Friday, April 20, 2012

Treasures of the Attic II: Your Disreputable Lucre

So, this is that other piece, the one from Your Earless Reader. He never finished it, and I suspect that's because he found out he and I were not in close agreement on the issue and decided to be the bigger man. But there it was, sitting in the scrap heap of posts all along, quietly discouraging me from publishing my own thoughts on the matter. Well, no more! The conversation is dead! AHAHAHAHAHA!

At any rate, the sub-title (below) seems to suggest that he and I might have been nearer than either of us really thought at the time, since it indicates he planned on reversing course in the second half of his piece.  And by "See Where We End Up" I assume he probably would have wound up in the same milquetoast no-man's-land where my piece finished, singing kumbayah around the campfire and nervously hoping he hadn't chased away our meager readership.

You will enjoy this.

In Which We Will Begin By Going In One Direction, And Then Turn Around And Walk Back, And Then See Where We End Up

A couple of times in the past week or so, the topic of the +1, and public praise more broadly, has come up in thoughtful DUAN threads prompted by some of Deadspin's most longstanding and well-respected contributors. While our primary concern over here is with the comments themselves, this is after all a blog about the business of Deadspin commenting, so it seems right that we should weigh in on the issue.

A familiar trope among Deadspin commenters is the self-effacing crack to the effect that the site's resident joke-makers are a needy, pathetic bunch: typically, this involves an exaggerated mention of the number of times a particular commenter hits the "Refresh" button in anticipation of +1s arriving in reply to a recent joke, or casual mention of the exact (fictional) number of +1s or other articles of praise a commenter has received in his or her entire time as a contributor. And that's funny and charming in measured doses, since it cuts refreshingly against the widespread masculine pretense that I don't need your affirmation, maaan and all that, and gets at the peculiar shared experience of putting care and thought into cracking jokes under an alias for complete strangers on a sports website, for free.

But it's worth examining whether this notion - that Deadspin commenters are especially needy and/or whether there's anything especially pathetic about that - holds any water.

What is humor? Why do we - the broadest we, human beings in general - make jokes? Here's an experiment for you: tell yourself a joke. I'm not talking about laughing at a private thought - tell yourself an original, formal, structured joke, out loud. Go ahead.

Seems kinda stupid, doesn't it?

Anyone who has put any thought into this kind of thing - and certainly anyone who has entertained our previous discourses on it - could tell you why in a heartbeat: if you know the punchline in advance, because it's already in your mind, it can't get you the same way it gets an outsider, who will be at least a little bit surprised by it. While this isn't entirely the reason why telling yourself a joke doesn't work the way telling it to someone else (or having it told to you by someone else) does, it certainly points in the direction of that reason, which is this: humor is social, communal, bond-building. It is communicative. Joke-telling is performance. A joke is an invitation; a laugh is acceptance: I get it, I share this perspective, we are speaking the same language.

So let's dismiss the idea that, in the aftermath of putting care and attention into the crafting of a joke and then pseudonymously casting it into a crowd of skilled comedians, you're a pathetic, needy, codependent loser for caring very much whether anyone likes it. No one would level that characterization at someone who cooked a meal for a group of chefs and then hoped to be told it tasted delicious.

Many moons ago, some person or another - possibly even this very writer - made the obvious point that, among the key differences between a Deadspin commenter and a standup comic is that the standup comic receives immediate feedback in the form of visible, audible laughter and applause, while even the very best and most successful Deadspin commenter must often take as an article of faith the unproven notion that people are laughing at his jokes. That's quite a bit of tension to sustain when the entire reason for making those jokes is to make people laugh.

That may sound like an argument for the liberal application of +1s, for showering them on every joke that meets the base qualification of being funny, but it's not. In fact, if you put on your critical-thinking cap and stick around for a little bit, I think you'll come to see that it's quite the opposite.

Here's the thing: Deadspin commenting is an exclusive, starkly hierarchical privilege. Some are permitted to do it; many, many more others are not; among those who are permitted to do it, a small fraction are trusted enough that their comments are visible to all site visitors without requiring the active choice to view all comments. Which is to say: the mere fact that a comment appears on Deadspin at all is affirmation for its creator.

