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Censorship By Glut 391

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the all-my-ideas-are-brilliant dept.
Frequent Slashdot contributor Bennett Haselton writes "A 2006 paper by Matthew Salganik, Peter Dodds and Duncan Watts, about the patterns that users follow in choosing and recommending songs to each other on a music download site, may be the key to understanding the most effective form of "censorship" that still exists in mostly-free countries like the US It also explains why your great ideas haven't made you famous, while lower-wattage bulbs always seem to find a platform to spout off their ideas (and you can keep your smart remarks to yourself)." Read on for the rest of Bennett's take on why the effects of peer ratings on a music download site go a long way towards explaining how good ideas can effectively be "censored" even in a country with no formal political censorship.


In a country where you're free to say almost anything in the political arena, I think the only real censorship of good ideas is what you could call "censorship by glut". If you had a brilliant, absolutely airtight argument that we should do something -- indict President Bush (or Barack Obama), or send foreign investment to Chechnya, or let kids vote -- but you weren't an established writer or well-known blogger, how much of a chance do you think your argument would have against the glut of Web rants and other pieces of writing out there? Especially if your argument required people to read it and think about it for at least an hour? Perhaps your situation could be compared to that of a brilliantly talented band submitting a song for Matthew Salganik's experiment.

What Salganik and his co-authors did was recruit users through advertisements on Bolt.com (skewing toward a teen demographic) to sign up for a free music download site. Users would be able to listen to full-length songs and then decide whether or not to download the song for free. Some users were randomly divided into eight artificial "worlds" in which, while a user was listening to a song, they could see the number of times that the song had been downloaded by other users in the same world -- but only by other users within their own world, not counting the downloads by users in other worlds. The test was to see whether certain songs could become popular in some worlds while languishing in others, despite the fact that all groups consisted of randomly assigned populations that all had equal access to the same songs. The experiment also attempted to measure the "merit" of individual songs by assigning some users to an "independent" group, where they could listen to songs and choose whether to download them, but without seeing the number of times the song had been downloaded by anyone else; the merit of the song was defined as the number of times that users in the independent group decided to download the song after listening to it. Experimenters looked at whether the merit of the song had any effect on the popularity levels it achieved in the eight other "worlds".

The authors summed it up: "In general, the 'best' songs never do very badly, and the 'worst' songs never do extremely well, but almost any other result is possible." They also noted that in the "social influence" worlds where users could see each others' downloads, increasing download numbers had a snowball effect that widened the difference between the successful songs and the unsuccessful: "We found that all eight social influence worlds exhibit greater inequality -- meaning popular songs are more popular and unpopular songs are less popular -- than the world in which individuals make decisions independently." Figures 3(A) and 3(C) in the paper show that the relationship between a song's merit and its success in any given world -- while not completely random -- is tenuous. And if you're a talented musician and you want to get really depressed about your prospects of hitting the big time, Figures 3(B) and 3(D) show the relationship between a song's measured merit and its actual number of sales in the real world. (Although those graphs may cheer you up if you're a struggling musician who hasn't made it big yet -- maybe it's not you, it's just the roll of the dice.)

As the Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein put it in their all-around fascinating book Nudge , where I first read about the Salganik study:

In many domains people are tempted to think, after the fact, that an outcome was entirely predictable, and that the success of a musician, an actor, an author, or a politician was inevitable in light of his or her skills and characteristics. Beware of that temptation. Small interventions and even coincidences, at a key stage, can produce large variations in the outcome. Today's hot singer is probably indistinguishable from dozens and even hundreds of equally talented performers whose names you've never heard. We can go further. Most of today's governors are hard to distinguish from dozens or even hundreds of politicians whose candidacies badly fizzled.

Is the blogosphere, or the "marketplace of ideas" in general, any different? If a random sample of bloggers were rated based on some independent measure of merit -- for example, independent ratings from a random sampling of blog readers, who were looking at the bloggers' writing samples for the first time, analogous to users in Salganik's "independent" world -- and then correlate that with the bloggers' traffic or some other measure of success, it's not hard to imagine the results would be similar to those of the 8-worlds experiment: the best often rise to the top, the very worst rarely do, but success in the vast middle would be close to random. In fact, while music listeners would have no logical reason to like a song just because others did, users in the blogosphere and other public forums would have several rational reasons to cluster around writers who are already popular: (1) errors are more likely to have been spotted and pointed out by someone else; (2) as an extension of that, others are more likely to have provided comments and other value-added content; (3) if you are the first person to spot an error, it's more important on a popular blog to point out the error and stop the misinformation from spreading, than on a minor blog that nobody has ever heard of. So the "snowball effect" of popularity in the blogosphere would be even more pronounced.

Then why do so many people believe in what Thaler and Sunstein call the "inevitability" of success based on merit, in domains like music, politics, and writing? I think it's because the belief is what scientists call an unfalsifiable one -- if the "best" acts are assumed to be the ones that end up on the top of the pile, then the marketplace has always sorted the "best" content to the top, by definition. Since the definition is circular, the premise could never be disproved by any amount of counter-evidence -- even if an act that used to be popular, suddenly falls under the radar, that could be seen as "proof" that they lost whatever magic touch they used to have, not as evidence of the arbitrariness of the market! The only disproof would be an artificial experiment like Salganik's, showing that once you get beyond a certain threshold of quality, commercial success has little relationship to independently measured merit -- but such experiments, which in Salganik's case required the cooperation of over 14,000 users, don't come along very often. And as long as most people don't realize how arbitrary the existing marketplaces are, there isn't enough demand to justify building a system that could work better -- indeed, to even justify asking the question of whether a system could be designed that would work better.

