One of the great weaknesses of many of the tools we use to collaborate on ideas and discuss ideas is the soft form of feedback and critique. When the author or the publisher comments on a blog post, he or she is mostly engaging in public feedback. The author writes a note to his or her audience for the reasons why he or she thinks that idea is great. The audience usually thinks back to a previous comment that they made about a related issue, and thereby some form of collective social check-in is taking place. Over time, the author builds up more and more of a story about the author’s experience with the idea.
Yet the collection of data for sharing ideas is primarily a mechanical one. It’s easy to churn out a blog post or a creative response to an issue after a quick exchange of ideas. But it is important to remember that few of us actually feel we have anything special to contribute. We may have an opinion on what a picture should look like on the cover of a magazine or we know how a new kind of spider should be executed. And sometimes, these opinions are constructive. But more often, we do not want to be kind of clashing opinions. We want to express our experience to make a less-romantic point.
For that reason, there are two kinds of feedback. The first kind is the simple word-and-comment exchange. Feedback loops are self-regulating mechanisms that involve social feedback to adjust the original feedback algorithm.
Wired has done a good job explaining how a social feedback loop works. This is essentially what people do when they read another person’s column. But social feedback may have different definitions than the blunt word-and-comment threads. Consider an app, the Daily Reminder, that sends a quick message when your email inbox gets filled up with messages. The feedback loop in this case is lower-tech: You automatically send a message to yourself and it is turned into a feedback loop. The system then alerts you to any future stuff you should check out. If you don’t want to hear from someone else, you can delete the alert in your smartphone. But the feedback loop is very well designed, because it always picks up on your way of thinking.
Fully digital, this feels like contact with your friends, but it is primarily a feedback loop. These micro-feedback loops are quite effective: They are often the best way to encourage people to engage with new ideas. And they can help humanize the hierarchy of information sharing. The buttons at the bottom of forums remind people to reply and comment. Commenting is an activity you engage in once in a while, one that makes sense in the larger experience of online conversation.
Yet you don’t want to spend your time performing the feedback loop — not to a great extent, anyway. Ultimately, it is only a means to an end, and once you have processed all the data for a given instance, there is nothing to post to. Some of us react strongly to social feedback loops because they feel very rewarding, because we are invited to see ourselves as individual “experts” in our online experiences.
There is a term for this kind of self-regulating feedback loop. Many times in science, it is called “Ablation.” A dissenter or opponent will be informed of your thinking by you, as he or she reaps the rewards. This can be embarrassing for the person who gives the feedback, but the feedback is actually more rewarding than the person who initially contributed the information. After all, it makes it clear that their original ideas are incorrect. At least this is how some of them look.
Some of us respond to feedback loops with a visible irritation. Others are more willing to confront those we disagree with on issues. Sometimes I would like to ask people to keep their criticisms of ideas to themselves. But they are worried that I am taking up so much space in the text, and that if they responded, my readers would be frustrated and turn on them. So, they speak up.
The upshot is that some of us like to see our views and ideas being debated openly. This is not necessarily a bad thing. As someone who does not feel all of my ideas are created equal, I also want to see constructive disagreements.
But at the end of the day, the best way to harness the power of social feedback loops is to choose which ideas you want to add to them.