“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.”

E.B. White, Here is New York

I’m nearing my first decade in New York and I never actually read the full E.B. White essay until a few days ago—which is funny because E.B. White moved to a part of Maine that’s near and dear to my heart and I’ve had a few encounters with his descendants (who’re some of the most talented boat builders in the world).

Somehow, White’s essay is gestating in my brain and made more pregnant by listening to the audiobook of Matthew Crawford’s Shopclass as Soulcraft on a recent drive. Crawford’s book is what you get when someone from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago takes an Aristotelean argument to the case for working with your hands, excellence, and how it binds communities together.

I’m not exactly sure if this love child between New York and wrenching on motorcycles will be well-formed or still-born, but it’s one of those times when a bunch of things have definitely collided in my brain.

“It’s a genuine problem and has been growing gradually worse for a while. I think the cause is simply growth. When a good community grows, it becomes worse in two ways: (a) more recent arrivals don’t have as much of whatever quality distinguished the original members, and (b) the large size of the group makes people behave worse, because there is more anonymity in a larger group.

I’ve spent many hours over the past several years trying to understand and mitigate such problems. I’ve come up with a bunch of tweaks that worked, and I have hopes I’ll be able to come up with more.

The idea I’m currently investigating, in case anyone is curious, is that votes rather than comments may be the easiest place to attack this problem. Although snarky comments themselves are the most obvious symptom, I suspect that voting is on average dumber than commenting, because it requires so much less work. So I’m going to try to see if it’s possible to identify people who consistently upvote nasty comments and if so count their votes less.”

Paul Graham responding to a plea for positivity on Hacker News.

It’s hard to encourage and nurture positivity on the web. Tumblr’s done it by not explicitly building comments into the product—so if you’re going to say something critical, it shows up in your personal space. That’s the social solution. PG is going to try and fix it algorithmically—which will be very difficult.

Clay Shirky: “The downside of going for size and scale above all else is that the dense, interconnected pattern that drives group conversation and collaboration isn’t supportable at any large scale. Less is different — small groups of people can engage in kinds of interaction that large groups can’t.”

David Foster Wallace: “TV is not vulgar and prurient and dumb because the people who compose the audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests.”

David Foster Wallace: “We should keep in mind that vulgar has many dictionary definitions and that only a couple of these have to do with lewdness or bad taste. At root, vulgar just means popular on a mass scale. It is the semantic opposite of pretentious or snobby. It is humility with a comb-over. It is Nielsen ratings and Barnum’s axiom and the real bottom line. It is big, big business.”

“The basic message is that whether recovery occurs spontaneously or in a defined treatment setting, recovery happens only in a community. We are habituated to the assumption that injuries or illnesses can only be treated one on one in a professional’s office. I shall explain that two people (no matter how well trained, well meaning, and caring one of them is) are not a community. I believe this one-on-one assumption is responsible for how frequently we have failed in the treatment of severe psychological injury, especially when it has damaged character.”
Jonathan Shay, Odysseus in America