Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Comments Unchained

When I run for president, will people dredge up this blog? Will people even know to connect this, with me, and what will happen when that happens? Answer, probably a lot of crap I never expected to happen will happen.

I used to think comments were the best thing to happen to the internet. Right around 2007, when Facebook opened up to the rest of the world I marveled at their interface. The interaction design was perfection. My photo sitting right there next to a little box practically making me reply to every little thing posted to Facebook. Compelling and sticky, the perfect User Experience really connecting people, with words. This type of interface had already been around, in the form of self publishing and "user generated content". I loved the disruption a decade ago, especially when in 2009 Gourmet magazine ceased and the editor, Christopher Kimball penned his gripes in the New York Times.

"The shuttering of Gourmet reminds us that in a click-or-die advertising marketplace, one ruled by a million instant pundits, where an anonymous Twitter comment might be seen to pack more resonance and useful content than an article that reflects a lifetime of experience, experts are not created from the top down but from the bottom up. They can no longer be coronated; their voices have to be deemed essential to the lives of their customers. That leaves, I think, little room for the thoughtful, considered editorial with which Gourmet delighted its readers for almost seven decades."


The gall, I thought in 2009. I thought Kimball was speaking from a privileged perspective and didn't get it. Today in 2017 I am not so quick to criticize.

As an interaction and interface designer of more than 20 years I have been constantly observing how people interact with this thing we are all staring at right now. The web. Lately I have been paying a lot of attention to comments. I've noticed how the Washington Post's comments are insanely bad, but funny, because they are pretty much unmoderated. While the NYTimes comments are much better in all around quality because they are moderated. I've also seen how some websites have communities that self-moderate comments, or how groups will learn over time to self police comments on their venue of choice. But there are still many structural flaws to commenting of which only human moderation can fix a few.

A funny thing happened when I stopped using facebook. I got smarter, and a lot happier. Why did this happen? I think for a year leading up to the election, it wasn't the fake news or rude memes that frustrated me about what I was seeing online - it was people's responses to everything. Or even that everyone felt the need to respond to everything, no matter how stupid it was. Like stepping in dog poo and then strolling around the house ignorantly wondering what the weird smell is, that's how I felt a lot of users were reacting to the web. NO no no! Don't spread poo! I was trying to point out that some of these topics people were sharing were just "click bait". Stuff designed to make people react, usually angrily, and without thinking. I was fine with the cute animals but I was seeing less kittens and more mean and angry stupid shit. The more I tried to defend my idea of intelligent user interaction the more stupid shit I'd get stuck to my shoe.

Here's the really dumb part. Facebook was already profitable in 2008. Twitter was insanely profitable. A bunch of Silicon Valley fat cats and their VC friends are getting even richer on the backs of YOUR POSTS AND COMMENTS. So while people like me and you sit around ranting online in a comments section (I am totally guilty of this still without Facebook) we are literally handing money over to a bunch of strangers who don't deserve it. People who will now get to pay less taxes on the wealth generated from our words. We The People have enabled the biggest advertising orgy in existence simply by the fact that we can't help ourselves from complaining and we can't look away from our screens.  Is the real world so boring that we have nothing better to do?

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