And that, I think, is how "censorship by glut" really works. It's not just the sheer amount of written content that censors small voices -- if you happen to know about a particular writer that you consider a fount of wisdom, then the existence of a billion other Web pages won't stop you from reading that writer's content. And it's not as if there aren't plenty of people who realize that success can be highly arbitrary. The problem is that as long as most people assume that the existing marketplace of ideas does a good job of sorting the best content to the top, then they'll be more inclined to stay with the most popular news sites and blogs, and even the minority who know that it's largely a lottery, will have no effective way of finding the best content among everything else, so they'll end up sticking with the most popular sites as well. Worse, as a secondary effect, most people with something useful to contribute won't even bother, if they don't already have a large built-in audience. I know plenty of people who could write insightful essays about social and technological issues, essays that would give most readers a new perspective such that they would definitely say afterwards: "That was worth my time to read it." But it wouldn't be worth it to the writers, because they know that their content isn't going to get magically sorted into its deserved place in the hierarchy.

(My own favorite blog that nobody's ever heard of is Seth Finkelstein's InfoThought, which is usually logical and insightful and is only about 25% of the time about how "nobody ever reads this blog, so what's the point". His Guardian columns are also good and usually don't have that subtext, perhaps because it's considered impolite to use a newspaper's column-inches (column-centimeters?) to complain that you have no voice.)

So can this problem be avoided, or is inequality and arbitrariness just a permanent part of the marketplace for content and ideas? You could create an artificial world that would sort user-submitted content according to some other algorithm -- and even if it didn't give good writers the fame that they theoretically deserved in the larger world, it might still provide them with enough of an audience within the artificial universe, to make it worth their time to keep writing. One option would be to use Salganik's "independence" world model, where users would read content without being able to see the ratings that other people had given to it, or without even seeing recommendations from similarly-minded friends within the system. The trouble is that without any information about what other readers liked, without any starting point to sort good content from bad content, it may not be worth the reader's time to read through all the dreck to find the occasional buried treasure. I believe about as strongly as a person can believe, that the existing marketplace for content is far from meritocratic, for example that there are probably thousands of songs on iTunes that I've never heard of but would nonetheless love -- but even I don't spend time listening to the 30-second clips of random songs on iTunes, because it takes too long to find the stuff I would like.

But I submit there is a solution -- a variant of an argument that I've suggested for stopping cheating on Digg, or building Wikia search into a meritocratic search engine, or helping the best writers rise to the top on Google Knol. The solution is sorting based on ratings from a random sample of users. The remainder of this speculation will be very theoretical, and will at times seem like a Rube-Goldberg approach to what should be a simple problem. But at each juncture, the complications to the algorithm are motivated by an argument that anything simpler would not work. At many points along the way, it will be tempting to throw up one's hands and say, "Why go to all this trouble, the existing system works well enough." But this statement is hard to quantify with any actual evidence -- unless you're just using the circular definition above, that whatever rises to the top is automatically the "best".

For music listeners, the gist of the algorithm is: When an artist submits a new song in the alt-rock category for example, the song is distributed to a random sample of 20 users who have indicated an interest in that genre. If the average rating from those users is high enough, the song gets recommended to all of the site's users who are interested in alt-rock. If the average rating is not high enough, then the artist receives a notification, perhaps with a list of comments from the listeners suggesting what to improve. As long as the initial random sample of users is large enough that the average rating is indicative of what the rest of the site's alt-rock fans would think, the good content will get to be enjoyed by all of the site's alt-rock customers, while the bad content would fizzle after only wasting the time of 20 people. If it turns out that a random selection of 20 users are typically too lazy to rate the songs that are submitted to them, you could even make artists submit $10 to have their songs rated by the focus group, and pay each of the 20 raters $0.50 each for their trouble. Artists can't withhold payment as revenge for a bad rating, so the average ratings should still be proportional to the song's actual quality.

At this point, you might object that this system suffers from the same unfalsifiable, circular reasoning as the belief that the marketplace rewards the "best" content, if the best content is the content that wins in the marketplace. If I define the "best" content to be the content that gets the highest average score in a random focus group, then of course this algorithm sorts the best content to the top, because that's how "best" was defined! But this system does actually have a non-trivial property: If you implement the system in multiple separate "worlds" (similar to those that Salganik created), then provided your focus groups are large enough to provide representative random samples, the same content should rise to the top in each of the worlds, unlike the results in Salganik's experiment.

This actually wouldn't be the case if the initial focus groups were not big enough -- then random variations in a few voters' opinions could cause many songs to succeed in one world and fail in another. So it's a non-trivial property that is not automatically true, and would not be true if you made an error in designing the system, like making the focus groups too small. But the larger the size of the random sample, the smaller the variance in the expected value of the average of their ratings, and the greater agreement you would expect between the results from different worlds.

As Salganik pointed out to me, this system does under-reward songs that might require repeated listenings over time to gain an appreciation of their qualities. But even this, strictly speaking, can be modeled in exchange for cash -- I'll pay 20 users $2 each if they listen to my song once today, once in three days, and once again a week after that (the site could stream the song to them to provide at least some likelihood that the users weren't cheating). This assumes some things, such as that repeated exposure has the same growing-on-you effect even if the exposure is forced -- but in the real world, songs often grow on you from repeated listenings that are "forced" anyway, if they're played in the doctor's office or on the radio when you don't bother to change the channel. And this might be more complicated than necessary -- often when a song grows on you, it at least interests you enough the first time you hear it, that you'd give it a positive rating on the first listen, which is all that the site requires for the song's success.

However, if you try to adapt this trick to a meritocracy for written content, you run into different problems. With a song, if you poll a random sample of users, the odds are very small that anyone being polled will be a vested interest in the success of the song, like one of the band members or one of the song's producers (assuming the population of users is large enough, and the song's producers have not been able to create a huge number of "sockpuppet" accounts to manipulate the voting). So you can assume the ratings will be free of any prior bias. But with a political post, for example, if you write a pro-Bush or anti-Bush essay, it's quite likely that among a random sample of users, there will be people who are biased to vote up (or vote down) any post that has anything good to say about the President. The essays voted to the top may not be the best-written ones, but simply the ones that pander to the most popularly held opinions.

