The Color of the Bikeshed or The Trouble with Blogging

Peter LLC continues his guest stint at BCC. See his earlier posts here, here, and here.

Inspired by Mark Brown’s post on “why some of our conversations, including conversations on blogs, are unproductive,” allow me to present the following ruminations mingled with fact on a related topic:

Any would-be blogger faces at least two major challenges if s/he is to rise above the legions of dilettanti with a WordPress account and establish a readership that will keep coming back for more. 

The first challenge is to elicit a response based on the blogger’s output. On the one hand, one must avoid the dismissal that accompanies all those who appear as fools in public and on the other one should avoid intimidating the lay commenting class with such a profusion of expertise that no one responds.

For example, a footnoted post on discoveries of neolithic pottery sherds at Tell Hassuna that conclusively prove the inhabitants believed in an afterlife would be undoubtedly interesting, but who has the chops to add anything besides “good post, man”? At the other end of the spectrum, if it’s clear the author is simply foaming at the mouth, reinventing the wheel for the umpteenth time, or just embarrassingly naive, who has the fortitude to draft a carefully formulated response that is sure to go unappreciated? 

Thanks to the careful selection process (think Skull and Bones initiation rites), BCC hardly suffers from a lack of expertise (present guest posts excepted, of course), and though some might argue that BCC is top-heavy with the learned, rarely, if ever, do its resident experts pitch their posts too far over everyone’s heads. In my estimation, BCC meets the first challenge head on.

The second, more difficult challenge involves channeling the response into some kind of positive participation. As traffic increases and in order to avoid alienating (potential) readers, commenters or the bloggers themselves, one must strike a balance between the free exchange of ideas with respect for others, all while crossing fingers and secretly hoping that the response will be more or less on topic and, if possible, a substantive contribution to the ongoing discourse.

Finding this balance is not easy, however, for a number of reasons including, inter alia, 1) easy internet access, which encourages a diverse readership with wide-ranging notions of Right, Wrong and Un/Acceptable; 2) free will, which allows humans to be uncooperative or unresponsive to attempts to channel their behavior; and, for the purposes of this post, most importantly, 3) the law writ in stone that the less expertise required to engage a post, the greater the number of opinions one can expect in response. 
The noted historian C. Northcote Parkinson was no doubt aware of this when he formulated his Law of Triviality which states that that the time spent on any item of an official agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum of money involved. In other words, when complex and expensive projects are on the agenda, there is likely to be little substantive input from decisionmakers who rely on the input of their experts for their opinions. When, however, a small, straightforward project like, say, the construction of a bicycle shelter, appears on the agenda, suddenly everyone has an opinion: “Parkinson dramatizes his Law of Triviality with a committee’s deliberations on a nuclear power plant, then on a bicycle shed (in which a debate emerges over whether the best choice of roofing is aluminum, asbestos or galvanized iron, then over whether the shed is a good idea or not). The committee then moves on to coffee purchasing, a discussion that results in the biggest waste of time and the most acrimony.”
It’s no secret that opinions abound when discussing certain topics with which many have come into contact in the course of their everyday lives. Education reform? We all went to school. Taxes? We all pay them. Immigration? We all know one.
But it’s also no surprise that this gut-level knowledge, our perceptions of our own experience, can be, well, plainly wrong. A few days ago I posted a reason why this might be so: “The exigencies of practical life frequently compel us to act with some confidence even though it is manifest that the information on which we base our action is not complete.  We usually act … not on the basis of scientific knowledge, but opinion and estimate.”
And just to show you that 320,000,000 people can be wrong (like you needed any empirical proof!), that is to say, do in fact form opinions on the basis of their perceptions rather than scientific studies, allow me to introduce Exhibit A:

Ask just about anyone living in the Eurozone since the introduction of euro cash in 2002 if prices have gone up as a result and the answer will be a resounding “of course, you ninny.” There’s even a neologism for it–“Teuro,” a play on the word for expensive: “teuer.” From 1995 till the end of 2001 when Europe’s citizens still had their tried and true currencies in their pockets, most perceived inflation (red lines) at similar rates to the Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP; blue lines). But when New Years Day 2002 rolled around, perceived inflation and the HICP measures parted ways quicker than celebrity divorcees. Consumers, influenced by a number of factors, gave more weight to their daily experience buying bread and milk in “rounded up” prices than to the more sophisticated analyses that also accounted for cheaper hard drives and LCD panels (or whatever) when estimating the inflationary effects of the new currency. 

