Thursday, 12 January 2017

Michael Lewis and the Birth of Online Commenting

 
 

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis



published 2016


 
Undoing Project 1


The story this book tells is quite extraordinary – a look at huge changes and developments at the point where psychology and economics intersect, and also a story of academic life and of a unique friendship. Many people first came across Daniel Kahneman when his book Thinking Fast and Slow hit the bestseller lists a few years ago: his theories of how we make decisions and judge probabilities, and how and why we nearly always get it wrong, made for fascinating reading.


The Undoing Project tells  how Kahneman worked with Amos Tversky on these theories.


 
Undoing Project 3Tversky and Kahneman in 1974


Michael Lewis has an unequalled ability to tell a true story - it doesn’t seem to matter what the subject matter is, he can make sense of it and spell it out so anyone can understand with a little effort. He writes non-fiction, and three of his books have been turned into films. All were Oscar-nominated, and two won Oscars (including Sandra Bullock's for The Blind Side). He is a very clever man and a very good writer.

His past topics have included Wall St, Silicon Valley, American football, baseball statistics, and the economic crash. The statistics book was Moneyball – a phrase that has now entered the language for a form of gaming the system by NOT trusting experts and intuition.

And it was via that book – and a gently critical review - that Lewis came upon the work of Tversky and Kahneman and decided to write about them. The Undoing Project explains all that, but also starts with a very long section about college basketball – I had to trust him that he was going somewhere, but he did manage to make even this subject interesting(ish). After that the book becomes close to unputdownable, and I cannot think of any other author who could have written so well both about the academic content, and about the unusual friendship between the two men. So The Undoing Project is highly recommended – it is educational, exciting, and touching, and you will feel a better and cleverer person for having read it.

And now I am going to write about a completely different aspect of the author.

I have mentioned before how I am not very good at knowing famous people (Carla Lane, here) and Michael Lewis, the celebrated and highly successful best-selling author, is another example.

More than 15 years ago (when he was already a bestseller for Liars’ Poker) he wrote regularly for Slate magazine in the USA, where I also worked. He wrote a hilarious series of reports on the Microsoft trial, and then I think lost interest. The readers of Slate (which was at that time owned by Microsoft) were all convinced that he had been stopped from writing the pieces, because Bill Gates/Microsoft didn’t like them. This wasn’t true at all (and would have been fairly unimaginable to anyone who knew Slate and MS and their general climates at the time) but it was simply stated and accepted as fact: the readers weren’t having it. It was a minor point, but I found it quite interesting. If you couldn’t tell the truth on a statement of fact, and be believed, well, what did the future hold?


Undoing Project 2Michael Lewis


Lewis then wrote a series of dispatches from Paris, where he had gone to live with his family. They were amusing entertaining pieces (since collected in a book called Home Game) – he wrote about his family in a way that would be very familiar now, but was much less common then.

And this is where I came in. Part of my job at Slate was to look at the way the readers responded to the writers. This wasn’t a big deal, no-one thought this was very important, but I found it endlessly interesting. Online commenting was, relatively, a very new thing, and I wrote about it for Slate every week. I also chose particularly good comments to feature in the magazine, and I wrote about responses to individual articles at the end of those articles. Most people at Slate didn’t take reader comments seriously at all – they didn’t see it as a force for good or bad, or a source of information, or useful audience research.

And Michael Lewis’s articles posed a problem. I don’t believe he ever looked at the online comments himself, though perhaps looked at my filtered version.

His (fairly) regular column attracted a group of regular readers and commentators, who formed a circle and held pretty much a week-long conversation: it would become much more active just after Lewis’ piece was posted, but carried on all the time. And the discussion was fascinating and hilarious – they would use his words as a starting point and then move on to all kinds of related areas.

But the commentators would make quite personal remarks about Lewis, his wife and his family. It is hard to remember now, but actually this was a new and very strange thing. When his wife gave birth to a baby his piece talked about them all. And some of his regular commenters started being rude about his children’s names. They said they were awful names, and these children would grow up as idiots, that they would be teased, and that Lewis and his wife (whose own name was criticized: ‘what do you expect with a name like that?’) were seriously to blame for giving them such ridiculous names.

Now, as I said, I don’t think Lewis knew or cared – he probably had other things on his mind with a new baby in the house – but I was bothered, and I thought for a long time as to whether these were acceptable comments to make. Criticism of the writer was fair game on the whole – but little children who had done nothing but have a writer for a father?

Given the way the world, and particularly the online world, has developed since then, this probably sounds like ridiculous overthinking. But it was a serious matter. In the end free speech won out, but I didn’t highlight or draw any attention to the posts. But it was a sign of things to come.

On another occasion Michael Lewis and his family made a trip to Rome, and he wrote a funny piece about his problems with a rented apartment then. Next thing I know, the landlord of the vacation rental is coming into the online comments to take issue with the Lewis version, and to defend himself and offer a different point of view. He was quite cross and temperamental, and made multiple posts. I had some email contact with the landlord to try to calm him down.

These two incidents were my epiphany: when I realized just how strange and new and different online commenting was, and that it wasn’t going to go away, or ever be controlled. I spent some time trying to make this point to others, but I wasn’t very persuasive and no-one could quite see it.

Some time over the next few years, everyone realized it, each person had their own epiphany,and would quite often then explain it to me…

Picture of Kahneman and Tversky in 1974, taken by Tversky’s wife Barbara. Picture of Michael Lewis from his website, taken by his wife, Tabitha (perfectly-good-name) Soren.























22 comments:

  1. What a terrific story, Moira. Thanks for sharing your personal experiences. And how well you saw the future of commenting! It's interesting, isn't it, how these things happen, and we don't always see what their future will be. And how interesting that you had that more close-up perspective on Lewis!

