on Mar 20, 2008
There was an amusing meme floating around a while ago. It began with a question posted by a user to Yahoo! Answers. The question, without embellishment or editing, appeared thus:
HOW GIRL GET PRAGNENT
There were several informed responses to this question with links to relevant articles. But they were modded down as “unhelpful”. Instead, the following response was rated as “best answer”:
Anyone who has spent any amount of time on the internet has seen this sort of thing before – barely literate people hammering out badly spelled nonsense to each other in a futile attempt to communicate. Someone took the question and the answer and turned them into a dramatic reading, with hilarious results. Even now it’s impossible for me to read the words without hearing the voice of the two Neanderthal thespians.
But what really interests me is just how horrible and broken Yahoo! Answers manages to be. Raw, pure, information got modded down, and outright gibberish was modded up. We’re talking about a system that suppresses the signal and amplifies the noise. It’s interesting because the system of user-rated comments is supposed to do the opposite. It usually does. I’ve never seen this sort of thing happen on, say, Slashdot. This is not to say Slashdot is a pure and serene forum, a place where people may go and pit their ideas against one another in an atmosphere of intellectual curiosity and mutual respect. It has the same collection of idiots and asswipes you’ll find elsewhere on the internet, but there the mod system works well enough to drown out the noise. The comments that survive moderation are usually coherent and somewhat relevant. I’ve never seen anything as bad as the answer above make it to mod “+5 Insightful”.
Some of the problem is scale: The bigger the community the more idiots you’re bound to have. There is some ambient level of morons that you just can’t get rid of. If you think of idiots as a contaminant, then it may be useful measure them as a portion of the whole. Say: Idiots Per Thousand. The IPT of any given site can’t go below a certain base value: The level of background idiocy on the internet. But idiots have a tendency to drive normal people away if they are allowed to run unchecked, thus increasing the saturation of IPT.
But scale can’t account for everything. Some places just suck and are overrun with illiterate vermin, to the point where to solve the problem you’d have to burn the whole thing down and begin anew. Some places operate for years and remain useful, and others spiral into a spam-infused oblivion. I wonder why. Is it subject matter? Moderation policies? Recruitment practices? (Sites that beg everyone and anyone to join do seem to be worse off than ones that require forethought to join.) Is it the age of the userbase? The perceived attitude or “voice” of the site?
Perhaps I should post the question to Yahoo! Answers: how is comunaty formed? how does wabsite get peepole
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.