Filtering Reddit and Hacker News
Giles had a fantastic rant this week that cut to the heart of what’s wrong with all of these “social web application sites”:
People who waste their own time have, in effect, more votes than people who value it – to elevate bad but popular ideas and irretrievably sink independent thinking.
It’s analogous to what’s wrong with the entire massively online roleplaying game genre (eg: World of Warcraft) in that success is a greater factor of the time invested than of skill or talent. Many social web applications add extra features to keep the users interacting with the site, even if this interaction offers dubious value to their lives.
It’s a Game and We’re All Losers
Is it more important for a site to be useful or to be sticky?
The worst obstacle of all is the system of upmodding and downmodding comments. Your search for news becomes derailed into a video game – anything which involves computers and scoring points ultimately becomes a video game – and as video games go, it isn’t a lot of fun. It sure as hell isn’t Tetris.
Worse yet, it’s almost ubiquitous. If you’re highly vulnerable to distraction, this game will steal your time. We should all know that it’s an incompetent social networking strategy because it comes from Slashdot originally – a site which specializes in crashing innocent servers so that nerds have an excuse to swear at each other – but despite this horrible pedigree, it’s a very popular approach. Every site which uses this approach inevitably ends up hated by former users, so it’s kind of weird that the approach is so popular, but there’s an easy explanation. The ultimate reason, of course, is a mistaken belief – specifically, the idea that user numbers are a better metric for Web app success than usefulness. This implies that anything which generates more traffic is inherently better. But purely for the sake of argument, let’s abandon this 1997 mentality and ask ourselves how useful a site like Reddit or Hacker News can ever really be.
When you build a system where you get points for the number of people who agree with you, you are building a popularity contest for ideas. However, your popularity contest for ideas will not be dominated by the people with the best ideas, but the people with the most time to spend on your web site. Votes appear to be free, like contribution is with Wikipedia, but in reality you have to register to vote, and you have to be there frequently for your votes to make much difference. So the votes aren’t really free – they cost time. If you do the math, it’s actually quite obvious that if your popularity contest for ideas inherently, by its structure, favors people who waste their own time, then your contest will produce winners which are actually losers. The most popular ideas will not be the best ideas, since the people who have the best ideas, and the ability to recognize them, also have better things to do and better places to be.
I use social networking sites as information gatekeepers, but when time invested is the greatest factor of success then the people who are most successful will be the ones who invest the most time. You have to ask yourself if those are the people whom you want to be shaping and seeding your thoughts and ideas. Popularity contests always reduce the discussion to the lowest common denominator between the participants. Is that what you want to limit yourself to?
Delicious Gets It
Delicious remains one of the few “web2.0” sites that has been around for a long time and maintained a ridiculously high signal to noise ratio, mainly because the programmers wanted to avoid the social networking devolution:
As the population gets larger, the bias drifts; del.icio.us/popular becomes less interesting to the original community members. Work out ways to let the system fragment in to different areas of attention.
“Spam is attention theft” – that’s one of the reasons del.icio.us doesn’t have a top 10 links of all time – it’s an attractive nuisance.
When you’ve figured out someone is spamming, don’t let them know – let them keep posting and just silently junk their stuff. Automatic tags lose a lot – doesn’t help the user really achieve their goals. That’s why the “add to del.icio.us” badges don’t let you suggest tags. Value in Delicious is in the “attention” – auto-tagging detracts from this.
Measure behavior rather than claims. del.icio.us doesn’t have stars because why would you bookmark something that was no good? This way people bookmark things that they really care about rather than trying to tell the system things.
It’s a tool. The community can grow elsewhere. No threading etc. “del.icio.us sux” is an awful experience I’d rather user’s didn’t have.
The only way to make sense of this information glut is by having the appropriate filters in place.
Filter Reddit and Hacker News
I decided to solve Giles’ problem with Hacker News / Reddit and create a Greasemonkey script that lets you maintain a personal ban list.
Your personal list of banned sites lives in your web browser and is shared between Reddit and Hacker News. Use it to remove the most popular sites so you can pay more attention to the long tail, or to cut out the domains you already read using RSS. It’s your web.
Click here to install the script (you will need Greasemonkey and Firefox).
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