What can MetaFilter learn from This American Life? November 4, 2001 10:50 AM   Subscribe

In forever searching for a bridge to close the gap between those who want more restrictive MeFi Guidelines and those who want less, I've recently found myself comparing recent MeFi discussions to how TAL submissions get on the show. Or Ira Glass' basic Radio Principles. What can MetaFilter learn from This American Life?
posted by ZachsMind to Etiquette/Policy at 10:50 AM (8 comments total)

On the surface I'm well aware that TAL and MeFi have nothing in common. However, the comparison does hold water in the arena of submissions. The stats are up and as more and more people come to MeFi to participate, there needs to be a ramp up on how to reach more people, more convincingly, on whatever it is y'all want from the average MeFi contributor.

For me, focusing on what NOT to do just ticks me off. I may be in the minority on this, but whenever a person of authority goes around saying, "NO DANCING" that just makes me want to dance. "No Shoes. No Shirt. No Service. No Smoking. No Drinking. No Jumping Into The Pool. No Food Or Beverages Allowed. No Lifeguard On Duty." All that negativity is a.. well, negative way to communicate. There's more positive, constructive ways to do that. I'm not saying it's NOT happening in MeFi, but maybe it can happen a little more. Positive reinforcement is a bit P.C. which makes me cringe, but I'm just trying to be helpful here. Notice that in the Guidelines, what makes a BAD post gets over twice the space as what makes a GOOD post. The wording is not wholly negative, but the GOOD should just get more focus and explanation, that's all. And this could also be reflected in how people explain to others what makes a good post when someone interrupts a thread to acknowledge what's wrong with it.

I mean, should we focus so much on what NOT to do, or concentrate more on how to educate people on what TO do? The goals of MeFi must be crystal to all participants, but presenting them negatively as some do tends to turn others off. Maybe if properly educated, a larger percentage of participants will stop doing wrong because they'll be more focused on what's right. Or am I just being too idealistic, again? The goals of writing for TAL (or any talk radio for that matter. Or novels or poetry or music or what have you) are also reflected in writing for MeFi. TAL works. It's a positive, uplifting show, even when they deal with negative subject matter. I think we can learn a lot here. For example:

* Before posting, one should read what has come before.
* Brevity is important. The postlink on the front page should be as few lines as possible, yet describe succinctly the topic that is being addressed.
* Know your audience. Try to find links and topics with a more universal appeal, at least subjectively in tune with the variety of people that MeFi is known to attract.

And yeah I know. I suck at brevity. Blind leading the blind. Even though I don't show it, I'm often working on my brevity, but each MeFi poster has strengths and weaknesses, and maybe re-approaching the Dos and Don'ts and how they're communicated, one can show others how to accentuate their plusses and delineate their negatives.

Why ultimately does a person post to MeFi? To encourage enlightenment in others? Rarely is it so noble of a goal, but that is part of it. We also each participate in this strange but wonderful place to seek pleasure. We are entertaining ourselves and hope to entertain others in the process. However, a poster to MeFi who wants his or her postlink to stand out and be received graciously, should examine the standard approach to formula and rise above it. Be creative. Think outside of the box. The structure of a MeFi post does not mirror that of public radio. Of course. I'm not suggesting it should. But just as the TAL producers have done a breakdown of their bread and butter in order to improve their technique, perhaps one can analyze the components of what makes a good MeFi post, and see constructively where some succeed while others fail.

TAL generally tells an anecdote and then reflects upon the anecdote. When you cut it down to size that way, it sounds very silly, but it works consistently. I'm sure there must be some kind of basic formula or structure one can define for the average, run of the mill, good MeFi post. If that's communicated in a way that others appreciate and understand, we'll see more posts like that. And the basic structure should have at its core what people want from a MeFi post, so that more people will be pleased with the result, and we'll have less people complaining about bad posts, cuz there won't be as many. Cuz everyone will be providing one another what everybody wants. At least in theory.

