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Well-Kept Gardens Die By Pacifism

105 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 21 April 2009 02:44AM

Previously in seriesMy Way
Followup toThe Sin of Underconfidence

Good online communities die primarily by refusing to defend themselves.

Somewhere in the vastness of the Internet, it is happening even now.  It was once a well-kept garden of intelligent discussion, where knowledgeable and interested folk came, attracted by the high quality of speech they saw ongoing.  But into this garden comes a fool, and the level of discussion drops a little—or more than a little, if the fool is very prolific in their posting.  (It is worse if the fool is just articulate enough that the former inhabitants of the garden feel obliged to respond, and correct misapprehensions—for then the fool dominates conversations.)

So the garden is tainted now, and it is less fun to play in; the old inhabitants, already invested there, will stay, but they are that much less likely to attract new blood.  Or if there are new members, their quality also has gone down.

Then another fool joins, and the two fools begin talking to each other, and at that point some of the old members, those with the highest standards and the best opportunities elsewhere, leave...

I am old enough to remember the USENET that is forgotten, though I was very young.  Unlike the first Internet that died so long ago in the Eternal September, in these days there is always some way to delete unwanted content.  We can thank spam for that—so egregious that no one defends it, so prolific that no one can just ignore it, there must be a banhammer somewhere.

But when the fools begin their invasion, some communities think themselves too good to use their banhammer for—gasp!—censorship.

After all—anyone acculturated by academia knows that censorship is a very grave sin... in their walled gardens where it costs thousands and thousands of dollars to enter, and students fear their professors' grading, and heaven forbid the janitors should speak up in the middle of a colloquium.

It is easy to be naive about the evils of censorship when you already live in a carefully kept garden.  Just like it is easy to be naive about the universal virtue of unconditional nonviolent pacifism, when your country already has armed soldiers on the borders, and your city already has police.  It costs you nothing to be righteous, so long as the police stay on their jobs.

The thing about online communities, though, is that you can't rely on the police ignoring you and staying on the job; the community actually pays the price of its virtuousness.

In the beginning, while the community is still thriving, censorship seems like a terrible and unnecessary imposition.  Things are still going fine.  It's just one fool, and if we can't tolerate just one fool, well, we must not be very tolerant.  Perhaps the fool will give up and go away, without any need of censorship.  And if the whole community has become just that much less fun to be a part of... mere fun doesn't seem like a good justification for (gasp!) censorship, any more than disliking someone's looks seems like a good reason to punch them in the nose.

(But joining a community is a strictly voluntary process, and if prospective new members don't like your looks, they won't join in the first place.)

And after all—who will be the censor?  Who can possibly be trusted with such power?

Quite a lot of people, probably, in any well-kept garden.  But if the garden is even a little divided within itself —if there are factions—if there are people who hang out in the community despite not much trusting the moderator or whoever could potentially wield the banhammer—

(for such internal politics often seem like a matter of far greater import than mere invading barbarians)

—then trying to defend the community is typically depicted as a coup attempt.  Who is this one who dares appoint themselves as judge and executioner?  Do they think their ownership of the server means they own the people?  Own our community?  Do they think that control over the source code makes them a god?

I confess, for a while I didn't even understand why communities had such trouble defending themselves—I thought it was pure naivete.  It didn't occur to me that it was an egalitarian instinct to prevent chieftains from getting too much power.  "None of us are bigger than one another, all of us are men and can fight; I am going to get my arrows", was the saying in one hunter-gatherer tribe whose name I forget.  (Because among humans, unlike chimpanzees, weapons are an equalizer—the tribal chieftain seems to be an invention of agriculture, when people can't just walk away any more.)

Maybe it's because I grew up on the Internet in places where there was always a sysop, and so I take for granted that whoever runs the server has certain responsibilities.  Maybe I understand on a gut level that the opposite of censorship is not academia but 4chan (which probably still has mechanisms to prevent spam).  Maybe because I grew up in that wide open space where the freedom that mattered was the freedom to choose a well-kept garden that you liked and that liked you, as if you actually could find a country with good laws.  Maybe because I take it for granted that if you don't like the archwizard, the thing to do is walk away (this did happen to me once, and I did indeed just walk away).

And maybe because I, myself, have often been the one running the server.  But I am consistent, usually being first in line to support moderators—even when they're on the other side from me of the internal politics.  I know what happens when an online community starts questioning its moderators.  Any political enemy I have on a mailing list who's popular enough to be dangerous is probably not someone who would abuse that particular power of censorship, and when they put on their moderator's hat, I vocally support them—they need urging on, not restraining.  People who've grown up in academia simply don't realize how strong are the walls of exclusion that keep the trolls out of their lovely garden of "free speech".

Any community that really needs to question its moderators, that really seriously has abusive moderators, is probably not worth saving.  But this is more accused than realized, so far as I can see.

In any case the light didn't go on in my head about egalitarian instincts (instincts to prevent leaders from exercising power) killing online communities until just recently.  While reading a comment at Less Wrong, in fact, though I don't recall which one.

But I have seen it happen—over and over, with myself urging the moderators on and supporting them whether they were people I liked or not, and the moderators still not doing enough to prevent the slow decay.  Being too humble, doubting themselves an order of magnitude more than I would have doubted them.  It was a rationalist hangout, and the third besetting sin of rationalists is underconfidence.

This about the Internet:  Anyone can walk in.  And anyone can walk out.  And so an online community must stay fun to stay alive.  Waiting until the last resort of absolute, blatent, undeniable egregiousness—waiting as long as a police officer would wait to open fire—indulging your conscience and the virtues you learned in walled fortresses, waiting until you can be certain you are in the right, and fear no questioning looks—is waiting far too late.

I have seen rationalist communities die because they trusted their moderators too little.

But that was not a karma system, actually.

Here—you must trust yourselves.

A certain quote seems appropriate here:  "Don't believe in yourself!  Believe that I believe in you!"

Because I really do honestly think that if you want to downvote a comment that seems low-quality... and yet you hesitate, wondering if maybe you're downvoting just because you disagree with the conclusion or dislike the author... feeling nervous that someone watching you might accuse you of groupthink or echo-chamber-ism or (gasp!) censorship... then nine times of ten, I bet, nine times out of ten at least, it is a comment that really is low-quality.

You have the downvote.  Use it or USENET.


Part of the sequence The Craft and the Community

Next post: "Practical Advice Backed By Deep Theories"

Previous post: "The Sin of Underconfidencee"

Comments (312)

Comment author: enye-word 31 May 2017 02:29:30PM 4 points [-]

Good thing this community died for entirely unrelated reasons, then!

Comment author: cousin_it 01 June 2017 09:48:07AM 3 points [-]

Yeah, fan clubs die for simpler reasons :-)

Comment author: PhilGoetz 23 January 2017 09:05:16PM *  4 points [-]

The balance for a moderator is between too much craziness and too much groupthink.

Moderation easily becomes enforcement of a dogma. In English literary theory today, you're required to be a cultural relativist. You only get to choose one of three kinds of cultural relativist to be: Marxist, feminist, or post-modernist. Anyone else is dismissed as irrelevant to the discourse. This is the result of "moderation," which I place in quotes because it is anything but moderate.

It is especially problematic when the moderator is a key contributor. A moderator should, ideally, be a neutral referee.

Revisiting this post in 2017, I'm calling it wrong in retrospect. It seems to me that LessWrong is less vibrant than it used to be, and this is not because of too little moderation, but may be partly because of too much, both from above (post promotion, comments from EY, and harassment of divergent views from moderators) and from below (karma voting). LW has become a place of groupthink on many issues. Karma did not prevent that, and may have accelerated it.

EY encouraged this. He refused to engage with criticism of his ideas other than with rudeness or silence. He chased away Richard Loosemore, one of the only people on LW who was qualified to talk about AI and willing to disagree with EY's ideas. EY's take on him was:

Warning: Richard Loosemore is a known permanent idiot,

(And, looking at that thread, how exactly did timtyler, one of the other stars of LW, get banned?)

Comment author: gjm 24 January 2017 02:47:22AM 1 point [-]

Richard Loosemore, one of the only people on LW who was qualified to talk about AI and willing to disagree with EY's ideas

The last time he came around here, he basically wanted to say that the whole idea of AI risk is stupid because it depends on the assumption that AI is all about reinforcement learning, and reinforcement learning "obviously" can't do anything scary. It didn't seem to me that he defended any part of that very effectively, and he seemed disappointingly insistent on fighting strawmen.

I agree it's a shame not to have more intelligent advocacy of diverse views, but it's not clear to me that Richard Loosemore really contributed much.

(Also, it may be relevant that that comment of EY's was voted to -18. If Richard L ran away because one prominent person was rude about him and got downvoted into oblivion for it .. well, maybe it's sad but I don't think we can blame it on LW groupthink.

timtyler, one of the other stars of LW

I would not have characterized him in that way. He wrote a lot, for sure, but I never found what he wrote very interesting. (Of course no one else is obliged to share my interests.)

Comment author: AshwinV 09 October 2014 11:13:44AM 1 point [-]

Typo: at the bottom of the post, where the previous post is referred. Underconfidence has an extra 'e'

Comment author: mathew 04 June 2012 03:04:58PM *  17 points [-]

It may be true that well-kept gardens die from activism, but it's also the case that moderation can kill communities.

