Saturday, April 20, 2013

Excess of poor quality communication

Check out this article.  The short version of it is: undertaking complicated tasks in social networks frequently gets out of hand and produces spectacularly bad results because the urge to have specific social interactions overrides the goal of doing a good job.  The article uses the example of the Boston bombing, and how various groups of people came up with an assortment of pretty bad ideas while recklessly framing innocent people along the way.  Here are some of the article's key phrases, summed up in a paragraph:

This is one of the most alarming social media events of our time.  We're really good at uploading images and unleashing amateurs, but we're not good with the social norms that would protect the innocent.  People in the moment want to participate.  They want to be a part of what's going on.  But beyond the photos they upload, their speculation and theorizing don't necessarily lead to a more efficient resolution.  There is just a lot of meaningless noise out there.  People see trends and patterns that aren't really trends and patterns.  People love to speculate and some people love to make the Web equivalent of crank calls.  The instinct is to satisfy our voyeuristic urges.  That's when we see the arrogance of the crowd take over.

Compare and contrast with the opinion of an unnamed Reddit user:

I feel like we've reached a certain threshold here — the Internet is finally outstripping cable news completely [...] In fact, I wonder if we're inadvertently doing their work for them.

Also check out what happened in the Kasparov vs The World game, in which a crowd of chess players exchanged ideas in an open forum and voted (by majority) on moves to play against Kasparov.  Despite the fact that Kasparov was reading the thread, so perhaps the result of the game isn't entirely fair, time and time again crowd sourcing failed to consider and evaluate significantly better moves under social stress.

In this state of affairs, consider then the majority of posts you see in programming forums.  Are the opinions truly knowledgeable, or are the entries a shot from the hip coming from a programmer "rock star"?  In my experience, 99% such entries are in error simply because the stated opinion does not match the relevant manual or source code.  Moreover, in most cases a cursory examination of the relevant authoritative sources is enough to find errors.  I could understand the occasional slip in terms of the human condition.  I really suspect the significant issue is the absence of an honest effort.

It is really hard to produce properly thought out material worth reading.  Considering the sheer volume of technical communication made possible by the internet and social networks, it's clearly impossible that a significant fraction of such technical communication can be correct or worth reading.  It just can't be, because otherwise the fraction of true diligent experts (like Knuth) would be much higher, so then how come there are so many bugs in the programs we use every day?

So please, if you are not really sure of what you want to say, then do one of two things:
  • Mark it clearly with "I haven't checked this", or "I am not sure", or "I don't really know".
  • Given that the above indicates the communication is already kind of worthless, wait until an opportunity to offer better advice comes by.
And then, what do you do with the time you now have available?  As a suggestion, use that time to do something productive for yourself.  Or make something out there more correct, smaller, or easier to understand. But please, avoid littering the material others might want to use in the pursuit of their goals. It is even harder to do something worthwhile when finding relevant, good quality information requires sorting out gold needles from a haystack of spam. Specifically, the programming craft would be better off without the kinds of "social" efforts described above.