Reddit: "merely a collection of trivia, narrow, shallow, and sensational"

Kragen Javier Sitaker kragen at pobox.com
Fri Jan 25 04:40:18 EST 2008


I was looking over Beatrice's shoulder today at Reddit.  Here are the
top few headlines from Reddit today:

    1. Kucinich drops out of race. (blog.cleveland.com)
    1111 points posted 9 hours ago by KazamaSmokers 432 comments
    2. Clicking this link loads 120,000 copies of the RIAA's
       captcha. Clicking would be wrong, don't do
       it. (antisocial.propagation.net)
    497 points posted 6 hours ago by mridlen 217 comments
    3. Why I can't use Facebook anymore. [PIC] (img81.imageshack.us)
       (A screenshot of a large number of pending requests to
       participate in various Facebook activities)
    338 points posted 6 hours ago by JohnHyperion 112 comments
    4. Yesterday's Daily Show covered the economy, Iraq, and Fred
       Thompson. CNN/Fox did Heath Ledger. Who's the real news show
       anyway? (thedailyshow.com)
    882 points posted 11 hours ago by suckmyball 100 comments
    5. Bird poops in reporter's mouth on live TV. (VIDEO)
       (ie.youtube.com)
    297 points posted 6 hours ago by andrewinmelbourne 117 comments
    6. We've got until 4:30 on Monday to convince 41 Senators to
       reject telecom immunity. If they do, Bush will veto the bill
       and FISA will expire. Please pick up the phone and keep up the
       pressure!  [politics] (theseminal.com)
    362 points posted 7 hours ago by J-Ro 22 comments
    7. Do's and don'ts with babies [pics] [entertainment]
       (c00lstuff.com) (A bunch of cartoons instructing people not to
       do obviously stupid things to babies, such as stacking
       groceries on top of them in the cart.)
    1253 points posted 15 hours ago by one2k 208 comments
    8. Dear Uncle Sam: Please do not try to "fix" the loan crisis by
       taking out a huge loan in my name and then giving it back to
       me. [politics] (politics)
    560 points posted 11 hours ago by tch 173 comments
    9. A cry for help [PIC] (superinternetfuntime.com) (A sort of joke
       --- a fake testimonial from someone claiming to have murdered a
       waitress while amok at a fast-food chain that solicited the
       testimonials.)
    377 points posted 10 hours ago by plorf 133 comments
    10. L. Ron Hubbard Quotes: "I'd like to start a religion. That's
        where the money is." (en.wikiquote.org)
    1136 points posted 16 hours ago by n0t_5hure 239 comments
    11. Two British girls detained and strip searched in New York
        orphanage after mother fell ill on holiday in US [politics]
        (guardian.co.uk)
    679 points posted 13 hours ago by quentinnuk 253 comments

These are predominantly stupid jokes; the rest are mostly sound-bite
political advocacy of one kind or another, or sensationalist news.
Only the top item will be remembered five years from now, although
many of them comment on underlying themes (Scientology, arbitrary
violations of basic human rights, FISA, the US democratic process)
that will probably remain relevant.

This reminded me of some of the last few lines of the EPIC 2014 video:

    At its best, edited for the savviest readers, EPIC is a summary of
    the world deeper, broader, and more nuanced than anything ever
    available before; but at its worst, and for too many, EPIC is
    merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it
    narrow, shallow, and sensational.  But EPIC is what we wanted.  It
    is what we chose.  And its commercial success preempted any
    discussions of media and democracy, or journalistic ethics.

You certainly can't argue that reddit isn't discussing journalistic
ethics, media, or democracy; nearly every headline in the above list
concerns one of those topics, even the bird pooping in the reporter's
mouth.  However, "merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue,
all of it narrow, shallow, and sensational," is an excellent
description of the list of headlines above.

Digg: I Know This is Hard to Imagine, But It's Even Worse Than Reddit
---------------------------------------------------------------------

Reddit is perhaps the second most popular social news filtering site;
the most popular one is Digg, which has been notorious for, among
other things, arbitrarily silencing Digg users who have criticized the
site, cronyism, and pay-for-placement corruption.  Here are the top
few items from Digg at the moment:

