Learnings about web ratings systems

“The Wisdom of Crowds” is one of the driving principles of Web 2.0. The idea, explored in James Surowiecki’s influential book, is that decisions made by large numbers of people together are better than decisions that would have been made by any one person or a small group. This principle has powered the wide adoption and success of tools including including Google, collaborative filtering, wikis, and blogs.

One common technique, following the Wisdom of Crowds principle, is the use of ratings. The hope and expectation is that by enabling large numbers of people to express their opinion, the best will rise to the top. In recent years, rating techniques have been put into practice in many situations. The learnings from real-life experience have sometimes been counterintuitive and surprising.

The failure of five-star ratings

Many sites including Amazon, Netflix, and Yahoo! used five-star ratings to rate content, and this pattern became very common. Sites hoped that these ratings would provide rich information about the relative quality of content. Unfortunately, sites discovered that results from the 5-point scale weren’t meaningful. Across a wide range of applications, the majority of people people rated objects a “5” – the average rating across many type of sites is 4.5 and higher. Results from YouTube and data from many Yahoo sites show this distribution pattern.

Why don’t star ratings provide the nuanced content quality evaluation that sites hoped for? It turns out that people take the effort to rate primarily things they like. And because rating actions are socially visible, people use ratings to show off what they like.

How to use scaled ratings effectively

So, is it possible to use scaled ratings effectively? Yes, but there needs to be careful design to make sure that the scale is meaningful, that people are evaluating against clear criteria, and that people have incentive to do fine-grained evaluation. Examples of rating scales with more and less clear criteria can can be found in this Boxes and Arrows article – the image from that article is an example of a detailed scale.

There are tradeoffs between complexity of the rating criteria and people’s willingness to fill out the ratings. Another technique to improve the value of scaled ratings is to weight the ratings by frequency and depth of contribution, as in this analysis by Christopher Allen’s game company. This techniques may be useful when there is a relatively large audience whose ratings differ in quality.


The simpler “thumbs up” or “like” model, found in Facebook and FriendFeed has taken precedence over star ratings systems. This simpler action can surface quality content, while avoiding the illusory precision of five-star ratings. The vote to promote pattern can be used to surface popular content. This technique can be used in two ways – to highlight popular news (as in Digg) or to surface notable items in a larger repository.

Several considerations regarding the “like” action: this sort of rating requires a large enough audience and frequent enough ratings to generate useful results. In smaller communities the information may not be meaningful. Also, the “like” action indicates popularity but not necessarily quality. As seen on Digg and similar sites, the “like” action can highlight the interests of an active minority of nonrepresentative users. Or the pattern can be subject to gaming.

Another concern is the mixing of “like” and “bookmark” actions. Twitter has a “favorite” feature that is also the only way for users to bookmark content. So some number of Twitter “favorites” represent the user temporarily saving the content, perhaps because they disagree with it rather than because they like it! Systems that have a “like” feature should clearly differentiate the feature from a “bookmark” or “watch” action.

The risks of people ratings

Another technique that sites sometimes use, in the interest of improving quality and reliability, is the rating of people. Transaction sites such as Ebay use “karma” reputation systems to assess seller and buyer reliability, and large sites often use some sort of karma system to incent good behavior and improve signal to noise ratio.

The Building Reputation Systems blog has a superb article explaining how Karma is complicated. The simplest versions don’t work at all. “Typical implementations only require a user to click once to rate another user and are therefore prone to abuse.” More subtle designs still have an impact on participant motivations that may or may not be what site organizers expect. “Public karma often encourages competitive behavior in users, which may not be compatible with their motivations. This is most easily seen with leaderboards, but can happen any time karma scores are prominently displayed.” For example, here is one example of karma gaming that affected even in a subtle and well-designed system.

Participant motivations, reactions, and interactions

When providing ratings capabilities for a community, it is important to consider the motivations of the people in that community. In the Building Reputation blog Randy Farmer talks about various types of egocentricand altruistic motivations. Points systems are often well-designed to support egocentric motivations. But they may not be effective for people who are motivated to share.

Adrian Chan draws distinctions between the types of explicit incentives used in computer games, and the more subtle interests found in other sorts of social experiences, online and off. People have shared interests; people are interested in other people. The motivations come not just from the system in which people are taking these actions, but from outside the system – how people feel about each other, how they interact with each other.

