Friday, April 20, 2012

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.


  1. Guy Who May Or May Not Be (But Definitely Is) Mantis Toboggan, M.D.April 20, 2012 at 8:00 PM

    Looking back on that comment today, I actually DID laugh out loud at it.

    Because wow was it goddamn terrible. Allow me to put this whole debate to bed: -1.

  2. So, hi. Looking at this now and it's hard to remember way back when, but I figured I'd add my two cents.

    "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."

    I think that's basically where we differ and where the disagreement lies. I think there is a mutual respect here and so I trust you won't read any malice into it when I say I think this is incredibly naive. Maybe even willfully ignorant. If you changed that sentence to "....people were giving +1s to jokes they really loved, by commenters they really loved..." you would be much closer to reality. If someone other than one of the number of guys who are Deadspin regulars made the exact same joke that got a zillion +1s, there's no way it gets that much love. (I am not going to look for an example, but we all know this happens--I'm sure I've done it myself. It's human nature). you wrote so eloquently and incisively here and paid such close attention to deadspin commenting, it strikes me as almost impossible that this would not ever once enter into your thought process on this topic.

    That, essentially, was my problem with things. I get that people are friends, and people have particular voices that resonate with some more than others, but, it just felt too glad-handy. Too secret handshakey and too familiar.

    You see encouraging the regulars, I see discouraging everyone else. It's intimidating enough to jump into an environment that demands you be funny, let's not also make it so you are doing stand up in front of your high school lunch period. Is it not possible to see that an outsider, waiting to jump in would take a pass after seeing random comments go by unloved, while day after day the same commenters giving love to the same commenters over and over?

    As for the encouragement bit. I'm also not sold. It is, again, way too far back to recall, but I do think you're doing a bit of correlation/causation with the comments. Sometimes shit happens and commenting goes down. Summer rolls around and people have better things to do than sit around and crack jokes on the internet. I think it is stretching it to say that people who can crank out hilarious jokes at will all of a sudden stopped being funny because of a perceived decline in +1s.

    We do agree on giving +1s. Every single commenter should give a +1 if he/she thinks it is deserving. I would never want it otherwise and would never be so full of myself to think that because I said something here about it people over at Deadspin stopped doing what they normally would do.

    But, we all know the deal at Deadspin. The first rule is to be funny. With the proliferation of +1's I'm reminded of the misunderstood in his own time stand up comedian, Michael Skarn. "I take care of my kid--they always want credit for something they supposed to do--whatchoo want, a cookie?"

    1. It's not that I haven't considered it (I think we both know the rough makeup of the group of commenters who might be giving out "friend" +1s), because I have, and I acknowledge that it probably does go on. My point was when I'm reading Deadspin comments, I don't necessarily pay attention to who is giving out +1s, and for the most part, a haul of +1s tends to coincide nicely with my own impression of a joke. That's what I was getting at here: I'm obviously not as aware, in the moment, of the who of +1s as you are, because I'm not really a commenter. I didn't mean to say it doesn't happen, only that it isn't necessarily apparent to someone who is as far on the outside as I am (and I'm not all that far on the outside - I can see pink comments, after all). I think your average casual or brand-new reader/commenter probably wouldn't notice an uneven or suspect distribution of +1s until they'd been heavily exposed to Deadspin commmenting. But, either way, clearly it's bad. We agree on that.

      I of course readily accept the post hoc ergo propter hoc nature of my argument about the effect of a decrease in +1s - I even referenced it in the piece - but I still think I was right that the +1 conversation did lead to a more conservative use of +1s and that the result was more tentative commenting. Without going way back and looking at stats, that was my very clear impression at the time, and remember, I was fucking living in the comments section way back then. That doesn't mean I'm right, it just means I was probably informed enough to at least make an educated guess at the time. In other words, I trust that earlier version of me who made that call and his reasons for making it.

      I don't think you're wrong about the way +1 deluges can be intimidating as hell to new commenters, but I tend to think +1s mostly function as a hell of an incentive. When I first started commenting, getting promoted was great, but getting a couple of +1s was downright boner-worthy. And, after I had a star, I lived for the +1. It was my sole motivation for making comments. I think what you're getting at is this: what happens when you aren't getting +1s? If my jokes get no feedback while, meanwhile, a comparable joke from another commenter gets 12, 9 of which may be of dubious origin, that can be a major discouragement. I've been on the wrong end of that more times than not - I have never been a +1 farmer - and I find it to be hugely frustrating and damaging to one's confidence. I don't want to rehash my whole piece, but I addressed +1 inflation, and I'm sure I don't need to say that it is doubly bad if +1 inflation is caused by reckless misuse.

      So, operating from the [potentially erroneous] assumption that +1s are only given out for the right reasons, and having made the observation, many times over, that random +1s seem to reinforce my own impression of a joke's success, my goal was to encourage the use of the +1 as a motivator for great commenting on Deadspin. I held off on posting this piece at the time because it became apparent to me that we agree on the preferred use of the +1 and that our differences were really based upon you having an inside position on the particulars of actual use of the +1, whereas I was mostly just hemming and hawing about what was ultimately a so-fleeting-as-to-be-totally-forgettable slip, one not even universally noticed or accepted, in commenting quality that may or may not have had any kind of cause/effect relationship with the conversation in the first place.

      Anyway, I posted it now because, dammit, I spent a pretty good amount of time writing it, and besides, it was interesting to me that Earless and I were headed in totally different directions on this one.

      Thanks for the comment. Glad to know you're still checking in from time to time. I appreciate the conversation, as always.