But if the "best" essays are not the ones that receive the highest percentage of positive votes, even when polling a random sample of independent users -- which I was advocating as the gold standard for measuring merit -- then how do you define what makes the "best" essays, anyway? There are many possible answers, but I suggest: A necessary condition for being among the "best" essays would be to convince the most people of something that they didn't believe before, without resorting to tricks such as blatantly fabricating statistics or attributing made-up quotes. This is not a sufficient condition for merit -- maybe the point of view that you're convincing people of, is still wrong -- but I submit that if you're not at least changing some people's minds, then there's no point. An essay that changes a lot of people's minds in a random focus group, is usually worth reading, if only to see why it has that effect.

Unfortunately, this doesn't suggest a better way to poll users about the merit of an essay, because if you ask users, "Were you a Bush supporter before reading this essay?" and "Were you a Bush supporter afterwards?", Bush supporters are eventually going to figure out that the way to give the essay a high score on the mind-changing scale, would be to (falsely) say that they were not a Bush supporter before reading the essay, but they were one afterwards. So you'd still end up rewarding the essays that reinforce pre-existing opinions instead of the ones that change people's minds.

From here the counter-measures and counter-counter-measures get increasingly complicated. For each category of essays that a user wants to rate, such as Bush opinion pieces, you could require new users to enter their current opinion: either pro-Bush or anti-Bush. Then if they were asked to rate a pro-Bush essay, they would only be able to vote that the essay "changed their minds" by switching their registered opinion from "anti-Bush" to "pro-Bush". But Bush supporters could sign up initially as anti-Bush, just in the hopes of being part of a random focus group so they could cast their mind-changing vote for a Bush essay by changing their registration to "pro-Bush"! However, each user would only be able to do that once -- or do you allow users, after they've switched from anti-Bush to pro-Bush, to "reload" by spontaneously switching back to anti-Bush for no reason at all, so they're all set to cast a mind-changing vote for the next pro-Bush essay? Or would they only be allowed to switch back to anti-Bush, by casting a mind-changing vote as part of a random focus group for an anti-Bush essay -- thus giving a boost to an anti-Bush screed, as part of the price they pay for the next vote they cast for a pro-Bush piece? Then users could still game the system, by switching to "anti-Bush" when casting a vote for a very poorly written anti-Bush essay that they don't think anybody else will vote for anyway, and then switching back to "pro-Bush" only for the good essays that have a shot, hoping that their votes will coalesce around the decently-written pro-Bush essays and push them to the front page...

Am I over-thinking this? I submit this is an area where there's been too much under-thinking. Haven't we all been tempted to believe that the marketplace of ideas -- not to mention bands, blog posts, and business ventures -- efficiently sorts content to the place in the hierarchy of rewards that it deserves, without having any real evidence for this, except the circular definition of "quality" as being proportional to success? And the more people believe this, the more that marginalized voices will effectively be censored, even when they have something brilliant to contribute. We should at least think about ways that we could do better. Or else, prove logically that it can't be done (a logical proof can only approximate the real world, but it could show that such a pure meritocracy would be very improbable, or wouldn't work well). However I think the ideas above make it seem unlikely that a meritocracy is logically impossible. Maybe they're a step in the right direction. Maybe someone else's ideas would be better. The important thing is that a meritocratic algorithm be judged by something other than a circular definition, which simply decrees by fiat that the winning content is the best.

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Censorship By Glut

Comments Filter:
  • by oldspewey (1303305) on Monday December 01, 2008 @01:17PM (#25948195)
    I attribute the popularity of people like Ann Coulter - and networks like Fox News - to the fact there is a huge segment of the population that doesn't watch TV or log onto the internet to become informed ... they seek out information that validates their already-existing view of the world. Actual facts and truth might require a painful rewiring of preconceived notions.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 01, 2008 @01:19PM (#25948237)

    ... they seek out information that validates their already-existing view of the world. Actual facts and truth might require a painful rewiring of preconceived notions.

    The exact same thing can truthfully be said of those on the left of the political spectrum.

  • NO SHIT (Score:4, Insightful)

    by larry bagina (561269) on Monday December 01, 2008 @01:25PM (#25948369) Journal

    slashdot moderation much?

  • by MaskedSlacker (911878) on Monday December 01, 2008 @01:29PM (#25948451)
    See Also: Huffington Post, Daily Kos
  • by compro01 (777531) on Monday December 01, 2008 @01:30PM (#25948459)

    The exact same thing can be truthfully said of a member in any position of the political spectrum, left, right, up, down, front, and back.

  • by Bill, Shooter of Bul (629286) on Monday December 01, 2008 @01:32PM (#25948479) Journal
    Yeah, its really sad when people have been through grad school and been declared Doctors of philosophy react to new information in the same manor as those who have not completed high school. We really need to do a better job teaching people how to think critically. I think Math and science does a pretty good job (well at least the physical sciences), but people are turned off by the science and/or compartmentalize the skill as only pertaining to science.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 01, 2008 @01:36PM (#25948563)

    The interesting thing about mob mentality is that you can game the system.

    Let's say you want to get ahead in some social group you belong to. If you're clever about it, you can listen to what people are saying, gossiping about, etc, and formulate theories about what individuals in the group want from others. Then you can carefully script your interactions with them so they perceive you, at least subconsciously, to be "good" (whatever their measure of "good" may be). I've always called this my "cultural camouflage". I become (to a LIMITED EXTENT) whatever someone else wants me to be, and I use that to get ahead in that social group.

