Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

The Trivia Kingpin Chronicles

I have always enjoys trivia. I have a head for numbers and little factoids (factlings?) memorized in a vacuum. Before law school, most of the stuff cluttering up my head centered around history and science; after law school, I have added to my repertoire basic legal tidbits, like how Fair Use and Copyright work.

Never one to keep my mouth shut (he wrote into his blog, equally self-referentially and self-reverently), I also like to share my trivia. For this reason, social media knowledge markets are a lot of fun for me. I get to help people find answers to their questions, and I also get to release pent-up trivia or seek validation from strangers — depends whether you ask me or that lousy psychiatrist I keep seeing for some reason. It’s the Shirkian cognitive surplus, whatever the motivation.

The Honeymoon

I really liked Fluther at first. It was a wide variety of topics, and the web site was easy to navigate. There were questions about legal trivia, like “how does Fair Use work?” that an astonishing number of people were incapable of answering. Half the populace seems to think there’s a 40 second cutoff for fairly using music, and the other half thinks it’s 20 seconds. Needless to say, here was a people in need of my trivia. I could contribute a lot, and so I did.

However, I copied and pasted the EFF’s FAQ on Fair Use into the answer box so many times I’ve lost count. No one learned, and no one knows the first thing about law, so I kept restating simple little bits. There didn’t seem to be any “gain” for me, because the community doesn’t ask insightful questions, and flagrantly wrong answers were well-regarded.

What Fluther Wrought

As I write this, the most active discussions on Fluther right now are:

  • I have been dating a guy for a month and just found out he’s sending pictures to another girl what do I do?
  • How do you turn down a guy that you like as a friend, but not like THAT?
  • How do I open up multiple programs and work at them at the same time?
  • Legally, if a spouse plans to commit suicide, what must be done prior to release others from legal persecution?
  • Any advice for a person who’s longing for a major, positive change in their life, but who doesn’t have the means to make it happen?

This seems more like a chat room than a knowledge market. I exert too much effort finding questions to answer, and not enough effort finding answers to questions. I don’t see the point in engaging when I’m just going to repeat myself and, given the level of discourse related to my specialty, I see even less point in asking questions of legal niceties I don’t understand. It’d be like a mechanic asking me for help fixing his car: there’s just not enough expertise in this brain to make it worth his time. On the other hand, I could probably hold a wrench with an adequate level of proficiency.

Keep it Sophisticated, Stupid

One of the perks of my job is getting to sit in on talks about interesting things. Earlier this week, I listened to a guest speaker dissect what makes a successful knowledge markets, and he explained very cogently what makes sites like Stack Overflow (now the Stack Exchange Network) so rewarding for more than just people asking how to turn down a guy that you like as a friend but not like THAT.

A site like Stack Overflow has a huge knowledge overlap: everyone is speaking the same language. There are geeks who need just that extra bit of knowledge that they lack to help get them over a single technical hurdle, not teens who have no one better to ask about tragic high school romance than the internet at large. Rather, the questions are granular and accessible to experts who can provide the high-level answer without having to re-invent the wheel by posting basics of, say, copyright law over and over again.

To take Stack Overflow as an example again, here’s some of the specialized computer science stuff way out of my “amateur nerd” pay scale:

  • Script for converting html markup to valid XML
  • Prevent height change of a DisplayObject in Adobe ActionScript
  • Forcing MySQL to use an non inclusive index to avoid table scan?

Popular discussions on Fluther can end up with nearly 100 responses. The aforementioned Stack Overflow questions have 11 answers, and have been viewed hundreds of times. Signal without noise is a beautiful thing.

The Paradox of Accessibility

If you’re not a system of experts with hard to understand questions, you’re a community of newbies with nothing to offer experts who could provide really useful information. The experts leave because it’s really annoying to give out the same answer a dozen times to people who essentially need the whole solution mapped out repeatedly. A low level of discussion breeds low level of discussions. See Yahoo! Answers, which makes Fluther look like the Manhattan Project.

Take Quora, for instance. Quora is functionally identical to Fluther, but Quora seeded their discussion with really, really smart people, and so the discussion started with a lot of experts. You get some really compelling and interesting discussions going, like this essay on the runaway success of online backup service Dropbox. However, Quora might lose learned essayists like Michael Wolfe to intellectual attrition when Wolfe and his outnumber peers begin to find the signal obscured by the noise.

Are there enough experts on Quora to elevate and compartmentalize the level of discourse like Stack Exchange has? Is it even necessary to do so? I’m going to enjoy watching knowledge markets mature and best practices emerge.