    The French Fraud King - $7.14 billion fraud by one man
      biz.yahoo.com (Business & Finance) 28 Comments made popular 19 min ago
      163 diggs
    VIA's Centaur Builds a CPU Before Lunchtime!
      enthusiast.hardocp.com (Hardware) 12 Comments made popular 29 min ago
      76 diggs
    FDA downplays long-term impact of 600 Cloned Animals
      reuters.com (General Sciences) 44 Comments made popular 58 min ago
      125 diggs
    The First Ever Home Video Game Console to be Created
      youtube.com (Gaming Industry News) 97 Comments 
      made popular 1 hr 29 min ago
      382 diggs
    Iceland complains to US about treatment of tourist in NY
      iht.com (Political News) 114 Comments  made popular 1 hr 30 min ago
      475 diggs
    How to Stay Awake at Work or School
      dumblittleman.com (Health) 73 Comments made popular 1 hr 39 min ago
      507 diggs
    Stephen Colbert impersonates Tom Cruise
      ca.youtube.com (Television) made popular 1 hr 48 min ago 79 Comments
      946 diggs
    Kids Take Teabagging Into Real Life
      kotaku.com (Gaming Industry News) 138 Comments made popular 2 hr 9 min ago
      557 diggs
    Fighting with your spouse can make you live longer: study
      reuters.com (Health) 69 Comments made popular 2 hr 28 min ago
      342 diggs
    Angry Employee Deletes All of Company's Data
      foxnews.com (World News) 228 Comments  made popular 2 hr 49 min ago
      1077 diggs

None of these items "became popular" more than three hours ago.  That
means that none of them will be in that list in another three hours.
Again, only the top item will be remembered five years into the
future.

I can understand wanting to read each of these stories.  I want to
know about the French Fraud King, about how CPUs are made, about
what's going on in the case of the Icelandic tourist who was clapped
in irons and marched through JFK airport apparently for the
entertainment of officials in immigration services, and why arguing
with Beatrice will extend her lifespan.  

But there's an endless stream of this kind of trivia, and it's in
small enough chunks that I could read it full-time and never stay on a
single topic long enough to build any real comprehension.  If you fill
your head with "merely a collection of trivia, all of it narrow,
shallow, and sensational", it won't stay there; it'll trickle right
out again.

On the other hand, when it comes to filtering out the *most* narrow,
shallow, and sensational trivia out of the much larger collection of
trivia (much of it untrue) that is the Web, Reddit and Digg do a
wonderful job.  

Why I Use del.icio.us
---------------------

I have a different set of systems I use instead for filtering out the
interesting stuff that floats by.  I'm on several IRC channels; I have
a LiveJournal friends page that keeps me up-to-date on what's going on
in my friends' personal lives, and occasionally some of their
intellectual lives as well; and I use del.icio.us.

At the moment, the first few items on
http://del.icio.us/network/kragen look like this:

    Wikipedia:Missing Wikipedians - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    This is a list of Wikipedians who are no longer an integral part
    of our community
    by mbauwens to Wikipedia ... saved by 6 other people ... 15 mins
    ago

    Main Page - UniLang Wiki
    The UniLang Wiki is a database of language- and linguistic-related
    information which is part of UniLang, an online language
    community.
    by mbauwens to P2P-Languages ... saved by 44 other people ... 16
    mins ago

    Thanks Larry | Open Source Cinema - An Open Source Documentary
    Film about Copyright
    We would like to present Larry with a montage of "thank-you"s from
    around the world, of people who have been touched by his work and
    by Creative Commons.
    by mbauwens to Creative-Commons ... saved by 1 other person ... 20
    mins ago

    Chinese BBS - The Undiscovered Phenomenon in Chinese Internet :
    THE MOBINODE - Tracking Dragon's Web
    "An universal BBS search engine will be definitely more valuable
    than blog search in China"
    by mbauwens to P2P-China P2P-Search ... saved by 11 other people
    ... 23 mins ago

    Social Networks, from the 80s to the 00s - GigaOM
    by mbauwens to Social-Software Social-Network-Sites ... saved by
    212 other people ... 29 mins ago

    Comment is free: Caught in the web
    Smith's headline-grabbing proposal, to use the same tools against
    "extremist" websites as are currently used against child
    pornography, should worry us all.
    by mbauwens to P2P-UK Censorship ... saved by 26 other people
    ... 30 mins ago

    International Journal of Internet Research Ethics
    Peer-reviewed online journal, dedicated to cross-disciplinary,
    cross-cultural research on Internet Research Ethics. All
    disciplinary perspectives, from those in the arts and humanities,
    to the social, behavioral, and biomedical sciences, are reflected.
    by mbauwens to P2P-Research ... saved by 12 other people ... 31
    mins ago