Any community that really needs to question its moderators, that really seriously has abusive moderators, is probably not worth saving. But this is more accused than realized, so far as I can see.

There speaks the voice of limited experience. Or perhaps LiveJournal, Reddit, Google+ and Facebook really are not worth saving?

I've seen enough discussion forums killed by abusive moderators that I look carefully before signing up for anything these days. When I write a lengthy response, like this, I post it on my own site rather than face the possibility that it will be silently deleted for disagreeing with a moderator.

However, I've also been a moderator, and I've seen situations where moderation was desperately needed. In my experience on both sides of the issue, there are some basic criteria for moderation that need to be met to avoid abuse:

  • Moderation needs to be visible. Comments that are removed should be replaced with a placeholder saying so, and not simply deleted. Otherwise there will be accusations of repeated unfair deletion, and any act of moderation will quickly snowball into an argument about how much censorship is occurring, and then an argument about whether that argument is being censored, and so on until everyone leaves the site.
  • Moderation needs to be accountable. Moderators must have individual accounts, and moderation actions need to be associated with individual accounts. Without this, it's pretty much impossible to identify an abusive moderator. I recently got banned from a subreddit for asking which rule I had broken with a previous posting, and there was no way to find out who had banned me.
  • Moderation needs to be consistent. There needs to be a description of what the criteria for moderation actually are. It doesn't need to be legalistic and all-encompassing, and it may be subject to change, but it needs to exist. Some people feel that actually writing down the criteria encourages people to argue about them. The alternative, though, is that person A gets banned or censored for doing something that person B does all the time; that leads to much worse ill-will and ultimately is worse for the community.
  • Moderation rules need to apply to the moderators. A special case of the above, but it deserves highlighting. Few things are more infuriating than being banned by a moderator for doing something that the person doing the banning does all the time. Once this kind of moderation starts happening (e.g. Gizmodo), the atmosphere becomes extremely toxic.
  • Moderation needs an appeals process. There are abusive power-tripping assholes out there, and they love to find their way onto forums and become moderators. You need a mechanism for identifying any who find their way into your forum. Having some sort of appeals process is that mechanism. Ideally appeals should be resolved by someone who isn't part of the moderation team. Failing that, they should be resolved by someone other than the person being complained about, obviously.

It also helps if the moderation activity can be openly discussed in a partitioned area of the site. There will be desire to discuss moderation policy, so plan ahead and have a space where people can do so without derailing other threads. That way, you can also redirect meta-discussion into the moderation discussion area to avoid thread derailment, without making the problem worse.

(Also posted at my web site)

Comment author: Yosarian2 04 January 2013 09:53:12PM 5 points [-]

Agreed. I've seen many good communities destroyed by over-modeation. Usually it starts as a reaction to a troll invasion, but over time the definition of "troll" tends to expand to suit the mod's mood. There was one (previously very reasonable) community I recently left after it got to the point where the mods banned a smart, long-time poster who occasionally talked about being a transexual, apparently concluding that she must be a troll for saying such things.

We all know how easy it is for many well-intentioned people to go from "I disagree with a lot of that person's opinions" to "that person is an evil mutant" without even realizing what happened.

Comment author: Insert_Idionym_Here 15 January 2012 09:03:38AM *  0 points [-]

One: I support the above post. I've seen quite a few communities die for that very reason.

Two: Gurren Lagann? (pause) Gurren Lagann? Who the h*ll do you think I am?

Comment author: lukeprog 08 February 2011 09:27:22PM 11 points [-]


I used to be not so sure how I felt about this subject, but now I appreciate the wonderful community you and others have gardened, here.

Comment author: paulfchristiano 24 December 2010 09:37:43AM 11 points [-]

There is no strong reason that reasonable, informative discourse should be an attractor for online communities. Measures like karma or censorship are designed to address particular problems that people have observed; they aren't even intended to be a real solution to the general issue. If you happen to end up with a community where most conversation is intelligent, then I think the best you can say is that you were lucky for a while.

The question is, do people think that this is the nature of community? There is a possible universe (possible with respect to my current logical uncertainty) in which communities are necessarily reliant on vigilance to survive. There is also a possible universe where there are fundamentally stable solutions to this problem. In such a universe, a community can survive the introduction of many malicious or misguided users because its dynamics are good rather than because its moderator is vigilant. I strongly, strongly suspect that we live in the second universe. If we do, I think trying to solve this problem is important (fostering intelligent discourse is more important than the sum of all existing online communities). I don't mean saying "lets try and change karma in this way and see what happens;" I mean saying, "lets try and describe some properties that would be desirable for the dynamics of the community to satisfy and then try and implement a system which provably satisfies them."

I think in general that people too often say "look at this bad thing that happened; I wish people were better" instead of "look at this bad thing that happened; I wish the system required less of people." I guess the real question is whether there are many cases where fundamental improvements to the system are possible and tractable. I suspect there are, and that in particular moderating online discussion is such a case.

Comment author: shokwave 24 December 2010 09:49:41AM 8 points [-]

"lets try and describe some properties that would be desirable for the dynamics of the community to satisfy and then try and implement a system which provably satisfies them."

This might actually be a good idea. If LessWrong could beget the formulation of some theory of good online communities (not just a set of rules that make online communities look like real-world communities because they work), that would certainly say something for our collective instrumental rationality.

Comment author: JonAwbrey 29 March 2010 01:48:55PM *  -1 points [-]

Barry Kort posted notice of this article on a thread at The Wikipedia Review.

We have there, over the years, often considered this problem, with Wikipedia being the sublimely ridiculous example.

Here are a couple of threads that come to mind:

Open to discussion here or there …

Jon Awbrey

Comment author: Jonnan 23 April 2009 03:20:50AM 13 points [-]

I think I fundamentally disagree with your premise. I concede, I have seen communities where this happened . . . but by and large, they have been the exception rather than the rule.

The fundamental standard I have seen in communities that survived such things, versus those that didn't fall under two broad patterns.

A) Communities that survived were those where politeness was expected - a minimal standard that dropping below simply meant people had no desire to be seen with you.

B) Communities where the cultural context was that of (And I've never quite worded this correctly in my own mind) acknowledging that you were, in effect, not at home but at a friendly party at a friends house, and had no desire to embarrass yourself or your host by getting drunk and passing out on the porch - {G}.

Either of these attitude seems to be very nearly sufficient to prevent the entire issue (and seem to hasten recovery even on the occasion when it fails), combined they (in my experience) act as a near invulnerable bulwark against party crashers.

Now exactly how these attitudes are nurtured and maintained, I have never quite explained to my own satisfaction - it's definitely an "I know it when I see it" phenomena, however unsatisfying that may be.

But given an expectation of politeness and a sense of being in a friendly venue, but one where there will be a group memory among people whose opinions have some meaning to you, the rest of this problem seems to be self-limiting.

Again, at least in my experience - {G}. Jonnan

Comment author: Relsqui 20 September 2010 06:05:44AM 14 points [-]

I agree with you, and I also agree with Eliezer, and therefore I don't think you're contradicting him. The catch is here:

they act as a near invulnerable bulwark against party crashers

This implies that the party crashers, upon seeing that everyone else is acting polite and courteous, will begin acting polite and courteous too. In a closer model of an internet community, what happens is that they act rough and rowdy ... and then the host kicks them out. Hence, moderators.

Unless you really mean that the social norms themselves are sufficient to ward off people who made the community less fun, in which case your experience on the internet is very different from mine.

Comment author: Strange7 24 December 2010 10:42:24AM 2 points [-]

If everyone is accustomed to a norm of politeness, a wandering troll seeking to stir up arguments 'for the lulz' will find few bitter arguments, and no willing collaborators.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 07 September 2011 07:51:59PM 5 points [-]

Still, if a few impolite people happen to come at the same time, start arguing with each other, and persist long enough to attract more impolite people from outside, the community is ruined.

Also the norm violators do not need to be consistent. For example they may be polite most of the time towards most members of community, but impolite towards a few selected 'enemies'. If the rest of community does not punish them for this, then their 'enemies' may decide to leave.

Comment author: thomblake 22 April 2009 02:40:33PM 17 points [-]

Update: new 'feature' - apparently, you can now only downvote if you've done less downvoting than your karma. Example from my screen:

Your total down votes (2538) must be less than your karma (528)

Comment author: Larks 21 August 2009 05:43:01PM 9 points [-]

An unexpected consequence of this change is that upvoting thomblake now has benefits (he can downvote more) that don't correlate to the quality of his posting. While this will give him a (weak) incentive to produce better comments, it'll also encourage me to upvote him more, reducing the quality-signalling function of his karma.

Comment author: thomblake 26 August 2009 03:47:50PM 15 points [-]

it'll also encourage me to upvote him more

It's nice to hear that my tendency to downvote heavily is so valued.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 23 April 2009 01:20:54AM 10 points [-]

Current comment: 93t. This implies 11,792 comments, if I count correctly. You've downvoted 21% of all comments? I think it's more likely we're looking at some kind of bug, but if you've actually downvoted 21% of all comments then more power to you. Still, I'd like to verify first that it's not a bug.

Comment author: thomblake 23 April 2009 01:57:53PM 18 points [-]

That sounds about right - I try to read all comments and downvote over 1/3 of the time, but I've missed some in days of inactivity.

