Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Moving the World

A few weeks ago, I thought about writing an article on Apple Pay and posting it on one of the tech-site forums that I frequent. People were using the forums to discuss the merits of Apple Pay, but these discussions were filled with both missing information and actual misinformation. This made it difficult to draw any conclusions, and arguments ended up going in circles.

I hate when arguments go in circles and nothing ever gets settled. It happens in tech-site forums. It happens in education. It’s an incredible waste of energy that can stall forward progress. My plan was to write down what I thought I knew and then crowd-source anything that I had wrong or didn’t know. We would debate issues in the comments until we reached a level of consensus, and then I would update the original post with the new information.

When I shared this plan with my friend Daniel, he was less than enthusiastic. He asked me why I didn’t just research Apple Pay on my own and then post what I had learned. Why did I want to crowd-source the article?

This got me thinking. I wasn’t motivated by a desire to write a comprehensive and meticulously-researched article. I enjoy reading those articles, but not enough to research and write them on my own. I also wasn’t motivated by a desire to organize and harness a community effort to write a comprehensive and meticulously-researched article. I like the idea of sharing resources to build something together that would be difficult for any one person to build alone, but that level of sharing and community-building isn’t enough for me. No, I was motivated by a desire to transform individuals through the process of organizing and harnessing a community effort to write a comprehensive and meticulously-researched article.

Tech sites compete to improve along a specific trajectory. Their goal is to attract and retain eyeballs so that they can sell those eyeballs to advertisers. Some sites compete by writing well-researched articles. They attract and retain eyeballs by being authoritative and highly credible. Other sites compete by trying to be your one stop shop for all your tech news or the site with a community of like-minded readers. But either way, they measure success with the same metrics: How many readers do you have? How engaged/loyal are they?

Many tech sites would like to improve the quality of their comments and forums, but they can’t afford to do it unless it also attracts and retains eyeballs. Unfortunately, circular and never-ending arguments are a great way to fire people up and get them coming back for more. This is why many sites end up adopting clickbait headlines and goosing their readers to argue back and forth. It’s reached the point where many readers and tech-site editors just assume that any attempt to clean up comments and forums is a hopeless battle.

Why do people post comments on articles and in forums on tech sites? I think most people do it to connect with other people and win points for being clever. Being clever can mean being informative, but it can also mean the perfect put-down. Forums are fairly well-designed for these jobs, but some people would love to hire forums for other jobs: learning things, having thoughtful discussions, or pontificating. Since most tech-site forums aren’t well-designed for those jobs, those people end up as nonconsumers.

As a crowd-sourcing site, Wikipedia competes on a different set of metrics. It looks at the number of people who use it as a source of information and the number of active editors and contributors. I’ve read that Wikipedia has been struggling to attract and retain contributors. There have been complaints that a small group of longtime editors have been driving new contributors away. Unfortunately, that same small group of editors is the backbone of the site, so Wikipedia faces a serious dilemma. Do they try to make editing more inclusive and bring in fresh blood (but risk killing the site by losing their most active editors) or do they stay on course and hope that small tweaks will turn things around (but risk killing the site as the pool of contributors continues to slowly shrink over time)?

If I ever created a site to crowd-source articles, I would compete on an entirely different set of metrics: I’d measure the growth of my readers.

On a recent Apple Pay article, two readers were arguing back and forth. They exchanged over two dozen comments in an hour. A few other people tried to jump in, but they weren’t able to help. The first reader was wrong; he was basing his entire argument on a single misconception. Since you linked your credit card to Apple Pay inside of an Apple app, he assumed that Apple generated the token that is stored on your smartphone. What he didn’t realize is that Apple’s app establishes a direct connection to your specific bank, and the bank that issued your credit card generates the token, not Apple. It was an honest, and perfectly reasonable, mistake. The second reader was correct, but he never identified why the first reader was mistaken. Instead, he kept repeating his argument over and over again. He actually did explain that Apple did not generate the token, but there was so much cruft around that statement that the first reader couldn’t hear it. If the two of them could have identified the source of the token as the source of their disagreement, then they could have either resolved their disagreement then and there or at least parted company agreeing to research that one specific issue further. Instead, both of them parted company pissed off and convinced that they were right and the other was wrong.

Now, imagine if someone had jumped in and helped the two men identify the source of their disagreement. With a little research, they would have found a credible source explaining that the bank, and not Apple, issues the token. With consensus achieved, an editor would then add that information to the article so that other readers would not have to debate the same point. If this happens enough times, the first reader will learn not to be so sure of himself when he doesn’t actually know something, and that he can learn more by asking questions instead of arguing. In fact, if he asks enough questions, soon he’ll be the one helping the new guy out. Meanwhile, the second reader will learn that he can contribute more if he listens to people who are mistaken and can identify the source of their confusion. Instead of endless arguments, the forum provides an opportunity for growth.

My crowd-sourcing site is fundamentally different than Wikipedia because we compete on different metrics. At Wikipedia, people contribute to articles. When there is a disagreement, an editor comes in and makes a final decision. There is no attempt by the editor to help the contributors resolve their own conflicts. At my site, an editor is a mediator. They model how to resolve conflicts so that contributors can resolve more of their own conflicts, and many of those contributors will eventually begin mediating for others and become editors themselves. The debate has value; it’s not just a necessary step on the path to a well-sourced article.

