Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

The problem of new trumping good

with one comment

There is an unfortunate tendency to focus too strongly on the new, notably within the Internet and regarding e.g. entertainment (even outside the Internet). Consider movies: If there is a benefit to watching a movie in a cinema (compared to e.g. on the own computer), then that benefit applies not only to the latest box-office hit but roughly equally to a comparable movie from the past.* Why then is the cinema landscape so dominated by newer releases? Why do even new releases usually see their best returns in the first week and then drop of rapidly? Why this obsession with the new?

*There might be some differences, e.g. in that a more modern movie might have more spectacular special effects that benefit more from a larger screen. For similar reasons, the larger differences between different genres limit what movies are reasonably compared to each other, irrespective of the time aspect.

To a part, these questions are rhetorical: I am well aware of the money-making interests of the movie industry (where the newness factor can be quite rational) and e.g. its influence on interest through marketing and how non-niche cinemas naturally show what the industry currently pushes—and the consequence that someone who wants to visit a cinema for the experience, not a specific movie, will have limited choices outside the new releases. However, there is an aspect of irrationality among the viewers, who could equally well be watching an older movie for the first time and/or wait for a better opportunity to watch a specific movie than in the week after its cinematic release—for instance, to watch it in a smaller crowd one or two weeks later or to wait for a cheap DVD. This even with the current box-office wonder, “Avengers: Endgame”: yes, it continues another movie that ended on a cliff-hanger, but would it really hurt to wait another one or two weeks, having already waited for up to a year for the release? Notably, the same applies to other areas where there is no equivalent to the difference made by the cinema, e.g. the purchase of DVDs shortly after release when the same DVDs can be had for a fraction of the price at a later time. Ditto CDs. Ditto the purchase of overly expensive hard-cover books, because the cheaper and better* pocket edition is only published at a later date. In effect, the customers pay a premium to enjoy what is new, as opposed to what is good. This is the odder, as there is no dearth of entertainment and no need to sit around rolling one’s thumbs while waiting for the better opportunity—if anything, we are flooded with entertainment to the point that perfectly good movies/books/whatnots have to be foregone through lack of time to enjoy more than a minority of them…**

*The lesser weight and size make the typical pocket book easier to read, easier to store, vastly superior during travel, and, indeed, possible to carry in a pocket. For most people in most circumstance, this makes it the better product.

**Which is a co-reason why the respective industry pushes the new: They want to avoid the competition with older works at lower prices. Incidentally, I suspect that this is one of the largest reasons for extensions of copyright terms—not to protect the owners of rights to older works but to reduce the competition for newer works.

Looking at this from the view of e.g. a musician or an author, he can often not just put out a few quality works, build his reputation, and see a steady or even increasing stream of long-term income. Usually, the income that does arise will disproportionately do so from the early days after publication/release/whatnot—and the failure to put out further works can make the old works be forgotten that much faster.

The same need to be current is present on the Internet—even to the point that SEO recommendations include* making sure to regularly publish new material and to update pages for a better rating. But: Unless a site actually deals with news**, a reasonable reader should be more interested in quality than newness. What is interesting is the benefit of reading a certain text. This benefit is usually*** only weakly dependent on when the text was written—let alone when the same author or the same website last published something else.

*At least they did when I looked into the matter, possibly ten years ago. I have not verified that this still holds.

**News is almost tautologically an exception to much of this discussion.

***Circumstances change with time, new information can be revealed, new events take place, whatnot, which can leave even the best older discussion outdated. Texts dealing with concrete laws and regulations are particularly noteworthy, due to the frequency and arbitrariness of change, as well as the potential consequences of a violation. Still, quality texts often retain great value for decades—or longer.

For instance, looking at statistics* for my WordPress blog, it took me a single month of 2010 to build up twice as many page visits as I have at the moment (Mai 2019)—with just a handful of posts and very little value to the world. The historical peak was in June 2011 at roughly five times the number of visits of June 2018. Soon after, I had a lengthy break, followed by only rare posts for another lengthy period. During this time, the count dwindled to the point that a few months had less than one hundred page visits. This despite my having accumulated more posts and, with the old posts still there, almost necessarily providing more value than at the peak—let alone the first few months.

*I deliberately do not give specific numbers, because they somehow (possibly, irrationally) feel like a private matter and were never “brag worthy”. To boot, my website proper always had considerably higher numbers during my days of comparison, which would make the implication about readership misleading. Also see an excursion on visitor statistics.

Since writing more extensively again, my counts have improved, but vary very strongly with publications. Notably, there is often* a short boost the day after a publication, but the lasting effects seem to be weak. As for the difference in visitors compared to the pre-break era, it likely goes back to the many comments that I used to leave on other peoples blog, e.g. in that readers or other commenters might have followed a link back to my blog to see who I was. Most** of these comments are probably still there, but since the posts they were made on are no longer new, they no longer have a major effect.

*This varies, especially based on the text and/or the tags that I use. For instance, a text with a tag like “blogging” tends to have a handful of visitors marked as “WordPress.com Reader” in the statistics, while most others do not.

