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.

1 comment:

  1. How many times did *you* refresh looking for feedback?

    This is wonderful. I agree with all of it.

    Though I will die without feedback. Don't cry for me, I am already dead.

    (just let ninjas +1 things)