Thursday, 30 December 2010

State of the Forum: Purge Bot

FFN keeps purging its forums, which keeps causing shifts in the ranks.

Unlike the first purge that took literally two thirds, tens of millions of posts, the recent one was more mellow. Some forums didn't even notice the hit, but the forum history has never been so thin. Time is running out if you're doing research on FanFiction.Net.

Recently, I've asked members of Writer's Anonymous when FFN introduced avatars. I didn't find the exact date on Fan History. However, I doubt there will be a credible answer because that community has been in the doldrums after the first purge. Pushed from the second page deep in the ranks, chances of getting new members are as slim as the recommendations the members give others. With core users becoming more idle, might as well look for another source of information. The problem with that is there not being an alternative. Surely, the Literate Union should be the #1 spot for information on FFN's activities, but even there you won't find many regulars from pre-avatar conditions. Yes, there was a time when FFN didn't have an avatar service. Its introduction was actively discussed in forums back then, but this "back then" is more than two years ago, so the site culled through itself as a primary source. As I'm thinking about facts worth referencing from FFN, I keep procrastinating and hope someone else will do it. Obviously, this won't happen.

Forums will keep shifting, and assure only the leanest boards ever make it to the top for as long as they are top in real time. There is no regard for historic value or past achievements, only the now. While evolution proponents would preach the system as gold, ditching those silly oldies into the bin to refresh the front pages of fandoms. However, evolution takes place if there is something to evolve from.

This is very important. Fans are impressionable, and they fall into trends often. A fandom with a rich forum culture is bound to get richer via "i want one, too!" as it is with illegal stories. You know, someone posts a story in script format, and a member then writes "everybody's writing these, so i wanted to have one, too". Same applies to forums. Different forum communities inside one fandom fluctuate and overlap, making it easier to integrate new members. Fandoms with a slim forum population are more likely to stay that way. For starters, it's difficult to gain members and keep a forum a float. And now that purges occur, successful attempts at forum-making are erased, leaving the least motivation yet.

What's the point in creating a community if it enters a deletion queue during conception?

FFN's activity has been all but pristine in the last two months. Their latest announcement deserves a pat on the back for villainy and devilry. Oh, I am talking about:

"December 24th, 2010 -- Merry Christmas and Happy New Years to everyone from the staff of FanFiction.Net. For the past two weeks we have been upgrading our network nonstop in preparations for 2011 and for the wave of improvements currently being cooked up in our lab.

Enjoy the festive season with your family/friends and with a daily dose of imagination courtesy of all the dedicated writers here. For all the readers, now is a good time to thank all the writers of FanFiction.Net that have given you countless moments of joy this past year."

Merry Christmas? If you recall, FFN purged forums on Thanksgiving. Round two happened on, you guessed it, Christmas. When's the next big holiday on the calendar? Come closer and buy front-row seats to the Easter Massacre! But it's not that simple. When you think the purge is happening in waves, in this case, either by-holiday or by month (exactly one month happened since it began), here's when things are grim: the periodic purge is much more frequent. The site's been clever in its choices, no doubt. Christmas season has gotten FFN a dip in traffic, and forum activity was thin. A jolly good moment to put forums on a stricter diet.

What else has the FFN "feature lab" done to communities on the site? Havoc in content. Just several months ago, the only forum able to get to top 50 or top 25 of a large fandom had to have a post count done in thousands, not hundreds. In Naruto, Sonic the Hedgehog, Twilight and especially General forums, post counts on page one were dealt in 10k, with as much as 50k separating forums in the top ten. It provided incentive and differentiation. New visitors could decide whether to become a part of a forum with a rich history, lots of members and lightning-fast activity cycles and round the clock excitement, or the underdogs or strict conservatives on page two. The underdogs had not yet achieved their full potential and every new member could be the one to push the community forward to the front page. It's a well-known fact that once you are on the front page, in top 25, your community is viewed by anyone, who noticed the fandom having a forum section. Conservative forum owners do not strive to appear in "consumer" spots on the front, but a clever theme or loyal members have contributed to their slow, but steady growth.

Post-purge, these choices no longer exist. Conservatives are culled through first because a topic that gets high quality, low numerosity posts, as was the case for Writers Anonymous, does not generate enough momentum to outrun the purge bot.

The historic forums with plenty of members are also crossed out. It's obvious that the richer the environment, the more quality choices it gives, the better are prospects for growth. FFN trims all of these, turning every forum into, well, an underdog. In this perspective, there are no leaders, no trend-setters because everybody knows this time next month, a quarter, half or more of the forum will disappear. No incentive to get attached and be loyal to one's community.