Comment author: khafra 30 September 2011 03:49:19PM 26 points [-]

I think I just read the explanation for the strange phenomena some people have reported; that of karma disappearing rapidly over a few hours of downvotes on older threads. It's just thomblake catching up.

Comment author: thomblake 30 September 2011 06:48:45PM 4 points [-]

Sadly, that does not completely explain the phenomenon.

If only I had an army of sockpuppets!

Comment author: DragonGod 07 October 2017 11:06:46AM 1 point [-]

Be careful what you wish for. It seems your wish was granted in the form of Eugine.

Comment author: wmoore 23 April 2009 02:29:02AM 8 points [-]

I've verified the numbers, thomblake has posted 2538 down votes. 93t is 11801 in base 36. Adding 436 articles drop the percentage slightly to 20.7%.

Comment author: Mulciber 23 April 2009 02:40:04AM 5 points [-]

Is there a way for us to see on our own how many downvotes and upvotes we've given?

I mean, I guess there is a way to check your total downvotes now, but I'd have to downvote a lot of posts to get the information that way.

Comment author: wmoore 27 April 2009 06:47:57AM *  2 points [-]

No there isn't a way to check vote counts at the moment.

Comment author: wmoore 23 April 2009 01:12:31AM 4 points [-]

It was mistakenly assumed that most people's down vote count would not be approaching their karma, particularly for high karma users. I'll do some more research and discuss it with Eliezer.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 23 April 2009 01:23:32AM 11 points [-]

Initial quick fix: downvote limit = 4x karma.

Comment author: rela 22 April 2011 02:45:53PM 3 points [-]

Out of curiosity, why 4?

Comment author: wmoore 23 April 2009 02:19:23AM 4 points [-]

Quick fix deployed. I did some analysis of user's down vote count and karma. This change allows everyone to down vote that doesn't have a massively skewed down vote to karma ratio (Like 21 to 2 or 548 to 137). Obviously this still leaves thomblake roughly 500 short.

Comment author: Annoyance 22 April 2009 03:36:48PM *  3 points [-]

So in order to facilitate the downvoting that we have been encouraged to do, we must restrict downvoting so as to keep it within our karma.

Are upvotes also so restricted?

Y'know, this new feature seems to be of dubious value in itself, but it's a great way to disassociate upvotes from comment quality. Before, people would be more willing to upvote a good comment from a person whose judgment they didn't agree with or like, providing effective feedback as to what they felt about the comment and its contents. Now, though, providing that upvote gives people more ability to exercise their judgment and thus more power. People don't like giving people they dislike more power. Ergo, people will give upvotes not according to their evaluation of individual comments, but as approval of the person who posts them.

Comment author: thomblake 22 April 2009 03:42:24PM 11 points [-]

Are upvotes also so restricted?

Nope. I'd suggested that originally for balance, but the concern here (I think) was that someone could wreak more damage with unrestricted downvotes. Someone could create a bunch of accounts and downvote a bunch of stuff to oblivion. To use the 'pruning the garden' metaphor, we don't want people to come off the street with machetes and chainsaws.

But yes, I find it very ironic that this feature was implemented at the same time as encouragement to downvote more. On the other hand, they do go together, as since I can't be the one doing most of the downvoting anymore (he said jokingly), other people need to step it up.

Comment author: Mulciber 23 April 2009 01:20:48AM 5 points [-]

I'm concerned that this makes the ability to downvote a limited resource. That's good in some ways, but as long as we're talking about "what if someone created a whole bunch of accounts to mess things up" scenarios, it raises an unpleasant possibility.

If someone mass-created accounts to post flame bait and complete garbage, we'd respond by voting them down severely, which restricts the ability to use downvotes productively in actual discourse.

I don't know much about the way this site is set up. Was that scenario already considered, but viewed as unlikely for reasons I'm not seeing?

Comment author: Nominull 22 April 2009 03:08:56PM 6 points [-]

I guess I need to go back and undo hundreds of downvotes on old comments if I want to have a hand in tending the garden.

Comment author: thomblake 22 April 2009 03:21:44PM *  19 points [-]

Certainly not worth your time. Maybe we can go start our own rationalist community! With blackjack! And hookers! In fact, forget the rationalism!

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 22 April 2009 03:08:03PM 3 points [-]

Which means that you won't be able to downvote anyone for considerable time in the future. This is a bug, the limitation shouldn't apply retroactively. And maybe one should be given 3x amount of Karma for downvoting. Ideally, of course, the votes should just be weighted, so that you can mark any post, maybe on a scale, and all of the posts you ever voted for get a rating change according to your overall Karma (this shouldn't be linear, something more stable like square root or even logarithm).

Comment author: dlthomas 29 September 2011 07:53:17PM 3 points [-]

Present Karma affecting future votes, or present karma affecting all votes cast? I can see arguments for both, although I worry that the latter might not be stable or computable for certain sets of parameters (my downvote lowers your karma which weakens your upvote which lowers my karma which weakens the aforementioned downvote, etc...)

Comment author: lessdazed 29 September 2011 10:07:00PM 2 points [-]

Just so long as I get to be a multiclass fighter/rogue/sorcerer who specializes in enchantment spells, I'll be happy.

Comment author: gwern 22 April 2009 01:55:18PM 39 points [-]

I'd like to weigh in with a meta-comment on this meta-discussion: y'all are over-thinking this, seriously.

In the vein of Eliezer's Tsuyoku Naritai!, I'd like to propose a little quasi-anime (borrowed from the Japanese Shinsengumi by way of Rurouni Kenshin) mantra of my own:

Aku soku zan! ("Slay evil instantly!")

Don't obssess over what fractional vote a read-but-not-downvoted comment should earn, don't try to juggle length with quality with low-brow/high-brow distinctions (as Wittgenstein said, a good philosophy book could be written using nothing but jokes), don't ponder whether the poster is a female and a downvote would drive her away, or consider whether you have a duty to explain your downvote - just vote.

Is it a bad comment? (You know deep down that this is an easy question.) Aku soku zan! Downvote evil instantly! Is it a useless comment? Aku soku zan!

(And if anyone replies to this with a comment like 'I was going to upvote/downvote your comment, but then I decided deep down to downvote/upvote' - aku soku zan!)

Comment author: Annoyance 22 April 2009 03:38:36PM 4 points [-]

Yes, yes, but we still need to think carefully about what qualifies as 'evil'.

If we go around slaying things instantly, we'd better be damn sure we know what those things are. Otherwise we're likely to destroy plenty of good stuff by mistake - not to mention being a menace to everyone around us.

Comment author: gwern 24 April 2009 01:12:39PM 15 points [-]

No no! This sort of comment is exactly wrong - Once you start second-guessing your qualification of evil, it's a small step to going with the majoritarian flow and thence to ever more elaborate epicycles of karma. Aku soku zan!

Comment author: MBlume 22 April 2009 05:49:23AM *  56 points [-]

May I suggest that length of comment should factor significantly into the choice to up/downvote?

I once suggested that upvote means "I would take the time to read this again if the insights from it were deleted from my brain" and downvote means "I would like the time it took to read this back."

Time figures into both of these. If you read a few words and don't profit from them, well, neither have you lost much. If you read several paragraphs, reread them to ensure you've understood them (because the writing was obtuse, say), and in the end conclude that you have learned nothing, the comment has, in some sense, made a real imposition on your time, and deserves a downvote.

Comment author: DanielLC 09 May 2013 06:14:52AM 1 point [-]

It's about insight density. It's not as if you can take an insightful comment and write it really short to get a certain upvote. If you have a longer comment, you have room for more insight. If you have a short comment, you can't be all that insightful.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 09 May 2013 03:23:55PM 1 point [-]

I'd rather follow your first point up as, if you have a short comment because you took the time to purify and condense your thoughts, that's a good thing.

But, don't forget the overhead for the comment simply existing in the first place. You rapidly run into diminishing returns for shortening a comment to less than a few lines. Ten words conveying a thought is not effectively twice as dense as twenty words conveying that thought.

Comment author: shaih 18 February 2013 03:37:20AM 9 points [-]

This being said, one should not hesitate to downvote a short message if it does not add at all to the discussion, simply to keep the flow of useful comments without superfluous interruption that would hamper what could otherwise be a constructive argument.

Comment author: teageegeepea 22 April 2009 02:35:52AM -1 points [-]

What communities actually die in that way? If they don't actually end but continue differently then it's like saying science fiction died because new authors with their newfangled take on the genre changed things (disclaimer: I don't really know anything about science fiction).

In the case of spam there is a problem of high volume (raivo pommer estee is a good counter-example, as there's generally no more than 1 per thread and it's short) but otherwise I don't really see the harm in idiots posting. Anybody is free to skip past stuff they don't care about (I do it all the time) and people get value out of even reading stupid comments, so I don't see what's so terrible that it outweighs it. I'm with Hopefully Anonymous on how I rate blogs by their comment policies.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 April 2009 05:28:09AM -2 points [-]

And yet here you are here, rather than 4chan.

Comment author: teageegeepea 23 April 2009 03:19:58AM 2 points [-]

It's my impression that 4chan is about anime and lolcats. I hate both. It is also my impression that there are more people who are at 4chan rather than here compared to here rather than 4chan. I think 4chan was set up to be just what it is. Is there a Less Wrong analogue that got turned into a 4chan.