I am NOT suggesting there must be rules where only the basic structure is acceptable. There should be room to play around with structure of things. Still, before messing with structure, everyone needs to understand the structure. One can't build a sandcastle without knowing what a castle is supposed to look like. Another point from the last link; what's important to me in a good MeFi post, and again I may be in the minority here, is more than just the link itself and what it's about. Why has the poster chosen THAT link of all the webpages on the Internet, to bring to everyone's attention? Where is that person's head at? Why's it important to him? I want to know that more than I want to know about the link itself. If we get that, then we have the MeFi equivalent of "really, really visual radio."

Okay this is already too long and no one's gonna read it. I could do the same with all Glass' Principles. MeFi posts should have surprises in them. One should take into account the brief amount of time a reader will deal with each post. A poster's words should sound conversational. And on and on.

In all the above I tried to focus more on what TO do rather than what NOT to do. What SHOULD happen instead of what should NOT. Am I on the right track here? Or is it time to go back to the drawing board? Am I still NOT making sense? Am I still NOT helping?
posted by ZachsMind at 11:01 AM on November 4, 2001

You could also add a comparison between Host A and Host B.
posted by gluechunk at 11:59 AM on November 4, 2001

Zach, I like what you're trying to do here. No substantive comments yet until I ponder this more, but I wonder if you've been keeping up with MeTa lately, especially this thread? Might be worth weaving into your thinking somehow.
posted by rodii at 12:24 PM on November 4, 2001

I've been reading MeFi since January, 2001 and have been a member since May. I still don't know how to create a good post, but I know a good post when I see it. Most of the discussion that goes on in MeTa is also about what makes a "bad" post, I never see someone praise a post.

I think a list of guidelines like Glass' would be great. The only problem I see is this: even though MeFi is self policing, Matt is the only one who has the power to kill a post. TAL (which is a fantastic show, I'd never dug into their website far enough to see Ira's Rules, so thanks for that) has Ira Glass at the helm and Julie Snyder producing. They are responsible for an hour of material a week, whether they assign it or accept it from outside sources (Sandra Tsing Loh being my favorite). Matt has an average of about thirty threads a day on MeFi and five on MeTa. He only ever deletes posts that are doubled or are so bad that they need to go. I've found that many old-timers point to the submission guidelines for any other post that they don't find acceptable, but, as you brought up, there is a bunch of anit- and not much pro-.

I wouldn't mind a brief list of suggestions for a good post. I also wouldn't mind some examples. Of course, what makes a good post to this site's now 12,000+ members is pretty damned subjective. If I post about what I've been doing lately, playing the ultraviolent GTAIII, and ask who else has played it and if they think that it goes too far or if there should be games like this for adults, yadda yadda yadda. I'm sure that half of the comments in the thread would be to slam me and those who had played the game would defend the post. Knowing your audience is pretty difficult on MeFi these days. I've seen some old-timers jump all over a post as soon as it's out of the gate and then watched that post accumulate a solid number of comments.

I also find that new users (post 9-11) think that this site is a WTC link repository. These days, it's hard to get past the 50% WTC posting rate to see how the old MeFi functioned, so I can understand their confusion.

See know I've gone on too long, damn.
posted by eyeballkid at 12:30 PM on November 4, 2001

or better yet, "now I've gone on too long"
posted by eyeballkid at 12:33 PM on November 4, 2001

gluechunk, Yikes! You're right! They could almost be the same guy! That's scary.

rodii, yes the link you pointed out was in fact one of the threads which led me into this TAL diatribe.

eyeballkid, your point is very valid. There's an awful lot of areas where the comparison to MeFi and TAL breaks down. The web isn't radio. It's a very different media, and one can't directly lift guidelines from one to work on the other. The 45 second rule for example, doesn't really apply here. Ideally, each post is 45 seconds in and of itself, because most people don't spend more time than a minute contemplating a given topic unless they personally want to contribute to it, or if the responses to the original post on the thread are incredibly long.

So I guess we have to analyze and understand web media, how MeFi has been used successfully in the past, and what each participant to MeFi wants from their trips here. From all of that somehow we could develop a set of guidelines that focus on telling people what they can do as opposed to just telling them what they can't. In fact a combination of the two is ideal, but the focus shouldn't be on NO. I'm not suggesting that there be some concrete set of rules and then Matt deletes every post that fails to meet the guidelines. I mean the guy's got a life. It's just that if veteran contributors could approach communicating to newcomers (or people like me who despite how long I've been in here I still seem to piss somebody off no matter what I do) I think maybe, just maybe, we'd get more posts that everyone likes and less posts that a vocal majority or minority don't like. People could police themselves. Edit themselves based on criteria that makes sense to everybody. Or something like that.

