Back, oh, eight years ago, a friend of mine had set up a private bulletin board for a bunch of us. In theory, the common theme was gaming (a bunch of us were moving from MMO to MMO like a herd of grazing cattle), but it had everything from talking about computer setups to funny top 10 lists to discussing news articles to almost anything else that we thought was interesting or odd.
It’s a ghost town now, with faint echos of time past – the last update was over two years ago. Once Facebook became prevalent, all of us started using that instead. But something changed. It’s all the same people, but the way we interact with each other has been tainted.
It’s stark when seen in retrospect: I look at the Facebook postings from my friends and I can see pictures of dogs and clever quips and links to articles, but all of the content is short. The maximum degree of interaction with another friend’s posting is a “Like” or maybe a witty rejoinder of 40 words or less.
Contrast with my friends’ now-defunct bulletin board, where there are long discourses that take up multiple pages of text. Game reviews that are 1500 words long, with countering views that are themselves long and detailed.
I think some of this is the very design of Facebook itself. It really isn’t meant for long-form articles. It has a notes capability, but only about 5% of my friends appear to know about it… and, in truth, the notes functionality is amazingly hard to find. To some extent I think long-form articles are counter to Facebook’s main purpose; after all, if you’re spending 5 or 10 or even fifteen minutes on an article then you’re not clicking around, and time not spent clicking around is time that Facebook cannot be serving you ads.
Facebook is like fast-food. It’s easy, it’s available, and it tastes good and hits the pleasure center… but a diet of Facebook is not good for quality discourse in the long run. (Case in point: just now, I went to Facebook to make sure that Notes was hard to find. I got distracted by pictures of friends’ kids and spent ten minutes liking stuff, closed Facebook, and then remembered what I was originally planning on doing).
Furthermore, the popularity and organization of Facebook has warped the information presentation across a large swath of Internet, into a land populated with cat memes and Buzzfeed teaser headlines and ten-picture articles that require two clicks per paragraph.
Of course, the implicit assumption here is that long form writing – stuff that requires extended concentration – offers some benefit that a constant diet of twitterits / likeisms does not provide on its own. Interestingly, some research indicates that Internet interaction patterns may in fact lead to diminished ability to concentrate.
Perhaps private bulletin boards are an obsolete technology. They are without a doubt non-inclusive, because most people will not go to the trouble of renting a server and setting one up. Can online communities fill the gap?
I have a hypothesis here, which I will state as:
The quality of discourse is inversely related to the size of the community.
(This is not amazingly original, by the way, but at least Google is saying that particular phrase has never been used before).
There is a corollary to this:
The easier it is to find a community (on Google, or wherever), the faster it will degrade.
Online communities degrade as more people join the community, they degrade much faster if new people are joining too quickly (due to dilution of community). You can see this in action when Reddit decides new defaults – the newly defaulted subreddits are hit with an influx of people and it almost immediately goes downhill unless the moderation team is really on top of it. As more people join, it becomes harder and harder to control it.
To some extent you can manage this with controlled growth (see, for example, Metafilter, or Something Awful) or organizationally (a la Reddit’s subreddits) although I suspect that the line between controlled growth and profitability is a treacherous one to navigate, as evidenced by Metafilter’s problems recently.
Are there still good bulletin boards around? Yes, but they are hard to find. For example, if there’s an airplane accident and I want to get some smart, detailed analysis of it, I don’t go to Reddit or Facebook.
Instead, I go to pprune.org, a bulletin board that seems to be mostly filled with actual pilots. The site rarely shows up on a Google search; it’s not SEO optimized, and it’s at the outer periphery of the Google PageRank graph. (I suspect few people link into a bulletin board). But it offers the absolute best commentary on any airplane incident.
Of course, if Google changed its algorithm to actually favor pprune.org, it would go bad quickly because of the influx of new people!
Perhaps the only answer to this is to realize that change is constant: the sites that are good right now won’t be good in two or three years, so you have to constantly be moving to different discussion boards that are currently at their peak of quality. We are doomed to always be switching to new sites, always getting adjusted to new user names, never finding one spot to rest.
If you want quality content, you are doomed to perpetual digital migration.
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