Monday, December 01, 2008

Censorship by Glut

Welcome to the party, Bennett -- I wrote about this in 1989:


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?

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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."

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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!

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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.

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This is how democracies censor people; it is detailed by Frederic Beigbeder in his book $9.99 -- it is a form of soft totalitarianism. Let the people have free speech. Soon the screaming multitudes of idiots will drown out the smart people.

1 Comments:

At 5:08 PM , Blogger weston said...

There's something to this, but it's certainly not the only form of censorship out there today. James Watson, for example, is hardly a nobody. He was a highly respected (and even world famous) scientist. Yet he was still dealt with ruthlessly for suggesting a "novel" explanation for the struggles of Africa. There's a massive, extremely well-funded network devoted to the censorship of un-PeeCee opinions about race.

This is another form soft totalitarianism. It combines angry denunciations from the media and professional anti-racist groups with social pricing, the denial of economic opportunities to those holding un-PeeCee views.

It's far more effective than censorship by glut.

 

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