Thursday, October 28, 2021

Why so quiet?

I hadn't meant for things to go so quiet here, and it's not just a matter of being busy.  I've also been finding it harder to write about "the web", not because I don't want to, but because I'm just not running across as many webby things to write about.

That got me thinking, just what is the web these days?  And that in turn got me thinking that the web is, in a way, receding from view, even as it becomes more and more a part of daily life, or, in fact, because it's more and more a part of daily life.

There is still plenty of ongoing work on the technical side.  HTML5 is now a thing, and Adobe Flash is officially "end of life" (though there's a bit of a mixed message in that Adobe's site for it still says "Adobe Flash Player is the standard for delivering high-impact, rich Web content." right below the banner that says "Flash Player’s end of life is December 31st, 2020").  Microsoft has replaced Internet Explorer with Edge, built on the Chromium engine.  Google is working to replace cookies.  I realize those are all fairly Google-centric examples, and I don't want to imply that no one else is doing important work.  Those were just the first examples that came to mind, for some strange reason.

On the one hand, those are all big developments.  Adobe Flash was everywhere.  It's hard to say how many web pages used it, but at the peak, there would be on the order of billions of downloads when Adobe pushed a release, because it was in every browser.  Internet Explorer was the most-used browser for over a decade, and the standard browser on Windows, which would put its user base in the billions as well (even if some of us only used it to download Chrome).  Somewhere around 20% of web sites, however many that is, use cookies.

On the other hand, they are all nearly invisible.  I can remember a few times, early in the process a couple of years ago, when Chrome wouldn't load some particular website because Flash was disabled, but not enough to cause any real disruption.  I'm sure that the shift from Explorer to Edge was disruptive to some, but when I set up a laptop for a relative a little while ago, they were much more concerned with being able to check email, write docs or play particular games than which browser was making that happen.  As for cookies, I haven't looked into exactly how they're being replaced, because I don't have to and I haven't made time to look it up.

Because the web is everywhere, the huge number of websites and people browsing means that it's most important to keep everything running smoothly.  Unless you're introducing some really amazing new feature, it's usually bad news if anyone knows that you made some change behind the scenes (whatever you think of Facebook as a company, please spare a thought for the people who had to deal with that outage -- even with a highly-skilled, dedicated team keeping the wheels turning, these things can happen, and it can be devastating to those involved when it does).

The upshot here is that I don't really have much interesting to say about much of the technical infrastructure behind everyday web experience.  Besides not having been close to the standards process for several years,  I figured out very early that I didn't want to write about the standards and protocols themselves -- there are plenty of people who can do that better than I can -- but how they appear in the wild.  Thus the field notes conceit.

It was interesting to write about, say, Paul Vixie's concerns about DNS security or what copyrights mean in the digital age, but topics like that seem less interesting today.   Regardless of the particular threats, the real benchmark of computer security is whether people are willing to put their money on the web -- buy, sell, send money to friends, check their bank statements or retirement accounts, and so forth.  That's been the case for a while now, through a combination of security technology and legal protections.  Importantly, the technology doesn't have to be perfect, and a good thing, that.

The question of how creators get paid on the web is still shaking out, but one the one hand, I think this is one of those problems that is always shaking out without ever getting definitively resolved, and on the other hand, I'm not sure I have anything significant to add to the discussion.

As much as I don't want to write a purely technical blog, I also don't want to lose sight of the technical end entirely.  I'm a geek by training and by nature.  The technical side is interesting to me, and it's also where I'm most likely to know something that isn't known to a general audience.

Obviously, a lot of the important discussion about the web currently is about social media, but I don't want to jump too deeply into that pool.  Not only is it inhabited by a variety of strange and not-always-friendly creatures, but if I were commenting on it extensively, I'd be commenting on sociology, psychology and similar fields.  I muse about those on the other blog, but intermittently conjecturing about what consciousness is or how language works is an entirely different thing from analyzing social media.

Even so, Twitter is one of the top tags here, ironic since I don't have a Twitter account (or at least not one that I use).

My main point on social media was that some of the more utopian ideas about the wisdom of crowds and the self-correcting nature of the web don't tend to hold up in practice.  I made that point in the context of Twitter a while ago, in this post in particular.  I wasn't the first and I won't be the last.  I think it's pretty widely understood today that the web is not the idyllic place some said it would be a few decades ago (not that that kept me from commenting on that very topic in the most recent post before this one).

On the other hand, it might be interesting to look into why the web can be self-correcting, if still not idyllic, under the right circumstances.  Wikipedia comes to mind ...