    What Dont We Know About the Pharmaceutical Industry? A
    Freakonomics Quorum
    by arsyed to pharma medicine business ... saved by 16 other people
    ... 40 mins ago

    Hyderabad Pin Codes, Pin Codes of Hyderabad, Hyderabad Postal
    Services, Pin Codes in Hyderabad
    by manoj_vm to hyderabad pin postal code india travel ... saved by
    3 other people ... 59 mins ago

    The murky demimonde of Amazon's Top Reviewers. - By Garth Risk
    Hallberg - Slate Magazine
    by srsy to socialnetworks web trustmetrics trust amazon reviews
    ... saved by 12 other people ... 1 hour ago

    adaptive path " blog " Andrew Crow " Bring Bad Design to
    Justice...maybe
    by angusf to process design ux ... 1 hour ago

These are not results of voting; these are the most recent links
bookmarked by any of 106 people whose links I've found most
interesting in the past.  Most of them were posted by Michel Bauwens.

Del.icio.us also has a front page, a "popular" page, and a "popular"
page for each tag; these are very similar to Reddit and Digg, and
share most of their flaws.  I will not consider them further here.

This del.icio.us network page has several important differences from
Reddit and Digg and other "general popularity" sites:
1. Only one of the eleven links in the list is sensational.  There are
   no mentions of Heath Ledger (a Hollywood actor I'd never heard of
   until he died of an apparent recreational drug overdose a few days
   ago).
2. Only a few of the links are "timely".  The GigaOM post is five days
   old; several of the other documents are continuously updated.
   However, most are from within the last week.
3. A single person's bookmarking decision can put a post in my
   "network" page; but it has to be one of the 106 people who
   consistently put good stuff there.
4. There are no "humor" items or items about US politics.  That's not
   because people don't bookmark funny things or US political bullshit
   on delicious; it's because I don't subscribe to people who do that
   a lot.
5. The items are categorized in several categories, which I can use to
   go back and find the items later.  Originally my primary use of
   del.icio.us was to categorize and retrieve my own bookmarks.
6. There's a wide range of topics: Wikipedia's struggles to remain a
   viable community, a linguistics community, the Creative Commons
   movement, Chinese internet usage patterns, the history of social
   networking sites, arbitrary violations of human rights, academic
   research, the pharmaceutical industry, Indian postal codes, Amazon
   and trust metrics, and user experience.  For the most part, these
   are topics that interest me personally.
7. Only the single sensational item will lose its value in five years.
   The other items might be of limited value to begin with (more of a
   problem than with Reddit or Digg --- the Hyderabad postal codes
   page would never make it to the front page there) but, unless the
   links break, the information they point to will still be roughly as
   interesting in five years as it is now.
8. They are not "merely a collection of trivia", nor is it "narrow"
   and "shallow".  The linklog from each of those 106 people often
   represents a coherent intellectual outlook and set of interests,
   and by following along, I learn about the particular topics they're
   interested in during, say, a particular week.  Also, although this
   may not be obvious here, the pages that are usually linked are
   mostly not the four-paragraph clever-clever blog posts, shallow and
   error-ridden 500-word Reuters news releases, ten-item how-to lists,
   and funny YouTube videos that show up on Reddit and Digg; they are
   generally much more substantial information resources.
9. It is not the case that much of it is untrue.

Generally, though, I only click on about one out of every 10 to 50
links in my del.icio.us network page, so in some sense it isn't doing
a very good job of finding the stuff I want to spend my time reading.
I certainly can't claim that it is "a summary of the world deeper,
broader, and more nuanced than anything ever available before";
Wikipedia is that, but del.icio.us isn't, and Wikipedia isn't terribly
useful for finding out what important events have happened in the last
month or the last year.

Delicious's interface is still obsessively recency-focused, and that
is part of the problem.

How Can We Do Better?
---------------------

Del.icio.us has really helped, among other things, by showing how
important an easy and quick link-adding user interface is.  In most
cases, people don't even bother to write "extended" summaries of the
links they paste (although this may be because del's software
arbitrarily discards the tail of what they type after a certain number
of bytes); they just post the link so they can find it in the future.

But del.icio.us is only a first step.

A better recommendation system, and a "network" view that's less
focused on links that got posted in the last N hours, would be
helpful.

The pathological focus on recency in Digg and Reddit's setup, and to a
slightly less problematic extent in del's, has some benefits.  It
engages people in dialogue, and it's ideal for things like organizing
political protests.  It's great if you want to stay on top of things.
But I think it's more important to get to the bottom of things.


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