Belling the Cat


Peter Magnusson is engaged in a project to try to pin down Quality on the Web. He points to the crux of the matter thus: “on the Internet, everybody can see if you’re an idiot, they just can’t do much about it.” He does not disclose exactly what he is trying to do about it because he trying to develop a commercial product. Given that he is a software engineer I will presume that he is working on a computer program that will help us find the good stuff and avoid the bad. It is a brief and engaging explanation of the problem so if the topic is important to you, please read it all. It is full of high quality references and ideas and clues to the scope and nature of the problem. For the more casually inclined here is a brutally edited summary of Magnusson’s basic thesis:

Various flavors of moderation, participant editing and/or voting, and variations of reputation systems are being used today to leverage the crowd without falling victim to it’s vices.

But history would teach us that this isn’t so simple. Past efforts to tame the crowd, to encourage and coerce it to only yield “good” results (in some sense), have met with limited success. The dilemma lies in the subtleties of group behavior.

So today there are multiple efforts to define sets of checks and balances. But these easily become complex, and they also easily become essentially a political system.

In a political system, being right or wrong doesn’t matter, all that matters is staying in your position of influence. When your rating/voting system becomes a social group, then social dynamics and organizational psychology kick in. And they quickly become a game of social position, not of optimizing the quality of the result. Anybody who has worked for a large organization knows exactly what I’m talking about.

And that, in a nutshell, is the key challenge for the next generation of online discourse. We must find a better way.

Bloggers and readers of blogs will recognize what Peter Magnusson is talking about too. Because he uses the word ‘quality’, I am personally reminded of Robert Persig‘s book Lila which, while a novel like his earlier and better known Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, is primarily a philosophic treatise on ‘quality’. I don ‘t know if Peter Magnusson will find a philosophic discussion of ‘quality’ helpful, but his project makes me wonder if I should be using Persig’s ideas about quality in developing a media theory. While Persig’s basic argument – that quality is more fundamental than our usual division of the world into subjects and objects – is well beyond the scope of this post, it should still be understandable to say that he divides the world into two kinds of quality – static and dynamic. Dynamic quality takes many forms but for this discussion he is talking about genuinely new and creative phenomena. By static quality he means the structures, rules, institutions etc. by which we learn to preserve the good, dynamic quality, things we create. Static quality often gets a bad rap from lovers of dynamic quality because it sometimes stifles creativity or dynamic quality. But without it we can’t preserve progress. Breakthroughs just dissipate in the absence of structure. Persig further argues we need both kinds of quality and introduces the idea of ‘static latching’ to explain why. The idea is taken for the ratchet and pawl:


When the gear turns forward the pawl prevents it from turning right back and losing the gain.

In Persig’s terms Magnusson is making the case for static latching when he says:

Enthusiastic though we all are about the notions of long tails, the
wisdom of crowds, and emergent behavior, the reality is that the
quality of online discourse has progressed little from the days of
ARPANET mailing lists, USENET FAQs and The Well in 1980s. Good
structure still requires editors, good content still requires writers,
and good discussions still require moderators.

Long tails, the wisdom of crowds, and emergent behavior all refer to dynamic quality. Editors, moderators and more particularly the rules they apply create static latching. Can those rules be expressed as algorithms and made into computer programs that help us sort the wheat from the chaff? I hope so. For example, I use the Akismet spam filter on this blog and it catches thousands of comment spam messages. It lets a few through and when I mark them as spam it learns to recognize them as such, not just for me, but for all Akismet users. It turns the numerous victims effectively against the spammer. Identifying the positive is a much harder task and I have little idea how Mr. Magnusson will proceed, but I think there is evidence that we have already developed some positive static latching strategies in our software tools.

The obvious example is the success of Linux and more particularly of its creator Linus Torvalds in managing – that is successfully applying static quality principles – to the project as he went along. In addition to previously known software engineering static quality procedures like well documented code Torvalds has managed to keep the project thriving through building a social structure that has kept the Linux development community not just together, but handling enormous increases in complexity without bogging down. Eric S. Raymond in his The Cathedral and the Bazaar (available here or free online here) puts forward a compelling description of the structures that have made open software development successful. In Persig’s terms it is worth noting that the discovery that these social structures could apply to an alternate model of software engineering was in itself an outbreak of dynamic quality.

I believe some, not all, of the lessons learned by the Open Software community may apply to the development of better quality discussion on the Internet. Already a new form of civil society has become available on the Net for those who actively seek it out. I recently blogged about it here. One obvious problem is usually referred to as the echo chamber effect on the Net. That is, people just reinforcing each other’s opinions and not developing any new thinking. When a discussion becomes predictable it has become too static – there is no dynamism in it and it goes nowhere new. But the opposite goes nowhere either and for good reason. You don’t try to run a cop’s bar and a biker’s bar on the same premises. Or if you do you must apply Wyatt Erp’s static quality rule of making them check their guns. Kidding aside, I noticed the term BOF (Birds of a Feather) in Peter Magnusson’s post and that tells me he is probably thinking about this problem too. BOF is a usage that developed at computer conferences for informal interest groups that spring up to discuss a particular topic. Such a group draws people because the exchange is at least potentially fruitful. I notice something similar draws me to particular blogs and threads on the net. I have to agree sufficiently to feel it worthwhile engaging. In my experience the range of views has to be narrow enough so that there is the possibility of productive interchange. It will be interesting to see if there is any way to take the measure of that productive aspect -distinguish between the echo chamber and the BOF group – such that it can be identified by a program.

Another area of difficulty I see that Persig’s two kinds of quality illuminate is the problem of people gaming any program that humans can invent. It helps to remember that dynamic quality is always a moving target. For example, a little over 100 years ago my great grandfather, OJ Gude, created a successful advertising company by using electric light bulbs in outdoor advertising. That was then. Today, my son and daughter in law are trying to build a successful Internet advertising business they call Local Na8ion. The limitations and opportunities for using lighting in outdoor advertising are relatively well known and therefore quite static compared to the opportunities in Internet advertising. So Peter Magnusson has set himself a very difficult task because he is trying to pin down something that is by its nature very dynamic. He is trying to bell the cat. What happens to me is that just when think I have ‘belled the cat’ I hear a kitten mewing somewhere in the underbrush.

Crossposted at Newmediatheory.

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