Comment author: William 24 April 2009 12:00:51PM *  10 points [-]


Comment author: Nominull 22 April 2009 03:11:18PM 6 points [-]

I'm out of downvotes, but this is not a reasonable criticism of his point.

Comment author: timtyler 21 April 2009 09:10:19PM 1 point [-]

I see that Robert Scoble has recently posted on a good way of creating a responsible online community:


Comment author: timtyler 21 April 2009 05:30:53PM *  10 points [-]

This post makes me think of SL4:

The most active place on the internet for discussing Friendly AI is the SL4 email list. Ironically, it must be one of the most hostile email lists on the internet with frequent flame wars and people being banned from the list. The moderation system consists of so-called “list snipers” whose job it is to ban discussions that they don’t like. If these people are experts in friendliness… lord help us.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 09 July 2013 08:25:24AM 1 point [-]
Comment author: timtyler 09 July 2013 10:00:12AM *  1 point [-]

Hah! Second thoughts, I wonder...?

Comment author: gwern 21 April 2009 04:36:29PM 22 points [-]

Maybe I understand on a gut level that the opposite of censorship is not academia but 4chan (which probably still has mechanisms to prevent spam).

A quick factual note: 4chan unconditionally bans child pornography and blocks (in a Wikipedia sense) the IPs, as I found out myself back when I was browsing through Tor. They'll also moderate off-topic posts or posts in the wrong section. They actually have a surprisingly lengthy set of rules for a place with such an anarchistic reputation.

Comment author: stcredzero 21 April 2009 05:09:54PM 2 points [-]

From what have just said, I surmise that 4chan is a actually a well-tended garden. I could well be a well-tended, thoughtfully organized, subtly organized anarchy garden.

Comment author: Peter_Twieg 21 April 2009 08:36:55PM 5 points [-]

Most of the rules are mostly there for the sake of legal cover - the only things that are strongly enforced are:

a) Child pornography bans. b) Bans on organizing illegal activities, namely "raids" on other websites that can result in serious damage. c) Mass spam, especially spam that is meant to propagate scripts that are used for further spamming. d) Topicality rules. This only applies to some of the boards.

Moderation is most reliable for (a). 4chan is hardly a well-tended garden, let alone a "thoughtfully organized" one. Moderation is often capricious as well, with certain memes being unofficially targeted every once in a while (furries, Boxxy, etc.) It's hard to really find an apt term or even a metaphor to properly summarize 4chan's governing ethos... some kind of chaotic swarm or something, perhaps.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 21 April 2009 09:08:51PM 13 points [-]

Also, it's important to note the difference between 4chan as a whole, which is indeed an erratically-tended garden of sorts, and the "random" sub-board, which is a seething cesspit of trolling and memes, with occasional flashes of socially-uninhibited lucidity, and indeed has anarchy levels that are (as they say) over 9000.

Comment author: JamesAndrix 21 April 2009 03:07:04PM 2 points [-]

Lots of interesting and good things come out of 4chan. The signal/noise is low, but there is still lots of signal, and it had no high ideals to start with at all.

I wonder if an explicitly rationalist site without standards would devolve into something that was still interesting and powerful. I think I would trade LW/OB for a site where a thousand 13 year old bayesians insulted each others' moms and sometimes built up rationality. In the long run it's probably worth more.

Also, I have a higher quality comment which my posting time is too small to contain.

Comment author: Peter_Twieg 21 April 2009 05:07:26PM *  1 point [-]

Lots of memes come out of 4chan. I'm not sure I'd call any of them "good" in any way beyond their being amusing. (Of note: "4chan was never good" is a meme in and of itself.)

The thousand 13-year old Bayesian LW would never "build up" anything approximating rationality, I'd conjecture. It would select for rational arguments to some extent, but it would also select for creative new obscenities, threads about how to get laid, and rationalist imagefloods (whatever that would consist of) being spammed over and over. 4chan has almost 200 million posts and I can't think of any meaningful contribution it has made to human knowledge.

Don't get me wrong, it has its purpose, but I don't believe you could ever get a community with a 4chan-style atmosphere to promote any sort of epistemic virtues, largely because I think what it would take to be noticed there would almost intrinsically require some kind of major violation of those virtues.

Comment author: JamesAndrix 22 April 2009 08:26:08PM 1 point [-]
Comment author: MBlume 22 April 2009 08:35:29PM 0 points [-]


Comment author: arundelo 22 April 2009 09:21:05PM 2 points [-]

I think so:

We'll try to build simple model describing sexual relationships between boys and girls.

It talks about sex, but not with swear words or in terms of body parts.

Comment author: MBlume 22 April 2009 09:45:02PM 0 points [-]

thanks =)

Comment author: JamesAndrix 21 April 2009 07:04:54PM 2 points [-]

Well what do you think a positive 1000 13 year old LW would look like?

Competing with 4chan for the attention of 13 year olds is the scope of the problem we face. I'm saying that 1000 young bayesians is a goal, and that if that community comes to exist, it just won't look at all like LW, or have it's mores.

The LW atmosphere probably won't grab that audience. (And many of the new posts would be perceived as low quality here, even if they were above average for 13 year olds.)

Also, the only memes you will see 'coming out of 4chan' are the most viral ones. If it also contained a rationalist subculture, it might not be obvious, unless you were one of the 13 year olds whose thinking was changed.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 21 April 2009 05:50:11PM 6 points [-]

4chan has almost 200 million posts and I can't think of any meaningful contribution it has made to human knowledge.

That may well be one of the most scathing accusations I've ever heard leveled, but I'm not sure if it's quite entirely true. Surely there've been a succinct atheistic demotivator or two to come out?

Comment author: pangloss 21 April 2009 09:34:51PM *  3 points [-]
Comment author: infotropism 21 April 2009 09:44:16PM 1 point [-]

I get error 403 trying to access it. But I suppose you meant this : remember santa

Comment author: dfranke 21 April 2009 07:46:44PM 7 points [-]

I haven't been paying particularly close attention so I could be wrong, but it seems like 4chan has also made real contributions toward raising public awareness about the Church of Scientology and its crimes.

Comment author: MBlume 21 April 2009 07:54:52PM 3 points [-]

That's the impression that I got too -- does anyone have figures? Is recruitment down, or did the church have to spend a significant amount of money on damage control?

Comment author: David_Gerard 03 December 2010 04:01:26PM *  3 points [-]

Scientology met its Vietnam (to quote a former CoS public relations officer who had by then escaped) in 1995 when it took on alt.religion.scientology. By 1997, it came out when they were suing Grady Ward that their income in 1997 was a quarter what it was in 1995. It was at that stage they'd already lost - the momentum against them was only going to increase (and this is indeed what happened) - and the rest was mopup.

tl;dr: they have taken such a hit from the Internet over the past fifteen years that their current income is a shadow of what it once was. However, they have enough reserves - Hubbard was very big on reserves - to keep all ther offices open for years and possibly decades if they wanted to.

Comment author: Peter_Twieg 21 April 2009 08:24:32PM 3 points [-]

No one's done a definite estimate of the impacts, but "Project Chanology" did attract thousands of protestors and a lot of mainstream media attention. I didn't mean to argue that 4chan has never accomplished anything positive, or even that there isn't a lot of creative activity there - I just don't see any of it as having advanced the frontiers of human understanding in any meaningful sense.

Comment author: Peter_Twieg 21 April 2009 03:06:19PM 3 points [-]

"Don't believe in yourself! Believe that I believe in you!"

If you're trying to quote Gurren-Lagann here, I believe you botched the quote. "Believe in me who believes in you!" But maybe it was dubbed differently. In any case, I do find some amusement in your approvingly quoting a show which was more or less premised on a rejection of rationality. "Throw away your logic and kick reason to the curb!" I'll have to remember that for the next anti-rationalism quotes thread.

But anyways, I did like this post, although as you implicitly concede it's just one narrative of community development among many. I'm sure that there have been as many communities to have fallen due to despotic moderation or impoverished by rigid ideological guidelines as there have been ruined in the ways described in the OP. Oftentimes the "idiots" who "ruin" the comm are actually the lonely voices of reason. It's a fine line to walk, and I look forward to someday seeing a modern-day Machiavelli write a tract on "The Internet Community Moderator". Because it really is that tricky.

Comment author: William 22 April 2009 02:55:47AM 7 points [-]

On the other hand, "lonely voices of reason" are unlikely to overrun a community of idiots the way idiots can overrun a more intelligent community.

Comment author: sketerpot 24 April 2009 05:47:44AM 5 points [-]

I've seen it happen, actually. I went to a Christian youth forum looking for some shooting-fish-in-a-barrel debating fun, and over time I noticed that a handful of rationalists gradually came to dominate discussion, to the point where the majority would avoid making ridiculous statements in order to avoid being called out on it.

A few bright, articulate people who can type fast are surprisingly effective. If LW ever invades some other forum, that forum will either get out the banhammer or be overrun.

Comment author: MBlume 24 April 2009 05:52:43AM 10 points [-]

If LW ever invades some other forum, that forum will either get out the banhammer or be overrun.

OK, that sounds like a lot of fun. Which would be exactly the wrong reason for us to do it.