    You have to be very low-key when you're doing this, though, or you end up looking like that douchebag from The Office, which is the exact opposite of what you're trying to attain. You don't engage in bad behaviors (like sucking up) even if that's what people expect; you never dispense with dignity or violate your moral rules. BUT, as long as you remember that "less is more", and always stay within your own moral boundaries, you can tweak your interactions to reap greater social benefit.

    It's risky, but may offer decent return on investment (in terms of time spent, etc). Everything can be improved with analysis.

  • by ScentCone (795499) on Monday December 01, 2008 @01:36PM (#25948577)
    censorship
    a: the institution, system, or practice of censoring
    b: the actions or practices of censors ; especially : censorial control exercised repressively


    Which is not the same thing as people going with the flow, and acting like the rather lazy pack/herd animals that hundreds of millions of years of evolution has wired up.

    Having a great idea that you express below the Signal-to-Noise threshold is not the same as being censored.
  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Monday December 01, 2008 @01:39PM (#25948617) Homepage Journal

    The failure of a group of people to communicate well does not constitute "censorship". Censorship is when someone or something selects communications for suppression. But when a room is too noisy for someone to be heard, that's not censorship. Unless a person or a group of people arranges for rooms to be noisy, with the plan to drown out some people.

    If the "censorship" is selective only of arbitrary communications, not according to content or meaning, but only according to signal strength or random chance, that's not "censorship". It should be fixed, but calling it "censorship" just makes it harder to deal with actual censorship.

    We have loads and loads of actual censorship, especially on the Internet. We should care about stopping censorship. So we shouldn't just call any failure to communicate "censorship", which makes it harder to communicate about censorship or the other interference, and therefore harder to fix either.

  • Absolutely true (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 01, 2008 @01:44PM (#25948723)

    The premise as posed in the headline is surely true. You have censored the content of your article due to the shear glut of text included. Who will read all that?

  • by girlintraining (1395911) on Monday December 01, 2008 @01:44PM (#25948739)

    "Popular people get noticed. Unpopular people don't. Sorry if you're in the second group."

  • by Kamokazi (1080091) on Monday December 01, 2008 @01:46PM (#25948763)

    Fox News is popular because it's watched by people who don't watch TV?

    If that's your example of 'actual facts and truth', I would think being rewired to think so illogically would be quite painful indeed.

    Seriously though, if idiots like you would quit all the insults and political stereotyping, this country would be a lot better for it.

  • by MikeRT (947531) on Monday December 01, 2008 @01:47PM (#25948795) Homepage

    There is a certain cliquishness at work in the blogosphere. For example, many of the major bloggers are fairly mediocre writers just like most editorialists fit that mold. There is a feedback effect of the back-and-forth referencing that makes them seem more relevant and better than they really are.

    If I had to give one piece of advice to someone that wanted to start blogging today, it would be to simply write for your own enjoyment while making sure that what you write may be beneficial to others if they run across it. Why? Chances are, you won't ever get popular even if you are really good at it. The flaw in the Army of Davids model used to describe publishing content online is that David was very unique, and most people simply aren't that. Even when they are, they're not annointed like David.

    I suppose the one thing I'll never understand is why people continue to give a platform to writers like Bill Kristol. There are a lot of them who are just flat out wrong so often that I can't help but think they're a lot like a horoscope, but for politics.

  • by brian0918 (638904) <brian0918@gmail.HORSEcom minus herbivore> on Monday December 01, 2008 @01:50PM (#25948837)

    I think his whole point is that there's no real difference between the 2.

    One is a violation of individual rights, the other is not. Nobody forces you to accept the Slashdot rating system. Set your threshold to -1 and read every comment. You're sure to find gems rated 0 or 1. If, however, /. editors start deleting your comments, then you've got censorship. Even then, though, individual rights are not being violated, because they are allowed to delete comments on their own site. It would be foolish of them to try it, but they'd be justified in doing so. Only when a force-backed entity demands that your comment be taken down, on threat of punishment to /., do individual rights get violated. Only then is it immoral and unjustifiable.

  • Social Proof (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Missing_dc (1074809) on Monday December 01, 2008 @01:54PM (#25948939)

    My friends and I call this "Social Proof"

    in a nutshell:

    Partially due to our fast paced society(or perhaps amplified by it) people cannot take the time to learn about and judge things or people for themselves, so they use social indicators to determine worth.

    For example, seeing a well dressed well groomed individual vs their unkempt shabbily dressed twin. People tend to assume much better things about the well dressed twin simply by manner of his appearance.

    Another example, if you go out for drinks with an attractive coworker or friend of the opposite sex and the two of you are seen laughing and joking and having fun, your social value is increased in the eyes of the onlookers, they figure if this other person has taken the time to form a positive opinion of you, then you must have some desirable qualities, and they will be more receptive of your attention. This seems to be a mostly subconscious effect.

    Before I got married, I used to have several hot chicks that I would go party with, knowing that being out with a hot chick made it easier to pick up other chicks.

    People tend to be sheep.

  • by deraj123 (1225722) on Monday December 01, 2008 @01:58PM (#25949019)
    Except there's still the difference between not being allowed to say something, and everyone ignoring what you have to say. I'd say that's a HUGE difference. Is there a difference in the effect of what you say has on society? Probably not. But that doesn't change the fact that everyone ignoring you is drastically different from censorship.
  • hilarious (Score:4, Insightful)

    by circletimessquare (444983) <circletimessquar ... m minus language> on Monday December 01, 2008 @01:58PM (#25949023) Homepage Journal

    what is posed as a philosophical breakthrough is simply nothing more than not understandning the goddamn meaning of the word "censorship"

    a high noise to signal ratio is not the same thing as censorship

    that's some pretty fruitless philosophical gymnastics there son

  • by macraig (621737) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (giarc.a.kram)> on Monday December 01, 2008 @02:05PM (#25949167)

    The Slashdot comments system is a spot-on example of what Haselton describes: if one doesn't manage First Post or relatively close to it, the likelihood that your insightful/informative/funny comment will be widely read and modded-up decreases proportionately. People just don't have the time or stamina to read hundreds of comments, normally; they read just the first few dozen "visible" (highly rated) ones and then quit. If in fact that is the case, then being late to the party means that the quality of your comment is irrelevant because it will be drowned-out by the flood that preceded it. Really it's the people who are able to jump in and suck on the Firehose that get most of the attention here. I've been frustrated by this quantitative factor - what Haselton calls the "glut" - for a long time.