If the example of the bikeshed sheds any light on this issue, it would be that a non-technical post on the euro and inflation is going to elicit a enthusiastic response consisting mostly of anecdotal experiences–after all, we’ve all got a few euros in our wallet and have used them to buy things. But we also know that “we usually act … not on the basis of scientific knowledge, but opinion and estimate” and so we can expect plenty of the responses to lack the broader view.

One way to manage the response and weed out less than helpful comments is to appeal to the responders to become experts themselves before replying. While there is much to recommend this approach–it’s practically a commandment, after all–it may not account for the fact that sometimes our conjectures are, well, right on the money, and that demonstrated expertise may not be necessary to form an accurate opinion.

Witness Exhibit B, an empirical study that demonstrates something that we suspected all along–government size and efficiency are negatively correlated:
Sure, few of us would be able to prove it, but if we basically knew it already, where’s the advantage in becoming versed well enough in mathematics to show our work? It turns out that sometimes less is more: “Less information, time, and computation can improve cognitive and motor performance in a number of situations (Gigerenzer, 2007; Hertwig & Todd, 2003).” Indeed, the application of common sense, intuition or educated guesses can be a “fast and frugal” way of coming to terms with a complex world and need not be dismissed out of hand. 

Perhaps the moral of the story is this–posts that resonant with our experiences are bound to attract a range of contributions from helpful to unproductive to simply incorrect (the ban stick may take care of the rest); and while the response may contain much chaff, we may do ourselves a disservice by setting too high a standard. Let me conclude by illustrating this point with an anecdote:

I once took at course at an Austrian university where I was of course the only Mormon. Each class period we would break into groups to discuss the topic of the day and then sum up at the end. One day the discussion was on cults as a social problem. Sort of fresh off my mission, I thought I was well-versed on the ins and outs of cults in Austria, on the defensive and frustrated by the gut-level response by the rest of the group I had experienced so often before–no one else knew the official classifications of cults or which groups did (or did not) belong, what made cults so dangerous, that Mormons weren’t one, etc. And so I responded by saying we were going to have trouble discussing this in a meaningful way in the absence of any knowledge about them. As I did so, the professor happened by. When it came time to sum up, he indirectly took me to task, telling the class that he was concerned that some of us preferred not to discuss the topic because of incomplete knowledge. “Who then,” he asked the class, “if not you with your university education, should be better equipped to have this discussion?” 

Indeed–in whose care should we leave the discourse if we disqualify ourselves on the grounds of incomplete knowledge? 

Comments

  1. Peter, thanks for these thoughts — in some ways this seems a counterpoint to Kristine’s post last year that riled up certain individuals, which indicated that some level of knowledge would be a helpful prerequisite for some blog conversations.

  2. good post, man.

  3. Well put. I’ve noticed that often we defer to those we perceive as experts. Few of us have the scientific background to evaluate the cause of global climate change, for example (and I’m not going to do so here). But we easily accept the opinion of our favorite politician, entertainer, or other celebrity who are most likely equally unqualified. We then argue the points they have taken as though they were the unvarnished truth.

    But that doesn’t mean our position is wrong. Just that the likelihood of it being correct is more based on our ability to choose our favorite ploitician, entertainer, or other celebrity than anything else.

  4. Good post, man!

    Seriously, though, I certainly don’t have the same academic chops as most folks on this blog, and am frequently and painfully reminded of that. Paired with Mark’s post about how some topics seem to preclude reasoning and elicit emotional responses, these two posts frame for me the realization that I had gotten intellectually lazy over the last decade or so. Since starting to read and comment here, I find that I am reading more (hopefully) substantive stuff, and yearning to contribute more than I take. But I still often feel I should just shut up and listen. The more I study and read, the less sure I become of some (many?) things I thought I always knew.