**There is bound to be some loss over time, e.g. because a few blogs have been deleted or made private (as opposed to merely abandoned).

To take a different perspective: To “go viral” appears to be the popular perception of the Holy Grail of Internet success—to see a temporary explosion in readers/viewers/whatnot of a single item. (To “be trending” is similar, if typically on a lesser scale.) This simultaneously shows a negative attitude among content makers and the problems of the new. To the former: having enormously many temporary readers (or whatnot) of a single item is of less valuable than having a decent number of readers of many items sustained over a long period of time.* To the latter: Here we have people jumping on the latest new bandwagon, only to have forgotten it a few days later.

*In their defense: this attitude might partially arise from the knowledge that sustained success is rare and that “a one-hit wonder” might be a more realistic hope. To boot, that which goes viral does not always require a lot of skill. (For instance, a video of someone doing something weird might merely require being at the right place at the right time and having a lack of respect for the privacy of others.)

The problem is made the worse through mechanisms such as “likes”—something that I spoke out against as early as 2011 (and which I, possibly to my long-term detriment, have disabled on my WordPress blog): We can now see an item receive a few likes, be given a better listing due to the likes, find more readers due to the listing, get even more likes from the new visitors, etc. It is made the worse by the superficiality, non-comparability, whatnot of a like—an image of a cute kitten is pre-destined to receive more likes than an insightful scientific article on feline neuro-chemistry. At the same time, a single like of the scientific article by a leading scientist in the field might be more telling than all the kitten-likes from people like school-children, bored house-wives, truck-drivers, …—but this difference in value of opinion does not show if the two items are compared by e.g. a typical ranking mechanism.

Excursion on page-visit statistics:
The value of such statistics is limited in general, because it tells nothing about what amount of reading took place. For instance, a single visit to certain page could result in someone reading every last word—or to someone reading two sentences and then leaving. Without looking e.g. at comments left, other pages visited by the same someone, subscriptions started, whatnot, these numbers are fairly useless for other purposes than spotting trends and comparing authors of similar style and areas of writing. The situation is even more complicated on e.g. WordPress, due to both subscriptions (which imply that a text might be read by many who have not visited) and archive pages (which contain a number of texts from the same time frame, but will only register as one page visit, even if the visitor read them all).

Excursion on the “wrong” texts having staying power:
There are some texts on my blog that have had a considerable staying power (relative the others—the numbers are still nothing to brag about). However, these have often been the “wrong” texts from my point of view. For instance, the most successful text in the last few years has been my discussion of Clevvermail—a complaint by a disgruntled customer. These visitors are gratifying insofar as I have the hope of having diverted a few people away from Clevvermail, but I would have preferred to have more visitors on a text that is, in some sense, more important and/or dealing with one of my core topics. Similarly, one of my most successful texts in the early days was a discussion of the movie “Doubt”

Of course, this relative success is likely only weakly related to my own efforts, and might depend on factors like what the broad masses want to read, what the competition for certain search terms is, what texts are classified as what by a search engine, and how the “raw” search terms match up with my text. For instance, if Clevvermail pushes advertising, some potential customers are likely to look for experiences by others on the Internet, they might not find that much written by other sources (excepting Clevvermail, it self), the use of “Clevvermail” (as a distinctive and rare string of characters) makes it easy for a search-engine to see that my text deals with Clevvermail—and the user is likely to have included that very string. In contrast, the current text is not on a topic that many will go looking for, it would require a deeper analysis by a search-engine to find a proper classification, and an interested searcher might have to be lucky to stumble on the “right” search terms. (On the upside, the competition might still be low.)

Excursion on main-stream vs. niches:
There is a considerable overlap between the above and the problem that a sizable portion of the population consumes the same information, entertainment, whatnot, without looking into more diverse sources—and that many content producers focus solely on the main-stream. A good example of the latter is how sports have been “dumbed down” again and again over the last few decades, in order to entertain the casual spectator, but also leaving the knowledgeable fan with a reduced enjoyment and often infringing upon the ability to pick a worthy winner*. This type of main-streaming puts niches in trouble, makes it harder for small players, and generally leads to less diversity (in the non-PC sense). At the end of the day: We do not all have to pick what is new and popular just because it is new and popular—some of us might want to pick based on quality and value.

*Often by trying to shorten competitions or creating an unnecessary uncertainty. An outright tragic example is a recent experiment by the IAAF (an ever-recurring sinner), by which a throws competition should be determined by the best effort in the last round and the last round only—the previous rounds merely served to decide which two (?) athletes were allowed to participate in the last round. Throwing events, however, have a large element of chance, which makes the reduction to one throw a virtual coin-toss—except that the athlete who goes second actually has considerable advantage… Why? There is also a large element of risk management, where a thrower can get a bit further by taking a larger risk of fouling. If the first thrower goes high risk and fouls, the second can just make a security throw. If the first thrower goes low risk, he risks a too weak mark. Etc. Of course, the winning mark will often fail to be the best mark of the competition…

Advertisements

Written by michaeleriksson

May 19, 2019 at 9:38 am

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] A note on an earlier discussion of new vs. good: […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s