That being said, what would be the result of a coup like that? If we could actually expect to change a few minds in the process, it might be worth trying.

On the other hand, reputation is a valuable commodity. What would such an act do to our visibility and reputation?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 April 2009 05:26:13AM 13 points [-]

Unless LWers got together and staged an invasion... wouldn't that make for an interesting day at some forum...

Comment author: ciphergoth 21 April 2009 05:09:04PM 2 points [-]

Oftentimes the "idiots" who "ruin" the comm are actually the lonely voices of reason.

Could you give an example where you've seen this? In 20 years online I've seen it once, maybe.

Comment author: Annoyance 22 April 2009 03:46:37PM 0 points [-]

"Could you give an example where you've seen this? In 20 years online I've seen it once, maybe."

Are you aware of the famous advice regarding poker games and suckers?

Comment author: thomblake 22 April 2009 03:54:55PM 0 points [-]

This comment is a great example of how torn I am sometimes when allocating votes. At first glance, it seems like you're just saying something insulting and possibly mean, and adding little to the conversation - verdict: downvote.

Then, I realize that this is actually a good counterargument, once the time is taken to unpack it. Clearly it would be the case that a participant in the community would think that the "idiots" aren't the lonely voices of reason, if they actually were. If this happens frequently, then such a person would not notice the phenomenon at all.

Now I must decide whether to leave it neutral or upvote it. Since I had to do the work to get at the point of the comment, rather than having it spelled out in the comment (preferably with references where applicable), I would think it's not worth an upvote. On the other hand, the act of working out something like this is itself valuable (as we see in Zen stories), so maybe it is worth an upvote.


Comment author: ciphergoth 22 April 2009 04:18:33PM 2 points [-]

On the other hand, the act of working out something like this is itself valuable (as we see in Zen stories), so maybe it is worth an upvote.

I see quite a different perspective:

If this were a koan the teacher would be chasing you out of the temple with a stick, thwacking you as you run.

Comment author: soreff 22 April 2009 12:28:22AM *  1 point [-]

There is something related (albeit about an industry, rather than a community) in http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/03/newspapers-and-thinking-the-unthinkable/

"Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. In ordinary times, people who do no more than describe the world around them are seen as pragmatists, while those who imagine fabulous alternative futures are viewed as radicals. The last couple of decades haven’t been ordinary, however. Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones simply looking out the window and noticing that the real world was increasingly resembling the unthinkable scenario. These people were treated as if they were barking mad. Meanwhile the people spinning visions of popular walled gardens and enthusiastic micropayment adoption, visions unsupported by reality, were regarded not as charlatans but saviors."

Comment author: Peter_Twieg 21 April 2009 05:39:09PM 9 points [-]

I can't think of a specific example that a broad audience might know about, but it's relatively easy to see how this could arise. Take a community of "idiots", by whatever criteria we'd use to apply the term to the lone troll. Many of them exist which espouse all sorts of nonsense. Throw in someone who actually understands the topics which these people purport to discuss. Unless that person is incredibly subtle and eloquent, they will be denounced as an idiot in any number of ways.

I can speak here from my own experience as an economist who's tried to make arguments about public choice and decentralized knowledge to a general (online) audience in order to defend free markets. A lot of crowds really will have none of it. I think this is a frustration which even the best libertarian-leaning individuals have run into. But given persistence, one can gain ground... and subsequently be accused of "ruining" a safe space which was reserved for the narrow worldview which you challenged. In face, any community with "safe space" disclaimers is probably extremely vulnerable to this - I just doubt you've engaged with many.

Comment author: ciphergoth 22 April 2009 11:11:36AM 5 points [-]

OK, yes, that's a counterexample. However, in all those instances, the community itself is screwed in a fundamental way, and the fix is not for people to welcome the "idiots": the fix is to leave the community and go somewhere more sensible. Is there an example of a community good enough that you would recommend anyone to join, but which would have been improved by taking the criticism of unpopular members more seriously? It doesn't have to be a well-known example, and you don't have to link to it; even anecdotal evidence would be enlightening here.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 20 October 2011 06:10:08PM 0 points [-]

Damaging such a broken community might be a good thing, much as tearing down a dangerously decrepit building can be better than letting squatters stay in it until it collapses on them.

(I think that analogy as gone about as far as it should go)

Comment author: gwern 21 April 2009 04:29:29PM 2 points [-]

I don't think Gurren Lagann is meant to be taken seriously; it struck me, when I was watching it, as a reductio of the old-style mecha genre (a loving one, one done by fans of it, but still a reductio). It's a funny quip because it's so contradictory to the usual believe-in-yourself spiel, is all.

Comment author: Pierre-Andre 21 April 2009 01:58:17PM 5 points [-]

Given a finite amount of time in a day, I have to decide how to use it. While I can afford to take a quick look at each comment when there are only few of them, I have no choice but to ignore some when there are pages of them (and other top-level posts to read). One nice thing with the karma system is the "best to worst" comments order: I can read the first ones and stop reading when encountering too many "boring" ones in a row (but maybe not "boring" enough to merit a downvote).

However, if many people use a similar algorithm to mine, the "bad" comments won't be read often and thus won't get further downvotes. Worst: the "good but new" comments (starting at 0) can get stuck in that pool of unread comments.

Vladimir_Nesov suggested to add a "mediocre" voting option affecting karma by -0.3 (instead of the -1 or +1). I would instead suggest a "I read this" button, worth 0 karma, together with some counter indicating the total amounts of votes irrespective of them being -1, 0 or +1. When you read a post/comment, you always vote: -1 if you judge it bad, +1 if you judge it good and 0 if you are not ready to do any of the previous.

With such a device, people could once in a while "sacrifice" some of their time reading low karma comments with few total reading count. Moreover, the current -4 threshold for hiding a post could become a function of this total count (some kind of variance).

Comment author: stcredzero 21 April 2009 05:30:28PM 3 points [-]

I think the "mediocre" vote is really a vote on a post being noise. Instead of just "karma," one could have four numbers: signal, noise, agree, disagree. You can only vote these numbers up, and you can only vote up one of the 4.

A post would then have two scores: a "signal to noise ratio" and a "agree/disagree" score, which would be a the agrees minus the disagrees. (And actually, the signal to noise ratio would not necessarily be treated as a ratio. Both signal and noise numbers will probably be displayed.)

A vote on agree/disagree would be treated as an implicit upvote on "signal" by the post visibility algorithm.

This would make the karma system harder to game. You can vote "noise" to try and censor a post you disagree with, but then you can't also disagree with it.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 21 April 2009 06:16:17PM 3 points [-]

This is an old quality/agreement debate. My position is that agreement is irrelevant, only usefulness for improving your understanding of something you are interested in is. Communicate likelihood ratio, not posterior belief.

Comment author: thomblake 21 April 2009 05:35:16PM 1 point [-]

Voted up because while this isn't the first time this sort of thing has been proposed (and I might disagree with the "implicit upvote"), I think "signal" and "noise" are awesome names for that feature.

Comment author: roland 21 April 2009 01:07:01PM 2 points [-]

Just like it is easy to be naive about the universal virtue of unconditional nonviolent pacifism, when your country already has armed soldiers on the borders, and your city already has police.

Kudos! A lot of my friends don't understand why I practice martial arts, they just don't understand how priviledged they are in never having needed it.

Comment author: billswift 22 April 2009 06:38:49AM 1 point [-]

You might find a couple of my blog posts interesting, the more recent is http://williambswift.blogspot.com/2009/04/avoiding-combat.html , and it links to the other. I include this quote in the more recent post: "Violent crime is feasible only if its victims are cowards. A victim who fights back makes the whole business impractical." (Jeff Cooper, Principles of Personal Defense).

Comment author: CronoDAS 21 April 2009 02:41:14PM 7 points [-]

I'm skeptical of the value of advanced martial arts as a practical self-defense tool. The way that, say, muggers operate, I suspect that even Bruce Lee would find himself compelled to hand over his wallet. (You're walking along, and suddenly some guy sneaks up behind you and puts you in a chokehold or something, while another guy, in front of you, demands your money.) Three random guys with baseball bats could probably beat up any single martial arts expert that they got the drop on - and if they have knives or guns...

Comment author: Desrtopa 27 December 2010 09:08:37PM *  4 points [-]

Perhaps this happens occasionally, but I know several people who've been mugged, and all of them have been mugged by a single person. In fact, I know a number of martial artists through my own training who have been subject to mugging attempts, and all of them successfully defended themselves.

It's likely there's some selection bias going on, since it's rather embarrassing to admit to other practitioners that you failed to defend yourself from a mugger, but while there are certainly situations that no human, however skilled, can fight their way out of, martial arts are definitely better than useless at defending oneself and one's property.

Of course, learning martial arts is rarely the most effective way to defend oneself. It's usually more practical to stay out of situations where you'd need to use them at all. The way I see it, anyone who practices martial arts solely for self defense is in it for the wrong reason.

At least in terms of practical usefulness, it beats athletic skills like basketball, although you'll never get paid as much for it even if you're really good.

Comment author: CronoDAS 28 December 2010 05:04:40AM 1 point [-]

When my father was (successfully) mugged, it was by a group of three. (He also remarked that lone muggers tend to fail, unless they have a gun - it's too easy to simply run away from them.)