Finally, I've really been trying to keep the annoyances tag down to a dull roar.  That might seem a bit implausible, since it's generally the top tag on the list (48 posts and counting), but in my defense it's fairly easy to tell if something's annoying or not, as opposed to whether its related to, say, copyrights, publishing, both or neither, so it doesn't take a lot of deliberation to decide to apply that label.  Also, with the web a part of everyday life, there's always something to be annoyed about.

So if you take out "technical stuff that no one notices unless it breaks", "social media critiques", "annoying stuff, unless maybe it's particularly annoying, funny or interesting", along with recusing myself from "hmm ... what's Google up to these days?", what's left?

Certainly something.  I haven't stopped posting entirely and I don't plan to.  On the other hand, there doesn't seem to be as much low-hanging fruit as there used to be, at least not in the particular orchard I'm wandering through.  Some of this, I think, is because the web has changed, as I said up top.  Some of it is because my focus has changed.  I've been finding the topics on the other blog more interesting, not that I've been exactly prolific there either.  Some of it is probably the old adage that if you write every day, there's always something to say, while if you write infrequently, it's hard to get started.

A little while ago, I went through the whole blog from the beginning and made several notes to myself to follow up, so I may come back to that.  In any case new topics will certainly come up (one just did, after all, about why Wikipedia seems to do much better at self-correcting).  I think it's a safe bet, though, that it will continue to be a while between posts.  Writing this has helped me to understand why, at least.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Please leave us a 5-star review

It's been long enough that I can't really say I remember for sure, and I can't be bothered to look it up, but as I recall, reviews were supposed to be one of the main ways for the web to correct itself.  I might advertise my business as the best ever, even if it's actually not so good, but not to worry.  The reviewers will keep me honest.  If you're searching for a business, you'll know to trust your friends, or you'll learn which reviewers are worth paying attention to, good information will drive out bad and everyone will be able to make well-informed decisions.

This is actually true, to an extent, but I think it's about the same extent as always.  Major publications try to develop a reputation for objective, reliable reviews, as do some personalities, but then, some also develop a reputation for less-than-objective reviews.  Some, even, may be so reliably un-objective that there's a bit of useful information in what they say after all.  And you can always just ask people you know.

But this is all outside the system of customer reviews that you find on web sites all over the place, whether provided by the business itself, or companies that specialize in reviews.  These, I personally don't find particularly useful or, if I were feeling geekly, I'd say the signal/noise ratio is pretty low.  It turns out there are a couple of built-in problems with online reviews, that were not only predictable, but were predicted at the time.

First, there's the whole question of identity on the internet.  In some contexts, identity is an easy problem: an identity is an email address or a credit or debit account with a bank, or ownership of a particular phone, or something similar that's important to a person in the real world.  Email providers and banks take quite a bit of care to prevent those kind of identities from being stolen, though of course it does still happen.  

However, for the same reason, we tend to be a bit stingy with this kind of identity.  I try hard not give out my credit card details unless I'm making an actual purchase from a reputable merchant, and if my credit card details do get stolen, that card will get closed and a new one opened for the same account.  Likewise, I try not to hand out my personal email or phone number to just anyone, for whatever good that does.

When it comes to reviews, though, there's no good way to know who's writing.  They might be an actual customer, or an employee of the business in question, or they might be several time zones away writing reviews for money, or they might even be a bot.   Platforms are aware of this, and many seem to do a good job of filtering out bogus reviews, but there's always that lingering doubt.  As with identities in general, the stakes matter.  If you're looking at a local business, the chances are probably good that everyone who's left a review has actually been there, though even then they might still have an axe to grind.  In other contexts, though, there's a lot more reason to try to game the system.

But even if everyone is on the up-and-up and leaving the most honest feedback they can, there are still a few pitfalls.  One is selection bias.  If I've had a reasonably good experience with a business, I'll try to thank the people involved and keep them in mind for future work, or mention them if someone asks, but I generally don't take time to write a glowing review -- and companies that do that kind of work often seem to get plenty of business anyway.

If someone does a really horrible job, or deals dishonestly, though, I might well be in much more of a mood to share my story.  Full disclosure: personally I actually don't tend to leave reviews at all, but it's human nature to be more likely to complain in the heat of the moment than to leave a thoughtful note about a decent experience, or even an excellent experience.  In other words, you're only seeing the opinions of a small portion of people.  That wouldn't be so bad if the portion was chosen randomly, but it's anything but.  You're mostly seeing the opinions of people with strong opinions, and particularly, strong negative opinions.

