On Diaries and Recommendations

At RedState, the user community is a big part of why we’re here. Our goal is to bring people together and push the Activist button, so when our most active readers have complaints, we pay attention, because if this site isn’t able to bring together potential activists, we’re not going to accomplish our mission.

Some, however, have gotten the impression that because there hasn’t been action on a certain complaint, that we aren’t listening. It’s not true. Here, now, I will explain why action on the Recommended Diaries list hasn’t happened, and why it seems like things are different now.We have, in fact, had two separate issues with the Recommended Diaries list. When RedState 3 first launched, the algorithm was not implemented correctly. I’d given it a read-through and it looked right, but it just wasn’t.

I fixed that by accident when, in the never ending quest to be rid of 500 errors due to site overload, I rewrote the backend implementations of the major sidebar elements. In doing that I wrote my own version of the Recommended Diaries algorithm. My version was right, though, implemented directly from Clayton Wagar’s notes from the RedState 1 and RedState 2 recommended diaries systems. Its behavior exposed how wrong the old one was by comparison.

If I recall, when the switch happened, there was much rejoicing. The thing was working again.

But now, though, there is more discontent in our user base. Things again are not the same as they were in the old days, pre-primary. The widely-held assumption is that the software is at fault, but in my best analysis of the situation, the difference is not in the software, but in how the software is being used.

Before the primary, and the beginning of waves of gang recommendations (first the Romney supporters, then the Huckabee supporters, and later the Thompson supporters), it was the rare diary in RS 2 that would get fifteen or twenty recommendations. To get that was a rare and special accomplishment.

Before the primary, people in the old days didn’t recommend an average diary as an expression of agreement. Agreement was expressed in the comments. Average quality diaries were expected.

Now though, we have groups of people who collude to recommend each other’s works. The Romney people proved the concept, and the Thompson people showed that total Recommended Diaries domination was possible, so now it’s going on all the time. We also have people who hit the Recommend This button when they think a diarist has a point.

We also simply have a lot more readers, commenters, and diarists.

As a result, all these factors combine to change how the Recommended Diaries list works, even though the software is the same. Here’s how:

Because there are more diarists producing more diaries, it is harder for a single diary to get attention. Even though we’ve greatly increased the size of the Member Diaries sidebar box, it’s still a problem. However Recommended Diaries are as easy to get attention for as ever, so while recommendations for non-Recommended List diaries are being diluted, recommendations for diaries already on the list are still concentrated!

This means that a diary on the list will pick up recommendations over a long window, during its entire stay on the list, while a diary that never got on the list only gets its brief stay on the Member Diaries list to pick up recommendations. The rich get richer, and a popular diary can get recommendations over four or five days, resulting in its staying up far beyond the expiration date of its original recommendations!

That effect is magnified by the hair trigger on the Recommend This button these days. People read the Recommended Diaries list and pile on their own recommendations for agreement. The rich get even richer.

And since we have even more users than we did before reading, writing, and recommending, the undiluted number of recommendations a Recommended List diary gets is far more than any diary could ever have gotten before the primaries.

So in conclusion, we can’t get back to where we were before. We can make the Recommended List more fluid, but that would mean breaking away from the old way of doing things, not moving toward it.

I do believe we can increase the visibility of good diaries in other ways, such as by encouraging good diary practices and discouraging low or no-effort diaries that belong in Open Threads. But I’m not sure the Recommended Diaries list will ever again be the same. Our community has changed.