Don’t blog on an empty stomach

(The clip above covers some basics of mental energy and depletion.)

The alternative title for this post was “I’m hungry; you’re wrong.” I’m not sure which is better… In any case, consider this bit from Kahneman:

Resisting this large collection of potential availability biases is possible, but tiresome. You must make the effort to reconsider your intuitions… Maintaining one’s vigilance against biases is a chore — but the chance to avoid a costly mistake is sometimes worth the effort.

Now as I understand it, this is basically a function of self-control. By taxing your brain to counteract biases, you’re drawing on a finite pool of mental energy. We know from studies of willpower that doing so can cause problems. As John Tierney reported in an excellent NYT Magazine piece on decision fatigue:

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy.

He also relates a fascinating study of Israeli parole hearings:

There was a pattern to the parole board’s decisions, but it wasn’t related to the men’s ethnic backgrounds, crimes or sentences. It was all about timing, as researchers discovered by analyzing more than 1,100 decisions over the course of a year. Judges, who would hear the prisoners’ appeals and then get advice from the other members of the board, approved parole in about a third of the cases, but the probability of being paroled fluctuated wildly throughout the day. Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.

It gets more interesting:

As the body uses up glucose, it looks for a quick way to replenish the fuel, leading to a craving for sugar… The benefits of glucose were unmistakable in the study of the Israeli parole board. In midmorning, usually a little before 10:30, the parole board would take a break, and the judges would be served a sandwich and a piece of fruit. The prisoners who appeared just before the break had only about a 20 percent chance of getting parole, but the ones appearing right after had around a 65 percent chance. The odds dropped again as the morning wore on, and prisoners really didn’t want to appear just before lunch: the chance of getting parole at that time was only 10 percent. After lunch it soared up to 60 percent, but only briefly.

So, returning to the Kahneman bit, I wonder if we might observe a similar phenomenon with respect to political bloggers. Would ad hominem attacks follow the same pattern throughout the day? Might bloggers who had just eaten have the mental energy to counter their biases, to treat opponents with respect, etc.? And might that ability be depleted as the time between meals wears on and their mental energy is lowered? This could be tested pretty easily by analyzing the frequency of certain ad hominem clues like, say, the use of the word “idiot”, and then checking frequency against time of day. I’d love to see this data, and not just because I want an excuse to snack while I write.

How to treat your readers

Like adults. Even if some of them don’t like it. Reihan Salam at National Review:

I am a conservative, but I’m also of the view that exposing people to potentially new, unfamiliar, uncongenial, and perhaps even offensive ideas isn’t akin to exposing them to, say, some kind of deadly pollutant. That is, my working assumption is that my readers are adults who don’t suffer from sensibilities so exquisitely delicate that even the slightest exposure to, say, a link to a “modest proposal” by two economists (known for their free market views) featured on VoxEU will give them the shakes. If I’m wrong, I’m sorry to say that you’re going to have to update your bookmarks or find some way to fiddle with your browser to block this URL.

There was always pressure to become lazy and not push readers, but in the age of analytics it’s much more obvious. The stats can tell you in real-time how much it’s costing you to push them. Reihan’s approach is laudable. But we can’t count on individual actors to do this. We need strong journalistic norms and perhaps rules within media organizations to push back against the temptation to merely preach to the converted.

Thematic vs. eclectic blogging

Some blogs revel in eclecticism. Marginal Revolution comes to mind. Despite its broad thematic focus on economics, it embraces a sprawling set of interests, which largely reflects the eclectic genius of its primary writer, Tyler Cowen. In that sense, despite the fact that there are “themes”, MR revolves around an embrace of eclecticism.

On the other end of the spectrum I consider Joe Romm’s Climate Progress blog to be the ultimate “thematic” or “thesis” blog. If you’re familiar with Romm, put aside your own politics, or your views on Romm’s frequent vitriol. Purely as a blogger, Romm does many things very well. And reading his reflections on blogging is very useful. Here he is on Climate Progress’s 5 year anniversary:

A key goal of this blog today is to save you time. There is far too much information on climate science, clean energy solutions, and global warming politics for anyone to keep up with. And the status quo media simply puts out too much analysis, most of it quite bad. And yet everyone needs to follow this issue, needs to have an an informed opinion on the most important issue of the decade and the century.