In a business environment, people want to show off their expertise and don’t want to look stupid in front of their peers and superiors. They may want to maintain a harmonious work environment. Or in a competitive environment, they may want to show up their peers. These motivations affect the ways that people use ratings features as well as how they seek and provide more subtle forms of approval, like responses to questions in a microblogging system.

Thomas Vander Wal talks about the importance of social comfort in people’s willingness to participate in social systems, particularly in the enterprise.
People need to feel comfortable with the tools, with each other, and with the subject matter. The most risky form of ratings, direct rating of people, typically reduces the level of comfort.

Depending on the culture of the organization and the way content rating is used, content rating may feel to participants like encouragement to improve quality, like a disincentive to participation, or like an incentive to social behavior that decreases teamwork. Even with good intentions and thoughtful design, the results may not be as anticipated. In that case, it is important to monitor and iterate.

Scale effects

The familiar examples of ratings come from consumer services like Amazon, Netflix, and Facebook, with many millions of users. With audiences as large as Amazon’s, there are multiple people willing to rate fairly obscure content. In smaller communities, such as special interest sites and corporate environments, there are many fewer people: hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands. While the typical rate of participation is much higher – 10-50%, rather than 1-10%, that is still many fewer people. With a smaller population, will there be enough rating activity to be meaningful. If an item has one or two ratings, what does this mean? Smaller communities need to assess whether the level of activity generates useful information.


Ratings and reputation systems can be very useful at surfacing the hidden knowledge of the crowd. But their use is not as simple as deploying a feature. In order to gain value, it is important to take into account lessons learned:
* Think carefully about the goal of the ratings system. Use features and encourage practices to achieve that goal
* Use an appropriate scale that addresses the goal
* Consider the size of the community and the likelihood of useful results
* Consider the motivations and comfort level of the community and how the system may affect those motivations and reactions

Then, evaluate the results. The use of a rating system should be seen not like a “set and forget” rollout, but as an experiment with goals. Goals may include quantitative measures like the volume of ratings and the effect on overall level of contribution, as well as qualitative measures such as the effectiveness of ratings at highlighting quality content, the effect on people’s perception of the environment, and the effect on the level and feeling of teamwork in an organizational setting. Be prepared to make changes if your initial experiment teaches you things you didn’t expect.

For more information

The Building Reputation blog, by Randall Farmer and Bryce Glass, is an excellent source of in-depth information on this topic. The blog is a companion to the O’ReillyBuilding Web Reputation Systems.

Other good sources on this and other social design topics include:
* Designing Social Interfaces book and companion wiki, by Christian Crumlish and Erin Malone.
* Chris Allen’s blog
* Adrian Chan’s blog

Classical and Jewish forms of argument compared

The rhetoric of Jewish thought is distinctively different from the classical tradition. In The Mind of the Talmud, which I summarized last week, David Kraemer analyzes the Rabbinic tradition of argument, describes its philosophical implications, and contrasts it with the classical tradition, but does not go deeply into that contrast.

David Frank’s article, Arguing with God, explores those differences in more depth, drawing on a set of thinkers including Susan Handelman, David Kraemer, Emanuel Levinas, and Chaim Perelman/Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca. In short; the classical tradition favors speculative thought and declarative exposition in search of unitary truth; the rabbinic tradition favors practice, situational context, and multi-voiced argument that does not reach a single conclusion.

In Jewish tradition, people argue with God and win. In the bible God changes God’s mind, in the Talmud God concedes the turf to the Rabbis. The Jewish tradition takes a pluralist approach, in which minority opinions are preserved, and the truth is contained in multiple voices. Frank shows how Jewish thought contrasts with some of the basic assumptions of Aristotelian logic: “In Jewish logic, it does not follow that if two people disagree, only one must be right… Talmudic logic seeks out and cultivates an “included middle” – one that attempts to find or invent common ground between contraries.”

The biblical arguments with God are about ethics and justice; people are arguing that God should live up to God’s own standards. Modern/postmodern thinkers including Kraemer and Levinas read the Talmud as leaving the arguments and decisions in human hands. In Levinas’ view, seeking the divine directly is madness; people are enjoined to seek the divine through recognizing and meeting ethical obligations to the Other.