So what does the +1 do? Since the +1 (or "Ha!" or "This made me laugh," or whatever) differs from, say, approval of an auditioning commenter or promotion of a specific comment by an unstarred commenter, in that it does not come with a convenient button to click, and since there may be as many intended meanings of a +1 (or other article of praise) as the product of commenters multiplied by the total number of comments, the aggregate meaning of the +1 (and aggregate it must be) is constantly shifting, and sits at the mysterious intersection of its distributors' intent(s) and the reader's interpretation. And this is precisely what makes the +1 so much more sensitive than its cavalier use suggests.

Imagine that you are a member of the wider, non-commenting Deadspin readership. You come to the site, you read an article, and then you scroll down to the comments. Because you do not have a user account with the site, what you see when you get down there is the article's featured comment: the contribution to that article's comment section which received the most replies. On Deadspin (as opposed to other Gawker sites, where the featured discussion is likely to be an actual conversation about the content of the article, or, in the case of Jezebel, an echo chamber of denunciations of the testosteronocratic dictatorship) this is almost certain to be a comment that received a bunch of +1s, although sometimes it might also be a rhyming pyramid or sequence of puns or some such thing.

So let's imagine that this featured comment makes you laugh your ass off, as it likely will, since Deadspin commenters are a funny sort, and the featured comment in a given comment section is likely to be very funny even relative to the rest of the responses to that article. So now you click the "All" button because you want to see what else these funny people came up with.

Now you're presented with all the starred or promoted comments from this article's comment section. Let's imagine that, other than the featured comment with its haul of +1s (or pun replies or whatever), virtually all of the other comments in this section have zero replies to them.

Got it?

Here's what you do: you read them all. You do that because as far as you can tell at a glance, it's perfectly possible that each of these jokes is 99% as good as the featured comment that just cracked you up. If that featured comment was an A+, it's perfectly possible that each of these is a regular old A. And, if the site's editors and the ninja squad are doing a good job of doling out those stars, and the starred commenters are doing a good job of only promoting quality stuff, you're going to do a lot of laughing as you scroll down to the bottom. Hell, when you get there, you may be having so much fun that you'll click that "Show all discussions" link and see what couldn't make the cut.

So let's call that Scenario A. Now let's look at Scenario B.

In Scenario B let's imagine that, after you click that "All" button, the comment section appears and fully half of the comments have some number of +1s attached to them, and the rest have nothing. (This isn't intended to accurately represent the state of the +1 prior to recent complaints about overuse, but rather to illustrate the endpoint of the liberal use of +1s.)

In this scenario, you, the regular non-commenting reader of Deadspin, will not believe that the +1 marks comments that are truly extraordinary - after all, how "truly extraordinary" can fully half of the site's comments be? They literally cannot be extraordinary: they are ordinary. You will logically assume that, rather than marking the truly extraordinary, the +1 marks the comments that are merely successful at being funny. You will assume that the comments which do not have +1s are not worth your time. You will read the comments which received +1s, but not the others. And, when you get to the bottom of the comment section, you will not click the "Show all discussions": if half the comments you've already scrolled past weren't even funny, why bother with the rest?

Do you see how that devalues not just the +1, but the gold star too? By intent, the gold star means "consistently very funny." But if all the +1 means is "this comment is funny," then the lack of +1s means "this comment is not funny." Which changes the meaning of the gold star from "consistently very funny" to "funny more often than a bunch of other losers, but still often not funny." And now, not only are the +1 and the gold star devalued, but approval as a commenter is devalued as well: unstarred commenters are just guys who aren't even as funny as guys who often aren't funny. (Pink commenters, in this scenario, are still semi-literate insane people.)

(You might be shrugging your shoulders at this, thinking that funny is funny is funny, and a +1 or lack of +1s doesn't change whether a joke will make someone laugh. By this view, the +1 exists solely for the sake of the ego of the commenter who made the joke. In academic circles, this view is known as "the fucking retard view." No one who has ever laughed uproariously in a crowded movie theater, or at a comedy club, or sitting around a table with some friends, and paid even the barest modicum of attention to their experience could deny that place, and expectation, and the behavior of other people exert huge and direct influences on our response to comedy. A film which makes you cry with laughter in a packed theater of excited moviegoers will barely draw a chuckle when you watch it alone, and might not even elicit the tiniest hint of a smile if you're watching it in the company of, say, your dour, stern-faced asshole of a father-in-law. That's just how it works. There are DVD copies of The Ladies Man gathering dust in many home DVD libraries this very minute that stand in monolithic testament to this inarguable fact.)