A lack of incentive creates a controversial situation. By default, communities and "groups" flare up and disappear. On FFN's forums, a group could have re-emerged like a Phoenix because the forum was still there, with a basis for new members to build on. Could have before a short period of inactivity became punishable. No second chances, ladies and gentlemen. The Literate Union was and is an exception in both environments, an exception that is causing more off-shot forums than I can count at the moment. At first, there were two distinctive alternatives, the LU and Veritas. They catered to a different public, but had the same consequences: their presence high in the rankings inspired others to create forums dedicated to improvement. Amusingly, the process is still very much alive. Its outcome is particularly vocal in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians fandom, where half the front-page forums are flamer friendly. Truly, an anomalous environment.

Anomalies created by select communities aside, the trend has not been so positive overall. The LU and Veritas are an exception, not a rule, mind you. And I use them as alternatives because they are and have always been independent neutrals for each other. The trend is easiest to depict with The Domain's forum network. It has been a sight to behold when nearly half of the largest forums in the General category was somehow affiliated with The Domain and its more than half-a-million posts. The first purge has been a devastating blow to nearly all forums in the network. T/D itself got halved, and A Little Piece of Heaven (labelled as "the nicest forum") dropped out of the first page. The latter's perspective is specifically grim after 70% of its posts disappeared without any recovery. When your forum is balancing on growing quicker and slowing down, a purge makes decisions easy. Down.

And this happened to a network of forums, with loyal members, many of them. These people shaped forum culture in large categories or were otherwise affiliated with the trend setters. How did it affect smaller communities, lacking a web of support from other forums? The best example is what goes on on the second page of General forums. Public forums. There are three private roleplay forums there. One of them has exactly two members, and it got onto the second page. In 2009, the LU and Lurker's Paradise (RIP, L/P) had a highly competitive battle for their place under the sun and in the fans' heads. While the forums were very different and practically belonged to the same network (T/D), the fact members of both knew one another and could easily compare activity thresholds created an atmosphere of trying to show the counterpart forum "how it's done". Without such an attitude, getting anywhere would have been next to impossible as activity was encouraged throughout the place. Bouncing in the ranks, sometimes higher, sometimes lower, till both forums reached their goals, was, in part, responsible for motivating members to contribute more. Everybody won from the competition. Lurker's Paradise appeared in top ten, and the LU came to top five.

Since the purge destabilised the situation, inter-community relations were broken. Lurker's Paradise was deleted, another top ten General forum closed, and we have three private roleplays on page two. Private means closed, despite being public. Such behaviour and extreme individualism, not allowing outsiders to your public forum, does not lead to motivation. When a newbie finds competition and some objective, letting him or her feel like a team player in the winning team, it's a growth prospect. During 2009, forums were very much interested in getting those team players, too. When the same newbie sees closed hermetic communities with no possibility of becoming part of the "in-crowd"...that's discouraging.

And discouragement has been the result of this forum evolution. When the active public forums turn private and reject any outsiders willing to test the waters, what's next? Whatever's in store, I'm not sure I want to be a part of this. From my antiquated point of view, forums are about openness and community spirit. You don't create a public forum on the biggest fan fiction website for yourself, and ban anyone wanting to join in if their name isn't "zach2895" or "polly251".

Further illustrating what is going to happen, FFN had a large and sudden drop in traffic in mid-2009. June. It never recovered from this drop or reached above the drop's lowest point. With forum activity, deemed as a downward current since 2008, going through unprecedented deletions, how high is FanFiction.Net willing to jump? It's commercial value is estimated at $1.6m. A quarter of what it was two years ago.

Private public forums are the future, dear readers. Make one yourself and enjoy the show while it lasts.

Edit: During the event, the last available date in forums was March 25. Five days later, it's March 27th.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Reviews are Useful (I)

Aren't they? Most of them are.

Considering the multiple purges (forums and personal messages) that took place, I've resorted to backing up all of my reviews. I never thought this much of them after submission and found it odd that nearly everyone archives them somewhere. Now, I can't be sure the admins won't decide to "delete ancient stories that don't get enough page hits", taking those reviews on their way. It's been a difficult task, getting over a thousand of those off FFN. Apparently, I've reviewed a good 10% of Sonic the Hedgehog. News aside, I'm dedicating this post to feedback.

Most people will tell you this: critique is the most useful feedback a writer can get. In 10 times out of 10, that is true. However, my definition of "critique" is very lax for environmental reasons. Take the issue of how feedback is referred to on FanFiction.Net, reviews. An actual review (not one of those pop-art flicks about how you loved a movie) requires significant substance to exist. Real, full-fledged reviews depict not only a piece in question, its perks and weaknesses, but put it in context. The context is three-dimensional, which gives the reader of a review perspectives on: the artist's past works, comparison with others' pieces and historic benchmarks. Honestly, that takes more than five A4 pages and might as well be a part of your thesis statement (if you're studying philology). Things movie critics and show hosts dabble in a hurry, which fit on one screen do not qualify. Yes, they might call it a review, but it's not a genuine one.