Citing Ronald Arnett on Levinas, Frank makes the case that Levinas offers a corrective to classical philosophy’s focus on the self. “Rather than beginning with self, Levinas shifts our focus to the face of the Other, which becomes for him the face of God. We are responsible for and too this face, which is sacred.” The ethical imperative in the Jewish tradition “corrects and reverses the hierarchy of Western philosophy, placing the ethical response to the Other before the pursuit of Being, or ontology.”

In the journal article, Frank argues in favor of a more expansive vision of reason that draws upon both the classical and Jewish traditions. Frank shows that classical thought is characterized by a feud between philosophy and rhetoric in which philosophy won; and argues that Jewish thought never had this split. Citing Levinas and Perelman, Frank argues in favor of a vision of reason that draws both on classical demonstrative logic and Jewish ethics and pluralism.

On the Jewish side of the argument, Frank draws on the liberal interpretive tradition that favors arguing with God rather than obedience to divine will; and the Mitnagdic tradition favoring scholarship and ethics over the Hassidic tradition of mystical experience (for background, see The Faith of the Mithnagdim, an intellectual history by Allan Nadler that is sympathetic to the Mitnagdic side of the split.) I align toward Frank’s biases, but acknowledge that they are biases.

As for the classical side, I think Frank goes a bit Godwin when he draws on Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism as the ultimate conclusion of classical rhetoric. (Isaiah Berlin makes a similar argument about the roots of totalitarianism, pointing particularly at the Continental side of the Continental/Anglo divide). Judaism, Anglo-American pragmatism, and many other systems of belief and philosophy can also be used to justify abuse of power – I think the problem is crazy people with guns, not the style of argument preferred by a given set of crazy people with guns.

Both of the traditions of argument that Frank presents are alternative modes of conscious reason. Meanwhile, much of the discourse over the last century has been about the roots of persuasion in unconscious and social motivations. Frank (and Kraemer) don’t acknowledge the stream of thought from Freud through Edward Bernays, and on to Cialdini and BJ Fogg, to name a few, where reason is, if anything, secondary to interpersonal and intrapsychic influence.

Frank elides the difference when he discusses the ethical advantages of argument. “We now know that ethical behavior is much more likely when argumentation and persuasion are taught as means of dealing with difference and disagreement. What I might do would be to defend argumentation as learned in the strange corridors of the Texas legislature – argument can be persuasive, as long as a hierarchy of persuasion is met; the argument is in the context of meeting the listener’s desires and is seen as socially acceptable.

I strongly recommend the Frank article. It’s a good summary of a topic that I find really interesting, having a traditional Jewish background and Western education, and observing different intellectual norms that are often taken for granted on each side. I’d been looking for a concise, logical, and sourced summary of this polarity since 1983 when I first heard the argument made in a class that Rabbinic rhetoric poses a distinctive and deliberate alternative to classical thought.

The interestingness algorithm

At a panel on social media for music at CitizenSpace last year, with discussion among musicians and passionate fans, musicians talked about their efforts to engage fans using emails about upcoming shows and recordings. But what did the fans want from musicians? Several people mentioned that what they appreciated most was music recommendations from musicians themselves.

This rang true to me. I’ve been finding wonderful music just by following musicians on Twitter, and also surfing the last.fm streams of people with distinctive sensibilities. What’s especially cool is that these recommendations are different from the standard marketing recommendations by genre – they aren’t tied to any genre in particular – punk americana musician listens to a series of classical requiems; a steampunk bigband leader listens to instrumentally interesting, intense pop.

These recommendations from people work much better for me than the algorithms in Pandora or Apples “genius”. Pandora finds music that has similar instruments, chords, volume, tempo, and other measurable characteristics. But people reveal music with whatever ineffable characteristics I was seeking. Pandora gets the sound and people get the soul.

It’s a bit of Silicon Valley heresy, perhaps, to be distrustful of algorithms that find things that are “interesting”. And I think that in some circumstances algorithms can find relevant information. Algorithms may be good in some circumstances, but human filters are great. Fundamentally, I suspect that the interestingness algorithm is Turing-complete – an algorithm that could really predict interestingness would have evolved intelligence and humanity.

Game design for filtering

Conventional wisdom is that ordinary folk won’t learn filtering. Bruce MacVarish blogged this point of view yesterday: “social / information / conversation overload is taking its toll on the value of social applications to many users. While the answer may be the introduction of more advanced “filters” (a la Shirky’s suggestion [there is no information overload, only filter failure]) not everyone will be ready to manage their social streams through finer and finer filters. The “Geeks” maybe… the “Normals” … no way.”

