29 November 2001

What is wrong with the Fray, you ask, marylb?

Subject: What is wrong with the Fray, you ask, marylb?
From: Bluto
Date: Nov 29 2001 4:42PM

Your thread was just too crowded for this repost (I was really, really hoping someone would give me an excuse):

The Two-Tier Fray! Why it fails...

...in its stated purpose as a guide for readers

Most regular Fraysters know the rationale behind the creation of the two-tier system of posting on the Fray, that it serves as a guide to the best posts and thus saves time for Slate readers looking for intellectual stimulation in the Fray byleading them to the most worthy posts available.

An outdated analog

One core problem with the current system of stars and checkmarks is that it is based on a static "Letters to the Editor" paradigm and ignores the dynamic new-media nature of Fray exchanges which cannot be captured by checking one post in a thread. Indeed, exchanges often rage on into subsequent threads, carrying over points won and points conceded from previous posts. Thus, the present two-tier system presents the casual reader with a landscape photograph of the Fray and misses the action/adventure motion picture going on beneath its placid surface.

Daunting newbies

Most regulars like to see new people with fresh points of view. How many remember their first post to the Fray? It takes a certain measure of courage to push the submit button for the first time. While lurking, it starts to look like everybody else knows each other; what will they think of your post? The two-tiered Fray adds a new level of anxiety for the would-be tyro poster - the risk of your post being weighed and found wanting (most new posters don't realize that not every post is read).

We alla same like-like here, pellah

The stars and checks discourage diversity and creativity. Posts that do not match the norm established by the Fray Editor will not be recognized. That means that all of the preferred posts match the taste of one person (even though I think Moira has excellent taste, I may not always share it). This has led to, among other things, the near absence of entertainingly whimsical posts, yet humor and whimsy are common on the Fray.

Diversity, creativity, and humor will draw readers to the Fray. A system which shuns them is not serving the purpose of drawing new readers, nor is it acting as an accurate guide for them.

The promotion of the mundane, and the dangers of smugness

Once a poster has satisfactorily petitioned and been granted a star, every subsequent post that person makes is considered an exemplary post. This has undesirable consequences. Outstanding posts can be (and very often are) completely overlooked while a star poster's offhand comment to a friend is preserved and promoted as a worthwhile post. This is certainly unjust, and counterproductive to the stated purpose of the two-tiered system; guiding readers to interesting posts.

The star poster is also subject to the chilling effect of having every post under increased scrutiny (and the concomitant danger of becoming smug). How many stars have had the learning experience of blandly rejecting a non-star's point, secure in the charisma of the star, only to find out that the nebbish they just dismissed is a first-rate intellect who figuratively pins their ears back in reply?

We fought a revolution over this, folks

The two-tier Fray has created a caste system, ruled by an admittedly benevolent despot, that is as alien to mainstream American thought as is the institution of The House of Lords. If our posts are the thought-children we send out with hope and pride, the star posts are the scions of the hereditary aristocracy, judged on lineage rather than merit.

As in any caste system, the peons' prosperity is tied to the performance of their Lord and Master. In the Ballot Box column, for months the articles posted were one- or two-liner "Bushisms". Now I'm not going to address the wisdom of paying somebody good money to phone in his "column" and promote his potboiler book based upon it here, but consider how the chances of the Ballot Box regulars to be recognized for superior posts were stunted by these "articles". A criterion for checkmarks is to post on-topic. How many on-topic posts can regulars make about a two-line quote (often as not, misquote)?

So, Bluto, you pompous, self-important jackass, what should we do?

I see three alternatives.

First, go back to the old Fray and abandon the system of checks and stars. I think this would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Second, retain the checkmarks and make full use of the Best of the Fray column to highlight interesting posts. The checks are a good idea, if imperfectly applied. They give posters something to strive for, if they are so inclined, without the false indicators that star-poster status inculcates.

Last, hire some personnel to make sure every post gets at least a cursory once over, and convene a Fray panel made up of the other editors to determine star-posters. This has the advantage of retaining those parts of the two-tier system which serve their intended purpose, and also opening up star status consideration to different points of view.

And now, flame on, O stars! This unworthy worm has braced himself for the onslaught.

Subject: Bluto, You Damnable Jacobin
From: The Scarlet Urquhart
Date: Dec 2 2001 4:32PM

Oh, the historical inaccuracy! If you think that we fought a revolution in order to have a classless society, then you can have two more guesses. Well, maybe Tom Paine did, but he was a certifiable loon, who was later basically exiled from the country.

And the House of Lords isn't really all that inimical to our ideals. We just call it the Supreme Court. It provides a useful check to rampant democracy. (Insert commentary on last year's election here.)

Rampant democracy is a dangerous thing, if you consider all of the implications. The proposal above to award checks by online voting could, for example, result in the posts of "The Africoon Killer" some months ago being awarded a check, because of the sudden influx of posters from the depths of Newsmax in response to a BT debate on reparations. Hardly the sort of outcome that Slate would like to promote.

And the star system is hardly an hereditary aristocracy. (At least I don't know of any stars that have died and passed on the title, though I suppose if they passed on their computer, it could happen.) It's more or less a meritocracy, though admittedly dependent on the grace and favour of the sovereign, and I can't think of any stars who are a waste of time to read. However, I agree with your point about some mundane star-scribblings being unworthy of special attention; I'd suggest an on-off toggle for the star, though I've no notion as to technical feasibility.

The opposite failing (that some worthy posters do not have stars) isn't much of a problem for those who follow the Fray. Outstanding posters who, due to frequency (Fully Brusque Man) or content (Amber), do not have stars are always actively sought out by those in the know. They have a built-in and appreciative audience, though their posts may be missed by the great unwashed. Your idea of ensuring that all posts are read to promote an aggressive check-marking policy might lead to these posters gaining greater prominence, but do you seriously believe it's in the budget?

Finally, there is one great benefit to Britain of knighthoods and peerages: incentive. Britain gets all kinds of services absolutely free from people who want some initials after their names. I would submit that the ego-boosting prospect of a star impels many posters to more ambitious and well-crafted posts.

Laughing Down From Lazy Eyelids While Brushing a Speck of Dust From the Irreproachable Mechlin Lace at my Cuffs,

The Rt. Hon. Francis Urquhart

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