Compare that to MR. There is very little efficient about MR. If your goal is to learn economics, you would be well advised to spend your time elsewhere. Even if your goal is to keep up with the economic issues of the day, MR serves up far too many distractions. Romm’s is a “here’s what you need to know” approach. His aim is to “be a one-stop-shop for anyone who wants the inside view on climate science, solutions, and politics” as this brilliant starter post demonstrates. MR would never consider attempting to have the authoratative post on all things economics. It’s a blog about questions, diversions, assortments. Climate Progress is the opposite. It’s the one-stop-shop, the comprehensive guide, the thematic tour.

More than that, Romm has a thesis about the reality of climate change, and everything he writes relates to that thesis in some way. His is blogging as dissertation.

I’d go so far as to say that MR and Climate Progress would be two of the first blogs I’d assign to anyone looking to “learn about blogging” either from an academic or practitioner’s perspective.

Keller’s suspicions are just wrong

By far the most obnoxious line in Bill Keller’s ornery new anti-social media New York Times Magazine column is this bit:

The shortcomings of social media would not bother me awfully if I did not suspect that Facebook friendship and Twitter chatter are displacing real rapport and real conversation, just as Gutenberg’s device displaced remembering.

This kind of thing is completely forgivable in ordinary conversation; there’s nothing wrong with having this suspicion and with bringing it up in a discussion with your friends. But if you’re the editor of the nation’s leading newspaper, and making the merits of digital media your new hobby horse, it seems reasonable to ask that you look into your suspicions just a bit. Heck, have an intern do it.

It wouldn’t take long to learn that the best available research cuts against that suspicion. This 2009 survey data from Pew is still some of the best work on this subject. Their conclusions consistently undermine the thesis that social media use leads to isolation. Here’s just one bit from the Executive Summary:

Some have worried that internet use limits people’s participation in their local communities, but we find that most internet activities have little or a positive relationship to local activity. For instance, internet users are as likely as anyone else to visit with their neighbors in person.

There’s more at the link.

The point is that Keller’s “suspicion” doesn’t fit with what data we have. Unless he has some reason to doubt the data, or wants to clarify just why the data doesn’t capture what he’s talking about, he needs to lose the suspicion.

Also, I can’t help but counter his snark that outsourcing memory “frees a lot of gray matter for important pursuits like …’Real Housewives'” by reminding readers that the use of digital communication cuts into the time Americans spend watching TV, which I mentioned here.

The one critique of Keller’s that I’d love to learn more about is this:

Robert Bjork, who studies memory and learning at U.C.L.A., has noticed that even very smart students, conversant in the Excel spreadsheet, don’t pick up patterns in data that would be evident if they had not let the program do so much of the work.

“Unless there is some actual problem solving and decision making, very little learning happens,” Bjork e-mailed me. “We are not recording devices.”

But nothing more is said about this, and Bjork’s quote hardly proves the theory. Has he studied this? Does he have data? If so, that would be fascinating to see! But Keller has no time for that in his rush to share the results of a little hashtag experiment. (BREAKING: There are stupid people on Twitter.)

One more bit to point out:

My mistrust of social media is intensified by the ephemeral nature of these communications. They are the epitome of in-one-ear-and-out-the-other, which was my mother’s trope for a failure to connect.

This resonates. With so much information going in one ear, it’s hard to absorb it all. One way I cope with that is by cataloguing it all on Delicious so I can go back to it. (What good stuff have I come across in the past year on intelligence?) The other way I process it is by blogging. It’s easy to skim an article and let it go in one ear and out the other. The beauty of writing is that it forces you to process it, and that the post is always there for you should you ultimately forget.

UPDATE: Zeynep Tufekci, sociology professor at U.Maryland, has a great response on her blog. She makes some fascinating points about oral vs. writing cultures (can you guess which one social media fits into?) but here she is on my above point:

Keller argues that “there is something decidedly faux about the camaraderie of Facebook, something illusory about the connectedness of Twitter.” This line of argument, that our social ties are being hollowed out by digital sociality, is also fairly common. I’d like to start by saying that it is not supported by empirical research. Almost all research I have seen shows that people who are social online tend to be social offline, or at most the effect is neutral, and that most people interact socially online with people with whom they also interact offline—i.e. the relationship between online and offline sociality is mostly one of complement and reinforcement rather than displacement and replacement. Increasing numbers of people even make connections online which then they turn into offline connections (See Wang and Wellman, for example), so that even actual “virtual” connections –which I have just argued are less common—are valuable for many communities who otherwise do not have abundant peers around them, say cancer patients or gay youth in small towns.