What's the difference? It's like comparing bouillon cubes to soup made by your grandma. In essence, they are the same, but soup doesn't naturally appear in cube shape. Same goes for reviews that can be fish bone-thin or lavish like a four-course meal. The latter is genuine and most useful every time, but comes with three strings attached.

Writing a full-fledged review takes considerable amounts of time. This is why professional critics don't go into detail; they're not paid enough for it. Likewise, you can't expect such effort from people, who do it for free, online. Now, you may get freebies, but that usually makes you a guinea pig (young hairdressers cut your hair for free while they're studying, but results may vary). The second string is that few authors, few fandoms and generally exceptional individuals are eligible to receive a real review. Before someone cries "exorcism" or "discrimination", allow me to reiterate: a review gives multiple perspectives. To let it happen, there are requirements for the critic, genre and artist. If it's someone new, you can't have a comparison with the artist's previous work, no decisions of progress. If it's a small genre, you don't have outside opinions, fresh air to add to the review. Even if these exist, in terms of FFN, it's a large, active fandom with its history and experienced authors, a reviewer might not know of these details. Since Fan History closed to editors, it's doubtful little things about fandom history are even recorded, so you don't have anything ready. It forces a reviewer, when required to concoct a real review, to DIY and dig through seas of content.

However, that's not the worst thing. Most pieces of art can handle up to three real reviews. Think about it. How many different all-encompassing appraisals can there be? How many different perspectives one genre can give? If the review is only partial, the answer is "many", because several people can take a cut of the pie from a different spot, and have some left. When someone takes it all in one gulp and doesn't leave anything left to be said...then what? Even in large fandoms, most of the time you have some twenty schematics and plot device systems (not single devices, whole systems). An original story comes up once in a while, but if you have a decent memory, this originality gets one bonus point, and anything that follows already has a reference. Fandoms tend to grow in numbers, but these numbers only exist under influence of similar ideas, turning into predictable types. Given enough time to study a fandom and its submissions, things get predictable very quickly.

Same applies to reviews. It's actually a very large problem if you bear in mind a fandom's often limited potential and scatterbrainedness. How to remedy this? There isn't a way. You can't make a child grow in every sense of that word quicker than it's possible. The same way, you can't force creativity, which is then seen as a stable stream of plentiful, but repetitive ideas. A review might contain recommendations and out-of-the-box thinking, yet it takes an out-of-the-box mind to comprehend these thoughts and turn them in another direction. It's very easy to "give new ideas" to people, who didn't do research; they see everything as new. The only saving grace is their capability to make these ideas their own. Sadly, this rarely works out, and exceptions take dedication, time, to maintain. I really don't know anyone online, who could maintain an exception via reviewing. You can't guard a tree in the woods 24/7, so it's easiest, and most useful to give it a boost and hope it grows cherries, pineapples, something nice.

This also applies to reviews because a review is difficult to make more...scenic than the story it is posted on. In fandoms that have one problem, the issue is downright ridiculous. One could copy/paste the same advice to many authors in a row only to get "you said that to other people already!" Whose fault is it that one problem is shared by many? A reviewer can't invent something that isn't in the story (unless he or she is an idiot). Trying to say the same things differently every time is just as difficult as reading samey stories. Specifically, it's difficult to stay original yourself when originality is limited to a writer, naively believing his or her story is new, fresh, revolutionary. I don't think copycats are aware of their doings by default. If they were, I am unable to explain how they see what other people got in their reviews, but don't implement advice themselves. As in, car A drove straight on a curvy road, and ended up in a forest. Car B is hopeful that if it drives the same way, it will stay on the road. Rational thinking, anyone? When I joined, the first thing I did when reading review boards of my acquaintances is think "how could this help my writing?" I learnt a lot from others' mistakes, which saved me many a bother.

I digress. Summarising the points above: it's difficult to write a full-fledged review, and every author can only handle a few despite them being most useful. No new things to add are left. It discourages other reviewers because they, like the naive writers, feel they are original, and don't want to repeat what was said in another review. That would look silly to write in a review: "what she said..." It effectively reduces the review count (provided they are not ignoring reviews already posted), and we're huffing despite usefulness.

If you can have up to three real reviews per chapter/story (depending on content), how can rates such as twenty or even 200 be explained for every update? This is where the dog hid its bones. Most of those reviews are repetitive junk, yes. Like stories, these review bits can be classed, and you can say "five points for 'good story' team" with every passing bunch. Generally, it's difficult to find a real review in those numbers for the simplest reason, a critic is not an imbecile to waste time on repetition. Sure, nothing forbids one from writing five A4 pages about the story, but those 200 reviews, if written with good will and respect, would create one full review in summary. Each is only .5% of a real review, but they make up a big picture together, provided it's all done right.