  • by rodentia (102779) on Monday December 01, 2008 @02:13PM (#25949295)
    This is an exceptionally pernicious metaphor. We do often prefer one idea to another, but a market does not exist. One idea is right and one is wrong and the choice is usually a false one. Choosing what others have chosen is a CYA tactic and not a way to conduct one's intellectual life. This result demonstrates man the social animal impeding man the rational animal.

    These are not new problems and are not limited to democracies of taste or meritocratic capitalism. One of the more interesting results was the *new band* question. Participant is asked if they had heard of these four new bands, one of which was spurious. The profile of recognition was statistically identical to that for the three real, but little known, new bands. Respondents need to be seen as knowing, whether they have actual knowledge or not. This makes clear that musical taste as a function of personal identity formation and not music appreciation. The big labels have know this for years: it doesn't matter who you front as long as you flood the airwaves and hype the sucker.

    That said, there are a handful of people in all times and places who do not consider themselves tied to their peer's taste; who strive to think for themselves. They usually have unique access to actual ideas. They are often shunned by their peers because they call into question the intellectual shorthand everyone else contents themselves with. They are either crackpots or geniuses, sometimes both. One thing they never are is boring.
  • by d3ac0n (715594) on Monday December 01, 2008 @02:13PM (#25949303)

    And that's one fundamental difference between a liberal and a conservative. A liberal values, at least in principle, contrary viewpoints..

    Incorrect.

    While Liberals (IE: Leftists. Not Classical Liberals) pay LIP SERVICE to valuing contrary viewpoints, in actuality they only value viewpoints which are identical to their own. This can be demonstrated quite easily. Are College campuses largely run and controlled by Liberals (leftists) ? Yes. Yet, the MOST liberal colleges are ALSO the ones with highly restrictive speech codes. Speech codes which are used to crush dissent and disparate opinion.

    In Canada, an arguably Liberal society, they have the Human Rights Tribunal, which has been using so-called "hate speech" laws in what are little more than kangaroo courts to suppress free speech and the free exchange of ideas. Indeed, the very NOTION of having "hate speech" laws is anti-free speech and anti-freedom. Yet where do we see these laws crop up first? In "Liberal" countries.

    Conservatives (Read: Classical Liberals), OTOH tend to value the free exchange of ideas. It falls back to their love of the Free Market. It works for finance, it can work for ideas. Conservatives hold to the notion that "while I disagree vehemently with your ideas, I will fight to the death for your right to express them." The notion of Hate Speech laws fill Conservatives with dread. Because they know from experience that the definition of "hate speech" is ALWAYS fluid, and ALWAYS moves towards POLITICAL speech that people seeking power dislike. They prefer NOT to censor opposing viewpoints, as they would rather defeat them in the arena of ideas for all to see. Conservative broadcasters and hosts like Rush Limbaugh make a regular practice of putting on people that disagree with them FIRST so that their ideas can be aired and dealt with.

    The problem is NOT one of "too many" voices, the problem is one of NOT ENOUGH voices. There needs to be MORE range of ideas out there, not less. Right now, you basically get Daily KOS, and DU and their ilk on the far far left, BBC on the far left, ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, and CNN on the left, Fox News on the Center-right, Rush Limbaugh, Hot Air, Michelle Malkin and their ilk on the right, and Ann Coulter and her ilk on the far right.

    While the overall spread is good, the real powerhouse voices are still MOSTLY on the left-end of the spectrum. This is why Fox and Rush pull such high numbers. They don't have alot of competition on their side of the spectrum. I'd like to see a couple more center-right broadcast news stations, and one that hits right down the center on most stuff (although I don't know how possible that is). Ultimately, we are made richer by having more opinion, not less. Even if that opinion is one we find distasteful.

  • by ceoyoyo (59147) on Monday December 01, 2008 @02:30PM (#25949587)

    It's saying a lot about how people take freedom of speech for granted when someone writes a paper about how unpopularity is a form of censorship.

    Censorship is not when people don't want to read or hear about your idea. Censorship is when people can't read or hear about your idea because someone intentionally prevents it.

    A crappy blog not getting many pageviews is not censorship. Men in black knocking down your door and hauling you away so you stop writing your crappy blog is.

  • by Solandri (704621) on Monday December 01, 2008 @02:34PM (#25949675)

    The U.S. is so large and economically dominant that it's very easy to live here without ever knowing what's going on in the outside world at large. Very few things that happen abroad have a noticeable effect here. The U.S. has a GDP of $14 trillion, but imports and exports account for just $3.1 trillion, a 4.5 to 1 ratio. (Please note that GDP is gross domestic product and calculates exports minus imports, not the sum of imports and exports.)

    It's very different elsewhere. Most countries are small or have significant economic ties to their neighbors. Canada has a GDP of $1.3 trillion, with imports and exports accounting for $850 billion in trade - a 1.5 to 1 ratio. Germany has a $2.6 trillion GDP vs. $2.1 trillion in foreign trade - a 1.2 to 1 ratio. So international news and events have a much greater impact on their citizens' everyday lives.