And this is the danger posed by overuse of the +1: that it will come to say more in its absence than in its presence. That comments which do not receive +1s will come to be seen as failures. That using the +1 to say "this comment is funny" rather than "this comment is spectacular" will create the impression that Deadspin's starred commentariat is no better than half funny. That commenters will receive +1s and feel bare relief instead of a sense of real accomplishment. That Deadspin will come to be a place where commenters are driven to predictability by their fear of failure, rather than driven to be daring and original by their ambition to succeed.

So, in our Scenario B, what has the cavalier application of +1s achieved? Fewer laughs, and a mind-numbing exegesis that comes dangerously close to advocating for a morally bankrupt economic system. Great! Because that's what everyone was shooting for.

Treasures of the Attic

So, here's something I wrote literally months ago. More precisely, on July 12th, 2011. It's a really long and long-winded look at the then-active argument over the use of +1s on Deadspin. I really have no good reason for posting it today, other than that it seems like ye olde-fashioned +1s are about to become totally obsolete with the commenting system overhaul. Or not. But, at any rate, this is as opportune a time as any to dump an old and discarded draft on an unsuspecting readership. Enjoy!

You should note that the discussion involving dont-forget-where-you-came-from-cheese-mac happened right around that time (last summer), and the comments referenced in the piece are roughly that old (or older). Also, I'd like to think this conversation is totally dead, so please forgive me if I beg off from another go 'round. If you disagree with everything in this piece, you are probably right.  

You should also know that later, possibly even later today, I'll be posting another piece that never made it to "the show". It takes almost the exact opposite position from my hopeful encouragement of the +1 in this piece, and is written by Your Earless Reader. It comes from the end of June 2011, and it was never finished, and it is way, way better than this pile of crap, and you will enjoy it much, much more, and therefore it's important that I post this one first.  But for now, forget about that one. FORGET I SAID ANYTHING.

So, in Tuesday's Roundup, I ranted a bit about what I believe is a direct correlation between feedback and commenting quality. Specifically, in this instance, I was referring to the recent deliberate pullback in the use of +1s in the wake of a DUAN thread wherein concerns over an apparent overabundance of +1s were discussed. To me, it seemed people had responded to that and other recent discussions by tightening their spending of the +1, as was no doubt the intent of those on the "less is more" side of the +1 discussion. And, to me, the fallout from this pullback was consistent with other instances in recent Deadspin history when feedback and interaction among commenters declined; commenting quality suffered. This recent +1 discussion is not my sole basis for that assertion - the role of feedback in performance is acknowledged in virtually every field. To my mind, it therefore stands to reason that when an observable decline in the rate of positive feedback happens to coincide neatly with an observable decline in the quality of commenting, it's probably more than a random coincidence or indirect correlation.

There are obviously more angles to this discussion than can be properly addressed in two paragraphs at the end of a roundup. Since the roundup went live, a number of really excellent points have been made on the "less is more" side, and each is worth evaluation, because the answer here is (I insist) somewhere between my initial "+1 everything you like" stance and the "give a bland 'Ha' to one comment in 5 years and ignore everything else" practice of some commenters. Or, perhaps no hard-and-fast approach can be deemed appropriate across the board. At any rate, we're shooting for something practicable here. Settle in.

Most of the best arguments for the "less is more" approach came from dont-forget-where-you-came-from-cheese-mac, who, look, I'm sure I don't need to point out is one of our absolute favorite Deadspin commenters. Behind seemingly aesthetic concerns over the relative value of the +1 is a legitimate, perfectly reasonable argument about the way a devalued +1 clouds and distorts the perception of what an especially good comment actually is, and the way that skewed perception can lead the commentariat astray. For an interesting starting point for analyzing that particular problem, I offer this comment, from Mantis Toboggan, M.D. (submitted to me in a conversation about this very topic by a fellow commenter) in the MLB Infographics post. This, from what I can tell, is a fairly standard "Mike Piazza is gay, catcher is a euphemism for gay, Mike Piazza played catcher" joke. It's not the worst joke on Deadspin, but to me it seems a bit beneath the level of a featured commenter, and I was surprised to see it submitted by Mantis Toboggan, M.D. In his short time as a commenter, he's proven to be a commendably sophisticated jokester, and I am a big fan (in the history of this blog, there has been one joke from an unstarred commenter that I regret excluding from the favorites of a daily roundup, and it was a downright AzureTexanian recontextualization from a pre-starred Mantis Toboggan, M.D.). I bring this joke up because Malik Sealy Dirt Mattress bestowed upon it something tantamount to the +1, which was equally disappointing to see.

