The digital forest is exceedingly information-rich. Its incredible density and volume are far more than what is possible to usefully organize, which is why we must search. Search is merely a mode of transportation to the specific content we want to consume. Searching isn’t an efficient way of discovering content, however, and it also requires the user to already know what she wants to find, or at the very least to have a question that a search can provide an answer to. This is why we have feeds.
We subscribe to feeds because they consistently provide novel content without going on a hunt. Feeds are all functionally equivalent – they differ only in context and constraints. They all distribute information and entertainment in discrete bursts of varying size and format. This isn’t so different from the world a few decades ago, but back then, feeds were called television channels. Before that, it was the radio. Before that, it was newspapers. Other examples exist, I’m sure – the point is, at the end of the day they’re all regular sources of content. It doesn’t matter whether that content comes from a printing press or an ethernet cable.
The only power a subscriber has over a feed’s content is feedback. It seems that regardless of the type of content we consume, we create mechanisms to provide feedback to the distributors and creators. Newspapers feature letters to the editor. Some radio and television shows once used air time to share audience responses. No video game is complete without an accompanying forum, and to have a blog without comments is unheard of. It’s not just because readers are so desperate to broadcast their opinions, but is rather the primary way that creators can acquire alternative perspectives on the quality and success of their work.
This process is so important to long-term improvement and constructing priorities that some of our institutions are structured so as to provide feedback whenever possible. School is a constant cycle of instruction and correction. Projects, quizzes, and essays come back littered with red ink that tell students where they went wrong. Grades provide students with an idea of how much more improvement is possible to be made within the current context. In the workplace, individuals can expect to receive detailed criticism on anything of consequence – this is the mechanism by which minimum standards are met and specific objectives are reached. Evaluations are performed regularly at all levels of organization – not just as a way to inform employees of potential areas of improvement, but to provide employers granular data on how successful their internal management has been. Without feedback, we don’t get better at the things we do.
Currently, the internet has piss-poor mechanisms of feedback – and it’s not a technological limitation. I don’t mean the oft-mentioned issue of body language and its lack of satisfactory counterparts in digital interactions. Although that’s relevant here, I don’t refer to issues of miscommunication, but more of ineffective communication.
How many quality discussions have you seen on Facebook – ever? Do you even need two hands to count them all? I certainly don’t. Yet, what surprise is it, given the tools that Facebook offers for interaction? A near-meaningless, publicly visible like button is the bare minimum for expressing approval, but it falls short in so many contexts. If someone posts an article about a surge in AIDS diagnoses, it is entirely awkward to like this, but one may still wish to express approval of the article being posted. Updates are truncated in the feed after 3 lines, encouraging Twitter-length messages for optimum viewership. By default, pressing enter causes comments to be posted, encouraging even shorter responses. Excessive quantities of space are taken up by visual clutter, and yet fails to provide information efficiently, leaving your average page of viewing space to represent relatively little novel content. No wonder people aren’t carrying out intelligent conversations – the medium doesn’t even support it.
It’s clear, however, that even these rudimentary systems are enough to propel our overwhelming desire to share the things we find and create. Stupid as the like button may be, it expresses a classic kind of satisfaction when you see that someone has shown appreciation for what you shared. It makes you want to find more stuff to post. This also explains why Reddit has grown to the extent that it has. While I have my share of beefs with the website and its community, it consistently succeeds at finding informative and entertaining material, while also generating discussion that is, once in a while, quite good. I don’t buy that the community there is fundamentally different than anywhere else on the internet. A simple anonymous karma system (anonymity is important for these things to work!) combined with better composition tools, an upvote button in addition to a downvote button, and structuring comments based on rating leads to higher quality posts attaining greater visibility. When people see that performance is rewarded with visibility (which also begets feedback, since people respond to top-rated comments), suddenly there is now a predictable cause and effect. Make worthwhile contributions, get karma and visibility.
It doesn’t always work this way, but the average discussion on Reddit still runs circles around anything you might see on Facebook in a month. But still, it’s really lacking. Subreddits don’t come as close to simulating a real community as does, say, a traditional forum. In the end, Reddit is just a halfway point between Twitter and forums. Forums are terrible at distributing content, but excellent at generating discussion, and as a result tend to develop very dedicated communities. Twitter is excellent at distributing content, but worthless for discussion. I’m sure exceptions exist, but that doesn’t really mean much. Blogs create content and discussion, but are tempestuous by nature. Unless the author expands into other media, blogs generally don’t have the staying power to develop a dedicated community.
Gonna have to stop here. I’ll wrap this up later.