Of course, the plural of anecdote is not data, etc.

Comment author: Desrtopa 28 December 2010 09:09:29PM *  0 points [-]

I'd be interested to know where he got that information. Personally, I'm inclined to be skeptical; I think most people would rather not take the risk of trying to run away. If they have you at knifepoint, or have a grip on you, then you're at a distinct disadvantage trying to escape. The upside is that most muggers don't really want to hurt their victims, but that's a very risky thing to rely on.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 27 December 2010 09:45:06PM 5 points [-]

A small non-random sample, but I saw a discussion of the usefulness of martial arts where about half the participants said that what they'd actually used is the knowledge of how to fall safely.

Comment author: beoShaffer 11 October 2012 03:57:55AM 2 points [-]

There's actually been a decent bit of research into martial arts falling in non-combat situations. Kojustukan has a pretty good summary.

Comment author: Kenny 11 October 2012 03:24:30AM 3 points [-]

I can attest that falling safely is in fact very useful!

Comment author: gwern 21 April 2009 04:32:36PM 2 points [-]

I suspect Bruce Lee would've handled himself fine. The whole reason he was sent to the US by his family was that he was brawling too much in the streets (and presumably winning, although I can't immediately find any online sources which say that).

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 21 April 2009 04:11:28PM 9 points [-]

More generally, the risk of getting injured or worse costs too much to attempt violence, even if you can win in 90% of encounters. Only where you can't avoid confrontation by paying whatever moderate amount of money you have on you, there is a point in being stronger, which further discounts the worth of training, down from the already low probability of being attacked at all.

Comment author: Peter_de_Blanc 21 April 2009 12:40:32PM 5 points [-]

Different people will have different ideas of where on the 4chan - colloquium continuum a discussion should be, so here's a feature suggestion: post authors should be able to set a karma requirement to comment to the post. Beginner-level posts would draw questions about the basics, and other posts could have a karma requirement high enough to filter them out.

There could even be a karma requirement to see certain posts, for hiding Beisutsukai secrets from the general public.

Comment author: cupholder 11 July 2010 11:42:30PM *  2 points [-]

The negotiation of where LW threads should be on the 4chan-colloquium continuum is something I would let users handle by interacting with each other in discussions, instead of trying to force it to fit the framework of the karma system. I especially think letting people hide their posts from lurkers and other subsets of the Less Wrong userbase could set a bad precedent.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 21 April 2009 03:22:39PM *  11 points [-]

Karma is not a very good criterion, it's too much about participation, and less so about quality. It's additive. A cutoff of 20 points to post articles seems a reasonable minimum requirement, but doesn't tell much. The trolls who cause slow suffocation will often have 20 points, while new qualified people won't. Only extreme values of Karma seem to carry any info, when controlled for activity. Comment rating as feedback signal is much more meaningful.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 08 July 2010 01:27:54PM 3 points [-]

Karma is not a very good criterion, it's too much about participation, and less so about quality. It's additive.

What about looking at average karma per a comment rather than total karma? That might be a useful metric in general. There may be some people with very high karma that is due to high participation with a lot of mediocre comments. Someone with higher average karma might then be someone more worth paying attention to.

Comment author: Peter_Twieg 21 April 2009 02:58:02PM 18 points [-]

I'd worry that:

a) It would be incredibly difficult to initially accumulate karma to begin with if it turned out that most posts that weren't "Introduce yourself!" had a decent karma requirement.

b) You'd end up excluding non-regulars who might have very substantial contributions to specific discussions from participating in those discussions. For example, I'm an economist, and most of my posts have been and probably will be in topics that touch on economic concepts. But I don't have much karma as a consequence, and I'd think it'd be to the community's detriment if I was excluded for that reason.

Comment author: cousin_it 21 April 2009 12:53:46PM *  0 points [-]

Woah. If we accept your suggestion, how long before karma turns into money, with bargaining and stuff?

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 21 April 2009 12:38:00PM *  9 points [-]

One problem I have with hesitation to downvote is that some mediocre comments are necessary. Healthy discussion should have the right ratio of good comments to mediocre comments, so that people may feel relaxed, and make simple observations, increasing rate of communication. And current downvote seems too harsh for this role. On the other hand, people who only make tedious comments shouldn't feel welcome. This is a tricky balance problem to solve with comment-to-comment voting.

I would downvote more, if we had a separate button, saying "mediocre", that would downvote the comment, say, by 0.3 points (or less, it needs calibration). The semantics of this button is basically that I acknowledge that I have read the comment, but wasn't impressed either way. From the interface standpoint, it should be a very commonly used button, so it should be very easy to use. Bringing this to a more standard setting, this is basically graded voting, --, - and ++ (not soft/hard voting as I suggested before though).

An average mediocre comment should have (a bit of) negative Karma. This way, people may think of good comments they make as currency for buying the right to post some mediocre ones. In this situation, being afraid to post any mediocre comments corresponds to excessive frugality, an error of judgment.

Also, this kind of economy calls for separation of comment Karma and article Karma, since the nature of contributions and their valuation are too different between these venues.

Comment author: aausch 21 April 2009 07:44:28PM *  0 points [-]

Why have a button that performs a default action? If, by default, a read comment is worth 0.3 points, give it those points every time it's read.

This could be used in reverse, too. Have comments' points decay (say, for the first 4 days only) - to motivate people to save the ones they want to keep, from dropping below the readable-threshold.

Edit: In order to preserve the Karma of writers, the decay could be implemented in a smart way (say, readability threshold for comments increases as they age, so, if a comment doesn't get 3 upvotes by day 5 or after 10 reads, for example, it disappears)

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 22 April 2009 01:36:28AM 1 point [-]

The first point is answered here. The second point is not about the problem discussed in the article, it won't help in defence against trolls.

Comment author: Tiiba 21 April 2009 05:22:19PM 2 points [-]

I just had a related idea. Let people mark their own comments as highbrow, lowbrow, or NSFW. Highbrow if it's a serious comment, lowbrow if it's a bad pun. And then there could be related viewing options. This way, people who want to relax wouldn't be told that they're bad and stupid, but those who came here on business wouldn't have to see it.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 21 April 2009 06:04:51PM 5 points [-]

This can't work organically, generation of content has to be performed in the mode of presentation sufficiently compatible with the mode of consumption. Taking out a portion of comments from a discussion raptures it, making it too tarnished to hold together. It takes human intelligence to selectively abbreviate a narrative, an automatic system that just takes track of some kind of threshold is incapable of doing that gracefully. Removing offensive outliers works, but little else. See also this comment, made before it was made possible to easily see comments' context.

Comment author: Nominull 21 April 2009 05:30:22PM 2 points [-]

Even if it were a good idea to split the community like that, what are we to do with people who consistently post middlebrow posts, like pointed jokes, or philosophy interspersed with anime references?

Comment author: ciphergoth 21 April 2009 05:28:07PM 2 points [-]

The requested feature list for this site's software is now huge - we're going to need a lot more coders if we're to make such progress.

Comment author: wiresnips 21 April 2009 05:16:29PM -1 points [-]

The mediocre button should be the same as simply not voting, I think. Especially since it'd have to be used quite often, no-one wants to be pushing a button for every mediocre comment. Maybe a similar effect could be reached if comments gradually accumulate negative karma with time?

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 21 April 2009 05:46:43PM 2 points [-]

That would be nice, but unfortunately you need to somehow signal that you have really considered the comment, understood it, and decided that it's nothing special. Simply downloading the page, or even reading the comment, doesn't do the trick. See also this discussion on validity of voting in ignorance.

Comment author: ciphergoth 21 April 2009 05:39:27AM 18 points [-]

I can see myself linking to this more than anything else you've ever written. Sing it, brother!

Note that the voting system we have here is trivially open to abuse through mass account creation. We're not in a position to do anything about that, so I hope that you, the site admins, are defending against it.

Wikipedia is an instructive example. People think it's some kind of democracy. It is not a democracy: Jimbo is absolute ruler of Wikipedia. He temporarily delegates some of his authority to the bureaucrats, who delegate to the admins, who moderate the ordinary users. All those with power are interested to get ideas from lots of people before making decisions, but it's very explicit policy that the purpose is to make the best encyclopaedia possible, and democracy doesn't enter into it. It is heavily policed, and of course that's the only way it could possibly work.

Comment author: MrHen 21 April 2009 04:51:19AM *  42 points [-]

(Note) This mostly has to do with karma with a minor rant/point at the end. If that doesn't sound interesting, it probably won't be.

Because I really do honestly think that if you want to downvote a comment that seems low-quality... and yet you hesitate, wondering if maybe you're downvoting just because you disagree with the conclusion or dislike the author... feeling nervous that someone watching you might accuse you of groupthink or echo-chamber-ism or (gasp!) censorship... then nine times of ten, I bet, nine times out of ten at least, it is a comment that really is low-quality.

Some of the most interesting things I have registered about LessWrong thus far have to do with the karma game. I am convinced that there are huge swaths of information that can be learned if the karma data was opened for analysis.

If I had to guess at the weaknesses of the karma system I would peg two big problems. The first is that (some? most? many?) people are trying to assign an integer value to a post that is something outside of the range [-1,1] and then adjust their vote to affect a post's score toward their chosen value. This seems to have the effect that everything is drawn toward 0 unless it is an absolutely stellar post. Then it just drifts up. I think the highest comment I have seen was in the high teens. I know there are more than twenty people visiting the site. Do they not read comments? Do they not vote on them?