The problem here is the predictable uptick in "catcher as euphemism for gay" jokes, in "Mike Piazza is an easy target for casual, lazy gay humor" jokes, and in "gay = funny" jokes we're sure to see in the next day or so from the unstarred crowd now that a fairly prominent featured commenter made a conspicuously indelicate attempt at this kind of humor and it was +1ed by another featured commenter. And yes, it will happen, and yes, it will be hugely annoying. This is a perfectly valid concern and is absolutely a reason to worry about the use of +1s for any joke that is less than sensational.

Of course, on the other hand, there are a couple equally valid retorts: humor is at least somewhat subjective, so we have to leave open the possibility that both Mantis Toboggan, M.D. and Malik Sealy Dirt Mattress loved that joke, difficult though that may be to believe. Secondly, the same people who have the above concerns, and I am among them, have steadfastly refused to declare dead or otherwise denounce any specific memes, so long as genuine attempts at original humor can be made using them. So, in practice, Mantis Toboggan, M.D. is safe in making an attempt at that joke, and if Malik Sealy Dirt Mattress genuinely loved it, any of us would agree it therefore deserved the +1 by a standard that acknowledges the subjectivity of preference. We can go round and round on who, then, bears responsibility for the influence this joke will have on Deadspin commenting, for whatever brief period of time and to whatever extent. But the problem remains: a seemingly lazy joke was +1ed, and therefore similar attempts at humor are encouraged.

There's simply no way to police that. Ultimately, we have to leave it up to the judgement of each commenter to mete out +1s according to their personal taste. Jumping up and down on Malik Sealy Dirt Mattress for his +1 requires the assumption that he gave the +1 for reasons other than that he loved the joke. My point, simply, is that commenters should not be shy about giving out +1s so long as the +1 is given for a genuine, especially-positive appreciation for a specific comment and only the specific comment.

Okay, and before, when I referred to concerns over the relative value of +1s as "aesthetic", that's not entirely fair, either. The laugher, the person who laughs at everything and praises everything, in his effusive appreciation, has an adverse effect on the comments he doesn't see or doesn't get or plain doesn't like - the three comments on the page that don't have a +1 are obviously crap. Except when they're not. And beyond that, at a certain point, a given +1 is like a throwaway comment from that irritating unstarred fella you tuned out a long time ago - it is the equivalent of zero +1s. Or, maybe even worse, a certain +1 is actually a nuisance, a glaring obscenity that might signal to the crowd an in-joke or favoritism or mercy or pity. Dear God, don't let [whoever the fuck] +1 this thing before anyone else. It could happen. These are all perfectly legitimate reasons to caution against the overuse of the +1. What happens when +1 inflation makes only one +1 roughly equal to zero +1s? Or zero +1s roughly equal to a big, fat -1. Surely, we can all agree that would be bad.

And this is where it's important that I more fully express my idea of how +1s should be used, because I will no doubt be seen as the voice of whatever is opposite the "less is more" contingent - we'll call ourselves the "more is more" crowd. The most important part of my idea of how +1s should be used is that dont-forget-where-you-came-from-cheese-mac and I fundamentally agree on the use of +1s. For example:

Miserable Shitehawk: If you like the joke, if you laughed, if you think it's worth a +1

: it wasn't my intention to have people . . . not give a +1 to a comment they felt deserved one and reward funny shit