But then what do I know? I've tried coming up with something to submit to This American Life for three years now and I've come up with squat.
posted by ZachsMind at 5:09 PM on November 4, 2001

Okay this is already too long and no one's gonna read it.

I read it. And I like the way you're thinking. I've already registered my view on the negative approach. I think you're on to something with encouraging creative efforts to use the medium to best effect. But how to encourage, when the least attempt to express approval is condemned as obsequious cheerleading? Maybe we need little thumbs up and thumbs down symbols by each post (and each comment), like Tivo. I have no idea how that would work, though. Anyway, I like to see this side of things brought up for discussion!
posted by rushmc at 8:50 PM on November 4, 2001

An example of purposeful hating vs obsequious cheerleading is evident in the recent Star Wars thread. The difference here is that the extreme opinions are about the topic. And that's good. Extreme opinions running high throughout the spectrum. Actually in some cases it's very therapeutic, and often educational to hear opposing views. However sometimes it can be downright ugly.

When the extreme opinions leave the topic of the thread and focus on the thread itself, it becomes something better suited to be addressed here in MetaTalk, or via email. However, despite constant requests to the contrary, that still doesn't happen very often. The thread is somehow weakened by any single post attacking the linkposter's etiquette. It sometimes risks making the linkposter's intent null and void, because the conversation can get bogged down with semantics of MeFi use, when the topic was about something else entirely.

It is an infection of sorts throughout MeFi's archives.

I guess the answer is somewhere in between the extremes, but I'm not suggesting the extremes be avoided, or even deleted by Matt's hand. OR that we should invoke political correctness to get everyone in line with GoodSpeak. I honestly don't know the answer. I'm hoping someone out there is smarter than me.

It is encouraging to know there's people like Rodii out there who say "Zach, I like what you're trying to do here." When I see a lot of posts on the front page of MeFi that are too serious or, like recently, too much into terrorism in similar angles, I try to either approach the same topic from a new angle or hunt down something completely unrelated, to induce variety. Sometimes my attempts induce vomiting. *shrug*

Perhaps part of the problem is trying. Some front page linkposts just seem forced. Like someone is purposefully posting for the sole purpose of wanting to be more involved. It's like trying to fit in to a social clique, to which I'm just as guilty on more than one occasion. The best threads seem to start with sincere postlinks from people who have no specific agenda, or rather set their agendas aside because they honestly find a neato link out there that they honestly and sincerely want to bring to the attention of intelligent minds.

Okay. Off on a tangent again. Sorry. Here's an attempt to solidify.

Does anyone think there would (or would not) be any use for someone, or several someones, to come up with a concrete treatise for Matt to peruse and consider, which would attempt to concrete the abstract? We could look at what makes a good post and try to write up something that would expand it. Keeping in mind what's there already, but giving useful instruction in more detail, and adding new and improved suggestions that avoid the negative. Maybe even re-write the "what makes a bad post" part from a more positive approach, without sounding like GoodSpeak. Is this even possible?

"The majority of MeFi participants interpret any individual posting links to their own sites as selfish chest thumping. Therefore this behavior is strongly discouraged."

..Ugh. I don't know how to do this. Maybe it's just not possible. It's gonna have to be someone other than me. Someone who can turn twenty words into one. Someone with better talents at brevity and concisiveness. There's actually a lot of material to cover, and if I wrote it, it might break the server.

Or maybe the Posting Guidelines are fine. I mean I've read over it and over it over the years.. Matt's tweaked it and improved upon it as the need arose. It's not bad, in fact it's very good, but it's not working. Maybe the answer is to encourage more positive reinforcement from regular posters when they see good posts, without encouraging them to all sound like cheerleaders? Maybe there should be some sort of etiquette regarding posting negative responses about the semantics of a linkpost?

Oh gee I dunno. What do y'all think?
posted by ZachsMind at 10:15 AM on November 6, 2001

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