    That said, I do agree the news broadcasts here are pretty pathetic. It seems the news stations cater to what people want to watch, instead of what's important. In terms of marketability, it would seem the fluff piece about Annette's cat in the tree gets better ratings than coverage about some terrorist attack in Mumbai. It's the only explanation I can think of for the existence of such shows as Jerry Springer.

  • by NatasRevol (731260) on Monday December 01, 2008 @02:38PM (#25949743) Journal

    The brilliant should convince the stupid. You know, make them prove their brilliance.

    But everyone just keeps bitching about the stupid. Which is a circular reference itself :-)

  • by d3ac0n (715594) on Monday December 01, 2008 @02:46PM (#25949917)

    Yelling "fire!" in a crowded theater has NEVER fallen under "free speech". Just as Perjury doesn't. There are limits to free speech, and this was well-defined even back during the Revolutionary years. However, "words I find offensive" should NEVER be one of the limits.

  • by hey! (33014) on Monday December 01, 2008 @02:49PM (#25949961) Homepage Journal

    The "Fire in a crowded theater" quote is from Oliver W. Holmes opinion in Shrenck v. United States, which held that the government could outlaw the distribution of pamphlets criticizing the draft during war time. This opinion was also the source of another favorite right wing phrase, the "clear and present danger".

    The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.

    The "fire in a theater" and "clear and present danger" have been the touchstones for the right wing when it comes to suppressing what they consider unpatriotic speech. Lately these more erudite phrases have fallen into disfavor, in favor of a simpler epithet: traitor.

    Holmes' extreme position was later moderated by Brandenberg v. Ohio, in which the court held that only incitement to immediate illegal action could be barred. This represents the current position of most liberals in the US with respect to "hate speech": that only incitement should be made publicly illegal. WIthin private institutions, different standards and values apply.

    In any case, note that our right wing victim is playing bait and switch with us here. There are no "hate speech" laws in the United States for him to be victimized by. He's also confusing the situation Canada, particularly the distinction between national hate speech laws and regional tribunals. The tribunals have indeed stepped over the reasonability line in some cases, although it is a bit paranoid to call them " kangaroo courts to suppress free speech and the free exchange of ideas".

    Advocating genocide or hatred against a group is not exactly the "free exchange of ideas"; I wouldn't dignify bigotry with the name. It's just that you can't outlaw stupidity, you can only drive it underground. It is not the utility of bigotry that must be preserved, but its visibility.

    In that, Brandenberg may have got it right. If you expect, as a direct consequence of your speech, that others will commit a crime, you may well be a participant in that crime. If you get up in front of an angry mob and say, "So and so at 123 Maple Street is a black man who raped white girls," knowing full well that the result will be a lynch mob, that is not about expressing ideas, it's about seeing that somebody gets lynched without getting your fingerprints on it.

  • by brian0918 (638904) <brian0918@gmail.HORSEcom minus herbivore> on Monday December 01, 2008 @02:56PM (#25950113)

    Maybe if the voting machines occasionally spewed out some cash, you might get better voter turnout.

    Bah, the government is too smart for that! They'll promise you cash in exchange for votes - cash that they'll get from you in the first place - but they'll never actually give you that money, and certainly not so often as to "occasionally" happen. So I guess my analogy is not accurate - you're more likely to get money back from a slot machine than a voting machine.

  • by gemada (974357) on Monday December 01, 2008 @03:02PM (#25950231)
    you must be American, the rest of the world tends to see the BBC as centrist and all the american networks you mention as right-winged to varying degrees. What Americans consider left-wing is general centre-right in Europe and Canada.
  • by db32 (862117) on Monday December 01, 2008 @03:05PM (#25950285) Journal
    Funny...my observation of the modern conservative is that they are afraid of hate speech laws because then the Ann Coulters of the world wouldn't be allowed to speak. While I agree hate speech laws are a stupid idea and a dangerous slippery slope...I'm less and less convinced that it wouldn't be worth it to forever silence people like Ann Coulter.

    The leftists these days what unified groupthink. The right wingers want everyone to be an individual so long as they are all identical individuals.

    I don't know if you have been paying attention to the politics going on lately, but all of the self described "conservatives" have NOTHING to do with any of the values you just described. They pay lipservices to "free market" when what they mean is "corporate welfare for my friends and a playing field that favors the ones that can pay us off". They most certainly do not believe in your free speech rights. "Your either with us or against us" comes to mind. Nevermind all of the rather unflattering things that these people have suggested we do with anyone who would dare question the U.S. Government.

    Libertarians are the closest thing to your "classical liberal" out there these days. Both the D and R teams have spun off into nightmarish parties of government consolidated power and control that the only way to tell them apart is by the pillow talk after they are done screwing you.

    Fox pulls high numbers because there are a large number of low IQ people floating about that can't be bothered to READ and check sources. Fox is the same group that showed how the "hacker" group anonymous blows up vans... Fox is the same "fair and balanced" that covered Ahmenidjad's speech showing his title as "Axis President" while the other 3 stations said "President of Iran". Fox lead the charge on the bait and switch of Osama vs Iraq. They are a massive propoganda outlet, nothing more, and their reporting on pretty much anything is laughable at best.
  • by ShieldW0lf (601553) on Monday December 01, 2008 @03:12PM (#25950391) Journal

    If you consider "the best" to be "everyone can appreciate this without effort", you'll get it from such a system.

    If you have to develop the capacity to appreciate a thing, you'll never find it from such a system.

    So, this methodology is a great way to find banal, tepid elevator music that challenges no one. If that's what you're into.

  • by Artifakt (700173) on Monday December 01, 2008 @03:24PM (#25950605)

    It's a value neutral approach. You can do it while still respecting yourself, other people, and the truth, or you can abuse it.

