The September Problem

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All right. That’s it. You kids come in off my lawn, gather round the table, throw a log on the Nest, and hear now a tale of the dread and fabled Time Before The Web.

In the beginning, 1 there was Usenet, and it was good: online conversations ordered by topic, built around ongoing threads rather than individual posts, so that they could and often did last for months. Then came the Web. And eventually, lo, the Web gave us Digg, and it was good, for a while. Then Digg declined. Then there was Reddit, and it was good, for a while. Now Reddit too has declined. Us techies had Slashdot, until it declined. Now we have Hacker News… which is arguably in decline.

But at least we have Gawker! No, wait. “Capture the intelligence of the readership? …That’s a joke. For every two comments that are interesting, there will be eight that will be off-topic or toxic,” saith none other than Nick Denton himself, re the ‘tragedy of the comments’. Ah, but that’s just them. Here at TechCrunch, all comments are from incisive, witty people who have both read and understood the article they are commenting on, right? Right? …Sigh.

Back in the ’70s and ’80s, science fiction writers saw the Internet coming and started trying to predict the way in which it would work. John Brunner anticipated direct online democracy. Vernor Vinge and William Gibson opted for virtual-reality “cyberspace.” Not yet, guys. You know who came closest to getting it right? Orson Scott Card (who’s now, alas, something of a loathsome crank) in Ender’s Game. It’s mostly a book about killing aliens, but there’s also a plot thread in which the protagonist’s brother and sister (anonymously) argue so brilliantly and cogently in online forums that they become major political forces.

Well, OK, he got the existence of the blogosphere right. Its effects, not so much. Nobody in a position of actual power much cares what bloggers think, and why should they? It's almost impossible to express and maintain a coherent message in a medium whose elements–individual blog posts–are so transient. That’s why some startups are trying to reinvent blogging. Quora, for one; and, more recently, Branch, which (so far) basically hosts invitation-only symposiums on subjects like “How do blogs need to evolve?” (I know, I know, how meta.)

The answer increasingly seems to be, amusingly, “Be more like Usenet!” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Unfortunately, that won’t help. Whether we’re talking about Digg, Reddit, blog comments, or Usenet itself, the fundamental problem with online conversation is this: the larger the community, the more its conversation regresses to the mediocre mean.

Back in the glory days of Usenet, this was called “the September problem”; most participants were at universities, so every autumn brought a new flood of students. Then, as conversation quality declined, the phrase “It is always September on the Internet” arose. And so it has been ever since. Restructuring conversations around questions (a la Quora) or subjects (a la Usenet) rather than posts-and-comments won’t affect this. Invitation-only symposia will, but are by their very nature elitist and distancing. People want to talk back.

I respect all the attempts people have made and are making to improve online conversation; social filters, gamification, etc. But I don’t think the problem can be fixed by mere incentivization. Call me a SNOOT (PDF), but I prefer a simpler solution: turn off all spellcheckers, and the Facebook Comments grammar corrector, and build a machine-learning system to automatically rank and filter comments and other conversation by grammar and spelling. (Adjusted for whether they’re written in the author’s first language, ideally.)

A pipe dream, you say? But no! I give you the contentiously named StupidFilter, “an open-source filter software that can detect rampant stupidity in written English.” This just might be the future. Because, in the words of another great SF writer, “The analysts … concluded that it was just human nature and you couldn’t fix it, and so they went for a quick cheap technical fix.” Words to live by.

Image credit: FigzBox

1By “in the beginning” I mean “in the early nineties, when I was a teenager.” I am told that back in the dim mists of forgotten time before even then, there were things like the Well, but surely these are only myths.