The Law of Information Ochlocracy


I've been mulling over a concept in my mind for a while, that I've finally decided to try to explain in detail. It comes from the observation that any sort of service that makes money from the numbers of users it has - TV networks, content creators, websites, etc. - will inevitably lower the quality of the content they are producing in order to reach a broader audience. I've decided there's a law to be derived from this, defined as:

The value of information is inversely proportional to the size of its intended audience.

And its corollary, the larger a target audience, the lower the value of the information must be to reach it. A good name for this concept would be: The Law of Information Ochlocracy. I didn't know the word 'ochlocracy' before I started writing this, but it's basically mob-rule, the evil flip-side of democracy. Information ochlocracy then, would be where the mob decides the quality of information and knowledge that people have access to (on purpose, or otherwise).

The key to the law is the part about the intended audience. An audience for any piece of content or information will self-select itself and stop at a given size. Once the audience grows beyond that base audience, the rest are basically 'idiots'. But it's not about intellect or education specifically, it's about the expertise, interest and ability to appreciate at a high level any given topic. The audience for a piece of advanced theoretical physics will be limited to only those who actually understand those concepts, just as the audience for a boxing match will be limited to those who enjoy that sport. The audience for science fiction programs will be as limited as the audience for programs about automobiles. It's not about the topic, it's the quality of the information about that topic.

The problem is that the people who start a given service - usually out of a love of the given genre or topic - eventually move on and pass the reigns to others who have less knowledge, don't really care about the topic or are more beholden to outsiders (like shareholders or political interests) who simply care about something completely different. Thus the National Geographic Channel goes from broadcasting interesting and educational content about the world around us to making a reality tv show about psychic gypsies in New Jersey, the Biography channel becomes the Celebrities-Only channel, Cable News lowers it's reporting to only the most polemic and scandalous topics, and on the internet, the people who inhabit chat rooms and forums complain of the Eternal September and the digital elite shift from one service to another looking for a place to call home.

So what to do about this? Well, I think TV is a lost cause, so I won't elaborate on the crap on television now - I've just learned not to become enamored with any sort of niche television channel - especially anything associated with intelligent, educational programming, as it won't last. Bravo started out dedicated to the performing arts, TLC was The Learning Channel, History had shows about historical events not involving Nazis, etc. I don't see this pattern slowing down.

On the internet the problem is this: Niche topics won't make you rich. It takes just as much effort to create focused content or services as it does a more broad-based ones, but the more specific - and thus higher quality - topics attract less users, and thus doesn't pay. There are some attempts to figure this problem out - Quora for example is trying to appeal to just the topic experts in any given area, and actively filters out the junk - but how are they going to make a steady profit from this and provide a high return to their investors? The answer is they can't, and they won't. The numbers just don't add up.

Other services dedicated to niches have come and gone before as founders expand the base, or cash out by selling the service to a broader-focused company, the result being the constant migration of expert/enthusiasts from one site to another as they try to hunt down quality forums, content and services.

Compounding this problem is the fact that as access to technology expands around the world, the idiot problem just becomes worse and worse. Think of an expertise bell-curve, now pick a spot on it where you think the idiot line is... Where would you pick? Right in the middle? 1/4 over? 3/4? The problem is that no matter where the line is - and I tend to think it's to the right of the bump - it still represents a LOT of people. This means that in order to maintain a high-quality service, you must be, by definition, exclusionary. Unless your niche happens to be multi-millionaires (which sounds like a joke, but isn't - think Hermes and Mercedes-Benz), this means you have less users/customers/etc. and thus less ability to make money. Making money is a good thing - most people I know would like to make more of it - so that means you need to embrace the idiots by dumbing down your product, focusing on more generic features, etc.

The delta between what it takes to be knowledgable about a topic and the idiot line is the idiot gap. The bigger the gap, the more a service's quality is going to have to degrade in order to be more accessible. The gap is an irresistible vacuum that content providers and services always start to explore and expand into, until they are pulled inexorably away from their original goals. Under the guise of making their products more accessible, approachable, etc. the focus is shifted a bit. Then it's shifted a bit more. Soon you have 'power users' and 'regular customers', or 'old school' and 'new school', etc., then eventually the widest audience becomes the priority and the alpha-users fade away.

Why is this really important? Well high-quality content and services where expertise and enthusiasm are encouraged create a virtuous circle where those who want to attain a higher level of understanding can go to learn, and those who already are experts can go to push the boundaries of their expertise by collaborating or even competing at a high level. We've all seen the benefits of these sorts of organizations - take the Home Brew Computing Club which spawned Apple and many other high tech companies, or the creative literary energies spawned by the Algonquin Round Table. These are examples that need to be emulated and encouraged, rather than abused or ignored. Havens where intelligent discussion survives and thrives without constant threat of extinction is essential.

In most cases, I'm not talking about general intelligence. Take a website dedicated to automobiles - like many modern techies, I actually know little to nothing about cars, and more to the point, I don't really want to know. Any content geared towards me would have to be *super* basic and mostly entertaining - talk about slipping differentials or the best places to source your custom-molded, super-charged, German engineered brake discs would go right over my head. I am, in short, an idiot. Content and services focused on me would be completely useless to anyone who already knows anything about cars. Though cars is a niche which may be big enough to survive without having to compromise, similar to sports and finance, the basics are the same - in order to expand users, a car site would need to wade deep into the idiot gap, and quality as a result would diminish.

That said, there is of course huge areas where general education and intelligence are involved and the idiot line represents a real threat to society as we know it. The laws that govern our country, the policies we enforce, the societal problems we focus on in general should be discussed at a level that is well above the idiot line. This isn't something that should be dumbed-down for a broader audience, yet the news media in the US - newspapers, television, radio, web - are run by people who want to make a profit so that is exactly what has happened. We can turn on any television any time of day or night to how that badly that has worked out.

The Law of Information Ochlocracy isn't just a frustrating phenomenon of the information age, but a truly important problem that needs to be solved if we are to continue as a society. There needs to be a sustainable way for experts and enthusiasts to gather and disseminate ideas and information that is not corruptible by the ever present vacuum of the idiot gap. The alternative are constantly diluted pools of intellect, where quality of information and discourse continues to lower to attract a broader audience to our collective detriment.


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