    Example: 90% or so of all pedophilia involves people the victims know, usually family or friends of family. When people propose laws and other solutions that focus on the 10% and ignore that remaining 90%, they want to waste a lot of money fixing only a small part of the problem and do nothing about the bulk of it. But, before you can point that out to them, you have to make sure they don't think you have a hidden agenda of protecting the 'bad guys'. After all, if they think it's all strangers, and they don't know you very well, you're on the suspect list yourself until they move you out of the stranger category.
          So, you comment on how you can see they care about protecting kids. If you have kids too, you mention how upset and angry you would be if someone molested them. If you don't have kids of your own, you could mention something else, like your nieces and nephews, or a case you read about in the paper. Let the other person explain why they think their plan will work, and respect their feelings whether you respect the logic or not. You can be scrupulously honest. Once you've shown you have some common ground, you can usually discuss where you differ without being tuned out or starting a fight. (Usually, not always - if the other person has lousy people skills, you can try all you want, but he or she can still sabotage the dialog). It's at least worth a try.
          The real problem is, some of the scummiest people around are very good at these techniques, and that sometimes gives them a bad name.

  • by Panoramix (31263) on Monday December 01, 2008 @03:25PM (#25950641) Homepage

    Better go for informative; I'm sure a lot of people does that, or something much like it. It wont be healthy for you to be frightened every time.

    Look, it's not even malicious... or not necessarily at least. Take me for instance: I don't do it to "get ahead" in a group, I do it because I'm very introverted and geeky and wouldn't fit among my friends and relatives if I didn't do some "cultural shaping" so I don't come through like a fucking alien. Not to mention I really like girls, and when you approach a random cute girl at the coffee shop, chances are she won't be or like introverted and geeky (read: shy).

    So what do you do? Sulk, stay lonely? Sure, you can do that. Or, if you're smart and analytical, you can learn to determine what people expect from other people they like, and then adapt yourself so you're closer to the appropriate model (which is different for different circles and environments). And you know what? It's exactly what "naturally" popular people do, only difference is doing it unconsciously vs. deliberately.

    As the OP said, the tricky part is not losing your own identity in the process. But if you're smart enough to pull this off, you probably won't need to worry about that either. You'll just let you "be yourself" and go back to the lab and the crypto or AI algorithms or whatever it is that you do for fun, when you don't feel like human company, that's all.

  • by Moryath (553296) on Monday December 01, 2008 @03:29PM (#25950679)

    But with a political post, for example, if you write a pro-Bush or anti-Bush essay, it's quite likely that among a random sample of users, there will be people who are biased to vote up (or vote down) any post that has anything good to say about the President. The essays voted to the top may not be the best-written ones, but simply the ones that pander to the most popularly held opinions.

    Right in the article.

    And yet the post submitter scuttlemonkey and whoever approved it, decided that an undeserved cheap-shot against someone was a-OK to put in.

    And also why slashdot doesn't have "-1 because I disagree" moderation, despite slashtrolls regularly abusing it and modding "troll" when someone gives them an uncomfortable truth or two to chew on.

  • by oldspewey (1303305) on Monday December 01, 2008 @03:33PM (#25950731)

    *shrug*

    Okay, so some people during revolutionary times made an arbitrary decision of what is or is not to be considered free speech ... and tomorrow somebody else might make some other arbitrary decision about what is free speech. They're all just lines in the sand intended to capture the essence of what is good vs. bad for the society we live in.

    Would you find it offensive if somebody erected a billboard in your neighbourhood depicting hardcore porn? How about gay hardcore porn? Should it be illegal? It's just free speech right?

    Lines in the sand.

  • by hey! (33014) on Monday December 01, 2008 @03:34PM (#25950753) Homepage Journal

    The problem with the "clear and present danger" standard is that "danger" is in the eye of the beholder.

    If the government is taking an action, say going to war, for the benefit of the people, then opposing that action can be seen as endangering the country. In the run up to the 2004 election, there was considerable opinion to the effect that talk against the war put the troops in danger. Justice Holmes fell into this bit of confusion himself: the "danger" being that opposition to the draft would deny the benefits intended by the government in instating a draft.

    Such a standard is not consistent with a free society in which the merits and disadvantages of government policies can be debated vigorously. The "imminent lawless action" is a much more precise way to deal with what Justice Holmes' was getting at. "Imminent" means faster than an officer of the law could react. Thus you can advocate rioting as a form of political expression, you just can't goad an unruly crowd into rioting because the police would not be able to protect the public safety.

  • by quixote9 (999874) on Monday December 01, 2008 @03:38PM (#25950815) Homepage
    No, seriously. Haselton wants to tap into a wisdom-of-crowds effect to find the good stuff we're missing. So long as opinions are independent, many people do converge on the right answer more often than few people.

    In the good old days, getting enough people to see or hear a piece of creative work was a logistical nightmare. Using the kind of "peer review" he's talking about would have been impossible, even though it's a really promising approach. But the web could make it easy. It's the same kind of quantum shift, with equally huge ramifications, as the way the printing press made ideas accessible to many more people than before.

    Facilitating good ideas and making them visible pretty much defines a civilization. Finding a way to get good ideas known is about as non-trivial as it gets. Because even though developed countries have grown rather good at the facilitating part, we're still wasting 99% of our good people at the visibility end.

    You may have noticed by now that good people are hard to find. It'd be like climbing out of the Middle Ages if we stopped wasting 99% of them.
  • by hagardtroll (562208) on Monday December 01, 2008 @03:45PM (#25950939) Journal
    Let me just summarize the parent for you. 1. Generalized statements about a population without any studies indicating a statistical or causal relationship to back them up. 2. Anecdotal example of a one scenario that backs up his generalized statement without any studies cited that provide a statistical or causal relationship to back it up. 3. Expression of an opinion as a fact followed by a combined statement of opinion as fact followed by another generalized statement without any study cited to back it up. Now my opinion. I think that if we are going to have a debate on the benefits of a particular point of view, we should be sure that we express the WHY and HOW of our opinions by providing a cited source of actual research that follows the scientific method for determining results. Gut reactions to anecdotal examples does not a well-informed opinion make. Insightful, my ass.
  • by hey! (33014) on Monday December 01, 2008 @04:28PM (#25951521) Homepage Journal

    Now I'll go out on a limb here and conjecture that most of the time, when people advocate the genocide of a group, they don't intend to give the group in question a say in the matter.