Is there a business model for the kind of site I’m describing? I have no idea. I do know that there are nonconsumers who would love to hire the kind of website forum I’m describing. It’s also potentially disruptive because it changes the metric for performance. I also know that it is possible. I can envision it, even if I don’t know how large the market is. Imagine a site where people learned to resolve their differences, and then applied what they learned to other sites, to their face-to-face relationships, and then in the public arena. Instead of discussions about Apple Pay, we could grow to discuss global warming, universal healthcare, immigration, and sensible tax policy. Just imagine it. That’s the world in which I’d want to live.


  1. I too wish people would have productive discussions instead of unproductive arguments, both online and offline. :-D I think it's impossible to create a forum where that happen 100% of the time ... unless the forum is invitation-only and the only two people invited are William Ury and the Dalai Lama :-P

    I can talk a bit about this from my extensive Wikipedia experience. First of all, your description is a bit misleading. On Wikipedia there is no distinction between "contributors" and "editors". Everyone is called an "editor". There is no special category of people who have the final say on what goes in an article. (There are "administrators", but they do unrelated stuff.) All content decisions are by consensus, with very very rare exceptions.

    The ideal thing that you're talking about, really does happen all the time on Wikipedia. When there is a disagreement on Wikipedia, it usually turns into a discussion on the associated Talk Page, in a new section on the specific issue like "History section is misleading". Then whoever is around will participate in a group discussion about whether or not the section is misleading. Most of the time (in my experience) the issue is resolved, and the article is reworded to be more clear, and everyone learns something in the process. The fact that "everyone learns something in the process" is not literally the goal of Wikipedia ... but it's pretty close. I mean, if the goal is to write an ever-improving encyclopedia article, then a necessary step is for the writers to have ever-improving understanding of the topic. "To teach is to learn twice."

    Anyway, this happens a lot on Wikipedia, but it certainly does not happen 100% of the time: There are tons of unproductive arguments on Wikipedia too. How do you reduce their frequency? I don't know. Wikipedia has dozens of mechanisms, like enforced civility policy, volunteer mediators, etc., which each help to some extent. But nothing works perfectly. Some arguments do not turn productive despite mediators and everything else.

    Personally, I try very very hard to be humble, helpful, and see other people's perspectives, etc., but occasionally someone will point out to me (correctly) that I wrote something that comes across as condescending. That invites defensiveness, and voila, the discussion has become an argument!

    Online community building is a fascinating topic. How do you nudge people to interact with humility, patience, etc.? News article comments have TONS of room for improvement, Wikipedia is better but has plenty of room for improvement too. http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/BuildingCommunitieswithSo.html I hope you keep thinking about it!

    1. Hi Steve,

      Thanks for your insights about Wikipedia. I shouldn’t have painted with such a broad brush.

      One of the things I remembered when reading Disrupting Class is that what we measure matters. I have no doubt that many editors at Wikipedia become better at working with other editors over time, but is this something that Wikipedia measures when it is trying to measure how successful it is? Is there an attempt to look at editor A and see how her interactions have evolved from being active on the site for six months? If there is a controversial article that is constantly locked because of warring editors, are there systems in place to shift those conversations over time so that there are fewer locked articles? I think Wikipedia does what it can, and individual editors on Wikipedia do what they can, but the site isn’t going to be designed with those goals in mind unless those are metrics that Wikipedia uses to measure its own performance. As Christensen points out, it is hard to invest in technologies that don’t bring immediate performance improvements to the things you measure.

      This is not a knock on Wikipedia or forums in general. They do what they are designed to do, and they are probably getting better all the time. I just think that there is a group of nonconsumers out there (I’m one of them) who are shopping around for something different. And it may be hard, but I definitely believe that it is possible to design a website that does encourage thoughtful discourse and a coming together of the minds. I think we hold ourselves back when we think these things are impossible.

    2. Interesting ideas! No, as a wikipedia editor, there is almost no feedback on the quality of your interactions with other people. If you say something especially obnoxious, you may be punished for it. (E.g. your account can be temporarily blocked for overtly personal attacks.) A few times I have seen one experienced editor telling another experienced editor that they are being too mean to a new editor, usually with a link to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WP:DONTBITE . But by and large, as you suspect, almost all feedback is related to the quality and correctness of your article edits and additions. I never thought about it that way until now!! :-D

    3. Imagine that if, as an editor, you were receiving feedback on your interactions with other editors and how well you were able to understand and synthesize the edits of others into your own edits. And imagine that there were editors modeling these skills and resources that you could use to get better. Finally, imagine that there were incentives in place to motivate you to develop those interpersonal and thinking skills and become a better editor.

      I don’t think there is anything wrong with Wikipedia not providing that level of feedback or coaching to its editors. Wikipedia has its own self-defined mission, and I think its great. I just see the opportunity to build something slightly different that might benefit the world in a different way.