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    1. Thanks Margot - as you know I do usually concentrate on the books, but in this particular case I did feel I had something to say. It's a subject dear to my heart.

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  2. Wow, what an interesting post. Blogging definitely leaves you wide open for all sorts of comments, it's a scary world out there and some trolls are just waiting for a chance to make personal comments. Your writing, what you're writing about it fair game, you and your family shouldn't be.
    By the way, I've read, and seen the movie, Moneyball and it was fascinating, will have to look for this book too.

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    1. Thanks, glad you liked it. It's a big subject and one that we need to think seriously about. And Lewis does seem able to write about anything - perhaps he should tackle the question of online commenting!

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  3. I was once a member of a site where one of the new member started sending private messages asking us why we were spying on him! The moderators apparently had a quiet word with him, and he was asked to come back after he had received some specialist help. These sorts of things are thankfully rare, but the bullying commentor is sadly common. The lack of personal danger and the anonymity are a great temptation to a certain sort of creep. Even when they are not deliberately vindictive, I think that some people have grown up thinking that whatever happens on the computer screen is not quite real. Some people used to think that soap operas were for real, writing letters to characters on the screen to offer them advice. Now they seem to feel that the person who writes those articles is like a computer game character. Shoot 'em, burn 'em, whack 'em and they just reboot and come back for more. The idea that they might be hurt by some inane comment never seems to occur to them. It's rather scary.

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    1. It is scary, and sad. There is a lack of understanding as to how the world works, I think, and a lack of empathy - and a few other worse emotions. And the sudden widespread availability of instant commenting meant there wasn't time for any development of guidelines, rules, general agreement on what was right.

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  4. Moira: Thanks for a fascinating and thought provoking post.

    I have enjoyed several books by Lewis. Moneyball was my favourite non-fiction book of 2004. I appreciated the book both for the well told story and my love of baseball. For some years I was a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and had read numerous articles on sabremetrics before reading Moneyball. I think that is enough on the technical side of sports analysis.

    Online comments are a continuing interest to me as a lawyer. You clearly sensed the dark side of commenting earlier than anyone else I know.

    On the present situation I recently attended a conference of trial lawyers where it was discussed that it is fundamental for a litigator in any court action to review the social media pages of witnesses to see what they and their friends have posted. It can be startling the indiscretions publicly put up on the net.

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    1. Thanks Bill - that's a fascinating detail about the lawyers' researches, I wouldn't have thought of that. I think there is considerable adaptation still to go before the world sorts out online behaviour...

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  5. Very interesting. I have been tempted to read books by Michael Lewis after I've seen him interviewed on TV. But fiction always seems to lead me astray, especially if it's about crime.

    I find it horrendous that the writer's spouse and children have been criticized online -- even their names. His spouse's name is fine; it's the name of Stephen King's spouse, a writer in her own right. And his children's names are fine.

    What is it? I think it is because people aren't thinking deeply about the subjects and processing what is being said. So they pick on easy and superficial topics. Nastiness should be outlawed on the Internet. It is to some extent, if it's hate speech.

    But, really, trolls, deal with his ideas and think. I sometimes wonder if thinking is downplayed over here.

    Anyway, have a good year of reading and blogging.

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    1. Thanks, and a happy new year to you too Kathy. I think it's a lack of empathy. Some people I'm sure don't care if they hurt or upset people, but others are just not thoughtful enough, and could be educated perhaps... Let's hope.

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  6. What a fine post! Lewis is one of those writers (John McPhee is another) who, if they want to write about it, I want to read about it. I've been wrestling with Lewis' book, trying to write a review, which is difficult because it's so huge and so filled with information and insight. I'll just send folks here while I go read Kahneman.

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    1. I totally agree with you about Lewis, and thank you also for kind words! Yes, information and insight. Kahneman is fascinating - but not as good at explaining his own theories as Lewis is, in my opinion...

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  7. Wonderful post, Moira. I' embarrassed to say I've been meaning to read several of Michael Lewis's books, but haven't yet. As Kathy D. above says, he's not just a very good writer, but a fine interviewee. I loved Jon Stewart's interviews with him when Jon was still with "The Daily Show." I'll have to read them now.

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    1. I do recommend him, he has such a way with words, and I'm sure you will like the books, whichever one you choose.

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  8. I agree that there is a lack of empathy when people criticize others' names on line or people's physical characteristics. Sometimes it's more than that when it's hate speech, racist, sexist, etc., which was going on in the States during the election campaign. And sometimes it's at the bottom of nasty comments online.

    But, again, why aren't people thinking about the content of Lewis' points, arguing pro and con?

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    1. It seems that many people just write online comments on the spur of the moment, with no real though - and certainly no attempt at empathy...

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  9. How interesting! You make me want to read his books for starters (though maybe not the sportsy ones) - and the look back at the early days of commenting is so interesting. Obviously I've been aware of it ever since it started, more or less, but hearing from somebody that bedded in its early days is fascinating.

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    1. Thanks Simon - I hoped it would be of interest and am glad people found it so. It was a very strange time online: no-one knew how it would turn out...
      And I do recommend Lewis's writing - though I'm like you, find the sport much less compelling.

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  10. And many people are angry and take it out on blogs. This is how trolls are born.

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    1. Yes. sometimes I wonder what those people would be doing if there were no internet...

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  11. Very interesting post. Lewis sounds like a good author and I had not been much aware of his books, but I would not mind giving them a try if I ran into a copy. Your experiences with early online commenting were also interesting. Except for blogs that I visit, I usually ignore commenting because people get so weird, not so much the personal stuff but being so outraged at other people's ideas or opinions. Like everyone would be thinking one way? So strange.

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    1. I know, it's always astonishing that people can get so angry about the simple fact that others have different views...

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