The assumption that ordinary folk won’t learn filtering is built into designs like Facebook’s news feed. On one tab, a raging stream of every single update; on the other tab, a set of highlights, chosen by Facebook’s algorithm, that is completely opaque and non-configurable to the user – Facebook knows best what is interesting to you.

I think the assumption is false, and related to a blind spot in conventional UI design. Nicole Lazzarro observed on Twitter yesterday that “GameDesign builds systems over time. UI/Interaction Design often looks no further than one click ahead.” In games, kids learn very complicated routines step by step. Games don’t present every tool and feature and clue all at once. Instead, they teach things a bit at a time. And it’s not presented as teaching, it’s discovery. Games pose challenges and enable people to discover solutions and gain skills, a bit at a time.

I suspect that people can learn, and designers can build ways for people can learn how to filter what they want to pay attention to out of the stream of noise. It will take principles of game design, progressive disclosure and progressive discovery.

On new concepts for public and private

Pronouncements of the death of privacy are clearly premature. Google’s initial choice to reveal one’s email contacts was a significant mistake – disturbing for some users and harmful or dangerous for others, such as consultants whose clients were revealed, and abuse victims whose networks were revealed to stalkers.

The clear violation of the boundary shows that there are, in fact, real boundaries that can and shouldn’t be violated. That said, there is also real change happening in technology and in social norms relating to the changing infrastructure of society.

So, what is the same, and what is getting different?

Privacy protection is still needed, in fact and concept

Tim LeBerecht presents the perspective that privacy is done for, collateral damage of the trend toward online broadcasting. This has been disproven.

Facebook is only reacting to a larger social trend as it strives to become an asymmetrical and therefore more growth-enabled network (or communications platform) – like Twitter. Privacy, at least a more traditional notion thereof, is the collateral damage of this strategic agenda. With the value of reciprocity (narrowcasting) succumbing to the prospect of exponentiality (broadcasting), privacy is no longer commercially exploitable.

Adrian Chan doesn’t say that privacy is dead, but suggests that the conventional thinking around privacy regarding protection, security, and safety from exposure is the wrong frame.

Like many of you, I think the opposition of private and public is now problematic at best, if not counterproductive. First off, privacy suggests to me individual rights of ownership, protections and security, safety from exposure and the risk of misuse and abuse of personal information. It centers on the individual and his or her protections. I prefer to think of the Self, which is for me already social(ized), and for whom “privacy” is negotiated constantly through interaction, communication, and other social and relational transactions.

The buzz launch privacy error shows that the conventional frame about protecting the individual is still necessary and important. (Which Adrian acknowledges in a recent post on the Buzz launch privacy mis-steps.

Privacy doesn’t express identity – identity is created socially

A base level of privacy protection is needed. Given that, the concept of privacy protection is not adequate to describe the needs of individuals around identity and expression.

Adrian Chan and Stowe Boyd seem to disagree about terminology, but have related opinions about the social construction and expression of identity.

In Adrian’s words, ” I prefer to think of the Self, which is for me already social(ized), and for whom “privacy” is negotiated constantly through interaction, communication, and other social and relational transactions.”

Stowe Boyd describes a similar concept, and adds nuances about the ways that people form identity in social contexts. The problem with the concept of articulating identity in terms of privacy, says Stowe, is that it frames the self as something that exists outside the social realm and is shared in the social realm. Instead, the self is to a large extent generated in the social realm, and its expression depends on the social norms in various different social circumstances.

From a privacy viewpoint, this fracturing of the totality of experience is viewed as selectively revealing potentially overlapping classes of information about my personal life with different subsets of my world. In the privacy take on the world, a person might be defined as the union of all the personalities they present to the world. People’s personalities in this worldview are thought of as atomic, but multifaceted….

From a publicy viewpoint, something very different is going on. In this zeitgeist a person has social contracts within various online publics, and these are based on norms of behavior, not of layers of privacy. In these online publics, different sorts of personal status — sexual preferences, food choices, geographic location — exist to be shared with those that inhabit the publics. So, in this worldview, people are the union of a collection of social contracts, each of which is self-defined, and self-referential. The norms and mores of a foodist service — eat everything and post everything you eat — may be completely distinct from those about sexual interests, or sports, or social technology on the web. These streams of updates don’t have to add up to a picture that defines the individual, any more that we are defined by the stamps on our passports or the complete sequence of hats we have owned.

