I want to explore a bit what makes certain sites a good source of content, while others seem to have hopelessly low signal-to-noise ratios. Some sites that I think have good information are:
- Gwern’s site
- Slate Star Codex
- The effective altruism forum
- Facebook discussions
- Paul Graham’s site
- Open Borders: The Case
In contast, I tend not to have much respect for the following sources of information:
- Mainstream news; see also Chomsky on this
- Popular content publishers like BuzzFeed, APlus, Addicting Info, etc.
- Most blogs
What makes the list interesting is that they differ widely in terms of format, length, density, etc.—and yet, I seem to like them all (in different amounts). What gives?
One possible idea is that different types of information, and that these cater to those different types. So for instance on one hand Gwern’s site has an air of formality to it—it seems very literary even discussing technical concepts, and on the other, we have Bryan Caplan on Econlog, whose posts are always conversational (which we can see from the comments the blog gets).
In fact, we should probably examine at least these parameters, to see what we might come up with:
- Format (blog, forum, static, etc.)
- Density (signal-to-noise ratio, how quickly we get to the main point)
Here is a possibly useful thought experiment: for most sites, if they are planning to last, most of the views might come after the creator has stopped adding any new content. In fact, this is the case for all books (or in any case for those books that do not have later editions). So one useful thing to keep in mind is: how useful will people who “stumble onto” your site find it? This is the main argument against blogs, or any format where a timestamp is given importance: it’s difficult to find the ideas that interest you. Sure, while content is being added, it might be nice to have the sense that you’re waiting for the next post (like a dime novel); but once all has been done, it’s rather cumbersome to navigate everything chronologically (though to be fair, most blogs now have categories/tags).
One thing I find annoying about Caplan’s blog is that I can’t just find all that he has written on, say, twin studies or eduction or creating one’s own “bubble”—all things he has written about on more than one occasion. He does a good job of linking everything together, but it’s still very much a scavenger hunt of sorts. I haven’t found the tagging to be useful either—for this mixes all the writers of Econlog together.
One solution is to have everything on one page: this is what Gwern does; so you have one page that is all about spaced repetition.
But then pages load slowly, and it’s hard to get a “big picture” view, and it’s also frankly overwhelming. What I really like about Caplan’s posts is that they are very short. One way of describing this is that they are easy to link to from Facebook—it’s easy to get a discussion going on Caplan’s posts because people are willing to invest a small amount of time into reading the post, then commenting. It’s hard to do this with Gwern’s pages.
So the compromise could be this: have one or a few “structural pages” where their purpose is to link out to other “content pages”; each “content page” will be rather short, like Caplan’s posts. The “structural pages” can contain a short summary of each page it links to, so people can get a concise summary.
See especially this fascinating post by Vipul Naik:
When I started the openborders.info website, posts tended to be short, analytical, and very basic in content and treatment. They didn’t draw upon a large body of knowledge within or outside the site, and didn’t emotionally engage readers. (That said, the earliest posts were pretty decent posts for their time. You can see our archives by year-and-month e.g. http://openborders.info/blog/2012/03 gives you March 2012).
Over the years, partly as a result of a larger audience, and partly as a result of a more diverse contributor body, our posts have become more substantive content-wise as well as more emotionally evocative. At any given time, there is a trade-off of sorts – making a point in an evocative fashion often involves giving up some intellectual rigor or care to examine exceptions, whereas being too intellectually honest can sometimes come across as being mealy-mouthed and not really connecting with people.
Different OB bloggers have opted for different positions in this production possibility curve. The good news, I think, is that the curve itself is expanding over time – as our base of knowledge improves, we can afford more and more to write stuff that offers interesting facts and intellectually enriching perspectives while meeting people’s need for emotional validation. One post that I think was really far out in terms of scoring well on both dimensions was John Lee’s Argentina post: http://openborders.info/…/constitutionally-entrenching-mig…/
2015 is going to be an interesting year for the site because we are planning to try out a number of different post series that explore the realities of migration and the end goal of open borders from many perspectives. So far, openborders.info has been a migration-focused version of economics/culture/society/philosophy blogs. In the coming year, I envisage it becoming a go-to resource for exploring the realities of the migration status quo and the possibiities for change.