Slate Star Codex: The Slow and Painful Death of Online Discussions
Likes, Going Viral and Goodhart's Law
A couple of weeks ago, on the Arkansas subreddit, I saw a discussion of the events of January 6th, 2021. Whether you consider the events of that day an attempted coup, election interference, a riot, or something else does not matter to me. I have no interest in tussling with anyone online over that topic.
What caught my eye was that someone posting a minority opinion was told to, “Read the room.” It sounded like a threat. Posting an opinion that smacks of social conservatism on the Arkansas subreddit invokes the wrath of the group, and Reddit provides users with the means to punish articulators of minority opinions.
Reddit rewards users with “karma” for contributing to discussions. As users upvote your posts or comments, your karma score rises. Downvotes decrease your karma score. The higher your Karma score, the more likely other users are to see your posts.
If you fail to “read the room” and voice an unpopular opinion in a group with tens or hundreds of thousands of members, users can destroy the karma you spent years accumulating in hours or even minutes.
I’ve been on Reddit since 2011, but I took no interest in the mechanics of Reddit karma until the last couple of weeks, when I encountered the concept of demolishing a user’s karma score as punishment for refusing to concede to a majority opinion.
I replied to the “read the room” comment with, “‘Read the room’ meaning defer to majority opinion?”
This cost me 21 karma (so far). For comparison, the most upvotes I’ve received for a recent comment was a month ago in r/singularity when I posted 203 words on the susceptibility of older men to deaths of despair when they lose their economic relevance. That comment got 8 upvotes.
A helpful soul on r/Arkansas explained the rules to me:
You must be new here. Nobody here is interested in logic or civility. Upvotes are for agreement and downvotes are for disagreement. Also, it’s mostly children who want to feel like they’re important for awarding each other fake internet points. It has been years since Reddit has been a place for disparate viewpoints.
If voicing a majority opinion costs you karma, and low karma means that the curatorial algorithm buries your posts and comments to where you might as well write them on paper, put them in a bottle and throw them into the ocean, what will this do to the quality of discussion?
I imagine that there are people at Reddit who get paid to ask and answer questions like that. Indications point to Reddit being fine with downvote bullying, low-effort reaction and vast, tribal echo chambers.
The ad-centric business model of social media platforms depends on users spending lots of time online. Passive scrolling with short reactive bursts from “users” is sustainable for longer periods of time and involves more page refreshes or scrolling gestures down the endless feed of new content, which brings new paid ads before the viewers’ eyes. This mentality is more profitable for the platforms but destructive to substantive online discussion.
This brings me to the Slate Star Codex subreddit post in the screenshot at the top of this article. If you made it this far, I assume you’ve read it, but for the convenience of the curatorial algorithms, here’s the full text:
If you’ve been on the internet for longer than 10 years, you probably get what I mean. The internet 10-20 years ago was a huge circle of discussion spaces, whereas now it feels more akin to a circle of “reaction” spaces: React to this tweet, leave a comment under this TikTok/Youtube video, react to this headline! The internet is reactionary now; It is near impossible to talk about anything unless it is current. If you want people to notice anything, it must be presented in the form of content, (ex. a Youtube video) which will be rapidly digested & soon discarded by the content mill. And even for content which is supposedly educational or meant to spark discussion, you’ll look in the comments and no one is actually discussing anything, they’re just thanking the uploader for the entertainment, as if what were said doesn’t matter, doesn’t spark any thoughts. Lots of spaces online have the appearance of discussion, but when you read, it’s all knee-jerk reactions to something: some video, some headline, a tweet. It’s all emotion and no reflection.
I value r/SSC because it’s one of the rare places that’s not like this. But it’s only so flexible in terms of topic, and it’s slower than it used to be. Hacker News is also apparently worse than it used to be. I have entire hobbies that can’t be discussed online anymore because... where the hell can I do it? Despite the net being bigger than ever, in a sense it’s become so much smaller.