The second problem spot is that I find it hard to actually use the feedback of karma. I have no way of knowing how well I am doing other a number. I have noticed that my karma has jumped lately and this leads me to believe I have made a change for the better. Unfortunately, I have no easy way of seeing which comments did well and which did poorly. Was it my tone? Did I get wiser? Are my comments more useful? Since I am new, my comment level is low and I can dig through what is there and learn, but this will simply get harder as time goes on. The karma system seems to work well on a comment by comment basis but not so much as a teaching tool. I see this as a problem because this is exactly what I need and I feel like I am squeezing a square peg into a round hole. It makes me think I am not using it correctly.

I find both of the above problems frustrating to me personally. I see a comment get voted down and think, "Okay, that was bad." If I ask for clarification, it goes back up, which just makes it confusing. "Uh, so was it bad or not bad?" The difference between the highest rated comment of mine and the lowest is less than 10. I think the highest is 5 and the lowest was at -2 before I deleted it.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am not complaining that my super-great-excellent posts are not voted to 20 karma in a single weekend. I am complaining that my crappy posts are all sitting at 0 and -1. I just started posting here and already have over 50 karma and the dark secret is that I am a complete poser. I barely even know the terms you guys use. I have not read much of Overcoming Bias and if you gave me a test on key points of rationality I would probably limp through the guessable stuff and start failing once the questions got hard. I can pick apart the logic within a given post, but the only real contributions I have made are exposing flaws in other comments. How in the world am I succeeding? I do not know.

To put this back into the original point, if people are shy about telling me my posts are low quality I can (a) never learn the difference between "mediocre" and "bad" and (b) any fool can limp by with comments that just repeat basic logic and use key terms in the right order. The chances of that being fun are low. One of my great paranoias is that I am the fool and no one pointed it out; I am the elephant in the room but have no mirror. I don't want to trample on your garden and smush the roses. I want to partake in what seems to be a really awesome, fun community. If I don't fit, kick me out.

(To be a little less harsh on myself, I do not consider myself a fool nor am I trying to play the role of a fool. If I am one, please let me know because I apparently have not figured it out yet.)

Comment author: infotropism 21 April 2009 03:15:52PM 0 points [-]

The karma system isn't enough for the purpose of learning; I fully agree to that. And to the point of this article, I usually don't downvote people, rather I try to correct them if I see something wrong. That, if anything, seems more appropriate to me. If I see an issue somewhere, it isn't enough to point it, I must be able to explain why it is an issue, and should propose a way to solve it.

But Eliezer has me swayed on that one. Now I'll downvote, even though I am, indeed, very uncertain of my own ability to correctly judge whether a post deserves to be downvoted or not. For that matter, I am very uncertain about the quality of my own contributions as well, so there too I can relate to your experience. Sometimes, I feel like I'm just digging myself deeper and deeper, that I am not up to the necessary quality required to post in here.

Now, if I was told what, in my writings, correlates with high karma, and what does, with low karma, I think I might be tempted to optimize my posting to karma - gathering, rather than adapting them to the purpose of making high quality, useful contributions.

That's a potential issue. Karma is correlated to quality and usefulness, but ultimately, other things than quality alone can come into play, and we don't want to elicit people's optimizing for those for their own sake alone (like, persuasiveness, rhetorics, seductive arguments, well written, soul sucking texts, etc.).

We really need to get beyond the karma system. But apparently none of the ways so far proposed would be workable, for lack of programming resources. We'll need to be vigilant till then.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 21 April 2009 04:38:07PM *  7 points [-]

But Eliezer has me swayed on that one. Now I'll downvote, even though I am, indeed, very uncertain of my own ability to correctly judge whether a post deserves to be downvoted or not.

I disagree, I don't think you should downvote what you don't understand. This will only pull the discussion to the level of the least competent people.

Comment author: infotropism 21 April 2009 05:00:44PM 2 points [-]

That was my first idea. But I am not the only player here. I know I overcompensate for my uncertainty, and so I tend to never downvote anything. Other people may not have the same attitude, for down, and upvoting. Who are they ? Is their opinion more educated than mine ? If we all are too scrupulous to vote when our opinion is in fact precious, then our occasional vote may end up drowned in a sea of poorly decided, hastily cast ones.

Besides, I am still only going to downvote if I can think of a good reason to do so. For sometimes, I have a good reason to downvote, but no still no good reasons, or even no time, to reply to all ideas I think need a fix, or those which are simply irrelevant to the current debate.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 21 April 2009 05:33:38PM *  3 points [-]

You are trying to fight fools with your intuition. How much confidence do you place in it? Is your intuition more informed than the decisions of average voters? Hard to say, I wouldn't be so sure in this compound statement. It only becomes clear where you know yourself to be competent or ignorant, above or below the "average voter". At least abstaining from voting has clear semantics, you don't introduce your judgment at all. On the other hand, in many cases it should be easy to recognize poor quality.

Comment author: infotropism 21 April 2009 06:04:06PM *  0 points [-]

I don't place any confidence in my intuition as a general, indiscriminately good-for-everything case. I try to only have confidence on a case by case basis. I try to pay attention to all potential bias that could screw my opinion, like anchoring. And try to not pay attention to who wrote what I'm voting upon. Then I have to have a counterargument. Even if I don't elaborate it, even if I don't lay it down, I have to know that if I had the time or motivation, I could rather reply, and say what was wrong or right in that post.

My decisions and arguments, could, or could not be more informed than those of the average voter. But if I add my own in the pool of votes, then we have a new average. Which will only be slightly worse, or slightly better. Could we try to adapt something of decision markets there ? The way they're supposed to self correct, under the right conditions, makes me wonder if we could dig a solution in them.

And maybe someone could create an article, collecting all the stuff that could help people make more informed votes on LW, that'd help too. Like the biases they'd have to take into account, stuff like the antikibitzer, or links to articles such as the one about aumann voting or this very one.

Comment author: thomblake 21 April 2009 04:50:35PM 7 points [-]

if people downvote what they don't understand, and it's a good comment, then it should have more upvotes than downvotes if most people understand it. If it has more downvotes than upvotes in this scenario, then it was not explained well enough for the majority of readers.

These are generalizations, of course, and depend largely on actual voting habits. But so was the note that it will pull the discussion to the level of the 'least competent people' - possibly the same observation could be stated as pulling the discussion to the level of the majority of the readership.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 21 April 2009 02:01:24PM *  1 point [-]

Thank you for the analysis. Would it help if you saw who, in particular, downvoted/upvoted each of your comments? There is this feature "make my votes public", but it's virtually unusable in its current implementation (as it's scoped by voters, not by articles that are being voted for), and it doesn't seem to apply to comments at all. If the list of people who publicly voted about your comments (not everyone else's) is directly visible next to the comments, I expect that to be useful to the newcommers, and it won't clutter the interface overly much.

Comment author: MrHen 21 April 2009 02:07:21PM 2 points [-]

I would find just knowing the total up and down to accomplish more. The only reason I would want to know who voted is to see if the immediate replies are voted up or down. I have noticed a few people who will reply in disagreement and vote down. (This is not a problem; it is just a pattern I noticed.)

Comment author: AndySimpson 21 April 2009 01:54:25PM *  9 points [-]

I have the same apprehension. I'm somewhere between "complete poser" and "well-established member of the community," I just sort of found out about this movement about 50 days ago, started reading things and lurking, and then started posting. When I read the original post, I felt a little pang of guilt. Am I a fool running through your garden?

I'm doing pretty well for myself in the little Karma system, but I find that often I will post things that no one responds to, or that get up-voted or down-voted once and then left alone. I find that the only things that get down-voted more than once or twice are real attempts at trolling or otherwise hostile comments. Then again, many posts that I find insightful and beneficial to the discussion rarely rise about 2 or 3 karma points. So I'm left to wonder if my 1-point posts are controversial but good, above average but nothing special, or just mediocre and uninteresting.

Something that shows the volume of up- and down-votes as well as the net point score might provide more useful feedback.

Comment author: MorgannaLeFey 21 April 2009 11:18:58AM 7 points [-]

I know there are more than twenty people visiting the site. Do they not read comments? Do they not vote on them?

I usually don't vote because I don't feel comfortable enough in my own understanding of these discussions to have an opinion about the relative value of a particular comment. Probably if I saw something that gave me an immediate and strong reaction, I'd be more likely to vote one way or another.

I know someone else who reads posts but seldom reads the comments.

Comment author: ciphergoth 21 April 2009 05:45:45AM 7 points [-]

I barely even know the terms you guys use. I have not read much of Overcoming Bias and if you gave me a test on key points of rationality I would probably limp through the guessable stuff and start failing once the questions got hard

We keep coming back to this: we very much need a "start here" document we can point people to, and say "please read this set of documents before posting".

In the mean time, here is a list of Eliezer's posts to Overcoming Bias.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 21 April 2009 02:34:50PM 2 points [-]

What I would like to see is a book that goes through all of the major biases and gives examples of each as well as heuristics for calibrating yourself better.