In this worldview, a person is a network of identities, each defined in the context of the form factor of a specific social publics. There is no atomic personality, per se, just the assumption that people shift from one public self to another as needed.

Stowe’s perspective focuses on the content and norms of the environments in which social identity is created, while Adrian is focusing more closely on the individual negotiations within those environments; both emphasize the way the self exists socially and is created socially.

So what is public?
Adrian takes issue with Stowe’s use of the new word “publicy”, suggesting that there is no need to re-invent and modify concepts of the public sphere.

Public, to me, suggests the public sphere, and the formal, institutional, legal, economic, cultural and other forces that organize it. Conceptually, the public sphere is orthogonal to the social and to different kinds of sociality. In social theoretical terms, the public refers to a kind of social organization in which individuals don’t really experience themselves as acting and interacting subjects. It is “constructed” on the basis of those interactions perhaps, but the term captures anonymous sociality — not, in my view, the one experienced when socializing online.

I disagree with several elements here. Adrian implies that the concept of the public sphere exists and is stable – I think that there are fundamental changes in progress.

The concept of public sphere that we have today was formed in urban public squares and they heavily reshaped by mass media – newspapers, radio, television. As Adrian notes, in the age of mass media, individuals are strangers in the crowd – people do not act or interact. Also in the age of mass media, power of the press belongs to the one who owns the printing press – the power to broadcast is concentrated, the range of information is limited.

The new public network is substantially different from the old broadcast forms. Ubiquitous publication is new. 2-3 Billion people can now share text; hundreds of millions are sharing videos. Ubiquitous discoverability is new. And participants in the new public sphere increasingly aren’t anonymous strangers – more than 400M people are active users of Facebook, which requires real identity.

What people do in public is visible, discoverable, and increasingly linkable to real identity. This is a new circumstance in the world. Social forms and norms are morphing in conjunction with these new things. (I’m not saying that technology shapes society; technologies and social realities co-evolve).

The new discoverable public sphere isn’t quite universal – google doesn’t reach everything. Firewalls contain large amounts of information within organizational boundaries, but within these boundaries, search engines and links make massive amounts of information discoverable. And organizations are seeing that there are powerful benefits to be gained by sharing and discovery, inside and across organizational boundaries.

With defined firewalls, overlapping follow lists and group memberships, and changing relationships and group lifecycles, the map of the more-public sphere is complicated.

Tim Leberecht sees the new public sphere not in opposition to privacy, but on a continuum with it. “Thus, it makes sense to replace the strict privacy-publicy opposition with a multi-layered continuum along progressive levels of sociality. Also, Tim sees sharing in terms of control – On Facebook and other networks, you can pick and choose the people you want to meet and share ‘presence’ with; in a restaurant, bar, and other public spaces, you can’t. Exclusivity in the real world needs to be earned, whereas online it is a given.

I agree with Tim that the binary opposition between “public” and “private” is wrong. But I disagree with Tim’s spacial metaphors to describe the relationship. I don’t think there is any single scale that runs from “more private” to “more public”. I prefer Kevin Marks’ discussions of overlapping publics, and Stowes descriptions of how identities are constructed within associations. Also, I disagree that the primary operation in sharing is about “control”. It is about constructing identities, as Stowe describes. It is about the flux of relations between individuals, and among individuals and their groups, as Adrian Chan describes.

Stowe Boyd sees the difference in the online public sphere as an orientation toward time, vs. space. “Online, we share time, not space. We are not actually in a restaurant together: we are using Brightkite, and I am playing along with the premises of the social conventions of Brightkite by posting that I am in Momofuku, The Slanted Door, or Fatty Crab.”

This is an interesting distinction, but not the most salient one, I think. The old world of mass media was also about sharing time – it was about millions of people seeing the same sitcom and the same news broadcast on the same night. Digital media do as much to break up shared time as they do to unify time – for example, people watching movies on their own schedule, and using comments, likes/ratings, and share gestures to express opinions, affiliations and connections.

Even when people do share time in near-synchronous exchanges on Facebook or Twitter or Buzz, the increasing ability to search, curate, and browse shared artifacts and identities will be very important aspects of discoverable life. In the physical world, edifices and public spaces were used to express shared identity, and the decoration of houses and homes expressed personal and household identity. In the online world, profiles were the first step, but the curation of streams will be important forms of expression of both personal and shared identities.