The result is that reviews tend to cluster toward one end or the other.  There are one-star "THIS PLACE IS TERRIBLE!!!" reviews, there are five-star "THIS PLACE IS THE MOST AWESOME EVER!!!" reviews, and not a lot in between.  A five-point scale with most of the action at the endpoints is really more of a two-point scale.  In effect, the overall rating is the weighted average of the two: the number of one-star reviews plus five times the number of five-star reviews, divided by the total number of reviews.  If the overall rating is close to five, then most of the reviews were 5-star.  If it's 3, it's much more likely that the good and the bad are half-and-half than most of the reviews being 3-star.

The reader is left to try to decide why the reviewers have such strong opinions.  Did the car wash do a bad job, or was the reviewer somehow expecting them to change the oil and rotate the tires as well and then get angry when they didn't?  Is the person praising a consultant's integrity actually just their cousin?  Does the person saying that a carpenter did a great job with their shelves actually know much about carpentry or did they just happen to like the carpenter's personality?  If the shelves collapse after a year and a half, are they really going to go back and update their review?  Should they, or should they maybe not store their collection of lead ingots from around the world on a set of wooden shelves?

Specifics can help, but people often don't provide much specific detail, particularly for positive reviews, and when they do, it's not always useful.  If all I see is three five-star reviews saying "So and so was courteous, professional and did great work", I'm not much better off than when I started.  If I see something that starts out with "Their representative was very rude.  They parked their truck in a place everyone in the neighborhood knows not to park.  The paint on the truck was chipped.  Very unprofessional!" I might take what follows with a grain of salt.

There's a difference, I think, between an opinion and a true review.  A true review is aimed at laying out the information that someone else might need to make a decision.  An opinion is just someone's general feeling about something.  If you just ask people to "leave a review", you're going to get a lot more personal impressions than carefully constructed analyses.  Carefully constructing an analysis is work, and no one's getting paid here.

Under the "wisdom of crowds" theory, enough general impressions will aggregate into a complete and accurate assessment.  A cynic would say that this is like hoping that if you put together enough raw eggs, you'll end up with a soufflĂ©, but there are situations where it can actually work (for a crowd, that is, not for eggs).  The problem is that in many cases you don't even have a crowd.  You have a handful of people with their various experiences and opinions.

This all reaches its logical conclusion in the gig economy.  When ride share services first started, I used to think for a bit about what number to give a driver.  "They were pretty good, but I wish they had driven a bit less (or in some cases maybe more) aggressively".  "The car was pretty clean, but there was a bit of a funny smell" or whatever.

Then I started noticing that almost all drivers had 5-star ratings, or close.  The number before the decimal point doesn't really mean anything.  You're either looking at 5.0 or 4.something.  A 4.9 is still a pretty good rating, but a 4.0 rating is actually conspicuously low.  I don't know the exact mechanics behind this, but the numbers speak for themselves.

It's a separate question to what extent we should all be in the business of rating each other to begin with, but I'll let Black Mirror speak to that.

Following all this through, if I give someone a 4-star review for being perfectly fine but not outstanding, I may actually be putting a noticeable dent in their livelihood, and if I give someone 3 stars for being pretty much in the middle, that's probably equivalent to their getting a D on a test.  So anyone who's reasonably good gets five stars, and if they're not that good, well, maybe they were just having a bad day and I'll just skip the rating.  If someone actively put my life in danger, sure, they would get an actual bad rating and I'd see if I could talk to the company, but beyond that ... everyone is awesome.

Whatever the reasons, I think this is a fairly widespread phenomenon.  Reviews are either raves or pans, and anyone or anything with reviews much short of pure raves is operating at a real disadvantage.  Which leads me back to the title.

Podcasts that I listen to, if they mention reviews at all, don't ask "Please leave a review so we can tell what's working and what we might want to improve".  They ask "Please leave a 5-star review".  The implication is that anything less is going to be harmful to their chances of staying in business.  Or at least that's my guess, because I've heard this from science-oriented podcasts and general-interest shows that clearly take care to present their stories as objectively as they can, the kind of folks who might genuinely appreciate a four-star review with a short list of things to work on.

This is a shame.  A five-point scale is pretty crude to begin with, but when it devolves to a two-point scale of horrible/awesome, it's not providing much information at all, pretty much the opposite of the model that I'm still pretty sure people were talking about when the whole ratings thing first started.