Comment author: Jack 21 April 2009 02:44:54PM 2 points [-]

Do we even have a ready at hand list of the major biases? That would be a good wiki article.

Comment author: badger 21 April 2009 07:42:45PM -1 points [-]

Our wiki article on Bias references the Wikipedia and Psychology Wiki lists of biases, and provides an outline of most of the specific biases discussed on OB.

Comment author: steven0461 21 April 2009 02:49:35PM 9 points [-]
Comment author: MrHen 21 April 2009 06:01:13AM 2 points [-]

Personally, I consider it my own responsibility to learn the terms. And I am learning them, I just have other stuff to do in the meantime. A "start here" would be useful and the place I started was the about page. Since then I think of a topic I think is relevant and then search OB and LW for topics already about that subject. More often than not, someone else has already said what I am thinking. That, mixed with reading comments, has gotten me as far as I am now.

Of course, a list would have made it a little easier. :)

Comment author: CronoDAS 21 April 2009 06:11:58AM 3 points [-]

When you see a term that you don't immediately understand, let us know, so we can add it to the wiki.

Comment author: juliawise 28 July 2011 12:10:09PM 2 points [-]

Who is "us"? How should one let you know?

Comment author: Nic_Smith 29 July 2011 07:48:14AM 1 point [-]

I guess that CronoDAS had the people who have been on the site at least awhile in mind when he wrote "us." If you see jargon being used that doesn't already have an explanation at hand, you could always just reply to the comment that used the term and ask. The jargon page he alluded to is at http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Jargon

Comment author: juliawise 29 July 2011 02:25:56PM 0 points [-]

Thank you.

Comment author: ciphergoth 21 April 2009 06:17:32AM 3 points [-]

Better still, ask for the page to be created by following the instructions under "Getting help" on the front page of the wiki.

Comment author: kurige 21 April 2009 05:14:02AM 10 points [-]

The karma system is a integral part of the Reddit base code that this site is built on top of. It's designed to do one thing - increase the visibility of good content - and it does that one thing very well.

I agree, though, that there is untapped potential in the karma system. Personally I would love to see - if not by whom - at least when my comments are up/down voted.

Comment author: MrHen 21 April 2009 05:17:23AM 2 points [-]

Ah, that is good to remember. This seems to tilt my problem further toward fitting a square peg into the round hole. I guess that would be my own fault. :(

Comment author: jimrandomh 21 April 2009 05:12:10AM *  6 points [-]

I have no easy way of seeing which comments did well and which did poorly

If you click on your username (or any other user's), you get a history page with only your posts. That saves you the trouble of digging through all the stories you commented on, and lets you look at all your scores in one place.

Comment author: MrHen 21 April 2009 05:14:07AM 1 point [-]

Thanks. Is there anyway to see which comments have replies from that page?

Comment deleted 21 April 2009 05:19:44AM [-]
Comment author: MBlume 21 April 2009 05:18:15AM *  12 points [-]

no, but you can see from your inbox, which, for some odd reason, is not linked to anywhere.

ETA: Well, not linked to anywhere is a stretch. You can navigate there as follows:

  • click some user's name
  • click "send a message" (off to the right near your and their karma scores)
  • there'll be a menu under the site logo with "compose, inbox, sent"

I find it's easier to just bookmark the inbox page, or let your browser start autocompleting it for you

Comment author: dariusp 27 April 2009 06:58:35AM 13 points [-]

The user info in the sidebar now has an envelope which is a link to a users inbox. The envelope is red if there are new messages, otherwise it is gray.

The inbox and sent pages are now styled similar to the rest of lesswrong. In addition they now also have the sidebar.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 27 April 2009 05:19:53PM *  2 points [-]


I have an enhancement suggestion: have two colors for the "Inbox" icon, one to indicate that there are only comment replies (green color?), and another one for private messages (orange). This way, I won't need to check the inbox for the comments, if I know that I have read them anyway, but I won't miss private messages as a result of not checking it when new comments arrive.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 April 2009 07:00:26AM 0 points [-]

Thank you!

Comment author: wmoore 21 April 2009 11:28:31PM 3 points [-]

The inbox is a feature that came for free with the Reddit codebase but it was "lost" when the site was restyled. You will notice that the formatting of inbox page is totally messed up, this is also because it wasn't included in redesign. Notification of replies is on the list of things to implement but there's some higher priority work going on at the moment. Since it is a small change and many people seem to be requesting it I hope that we will get to it soon.

Comment author: MrHen 21 April 2009 05:53:46AM 2 points [-]

Whoa, that is the most useful feature yet. Fantastic; thank you.

Comment author: MBlume 21 April 2009 06:28:54AM 1 point [-]

no problem =)

Comment author: pjeby 21 April 2009 03:13:36AM 1 point [-]

Um, so, who is the fool you're talking about, or are you just speaking hypothetically?

Comment author: thomblake 21 April 2009 12:56:37PM 0 points [-]

It strikes me as a purely theoretical point - an admonition that we're not downvoting enough.

But who knows - someone who EY has repeatedly called a 'troll' has been pretty consistently on the 'top contributors' list since near when we started here.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 21 April 2009 01:11:15PM *  2 points [-]

Note that he's been consistently losing Karma ever since the automatic self-upvote was turned off.

Comment author: thomblake 21 April 2009 01:33:52PM 0 points [-]

I doubt that's the whole story - he doesn't post nearly as frequently as a lot of folks around here, and if you look at his recent comment history, a lot of his comments are at about -5 or so that (as far as I can tell) would be at about a 0 if they were posted by anyone else. Seems like he's getting unusually and inappropriately slammed with downvotes lately.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 21 April 2009 03:34:14PM 0 points [-]

That may be right. People don't just vote for comments, but also for the person. In time, the impression sunk in, which modified the baseline of voting decisions.

Comment author: Annoyance 21 April 2009 02:16:04PM 4 points [-]

Look at it this way: it is folly to evaluate the known in terms of the unknown, while it's necessary to evaluate the unknown in terms of the known.

It's much, much easier to decide the value of a comment or comment history than to judge the value of how people vote for it. How many people read a comment, but don't vote? How many positive and negative votes are there? What do we know about how insightful and wise the voting community is as a whole, and how do we determine how well the voters manifest those qualities in individual cases?

The quality of the comments is clearer - more known - than the quality of the votes. It follows that the karma system doesn't provide us with a way to judge the comments, but a way to judge the community. Not a great way by any means, admittedly, but a method.

Comment author: byrnema 21 April 2009 04:42:07AM *  4 points [-]

Definitely I'm one of them. Or just me. I've been posting a lot in ineffective directions and my ideas don't seem aligned well with the group. Sorry, Eliezer. I enjoyed my LW experience -- it is a fun community. Best.

(Written later:) Reading through MrHen's comment, it is interesting to me that we are both new to the group (I'm 2 weeks older) and both feel like posers. (We have karma scores around 55). I think it is interesting that in response to a general reprimand from Eliezer, we both had similar thoughts in our heads (I claim this) but responded quite differently. I have heard before that a gender difference when it comes to grant resubmission in the sciences is that women take the first rejection personally and don't resubmit at the same rate. While MrHen requested more feedback, I wanted to make an apology and exit before I further offended, even though I wasn't certain to what extent it was me.

Was my guess that the "fool is me" an overly sensitive response to criticism? I was worried that my harping on religion might be factious, and so I already felt guilty.

How does a person know if they don't fit, or if their ideas align well enough?

Comment author: byrnema 21 April 2009 04:18:12PM *  2 points [-]

My impressions about this group has been that the tone is overall welcoming and supportive, and dissenting views and misapprehensions are met with civility and patience. This is exactly what I expect from a rationalist group, and why I like it here.

From feedback in this thread, I understand that no plurality wants me kicked off LW for stomping on flowers but, indeed, perhaps theistic views (or, in my case, theistic sympathies) are not compatible with your programme. Since there seems to be some debate left, I would like to participate and have a hand in my fate regarding inclusion here.

An explanation of how theism could possibly be consistent with being rational is begged in nearly every other comment in this thread. I would like to provide one, and I will do so in the Welcome Page, as suggested by AnnaSalamon. I'm not certain that I'm ready -- a better understanding of LW would help me prepare a more relevant and convincing argument - but the time seems right. I will paste a link here when my argument is posted.

I would like to assure that I will not persist indefinitely in this argument, it is not my intention to be factious. When and if the tide has shifted so it seems that the general view of the group is that atheism is a precondition (minimum standards, consistency, etc) then I will know that my views or not aligned well enough. Already I am of a mind that this is not the place to debate theism generally -- there are other forums for that. However, this would be the place to debate the relationship between theism and rationality, to the extent to which it is undecided and of interest.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 21 April 2009 05:34:15PM 1 point [-]

Try the Open Thread, not the welcome page.

Also this links to much of the previous discussion of those arts by which even a moderately competent rationalist would flatly rule out all present-day religions.

If a topic is consistently downvoted, it really does seem to me that one ought to take a hint that perhaps the discussion is not locally desired, for whatever reason. I try to take those hints that are represented by my own comments being downvoted or my own posts not being upvoted. Consider doing likewise.

Comment author: byrnema 24 April 2009 12:52:19PM -1 points [-]

Requesting permission to post top-level in response to The Uniquely Awful Example of Theism. It's not perfect, but I wrote it carefully.