New norms

With this new public sphere shaped by discoverability, there are emerging norms that favor more sharing, transparency and discovery, for individuals participating in social life, and for organizations pursuing some mission or goal. There are also emerging and disputed norms about the discoverable expression of varying aspects of identity. Some workers get fired – and some get hired – as a result of personal expression online.

Stowe contends that the new social contract will be that faceted expressions will be seen as mutually exclusive.

Publicy says that each self exists in a particular social context, and all such contracts are independent…. and any individual’s participation in a specific online public does not have to be justified in a global way, any more than the cultural mores of the Berber Tuaregs need to be justified from the perspective of modern Western norms.

I don’t believe this is quite how the new norms will play out. I suspect we’re entering a world that is like Jane Jacobs’ urban village, where people are keeping an eye out for what’s happening on the street. There is a lot of visible information and people choose what to pay attention to when.

Another changing sphere of norms and practices is in the area of presence and attention, given that sharing time is one of the properties of the new public sphere. How are people available to each other, what modes do they use, when do we attempt to focus vs. split attention, what expectations to people have of others. Howard Rheingold wisely expresses the believe that “attention is the new literacy” – that people will need to evolve new practices and disciples for handling and communicating attention.

New words and concepts

New norms, conventions, and practices are emerging in this changed reality. New words and concepts will be needed to describe it, or existing words will need to morph their meaning.

Stowe Boyd proposes the term “publicy” to mean the set of expectations around being public – being online, time-oriented vs. space oriented, and existing within overlapping, contextually-determined publics.

Adrian Chan doesn’t like the neologism, arguing that “publicy is not only new and thus obfuscating, but sacrifices the possibility of leveraging existing theoretical arguments.” Instead, Adrian prefers “sociality”, which he uses to describe a bottom-up view of a “social field”, for its organization, relations, and means of reproduction.”

Thinking about socialities, we ask not what they are but how they are organized. What are the relations between members? How do these relations become reintegrated in how members relate differently or uniquely to themselves? If we believe that attention, presence, communication, games, or other kinds of organization are involved, then to what effect and with what outcomes? These forms are often temporary, but meaningful nonetheless because they produce a great deal of communication (which is captured)….

Focusing not on publics but on socialities also shifts emphasis to dynamics. For any type of social organization, ask what can it do? How is it assembled? This is an age-old philosophical question: What can a people do? Not what do people do, but recognizing that their relations are organized and their interactions structured, what is a people capable of?

Adrian is interested in established anthropological questions: “What types of talk and what kinds of social interactions does the sociality promote, and what types does it preempt? Does it promote the Self as image and ego, the group as collaborative, the whole as a unity with purpose? These are anthropological questions valid for us as observers of mediated cultures.”

I agree with Adrian that these considerations are important, and that analysis of social media tools and practices are often wanting because they neglect these considerations.

I don’t yet have a strong opinion about the term “publicy”, and disagree with some of what Stowe is saying about what the new public sphere may mean. What I like about “publicy” is the focus on something that I think has actually changed. (Tim Leberecht actually uses the term “sociality” to refer to this type of change). With respect to this change, I like the focus on the ability to be expressive in a discoverable way. To use the word in a sentence with this meaning, “Facebook violates my norms of privacy by disclosing my friends list to advertisers regardless of my wishes, but it violates my norms of (publicy? sociality?) by making it rather confusing to share public discourse with the world, something my blog makes trivial.”

From an individual perspective and an organizational perspective, it is interesting and useful to consider what may be actually different in capabilities and practices; what may be different because of exposure, discoverability, synchrony and time-shiftedness, and other changed properties. If there is something different in the world, then individuals and organizations have new opportunities, new requirements, new obligations.

Sociality? Publicy? A linguist would have fun monitoring the uses of these terms, and the meanings the terms are accreting. What I want to see is more public discussion of the social aspects of online experience and design, both from the perspective of what is already understood about social behavior, and what is changing.

The Mind of the Talmud

When I read The Mind of the Talmud the first time around, not long after it was published in the 90s, it was mind-opening and shocking. This readthrough, I found it good and interesting but not shocking.

Professor David Kraemer argues that the literary form of the Babylonian Talmud communicates a philosophical approach. The Talmud presents extended arguments without resolution in order to convey the concept that truth is not determinable by people, and that truth can only be approached through a multi-voiced conversation. This rhetoric is a deliberate choice, and a significant contrast to other religious and intellectual traditions.