See? We are in agreement. +1s should be given out to funny, deserving comments. So why the argument? I suppose it arises because dont-forget-where-you-came-from-cheese-mac and I approach this topic from different perspectives - he is a commenter and I am a reader. As a commenter, dont-forget-where-you-came-from-cheese-mac is probably much more aware of possible instances of favoritism and probably pays a little bit more attention to who specifically is giving the +1s (especially considering he rakes them in like a +1 farmer). As a reader, I pay almost zero attention to who is giving a +1 and focus more on the joke itself. That the joke earned some praise may also inform my efforts at understanding a joke, especially in the case of very obscure references, but for the most part, +1s more or less confirm my own impression of a given comment - it is rare that I dislike or am even apathetic about a comment that gets many +1s. From time to time, a comment will receive a +1 or two and I'll shake my head, but in those instances I usually chalk it up to the small percent error created by subjectivity. I'm sure there have been times when Mad Bastards All readers wonder why in the hell I have included a given comment in my favorites. Such is the nature of things. We will not always agree on what is good, or even great. My point is, I have always assumed that people were giving +1s to jokes they really loved. I could be wrong about that, but my argument for the +1 is not based on the why of praise, it's based on the result on performance. Positive feedback boosts performance. As a reader, all I want is funny jokes and lots of them. If the page is littered with +1s, I'm okay with that, so long as the +1s are given in genuine appreciation and they keep the good humor flowing.

But, coming from his inside position, it's reasonable that dont-forget-where-you-came-from-cheese-mac (and he's by no means alone over there) would take what he's observed of the casual use of the +1 by certain commenters and develop more of a purist's stance. He's thinking about a different cumulative effect of too many +1s - the more direct influence they have on joke-making among the commentariat. Less-than-worthy jokes are praised, therefore the standards of joke-making are lowered. And anyway, as an active commenter, he's more acquainted with the feeling of receiving a potentially devalued +1 than I am, and when you see enough of it, it's sure to call you to action one way or another. That's him being a conscientious commenter, which is what he ought to be. My gripe isn't with the discussion, or with those spurring the discussion, and I probably shouldn't have referred to them as dour, joyless, pinched-sphincter types at the outset. That was a bonehead move. I was in a rotten mood.

No, my gripe is with the subsequent pullback, because, from my side of the argument, I think I'm seeing a bunch of commenters who've been rattled a bit and are tentative about giving out +1s to their favorite jokes, and I furthermore see a resulting tentativeness in commenting. Now, without opening this particular can of worms, I'm going to acknowledge the possibility that this correlation works in reverse. I don't think it does, or, at any rate, I don't think it does in this instance, but it must be acknowledged. Surely I wasn't the only person who noticed, immediately after the latest DUAN thread, a fairly immediate and dramatic decline in the use of +1s. Perhaps I was the only person who thought he saw a subsequent drop-off in commenting quality. Perhaps that's me busting out a little post hoc ergo propter hoc action. Perhaps I'm a fucking madman. This nice orderly certainly seems to think so.

Whereas dont-forget-where-you-came-from-cheese-mac and I may disagree on the merits of feedback (although I think we agree, considering he wrote a Guest Lecture about the hunt for +1s), we agree on their intended meaning: this joke kicks ass. And we have the same message for anyone who would give a +1: only give a +1 to a comment if that comment kicks ass. We have approached that message from opposite directions - he from the perspective of someone who sees an overuse of praise as it's happening and wants to reign it in before things get out of hand, and I from the perspective of someone who sees a slip in commenting quality after the fact, once feedback declines. Him - proactive; me - reactive. Who would have thought a Deadspin commenter would turn me into an arch conservative? PASS ME THE PEPPERIDGE FARMS [shameless Drew hack-job].

But the lesson is this: when you see a kick-ass joke and you feel it deserves your +1, bestow upon it your +1. Do that as often as you are inclined, so long as it is being done genuinely. Don't ever do it for any other reason. Not for solidarity or friendship or loyalty or pity. Don't use it to say "I appreciate the effort" or "Boy, are you clever-but-not-necessarily-funny" or "I think you're on a great run today" or "It sure seems like everyone likes this joke a whole lot". Sticking to a guideline that says "+1 a comment you genuinely love" should liberate you to +1 as many comments as you damn well please, guilt-free. I usually include anywhere between 7 and 15 comments in the favorites of a daily roundup, and I do so without guilt; I thought each comment kicked ass. To me, a +1 is a somewhat classier version of the old LOL, meant to indicate that I actually laughed out loud at this comment. Because let's not kid ourselves; there are many comments in a day on Deadspin that draw a smile or a nod or a single humph, but the ones that really make you laugh are the ones that deserve the feedback.

