Silicon Insider: Tyranny of the Twit

May 14, 2002 -- Ever heard of the "Nazi Rule?"

It works like this: Run a chat thread long enough and eventually everyone will start calling each other a Nazi. In other words, at a certain level of participation all cyber-events trend towards the rude, the inflammatory, and the mediocre.

The Nazi Rule got me thinking about other rules that are unique to the Web because of its billions of users, infinite scalability and millions of sites.

But first, let me confess that I haven't the foggiest idea where I got the Nazi Rule. I was surfing various information threads on the Web, while also skimming through a half dozen magazines and watching the cable news. Somewhere in that info-morass I read (or heard) about the Nazi Rule. I tried to retrace my steps, but got nowhere.

That suggests two more rules:

The Rule of Non-Brownian Motion. Unlike the physical world, on the Net, if you wander off you will never re-cross where you started. Obviously, you can get back during the same session by hitting the backstep key. But if you randomly surf around, find a cool site, then log off to do something unimportant — like, say, eat, sleep or earn a living — you will never, ever find that page again.

The Law of Limited Ideas. Also known as the Blog Rule. During a major news event, no matter how much you surf the Net, the radio or the TV, you will in fact find only endless variations of the same four ideas, and endless rewrites of the same three reported stories. All will appear within the first couple hours, and everything else thereafter will be just an endless rehashing.

The four ideas are as follows:

1) It's the apocalypse. 2) It was bound to happen. 3) We are all to blame, and 4) There is evil loose in the world.

Each writer, columnist or poster will fervently offer one or two of these ideas as uniquely his own. The three reported stories will be:

a) The View from 30,000 feet. b) On the Ground, and c) The Victims.

In other words, policy, war correspondence and bleeding hearts. They will appear in that order. And for the next few days, all commentary on the Web will consist of pouring those three stories through the sieve of the writer's adoption of the one of the four ideas. Though this might appear to produce only twelve possible positions, it will in fact result in ten million comments.

The Four-and-a-Half-Star Phenomenon

Here's another law, a corollary to the Nazi Rule:

Tyranny of the Twit. Here's how it works — Look at any great rock CD on Amazon. Almost none of them has five stars. Take Astral Weeks, Van Morrison's masterpiece, and perhaps the finest album of last 40 years. Four-and-one-half stars. Same with Revolver, recently voted the greatest rock album of all time. Let it Bleed? Four-and-a-half. Pet Sounds? Four-and-a-half. Also: Blonde on Blonde, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Nevermind? Four-and-one-half each.

Even the great albums that do get five stars, such as Who's Next, only do so because the sheer number of five star reviewers overwhelms the handful of outright pans. But the contrary voices continue to grow. Give those albums time: one day their half-star will disappear too.

So what's going on? The Tyranny of the Twits. Let enough people post their reviews and you'll get fatuous teenagers who heard the record once and hated it, nihilists who take pleasure in attacking established icons, fanatics who give one star to anything that isn't Metallica, and just plain old, everyday tone-deaf morons.

There is actually a statistical theory of populations that suggests that everything converges towards the mean. It is for precisely that reason the Founding Fathers, in their prescient genius, gave us a republic, not a democracy. Unfortunately, the Internet, especially Web plebiscites, is truly democratic. So in the end, the ignorant, the obsessive and the perverse always carry the day.

That's why we have critics. It's easy to hate criticism — take it from the author of a dozen books — and to nod knowingly whenever you read Andre Gide's famous description of critics: "The dogs bark but the caravan rolls on.'"

Will the Real Critic Please Stand Up?

Nevertheless, critics have a crucial role to play in upholding the standards of artistic quality, to identify what is great, what is important, and what just plain sucks. But only paid critics. Which brings us to the last rule:

The Samuel Johnson Law of Web Criticism. It was the great Johnson, of course, who said that only a blockhead ever wrote for anything except money. He also said that the imminent prospect of hanging wonderfully focuses a man's mind.

That's the problem with the criticism you read on the Web, especially at sites like Amazon, and especially by those goobers who write tome-like reviews or list their 25 favorite books on existentialism. One of the great appeals of the Internet is that actions in cyberspace appear to have no consequences. You can be who you want and spout any gibberish you think and it doesn't matter!

On the Web it is fiendishly easy to write your considered opinion about any book or record or movie. But, except for a handful of sites, like Salon or Slate, nobody's paying you for it. By the same token, your job — i.e. your mortgage, your kid's braces, your next meal — doesn't depend upon what you say.

At first glance that may seem like good news: Such criticism, by definition, must be pure, unadulterated by the demands of commerce, undistorted by the pressures of bosses and customers. Yeah, well that's what they used to say about communism.

Take it from somebody who freelanced for seventeen years: Writing for money has a refreshing way of forcing you to write better, smarter and more responsibly. By comparison, if you want to see what writing for free looks like, just go down to Starbucks and look at all the self-righteous people penning bad poetry … or visit Amazon.com.

The Uber-Reviewer

Finally, one last Web rule. Call it:

The Paradox of the Rational Reviewer. It is that in any collection of reviews or comments of sufficient numbers (usually about 25) one commentator will appear, seemingly out of nowhere, who is instantly recognizable as the only person worth listening to.

Strip away both the "It changed my life" and the "Boring, boring, boring" entries, and ignore the "I haven't actually read this book, but … " and the "A Lacanian exercise in post-texturalism … " and what will remain is that one review that matters.

It will be short (because the reviewer knows he or she isn't being paid), thoughtful (otherwise why write?) and penetrating in its analysis (because the reviewer has actually taken the time to understand the work being reviewed).

God bless these people. But who are they? One eerie possibility — suggested by how remarkably alike is the prose style of all these comments — is that there is actually only one solitary reviewer hidden out their somewhere, every day writing hundreds of brilliant reviews on Web sites, and salting thousands of memorable comments into chat rooms and onto bulletin boards.

Cogent, thoughtful and expert. Whoever this uber-critic is, dear reader, you know one thing for certain. … It's not me.

Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” is editor-at-large of Forbes ASAP magazine. His work as the nation’s first daily high-tech reporter at the San Jose Mercury-News sparked the writing of his critically acclaimed The Big Score: The Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley, which went on to become a public TV series. He has written several other highly praised business books and a novel about Silicon Valley, where he was raised. For more, go to Forbes.com. And you can talk back to Silicon Insider via e-mail.