  • by brian0918 (638904) <brian0918@gmail.HORSEcom minus herbivore> on Monday December 01, 2008 @04:54PM (#25951905)

    Your assumption that anyone in favour of a welfare state is in it for greed rather than for principled support of the idea of general welfare is, in itself a good example of what's wrong with politics today

    Where did I make that assumption? Greed (ie self-interest) that does not violate the rights of others is a good thing - it leads to progress. What does not lead to progress, but instead invariably results in economic disaster, is the violation of the rights of some in favor of the temporary relief of others.

    Demonizing your opponents has always been the tool of the tyrant.

    I don't think that word means what you think it means. Anyone in a position of governmental power who actively promotes "general welfare" is more of a tyrant than someone who promotes individual rights, by definition.

  • by TerranFury (726743) on Monday December 01, 2008 @04:56PM (#25951947)

    they seek out information that validates their already-existing view of the world

    Like Slashdot readers? (Obviously I'm guilty too.)

  • by krou (1027572) on Monday December 01, 2008 @06:45PM (#25953205)

    Except that the Conservative stance of promoting capitalism and the "free market" has its own mechanisms of censorship that are actually a lot more effective than what you're talking about. At least most people can look at a hate-speech tribunal and realise that it is censorship, and see it for what it is, but try telling someone who lives in a free market society that they're being censored through the mechanisms of the market, and they'll think you're crazy.

    For example, during the mid to late 1800's the free market brought about the industrialization of the press and media, and the costs of setting up a new daily (in the UK) went up from about £1000 to well over £50,000. The same mechanisms took place in the free market with other mediums as well. Your comment about there not being enough voices is a direct result of the free market. You'd hope that the internet would've changed things (lower costs, for example), and it has to an extent, but in the majority of cases the free market of ideas has ensured that alternative voices are effectively excluded from the mainstream, and rarely, if ever, have any type of reach comparable to all the stations you've mentioned.

    The so called "free market" has given rise to massive media centralisation, large corporations owned by extremely wealthy individuals whose primary motive is profit, its primary responsibility are its shareholders - in other words, they are under the sway of market forces. Integration into the market has meant that media companies are increasingly owned by non-media corporations, and rules and regulations governing media concentration, cross-ownership and the like have been watered down to such an extent that they are virtually non existent. This is important, because it now means that the media are losing their autonomy to bankers, increasingly making the bottom line ever more important, which becomes an incredibly powerful censorship tool in its own right. You are unlikely to find a media company publishing anything that will hurt its parent company, cost its shareholders money through a loss of revenue because they published an article critical of an advertiser ... you get the general idea.

    Thanks to the free market, we now have a situation where newspapers are not in the business of selling news. They're in the business of selling its readership to advertising companies, which means that if you want to compete in the marketplace of ideas, you're beholden to the whims of advertisers. Cases abound of advertisers putting the squeeze on the media when they do something they don't like.

    Thanks to the free market of ideas, it means that these media companies will now regurgitate the government and corporate agenda without question because it's quick, easy, doesn't induce any pressure from the market - in short, it's much easier to accept self-censorship than it is to actually investigate.

    There are many other mechanisms of censorship in the marketplace, and most of these indicate that the very structure of the media in the free market is an inherently conservative one, not liberal. The liberal media in the US is very much a myth.

  • by level4 (1002199) on Monday December 01, 2008 @09:32PM (#25954535)

    BBC on the far left, ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, and CNN on the left

    Only an American would ever claim, with a straight face, that the BBC is "far left" and the likes of CNN, MSNBC, etc are on the "left".

    You have no perspective at all. Your entire frame of reference is wrong. I wonder if you even know what these words "left" and "right" are supposed to mean.

    I don't know much about "DU" and "Daily KOS" but unless they insistently call for the immediate transformation of the USA into a soviet-style planned economy then they are not "far, far left". I can't really imagine such sites being all that popular in the US, or anywhere really.

    The BBC is mildly left, what you would expect from a government-run service in a fairly centrist country like Britain.

    The mainstream US news services you list are all varying degrees of right wing. Do you seriously think that someone in an actual left-leaning country like Norway or France would look at CNN and think, wow, this is quite lefty? Do you think the Chinese government looks at MSNBC and thinks it shares a common political outlook?

    Fox is kind of quasi right-wing with a strong dose of ignorance, religion and rabble-rousing. I don't know much about Rush Limbaugh but if even you describe him as "right" then I assume he is some far-out fringe wacko, along with Coulter who is so mixed up I can't even tell - nothing but a grab-bag of populist "hot button" issues, mostly self-contradictory, appealing to disenfranchised types with low self-esteem and looking for someone to blame.

    You call for a news organisation that hits "right down the centre". Ironically, the BBC is probably the most neutral and reliably "centre" news service in English. The fact that you describe them as "far left" indicates to me that the problem is actually your radically off-centre frame of reference.

    You seem to define "left" as "anything I disagree with", and the more you disagree with them, the further left they are. This is a definition the rest of the world, and possibly even the rest of the US, does not share. In other words, you're wrong - very, very wrong.

    One more point. Al Jazeera is becoming a fairly respected news service these days. It's free speech, free market, mildly right wing but they do their best to be impartial. On the occasions I have watched their coverage I have been pretty impressed by their fairness.

    My question is, is Al Jazeera mildly right wing like everyone else thinks, or are they "wrong" and therefore "left" according to your twisted, self-serving worldview?

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