With detailed analysis from his doctoral dissertation, Kraemer shows how this style of extended and unresolved argument evolved over time, with later generations of Talmudic rabbis using features of the style with increasing frequency and intensity. Because of the evolution over time, the style was unlikely to have been invented by the last layer of editing, but the final layer of editing made some of the the most radical choices.

In a tradition that privileges earlier voices, Kraemer argues that creative interpretation by later authorities allows them to assert power over earlier layers. Kraemer takes this not uncommon modern reading even further with a more subtle point. The Talmud uses an interpretive approach whereby every small feature of scripture is intended to have one and only one teaching for halacha (Jewish law). To modern ears, this seems absurdly literalist and bizarre. Kraemer argues that this form of interpretation serves to increase the surface area of the text, allowing for more interpretive hooks. Not only that, the Bavli pioneers an interpretive method that draws interpretive conclusions by comparing not only to what the text says but to fanciful things that the Talmud imagines it might have said but doesn’t say.

Later layers of Rabbinic scholarship brought structure and system to the body of Jewish law, so it is striking to see Kraemer highlight the built-in contradictions and anti-conclusiveness of the style of the Bavli. The multi-voiced play of argument and interpretation fits nicely with the postmodern tradition, in which there is no single, stable, determinable meaning.

When I read The Mind of the Talmud for the first time, I’m not sure how much I noted the connection to the ideology of Conservative moment (the moderate traditionalist strand of Jewish thought and practice). Kraemer is a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the main Rabbinical school for Conservative Judaism.

For example, Kraemer uses the story of the Oven of Aknai, a well-known Talmudic story where a voice booms down from heaven to resolve a dispute among Rabbinic sages, and the sages dismiss the voice saying “it is not in heaven” meaning that the right to decide is in human hands. In response, G-d laughs in amused approval, saying “My children have defeated me.” This story is a classic in the homiletic canon of Conservative Judaism, which emphasizes the power of contemporary scholars to interpret the tradition for current circumstances.

These selections are homiletic choices. By contrast, Orthodox readings gravitate toward other stories in the tradition that focus on acceptance of the yoke of heaven without question, the value of obedience to authority, the ideology that each generation is further away from divine revelation and wisdom. Selecting homiletic choices out of a vast corpus of source text is itself a traditional thing to do regardless of ideology.

I noticed Kraemer’s homiletic defense of Conservative arguments even more strongly in Kraemer’s later book, Reading the Rabbis, where he does closer literary readings of specific texts in the Talmud and shows how the literary forms and techniques are used to undermine seemingly conventional ideas. In that book, though the technique is subtle, the familiar selections and conclusions uphold common tenets of Conservative Judaism.

In both books, Kraemer’s theology is radical, but he shows no radical leanings in categorization or practice. This stance is influenced by Kraemer’s reading of tradition, where one can hold wild and fantastic ideas as long as one remains within the ideological and ritual bounds of the community.

Kraemer’s ideas of undecidability and interpretive play are from the postmodern tradition. Still, his writing style is scholarly straight argument and linear prose. He doesn’t succumb to the postmodern temptation to engage in filligreed interpretation and self-consciously playful writing. For this, one can to turn to Marc-Alain Ouaknin’s “The Burnt Book”, which draws on Derrida, Blanchot, Jabès, Neher, and Levinas. For more pointed and less conventional theological readings, check out the work of Prof. Aryeh Cohen, who uses close readings and postmodern approach to draw interesting inferences about the theology of exile and other topics. Disclosure, Aryeh is also a friend.

In the last chapter of the book, Kraemer contrasts the Bavli’s multi-voiced and inconclusive approach to the pursuit of truth to other religious and intellectual traditions. But he does not get into in-depth analysis of the Talmud’s rhetoric compared to more well-known hellenistic/classical forms. For this analysis, is an excellent summary in a journal article by David Frank. (I first learned that argument from earlier sources in a course at Bar Ilan university in 1983. But I don’t have the notes or a syllabus for the class, and I am enjoying the process of tracing those missing sources.)

