In Defense of Positive Negativity

You can annotate and mark up this post or comment on Twitter, I'll aggregate all comments in a coming blog post.

A while back, I wrote:

Where, in the beginning, I cared about dislikes, I stopped being affected by them. In the end, they meant interaction. Interaction meant positive attention by YouTube itself, and with that a chance at the Recommendations.

@cjeller responds:

Interesting to bring up the negative side of interaction. Just because someone interacts with your post beyond a like or downvote it doesn't mean it is a worthwhile interaction. I wonder if there could be a way to make those kind of interactions happen less. {src: https://hypothes.is/a/g-k5uNveEem_f4sgjOSPJA}

Maybe it's because I come from statistical academia, maybe it's because I work in a field where criticism isn't just accepted, it's encouraged and gladly given or taken (after all, lives depend on us not fscking up), but I always liked criticism.

There is, of course, a difference: Personal vs. ideas, ideologies, theories, and interpretations. Personal attacks, ad hominem arguments, are never OK. Attacking their ideas, however, their theories, their ideologies, is. Young parents learn this. Never tell a child “you are a bad kid” but, instead, tell them “you did something bad.” Someone who has been shown that their actions were bad might change them. Someone who is told that they are bad, won't. After all, they're bad already, why not do bad things?

It's the difference between arguing about the extent, impact, and cause of climate change, as well as the solutions, and calling half the country a “basket of deplorables.” The difference between disagreeing with policies and making fun of those who like them. It's huge.

In that vein, let's talk about negative commentary, and why I am a fan.

In academia, any citation is a good citation. Again, citations don't focus on the person behind them, they attack (or solidify) the argument made in a specific piece of writing. Citations yield “Impact Points” (IP), an internet “like” sort of currency used in academia to establish one's worth in the community and get jobs. As someone with little to no impact points to my name, I won't ever make tenure with a good university, for example.

However, IP don't distinguish between solidification and criticism. This is intentional. A criticized publication also gets stronger, since the author will rework, rethink, and redo their thought processes. At least that's the idea. It relies heavily on the recipient's resilience and ability to distinguish between criticism and attacks ad hominem and not to take the former personally.

You might not believe it, but contrary to the common chorus, not all academics are snowflakes.

On YouTube, downvotes are negative comments still count as interactions. This means that, yes, the algorithm will come and check out the posted content much quicker and more thoroughly, but the system itself considers all commentary to be currency into the “trending” tab, while downvotes (dislikes) still count as interactions for the purpose of establishing “playlist” queues.

YouTube's goal, to keep people on the site, is best served if controversy is included. Mad viewers will produce counter-content, link from Twitter or Facebook, and any traffic is good traffic. Within the new “adpocalypse” guidelines, of course.

Those are two different kinds of negativity leading to positive outcomes. The latter simply solidifies frontiers and invites more dissent which, in term, brings in more ad revenue for YouTube and the creator. The former has the potential of strengthening arguments and bringing about a rethinking of ideas.

In our AI powered world, it'll be hard to train machines to discern the two. Even harder might be, to train humans to do so, to not take criticism of ideologies, ideas, and findings as personal attacks. Fighting negativity in commentary is a good thing, but not all criticism is negative, not all attacks are a bad thing. Academia, science, enlightenment, and — ultimately — the lives of real human beings, depend on any and all idea, any opinion, any finding, being under constant attack. Only by defeating those attacks can a theory become stronger. Only by proving it can defeat them, on an equal, unemotional, rational, scientific, level, does it earn the right to inform.