Actually, the above is a principle I follow: saying what others have missed to say. There is no rational point in repeating what other reviews have mentioned because the author already got the idea, and it's more useful to concentrate on the untouched unknown. Sure, this doesn't exclude a person from behaving irrationally and adding a full review, accidentally or purposefully repeating the truths stated by previous reviewers, but generosity comes at a price of time and effort.

Generosity also comes from the heart. Or should. I don't know where a reviewer's inventions come from. Some people would rather falsify an opinion to reach some sort of goal other than improvement. Compensation. An example will make it easier to understand: a reader sees five reviews lambasting a story. Feeling pity (no euphemisms from me), the reviewer writes a false review, congratulating the writer on a job well done. Maybe add a "don't listen to the other five reviews". Such opinion wars are audacious because, ultimately, reviews on FFN are meant for the writer, not other reviewers. Yes, it is acceptable to disagree with a point of view and be generous when others are not, but it has to be genuine. To be genuine, one has to be well-informed.

In my experience as a critic, I've seen many reviewers disagree on subjective issues like "originality" or "respect to readers" with "style". In terms of originality, arguments happen because reviewers did not do enough research, so they can't agree on information they don't know is there. A solution is analysing trends to determine whether a submitted piece is extraordinary or an unintentional (or otherwise) copy. No resolution may be made if definition levels differ. For person A, a whole story may be original because it has the element X in plot C. For person B, element X would be seen as original, but the story as a whole, containing plot C, which was present in stories G, E and R, would not be. One applies the quality of an attribute to the whole, the other doesn't. Only one method works in rational, genuine conditions and reviewers would reach an agreement.

Respect to readers is more difficult to determine than originality because it is felt, not memorised. Also, readers have a different respect threshold. You may disrespect a king by coughing in the wrong place, but you'd have to kill a person to disrespect a peasant. Provided the standards are genuine, an agreement can be reached even for those two extremes. My preference is continuously raising the stakes as they do in the Olympics. This offers a challenge to most writers, or a set of challenges if they are tiered (applying standards of an average story to an average story, high standards for a serious and deep epic), so the writer can have something to look up to. Critics have a good memory for champions, several tiers of them, so newbies aren't compared to veterans by accident and have achievable goals. The essence of the system is not to let them look down. Chances of falling increase.

"I saw three stories worse than mine!" comes off as a very sad result of looking down. My response is always predictable (after a thousand reviews, what wouldn't be?). I just count the number of stories in the fandom, remove four and say something like "15,901 stories are better than yours. That's not even average."

We've touched the issue of averages. Here is where we can use the tier system better. It is my belief that the majority of works in any fandom is average. They make up the mainstream bulk, and can be graded further (upper-middle, lower-middle, the exact average). Below average stories are as common as good. Awful stories are as rare as great ones. From this perspective, it's just as difficult to write a horrible fanfic as it is to write a great one. By default, a story written in less than five minutes is not going to end up horrible. Below average, perhaps, but talent can be exceptional. Recall the originality issue? As people gather more experience and information, more and more things fit in the average section because it's difficult to stun someone with experience. Even if the story is illegal or plagiarised. So it was stolen from some poor sap. Nothing shocking there if you've seen it twenty times before. Sure, if the story contained missile launch codes and self-replicating viruses to format your computer, that would be shocking (for me), and I'd have to call it horrible with all honesty. Even trollfics receive a separate standard of "awfulness" over time; they stop being effective and just disappear (the admin doesn't care how awful a trollfic is, and even the "meh" ones are erased).

However, the placement of the average depends on the quality of stories. If a fandom gets worse over time, the average slowly (with a delay) moves down. Stories that were good 3 years ago might be excellent now, and what used to be sub-standard is now common-place, for instance. The opposite happens when the crank goes up, shunning those that used to be on the margin. Liberals would say this rise of quality is unacceptable because people are shunned, and averages should not move up, only down or remain stable. In reality, both of these are treacherous. Why? If a fandom is getting better at something, and you don't raise general standards because of a few imbeciles, you lose the edge in being useful, delivering obsolete truths. Averages also move with a delay, so making them stable will bring less relevance. Instead of reacting to change, remaining at the same point renders a review useless in short-term because fandoms are dynamic and need help in live. Advice you needed yesterday might be old facts next week. And it usually is.

That should conclude the first part of my essay about reviews. In part two, I move from discussing basics and averages to dissecting margins. For the curious, I will explain the flamer phenomenon.

If you're looking for additional help in reviewing, feel free to PM Lord Kelvin on FFN or drop in the Review Mastery thread of the LU forum.