Kraemer’s argument sounded shockingly radical when it came out; now the dissonances are notable and pleasing. Yet the perspective and methods of postmodern Talmud scholarship are still fairly obscure in contemporary discourse. Conventional rhetoric is still classical – one build a logical case toward a single conclusion, using counter-arguments to bolster the case for one’s preferred approach. It is still strange to counterpose multiple voices, and to synthesize an approach composed of not-fully-resolved arguments among the approaches and positions.

in a networked world with public conversational practice, and where people are sometimes tempted to remember the conversations, the rhetorical choices of the Talmud’s editors have renewed salience. When we attempt to condense discussion in forums, Twitter threads and perhaps Google Buzz and Wave, how much of the individual voices and arguments will we preserve? I suspect there are lessons to learn from the modes of Talmudic rhetoric.

I strongly recommend The Mind of the Talmud to anyone interested in Jewish thought, postmodernism, and/or premodern sources of inspiration for contemporary hypertext. If I know you in person I may have already recommended it to you. This book is not an introduction to the Talmud – try The Essential Talmud by R. Adin Steinsaltz for a traditional-flavored good introductory text. The book presumes some knowledge of Jewish text and thought, though I suspect that it is readable by someone with interest and Wikipedia. Chapters 2 and 3, in which Kraemer uses statistical analysis to show that the rhetoric of the talmud isn’t merely an invention of its editors, is persuasive but quite dry; the interpretive and argumentative heart of the book is in Chapters 4-7. The book is also rather expensive, but one can get somewhat cheaper copies used, and there is inventory online. If you have read it (or if you go read it now), I’d love comments and discussion.


Buzz is obviously a work in progress. This is troubling to some but doesn’t bother me. I don’t mind that they released it without key features and are going to iterate as they go. If anything I think it’s a strength. Software in general, and social tools in particular, benefit from the developers learning and improving from adoption and use.

Buzz is being designed around social web standards. I love love love this, because standards based systems are the right approach in the long term to enable personal control over one’s data, social arrangement of social context, and organizational variation of types of experience. If standards take hold, it will be possible to create alternatives to Google’s tools. The alternative is a world where one key vendor (e.g. Facebook) owns your data, arranges and controls social context, and controls constituent experience for organizations beholden to it.

Buzz looks and feels like a conversation. It’s a lot more intuitive than Wave, which has the mindwarping capability for people to go back and change somebody’s past words in a conversation thread, and builds in the bizarre expectation that people will understand historical conversations by replaying them verbatim. Buzz is just a regular comment thread, and the social convention is a good thing, thank you.

That said, Buzz is immature. It desperately needs filtering. Without it, Buzz feels like the internet is cascading into one’s consciousness. This is a hard and as-yet-unsolved design problem, to make filtering that people can learn to use. FriendFeed succeeded only for users with geeky tendencies. Facebook is so far failing badly – its news feed switches between useless firehose mode and too-smart-for-its-own-good algorithm mode that picks posts out of the stream for mysterious reasons its homunculus knows and you the reader can’t figure out or control. And its lists are too hard to set up for social filtering, and still not powerful enough.

By default, Google puts Buzz replies into email, which is way to much. It’s possible to turn this off but should be a lot easier.

Buzz is starting with the ability to import content from only a few services. One of the strengths of FriendFeed was the ability to import from a wide variety of services – music, movies, bookmarks, reviews, and more. Then, FriendFeed could serve as a common place to discuss aggregated references. Without the breadth, it opens the door for speculation that Google is paying lip service to open-ness but really wanting to only promote its own services. My guess is that Google really does strategically want the openness, since they have more to gain by expanding the footprint for search and advertising. I look forward to seeing and using those choices.

The worst flaw is social. Buzz recapitulates the weakness in many of Google’s social tool experiments – a weakness in social model. Buzz attempts to jumpstart the network effect by auto-following people who happen to be email contacts, which feels weird random – inbox contacts are rather accidental, compared to other deliberately grown social networks. So far, Buzz lacks the ability to bulk-invite people from other social networks (Twitter, Facebook, other). The lack of import on Day 1 may be smart or lucky to avoid perceived spam, but will be useful, especially once filtering is better. What would be cool would be to allow the import and immediate filtering of Facebook and Twitter lists. And then to enable the setup of lists and groups to visualize and share social contexts.

I like Buzz, think it has potential, and hope it matures to be useful. It has a lot of the strengths of FriendFeed, plus hopefully the cash and patience to iterate until it’s good. And if it is good and gains market share, the traction of standards will enable a better ecosystem and alternatives too.