little good coming out of its narrative-engines—contrary to what I said before... This is not to say that the potential isn't there, simply that it hasn't been realized yet. Also, the internet provides much in terms of valuable information [1], but I'll focus on narratives or comments for now.

I mentioned comments before and had said that they have the potential to create much that's beautiful. What we find entertaining in a comments section, and what makes them so addictive, is the natural flow of conversation between people. That comments are so popular makes me want to think that this is evidence of the inherent lean towards democracy in all peoples. But there is still something to be said for watching a human train wreck and actually reading something that is not only narrative but narrative which enriches our lives. 

What can one say?  It would seem that all comment sections have the potential to be good, but as soon as they are good, they become popular, and that's when they fail. The larger comment sections that work are those with strong, right-minded, and iron-fisted moderators and users with large enough numbers to have a community but not too large. Anonymity or having everyone post as themselves doesn't seem to help matters either way. Because as soon as word gets out that there is a comment section worth a damn, it will be flooded and soon the moderators are overwhelmed or the user base has changed so much that nothing good will come out of it but name calling etc. In other words, the level of the community has been stretched beyond repair by the large numbers and turnover rate. [2]

The more divisive a subject, the more likely this is to happen. Given what we know about the strength of comments in influencing people's views, there are certainly the shills being paid for by those in power (on one side or another) as well as the inherent tribalism in those subjects and those most vested in them. As soon as a comment thread is not going one tribe's way or another's, they will flood the place and shout down any worthwhile discussion. 

On [3] the situation is very typical: upvoting and downvoting has only a slight effect on matters. If a subreddit gets popular expect a huge downturn in quality (shills will come through etc) unless one has strong moderators (and even then this only really works for subreddits with a specific topic like askhistorians). This is all enough to make one an enemy of democracy and a friend of autocracy. [4]

Is there another way to improve comments? To making them more amiable to those deep narratives (or conversations) I mentioned? [5] I say yes. First: having something like the restrictions that we place upon democracy is important. Moderators are needed. But since no site has the money to deal with the hordes that come through once popular, perhaps this can be done through laws enforced by algorithms. Here are some ideas:

1) Voting up and down comments. 
First, a good comment section works when there's a community. We can certainly allow that to happen by merely requiring a certain amount of time for user before they can comment, and if so, only with severe penalties. Like, one can accumulate points when the community agrees or disagrees with what they have to say. I'll add something else: that one needs to add a few things here: probation if you go below 0 (assuming one has gained that much "value" to vote) and to punish someone, or downvote, should cost one 4 points (and you gain one point if someone upvotes you, or for time spent contributing in some positive way to the site, to include time spent actively reading—one can think of many positive attributes needed in a community. Even lurkers play their part).

This would help people think twice about that which they hate and wish to downvote. One could have it so that a certain time spent on a site could mean a certain person's vote means more. Since this might skew a site away from newer, fresher ideas, perhaps one could choose how many upvotes they want to give a certain comment or post, and it would cost them to do so. This would, again, skew the site towards those who can gather the most votes through inane things like posting pictures of cats etc [6]. There could simply be a judgement call in this regard, or a segregation of votes gained in superfluous matters versus those in more serious topics (or votes in one subreddit wouldn't count in another).  

2) Limit Tribalism
I would say another aspect that needs to be looked at and limited is tribalism [7]. This can be human nature as well as paid shills, but it exists. To help this a variable to be considered is that of groups coming through and voting one way to drown out new ideas. If people are known to interact, or to vote in pretty much the same way, then it can be said that if they vote on one comment (up or down) they cannot be allowed to have more influence than two random people, without much in common (vote wise), vote up that comment. Note that we can take time spent on the topic/site as another factor. This would help alleviate people just joining to push a certain point.

3) Another view: that of the wisdom of crowds.
 Again, this plays into the democratic (as well as market) ideal which I imagine many people, like myself, tend to default towards. We don't like seeing that fail. So when we see the mob we wonder why it is that we're not seeing the effects of the crowd move us towards the best answer (or discussion) to a question. Well, it would seem that group think comes into play (and distorts the positive effect of a crowd's wisdom) much more often and easier than we think.

Thus one needs to see the current set up of comments (with or without up/downvotes) as incorrect and we perhaps need a way to allow someone to interact with a certain article or topic without the group coming into play. They can put in their comments without seeing anything else, but then we risk cutting all conversation off. Then slowly, and at a certain timed interval, the best comments can be put up. But without an amazing algorithm, how would this work? I'm actually not sure. We could limit the conversation between the original author and the best commentator. But again, this would change the comment section drastically. I think this route has some potential and we will have to see if we can perhaps selectively limit people who group think together or use other methods to get the best ideas out there.

Do you have any thoughts on the matter? Any better ways to set up something to minimize comment-decay?

Update 01Nov2015: Not that I'm the first to talk about this matter, but here's something on the matter of dealing with internet trolls. Again, I'm of the mind that even without internet trolls, at best all you have is group think, and no real good way to get a discussion out of the format of comments. Right now I can only think of comments as adding to a conversation, and perhaps as some summation of all the id and superficial thoughts out there in the world. This is nothing to be scoffed at, but is not the best vehicle for moving forward with discussions (or getting to some truth).

[1] Though much of it, like good scientific papers, is behind paywalls.

[2] There are many places which I love that have gone south recently. They all follow the pattern where the small community of users who know each other will then be invaded by new users. Sometimes a horde of new users.

[3] For example my most recent experience on has been saddening to say the least. I've spent much of my time trying to curate some of the more nuanced articles or comments around. These usually get you nowhere. Especially if they go against whatever the accepted wisdom is. It would seem that there is a futility to deep talks or complex subjects (the reward here is either gaining a whole bunch of upvotes, or at least facilitating some level of a discussion). However, if one is to take the inane route (cat pics) or the path of least resistance, if we're going to deal with politics or geo politics, then the rewards will be multiplied many fold. Concerning the latter part, all one needs to do is to follow the zeitgeist and push the herd in the direction it's already running.
I recently posted an article about the heroics of some Iraqi against the barbarians de jour, ISIS, and was flooded with upvotes. 90% of all my upvotes, to be exact. That there might be paid government shills online goes without saying; however, that this would account for all of what I've observed doesn't seem as likely (not that I would be surprised to find this to be the truth, with the cloak of national security, our government can do whatever it likes and lie about it as well).
What does it say? It certainly says something about human nature, that need to push towards whatever way the winds are blowing, even when those winds are created by us. This is something separate from the internet, but the internet doesn't help matters. I wonder if the points I made above could help? There is limited information out there, and people tend to trust talking heads and politicians. I believe that we can still counter that, but we will need a lot of effort.

[4]  Yet to look at places without comments, or with a limited conversation, like the nytimes, and one can see that this is not the solution as it seems to kill debate in any form.

[5] I'm all for fictionalizing comments, mind you.

[6] Not that cat videos don't have their place, but they do matter if one wants deep conversations that matter.

[7] Tribalism as in also: hordes coming through to downvote that which they don't like, just look at any Israel-Palestine issue or any other contentious issue.

Update 22MAY2015: Here are some minor details with what goes into making a decent comment section, as they are today. It looks at the best ones out there today, but I still think that there is room for improvement. 

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1 comment:

  1. If you're wasting your time on reddit, where people are teenagers with nothing more than regurgitating what they see in their parents and others to do. Also, comments will bring nothing to us, to the world. Trust and believe that much.


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