    Perhaps the point is questioning if we ever really change anyone’s opinions here? Do we learn anything, or do we just revel in seeing our thoughts up in a public forum, however ill-formed or ill-informed they might be? Maybe the most important individual we influence here may be ourselves.

  5. BCC wouldn’t be quite so top heavy if Steve would lay off the Cocoa Puffs.

    ———-

    Peter writes:

    and while the response may contain much chaff, we may do ourselves a disservice by setting too high a standard.

    Although I agree with this, I think that we should all consider working on our levels of expertise. Now I’m nowhere near as well-read as I should be in the world of Mormon literature, but it amazes me that so many people seem to have opinions on whether or not there can be a Mormon Shakespeare and whether or not Mormons can really write fiction (because we don’t get conflict) or talk about how bad the market is without seeming to have any real experience with it.

    I’m as guilty as anyone for not engaging the Mormon genre market and for ignoring Dialogue and Sunstone (for the most part).

    But it wouldn’t hurt for all of us to do a little more reading in Mormon literature and history.

  6. Mark IV says:

    This is a dynamic that presents itself repeatedly in Mormon blogging.

    A n00b stumbles onto a conversation that has already taken place a thousand times, but is new to him. He jumps right in without realizing that he ought to inform himself about some of the basics. His participation is annoying and unproductive, and just before he feels the righteous wrath of the ban stick, he says something like: “All you liberals/conservatives (take your pick) are all the same!”

    At my company, when you join a meeting late, they enforce a ten minute rule. You can’t join the discussion for at least ten minutes because you need time to come up to speed.

  7. Kevin:

    I think that’s a good point.

    As result of participation in the Bloggernacle, I:

    1. have a greater appreciation for Mormons who pursue religious studies.

    2. have a more complex view of how Mormonism responds to some of the classic problems of theology (the problem of evil, agency and free will, etc.).

    3. am more favorably inclined towards official LDS discourse and the Church’s pr efforts.

    4. have softened my opinion of Mormon genre fiction writers.

    5. have a less favorable impression of Deseret Book.

    6. am more inclined to think about issues of class and economics in relation to church culture and history.

    7. look more often for the perspective and experience of international members.

    8. have less patience with the strand of Mormon feminism that borrows from the more strident forms of 1970s white, middle class American feminism while at the same time have a greater understanding and yearning for some of the roles/efforts that Mormon women had that they no longer have or don’t have in quite the same way.

    9. have a greater understanding of blacks and the priesthood and feel greater sorrow over that history.

    10. also (of course) respect lawyers a lot less than I used to.

    And that’s just off the top of my head.

  8. William Morris,

    If I took the time to make up a list, many of those same items would be on it. As I say, I take away a lot more than I contribute, and I’m grateful to get to help plan the bikeshed.

  9. peterllc says:

    At my company, when you join a meeting late, they enforce a ten minute rule.

    Mark IV: were all organizations as enlightened as yours! The noob dynamic is indeed a common one and almost as likely to be found in the office as online.

    William: Nice list. I can relate to the de-mystifying aspect of your #10. Like Christopher Walken said in a SNL skit–“I put my pants on just like the rest of you – one leg at a time. Except, once my pants are on, I make gold records.”

    Kevinf: “Maybe the most important individual we influence here may be ourselves.” I think you’re on to something here. Like William, I like to think the Bloggernacle has expanded my horizons.

    BruceC: It is definitely easier to defer to experts/famous people than to become one. Most of the time it’s probably an efficient division of labor, but not without its pitfalls, as you note.

    Steve: I actually thought of her post when I read the article on cabinet size. I could imagine the legions of math illiterates (to which I belong) reading the abstract and snorting, “I could have told you that without all of that fancy calculation stuff!” and couldn’t help but think what a propaganda coup that would be against arguments for expertise (not that I regard anti-intellectualism as a virtue).

  10. Eric Russell says:

    “4. have softened my opinion of Mormon genre fiction writers.”

    This cracks me up, William. Anything in particular that has led you to this?

  11. #10 was a complete throw away line, but it had to be done. The cocoa puffs line, however, was in all earnestness.