I feel in 10 years, the net will essentially be one giant, irrelevant comment section that no one reads stapled onto some hypnotizing endless content like the machine from Infinite Jest. Somehow, the greatest communication tool mankind ever invented has turned into Cable TV 2.0.
I haven’t read Infinite Jest, so I asked Claude about it. Claude explained that the r/SSC poster was referring to “The Entertainment,” which, it explained, “works as a lethal, addictive piece of entertainment media. It’s so hypnotically engrossing that it overrides all other human drives in viewers. They rapidly self-destruct from the inability to stop compulsively viewing it.”
To the credit of the Slate Star Codex community, the post sparked a nuanced discussion of why low-effort, reactive behavior and downvote bullying drives out thoughtful discussion. One commenter identified the ease of access as a driving factor. When small, hard-to-find discussion forums dotted the internet landscape, the effort required to find and access them discouraged low-effort affirmations of group think.
My most engaging and engrossing internet discussions took place in the mid 1990s when I was a graduate student. I didn’t have a computer of my own and had to go to a campus computer lab to get online to check my email and engage in online discussion forums like USENET and listservs.
Even after I had a computer and home internet access, the dial-up connection which tied up the phone line created a definite threshold dividing online and offline time. It wasn’t a golden age in absolute terms. People still engaged in logical fallacies and ridicule, but compared to the quality of online discussion today, it was Camelot.
The smart phone keeps us online all the time, and push notifications designed to provoke us actively invite low-effort reactions to provocation rather than high-effort engagement with arguments and ideas. But there’s more at work here than just push notifications and ease of connection.
The phrase “surfing the Web” used to describe the process of following hypertext links to unfamiliar websites. When the Web was a place to be explored, a new discussion forum focused on a topic of interest to you was a precious discovery. It paid to put your best foot forward when making your first impression in this new space.
Far from being a place in which you explore and make new discoveries, the contemporary internet consists of a passive stream of algorithmically curated notifications optimized to provoke superficial engagement, clicks and page views.
The discussion forums that I remember being most valuable to me were ones that had a couple of dozen active participants at most. There were lurkers, but I wasn’t writing to them or concerned with their approval. I was engaging with the other active participants, responding to their arguments and trying my best to get them to give my point of view a fair shake. There were no upvotes. I measured the success of my efforts by the quality of conversation my words inspired.
Quantifiable approval metrics such as “likes” and “upvotes” awarded by lurkers who might number in the tens or even hundreds of thousands upend the motivation for engaging in online discussion. Now, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll articulate opinions that are short, clear, savage and condemnatory of the minority position. Either that, or carry the post you want to engage with back to a community where yours is the majority opinion and respond to it there. To resist balkanization is to commit karma suicide.
Whenever you see a comment that has thousands of likes and re-posts or one that has been “ratioed,” i.e. downvoted to oblivion, remember Goodhart’s Law:
“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
A metric that quantifies a desired outcome becomes the new goal of the activity. It invites reward hacking. Typically, reward hacking involves exploiting loopholes and technicalities to artificially inflate a score, but even when the loopholes have been closed, players distort the original activity by optimizing behavior to inflate the metric.
Here’s an example. I shop at Walmart multiple times a week. I usually only have a few items, and I use the self-serve checkout lanes. There are employees assigned to manage the self-checkout lanes. I see and talk to them regularly. They are people to me, not anonymous drones.
At the end of each self-checkout session, I am asked to rate my experience by giving it between one and five stars. The employees I talk to most often have explained to me that these ratings affect their employee evaluations. If the credit card reader takes five tries to read my debit card and I give the experience a low score, all I’m doing is harming the human being assigned to that bank of self-checkout stations. So, no matter the quality of my experience, I always give it five stars. By pressuring the employees to bring in high user experience scores, those scores now have no correlation with the quality of user experience.
In the same way, “Fake internet points” and the chance of “going viral” have perverted online discussions of ideas and public policy, turning them one of the most toxic and dysfunctional aspects of contemporary life.