And the feedback loop requires also the kind of feedback that was missing altogether in the days immediately following the redesign, when the utter absence of the Comment Ninja Squadron not only allowed a lot of really sloppy commenting to coast by unpunished, but also sent the implicit message to very good commenters that nobody on the inside was paying any attention. That message had a profound effect on the mood of the place, and that mood permeated the commenting. It just did. No one is paying much attention - a great comment is the same as a crappy comment.

What we're going for here, all of us as a group, is balance. Balance between commenters upholding Deadspin's standards with their contributions, an active Comment Ninja Squadron policing the activity for blatant fouls, and an appropriate amount of positive feedback and encouragement reinforcing not only the standards and your efforts at meeting and exceeding those standards, but also the mood and energy required to maintain an atmosphere where humor can thrive.

So there.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Not That Anyone Asked for My Opinion

I'll keep this short.

It seems to me that none of the Gawker sites offer enough by way of original content to keep people coming back. That opinion is based upon nothing and has no value anywhere, but anyway, there it is. To me, as long as the format is something along the lines of second-hand news + viral video + occasional original bit + snark + abnormally exclusive commenting system, there would always be a hard cap on the amount of traffic Gawker sites would be able to generate and sustain. Were it not for a collection of outstanding commenters, it's likely I would virtually never visit Deadspin. As it stands, the overwhelming majority of my visits to Deadspin are to see what's going on in the comments. Sometimes, I don't even look at the posts.

The challenge, the contest of becoming a commenter on Deadspin is engaging for those of us inclined towards putting a downright unhealthy amount of time and effort into crafting jokes, but it's important to remember, from time to time, that a lot of the seemingly brain-dead pink commenters and probably a strong majority of the less prolific grey commenters are, in fact, people of better-than-average intelligence, people whose traffic would maybe increase if there weren't so many barriers to participation. I might think of having a star on Deadspin as a badge of awesomeness, but most normal, healthy, sane folks, people with real jobs and credit cards and social lives, they think of the amount of work necessary for that as a totally out-of-the-question devotion of energy. And? They're right.

For every fat-leaveher, who came to Deadspin because of the hierarchical commenting system, there are probably dozens if not hundreds of equally intelligent internet travelers who read a story, have a thought, bother to type up a comment, find that their comment is somehow invisible, and move right the hell on with the rest of their totally fulfilling lives without ever looking back. To them, Deadspin is that quirky site with the broken commenting system. For every IronMikeGallego, who was approved and starred in his first two comments, both of which were not even remotely jokes, there are probably dozens if not hundreds of equally intelligent, thoughtful people with an interest in a particular sport and the capacity to contribute quality commentary who've been either discouraged by the hierarchical commenting system or were flat-out chased away, whether by a ninja squadron upholding the one rule of Deadspin commenting, or by a snarky, totally-outside-of-what-is-appropriate dig from Phintastic, or by this very site (and its offspring), or by a simple lack of reciprocal interest in genuine discourse.

In short, there's a whole world of people wasting time on the internet this very minute, and something that Gawker and Deadspin are doing is, at best, failing to capture their attention. At worst, it's actively discouraging their participation. And that's bad.

One way or another, we're all going to have to get used to this change. If you're inclined to move on from Deadspin altogether, you won't be alone. I, for one, probably won't have much use for the place after the changes go into effect. Not because I think Deadspin will be taking a huge nosedive or anything that silly. No, I'm just one guy whose use for Deadspin was the jokes and only the jokes. There are hundreds or thousands or millions of potential readers and participants to be attracted, and if the moderators are up to the task of keeping their contributions within reasonable bounds, that's a huge win for Nick Denton et al. I won't begrudge them that. The fact is, there will still be very good comments on Deadspin. A great joke will still be a great joke. You'll still know who all the best jokers are, if you're paying attention. We should not assume this change means that suddenly Deadspin will be trading commenters with But overall, it will be a friendlier place for the casual reader to become a casual participant. Whatever pitfalls come with that, it certainly stands to increase traffic, and that's good business.

Hey, you fucks, make the best of it in the meantime. I hope we'll all stick around long enough to try a new thing and see if it fits. If not, hey, there's always Gamboa's bedroom window to keep me occupied.

Keep on doin'.