  12. “While there is much to recommend this approach – it’s practically a commandment, after all”

    Steve, when I read that, I immediately thought the link would be to Kristine’s post.

    peter, contrary to the perception generated by the few comments I write in the Bloggernacle, I also blog primarily so I can learn more. I love being able to visit a handful of sites regularly and be stimulated intellectually – to be exposed to things for which I wouldn’t search automatically – to learn things that I would have to expend much greater effort to find on my own. For me, the Bloggernacle is like the library I would build if I had the resources.

    The difference is that I learn the best when I try to articulate what I think or believe. Putting it into words, some times after multiple edits, helps me sift through what everyone else says and find what resonates with me – what I can “make my own”. With that learning modality, I comment to learn – which means I often comment about things even when I don’t feel like much of an expert about the topic. When I do feel passionately about something, perhaps I comment slightly more. :)

  13. Jennifer in GA says:

    Execellent post!

    I still consider myself fairly new to the Bloggernacle. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started to respond to a post that has made me think in new ways but I’ve ended up deleting it. I don’t want to come off as an ignorant idiot. I learn something new almost everytime I visit which, I think, is a good thing.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    I could relate to the dilemma you describe. A number of times I’ve erred in going too hard in one direction or another. I recall in particular one post I put up called, as I recall, “Is NT Greek Magic?” I still think it was a good idea for a post; the basic thought was the tendency for people to think that an appeal to the “original” Greek can resolve all problems of NT interpretation. But in trying to convey my thought I was overly technical, and I think the post only garnered something like three comments.

    I think there is a similar dynamic in GD class. We place a higher value on class participation than almost any other factor, but if you introduce actual new knowledge, the participation goes way down (because no one in class has the background to contribute). So to encourage participation, we revert to the catachism method, which pumps up the particpation (at the expense of people actually learning anything).

  15. Kevin that is an interesting comment. I agree with your example about the original Greek. I suspect the reason you only had only 3 comments was not just because people had no foundation, but also because the ones that did have experience looking up the original Greek agreed with you. Agreement doesn’t inspire many comments.

    Part of getting discussion seems to be bringing up a controversial issue.

    Controversial issues, unfortunately often bring contention with the discussion. The only thing worse than no participation is contention. I think the internet magnifies the contention, because the written word without the voice and facial expressions is such a poor communication method.

    I read many posts here that are a real education for me, mostly the historical stuff which is very enlightening, but I rarely comment, because there is nothing I can add.

    Our RS teacher recently made the statement that pictures of Jesus or the temple or whatever, constituted graven images and should be removed from our homes. That generated some discussion (and much contention). She is a fairly new convert.

    Maybe if we mingle in enough of the familiar material with one or two new precepts, and hit some magical balance, we can have good discussion, avoid contention and see real learning happen.

    Anyway, thanks for this and many other thought provoking posts.

  16. Kenjebz,

    I think it’s generally agreed upon that the quickest way to be added to DKL’s aggregator is to post lots of ALL CAPS comments at blogs that aren’t run by DKL. That’s how I got T&S listed.

    If only that punk DKL had an FAQ section for his stupid aggregator.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Kenjebz, I think I saw DKL make a comment somewhere to the effect that he hadn’t updated LDSelect for a long time. BCC doesn’t even appear there since we moved to a new server. I wrote him a letter at his gmail account at Mormon Mentality asking to have the FAIR blog added, but never heard back (there’s a good chance that’s not his normal e-mail and he never saw my message).

    So in short, I have no idea how to get added to LDSelect.

  18. I like the Bloggernacle because I enjoy being in the company of such excellent people. Even though I don’t belong here, and have little to contribute besides the occasional “great post!”, I feel enlightened and uplifted by the things I read, and think I’m a better person for it.

  19. California Condor says:

    Here’s a great quote by Blaise Pascal:

    “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

    Shorter is better.

    Also, the Bloggernacle blogs should start a “most popular” sidebar for posts, showing which posts have gotten the most traffic for a time period (maybe a week or a month). This could help casual readers use their time more efficiently, and it would be a gratifying guilty pleasure to see what is ranked high on the list.

%d bloggers like this: