Do Fandoms Need Awfulness?

post by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-05-28T06:03:22.092Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 155 comments

Stephen Bond, "Objects of Fandom": theory is that for something to attract fans, it must have an aspect of truly monumental badness about it.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a robust potboiler, tongue-in-cheek, very competently done. I think it's enjoyable, but even among those who don't, it's hard to see the film attracting actual derision. Boredom or irritation, probably, but nothing more. Star Wars, on the other hand.... From one perspective, it's an entertaining space opera, but from a slightly different perspective, an imperceptible twist of the glass, it's laughably awful. Utterly ridiculously bad. And it's this very badness that makes so many people take up arms in its defence.

...It's impossible to imagine a fan of Animal Farm, the Well-Tempered Clavier, or the theory of gravity. Such works can defend themselves. But badness, especially badness of an obvious, monumental variety, inspires devotion. The quality of the work, in the face of such glaring shortcomings, becomes a matter of faith -- and faith is a much stronger bond than mere appreciation. It drives fans together, gives them strength against those who sneer... And so the fan groups of Tolkien, Star Trek, Spider-man, Japanese kiddie-cartoons etc. develop an almost cult-like character.

"Uh oh," I said to myself on first reading this, "Is this why my fans are more intense than Robin Hanson's fans?  And if I write a rationality book, should I actually give in to temptation and self-indulgence and write in Twelve Virtues style, just so that it has something attackable for fans to defend?"

But the second time I turned my thoughts toward this question, I performed that oft-neglected operation, asking:  "I read it on the Internet, but is it actually true?"  Just because it's unpleasant doesn't mean it's true.  And just because it provides a bit of cynicism that would give me rationality-credit to acknowledge, doesn't mean it becomes true just so I can earn the rationality-credit.

The first counterexample that came to mind was Jack Vance.  Jack Vance is a science-fiction writer who, to the best of my knowledge, I've never heard accused of any great sin (or any lesser sin, actually).  He is - was - the supremely competent craftsman of SF: his words flow, his plots race, and his human cultures are odder than other authors' aliens, to say nothing of his aliens.  Vance didn't have his characters give controversial political speeches like Heinlein.  Vance just wrote consistently excellent science fiction.

And some of Vance's fans got together and produced the Vance Integral Edition, a complete collection of Vance in leather-bound hardcover books with high-quality long-lasting paper.  They contracted to get the books printed, and when the books arrived, enough Vance fans showed up to ship them all.  (They referred to themselves as "packing scum".)

That's serious fandom.  Aimed at work that - like Animal Farm or the Well-Tempered Clavier - is merely excellent, without an aspect of monumental badness to defend.

Godel, Escher, Bach - maybe I'm prejudiced here, and I've heard a word or two said against it, but really, I don't think the fandom that it has stems from it being frequently attacked.  On the other hand, there aren't annual conventions for fans of self-referential sentences, so maybe it's not as much of a data point as I might like.

Star Wars really did have something going for it that Raiders of the Lost Ark didn't, namely, it introduced a lot of impressionable minds to science fiction.  Or space opera, if you like.  The point is that the romance of space is not the romance of archeology.

On due reflection, I'm not sure that utter ridiculous monumental badness is all it's cracked up to be.

But there are annual Star Trek conventions.  And there are not annual Jack Vance conventions.  Douglas Hofstadter might be far more widely beloved - but Ayn Rand has more fanatic fans.

If Jack Vance had been so clever as to keep all the poetic phrasing and alien societies, but now and then have his characters make crazy political speeches - if he had deliberately introduced an aspect of monumental badness - would he now be worshiped, instead of just loved?

Can anyone think of a true, pure counterexample of a reasonably fanatic fandom (to the level of annual conventions, though not necessarily suicide bombers) of something that is just sheer good professional craftwork, and not commonly criticized?  And of course the acid test is not whether you think it is just sheer good craftsmanship, but whether this is widely believed within the broad context of the relevant social community - can you have fanatic fans when their object of worship really is that good and the mainstream believes it too?

I do think that Stephen Bond's Objects of Fandom is pointing to a real effect, if not the only effect.  So in the same vein that we should try to be attracted to basic science textbooks and not just poorly written press releases about "breaking news", let us try to be fans of those merely excellent works that lack an aspect of monumental awfulness to defend.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by steven0461 · 2009-05-28T11:56:24.603Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When an author of a work of fiction has run out of elements that everyone will like, he or she still has the option to put in high-variance elements that some people will love and some people will hate. Could it be that the objects of fandom are just those that went for these high-variance choices?

Replies from: AndySimpson, RobinHanson, Kaj_Sotala, HughRistik
comment by AndySimpson · 2009-05-28T20:48:08.267Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This strikes me as the right answer. Things like Star Trek and Tolkien are incredibly powerful for very small subsets of the population because their creators make risky aesthetic and narrative choices. It isn't so much that fans feel they must come to the defense of their preferred works, but that those works speak to them in rare and intense ways that are really distasteful to most people. So fans bask in the uncommon power of their fan-objects and disregard prevailing opinion. People aren't as fanatical about things like Indiana Jones or Animal Farm because their appeal is shallow and broad: everyone seems to agree that Indiana Jones is a sympathetic and entertaining character and Animal Farm is a clever allegory, but they only speak to one thing, and one thing that is widely understood. Star Trek, by comparison, is an immersive universe that goes down peculiar and deep paths that explore culture, power, ethics, and history among other things. It is not so much that all fan-objects possess objective awfulness, but they all do sacrifice wide appeal for a constrictive spiritual completeness.

Replies from: Vichy
comment by Vichy · 2009-06-01T20:14:40.900Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Things like Star Trek and Tolkien are incredibly powerful for very small subsets of the population because their creators make risky aesthetic and narrative choices." I would say there is some truth to this, for example I don't mind diplomacy scenes that take up 2/3rds of the episode since I'm an exposition sort-of person to begin with, but a lot of people really hate that.

comment by RobinHanson · 2009-05-29T00:11:24.231Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This makes sense, but I'm not sure Eliezer will be that reassured with it as applied to him.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2013-12-19T16:57:56.939Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I once read advice by a successful author, who claimed that if you want to build up a loyal fanbase, then you want to have people who absolutely hate your work, because if nobody cares enough to hate your books then they're not distinctive enough and nobody will love them either:

The best way to find your target audience is to write something original! When you’re truly original, the mainstream readers of that genre will often consider your work outrageous, or shocking, or insane, or unique, or weird, or all these things, but that’s okay. If it’s your original voice, stand proud and pick one of your books to slam down the throats of the entire obvious audience. Then be strong enough to deal with the high percentage of hate reviews you will certainly get from those who don’t “get” your work. A lot of authors can’t handle hate reviews. But a bad review simply means someone outside your target audience found your book. The angrier the review, the further removed from your target audience they are. But along with the hate reviews, you’ll get some great ones.

The reason you’ll get some great reviews for your original writing is because I don’t care what you’re selling, there’s a market for it! What I’m saying, if you’re not offending a significant number of readers, your writing is probably not very original. And the less original you’re writing, the less loyal your fan base will be. [...]

Yes, Saving Rachel was my third book, but when I wrote it, I realized it would be the key to finding my target audience, because it divided people like crazy. Most either hated it or loved it. If I had known then what I know now, Saving Rachel would’ve been my first book. But that’s not important. What’s important is that you write a unique, original book that will divide the reading world into two camps: those who love your writing and those who hate it. Those who hate it will give you angry, spiteful reviews. That’s the bad news. The good news is they’ll never buy your books again, so that will end their angry reviews!

I know what you’re thinking: “Why is alienating half the book buying audience a good thing?” The answer is it proves you’re original. And the more unique and original your writing, the deeper and more loyal your target audience will be. I mean, there’s a limit—you don’t want everyone to hate your work! Ideally, you’d hope for 60% to love your Target Book, 30% to hate it, and you’ll always have 10% who can’t decide, which means they’re probably open to trying another of your books.

Once you know your target audience you’ll write directly to them. If you don’t get a lot of bad reviews with your Target book, you’re not original enough. I’m not talking about your initial reviews. Almost all of those will be positive. I’m talking about the reviews you get after your book starts moving up significantly. That’s when the bad reviews start creeping in. But that’s a good thing because it will help you identify and grab the attention of your Target Audience.

Locke, John (2011-06-15). How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months! Telemachus Press, LLC. Kindle Edition.

(That said, according to the Amazon reviews of that book, most of his success came from paid reviews, so might want to take what he says with a grain of salt.)

Replies from: Jiro
comment by Jiro · 2013-12-19T20:13:20.254Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I once read advice by a successful author, who claimed that if you want to build up a loyal fanbase, then you want to have people who absolutely hate your work, because if nobody cares enough to hate your books then they're not distinctive enough and nobody will love them either:

Even assuming that that's true, phrasing it that way tempts people to think "well, no fans hate my book, so I should do things that make fans hate my book".

It's a bad sign that nobody pays for your product with a stolen credit card too, for a similar reason: if your sales are low, there may not be enough sales that even one sale using a stolen credit card is expected. But you wouldn't want to say "nobody's buying my book using a stolen credit card, so let's see how I can increase the sales using stolen credit cards".

Replies from: Kaj_Sotala
comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2013-12-19T20:51:52.164Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by HughRistik · 2009-05-28T18:43:14.478Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you are on to something. When you think about it, humans are different enough that it's hard to create a work that everyone thinks is great. You might be able to create a work that nobody profoundly dislikes, but such a work is likely to be so bland, watered-down, and lacking in risks that nobody is profoundly thrilled with it, either. Creating a work that resonates with the worldview and experience of a certain group to a high magnitude can make it inaccessible or laughable to other groups of people with different values.

There may be a "Conversation of Fandom" of some sort going on: for every enthusiastic fan you produce with a work, you must also produce someone who hates it.

Contra Bond, it's not badness that produce fandom. Rather, elements with a high variance of appeal produce both fans in some groups of people, and badness from the perspective of other groups of people. These groups can even overlap, in the case of So Bad It's Good.

Replies from: pjeby, hirvinen, pwno
comment by pjeby · 2009-05-29T01:57:20.511Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There may be a "Conversation of Fandom" of some sort going on: for every enthusiastic fan you produce with a work, you must also produce someone who hates it.

I was going to say that the ratio needn't be 1:1, but then I tried googling "easy_install sucks" and "easy_install rocks" and found the same number of hits either way. ;-)

(This is sort of an in-joke for Python programmers: easy_install is an installation tool for Python libraries that I wrote a few years back. It's widely used in the Python open source community, and almost as widely reviled. The hate is mainly inspired by the fact that its use is widespread enough that it's hard for the people who don't like its defaults to avoid any contact with it. If those people could avoid it, they'd probably not bother disliking it much... which seems to support the idea that it's fans that create/support criticism as much as the other way around.)

comment by hirvinen · 2009-05-28T19:22:07.244Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

for every enthusiastic fan you produce with a work, you must also produce someone who hates it.

Kathy Sierra arguing along those lines, with emphasis on software expanding on Scott Adams on the subject. Sounds plausible.

ETA: I mean, useful as a general heuristic when thinking about whether something should be done or not for a product. Of course especially in software some things that gain undying love can be added in a fashion that does not distract those who don't want it.

comment by pwno · 2009-05-28T19:41:27.202Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the element of badness itself can push a craft to cult status. When something is bad, it creates a barrier of entry for non-committed fans of the cult. Normal people won't "get it" which adds to the cult's exclusiveness. The best example of this is The Rocky Horror Picture Show - an awfully bad musical. Sure there may be some legitimate fans, but what really push's the show's popularity is its badness.

Replies from: HughRistik
comment by HughRistik · 2009-05-28T20:09:24.118Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the element of badness itself can push a craft to cult status. When something is bad, it creates a barrier of entry for non-committed fans of the cult. Normal people won't "get it" which adds to the cult's exclusiveness.

In the case of cult status, there is usually something amusing, ironic, or redeeming along with the badness: something to "get" that normal people don't.

The best example of this is The Rocky Horror Picture Show - an awfully bad musical.

As a Rocky Horror Picture Show fan, I have to say that you just don't "get it"! ;)

Rocky Horror Picture Show is an excellent example of So Bad It's Good. It has some very funny characters, catchy tunes, a hedonistic subtext (edit: and yes, text too), and a parody of contemporary scifi and horror tropes.

Replies from: dclayh
comment by dclayh · 2009-05-29T17:17:37.619Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hedonistic subtext?!

comment by dclayh · 2009-05-28T07:06:50.697Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I find the Animal Farm example funny because it's always seemed to me to be a monumentally dumb and unnecessary work.

More on-topic, I can't speak for others but I really don't think I'm a rabid Tolkien fan because of some cultlike cognitive dissonance over his glaring flaws. I freely acknowledge that his writing is not great literature in any meaningful sense of that phrase. (But this does sound like a really good explanation for Objectivists (okay, and Wagner and Joyce too), so who knows.)

Actually, on reconsideration I think that what Bond calls "monumental badness" is closely related to "lack of accessibility". Joyce/Wagner/Tolkien/various cult movies and TV shows all have the quality of rewarding intense study and background knowledge, and frequently are off-putting to the casual reader/viewer because they assume that knowledge. This can be as simple as having watched all the previous episodes in a series, or as challenging as knowing the slang of 1904 Dublin. Therefore these works generate the feeling of belonging to an exclusive in-group of initiates (with internal hierarchies and everything), and feeling superior to outsiders who "just don't get it" (a.k.a. hipsterism). Whereas a work that is well-crafted, and thus makes everything clear on the first reading, will not generate this fanaticism.

Replies from: MichaelVassar
comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-05-29T06:41:50.266Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that this is pretty much a complete explanation.

comment by RobinHanson · 2009-05-29T00:16:40.493Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems to me that the basic insight is true and worth noting: people don't become hyper fans of things they expect everyone likes. That wouldn't send much of a signal of your group loyalty and your good taste, after all. Extreme fandom says "I know most folks wouldn't like this but I really really like it, and I think they are just wrong wrong wrong."

Oh, GEB has lots of critics.

Replies from: Jonathan_Graehl, Douglas_Knight
comment by Douglas_Knight · 2009-05-29T01:40:32.817Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I find this phrasing much more plausible. ie, "things they expect everyone likes"

comment by dfranke · 2009-05-28T07:00:14.235Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's hard to think of any creative work that becomes sufficiently widely known without attracting some harsh criticism; not even The Well-Tempered Clavier. I think Bond has his cause and effect backwards: passionate fans are annoying and create passionate haters, and the haters trot out whatever aspect of awfulness exists to be found. Apple fanboyism is perhaps the most transparent example of this phenomenon.

Replies from: billswift
comment by billswift · 2009-05-29T11:45:04.048Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't remember the subject I was commenting on, but a few months ago I left a comment on a thread at ESR's blog, Armed and Dangerous, that "fanboys are worse than haters, because haters are more often entertaining, even if not intentionally."

Replies from: dfranke
comment by dfranke · 2009-05-29T17:59:41.087Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's here:

I think I may have had this comment in my subconscious when I posted the above.

comment by Apprentice · 2009-05-28T08:43:44.297Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My guess is that Bond's thesis overestimates how much mileage fandom gets from defending the relevant works against outside criticism - maybe his theory represents an outsider's view?

The only true fandom I've spent a lot of time inside was not at all dedicated to defending its object of focus. The segment of Harry Potter fandom I knew consisted of people (>90% women) writing slash about Harry Potter characters. In meetups people would usually spend more time discussing derivative works (and obsessing over 'pairings') than the original work. To the extent that the original work was discussed it was often to poke fun of its glaring flaws. Most people I knew did not think the Harry Potter books were actually great books. Some thought they were pretty good, some thought they were downright awful - that wasn't the point. The quality of the books wasn't the reason why they were in the fandom.

The only time this fandom would be visible to outsiders was when we did things like dress up as Harry Potter characters and go to a new Harry Potter movie. I'm sure people who saw that thought, "My, these people sure must like the Harry Potter films". In a way, of course, we did - but not in the way the typical cinema-goer liked them. The main object was to mine the new material for suggestions of sexual tension between the male characters.

Maybe this is atypical, I'd be curious to know the inner workings of fandoms that are not sex-based.

Replies from: Eliezer_Yudkowsky
comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-05-28T13:36:47.057Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Out of curiosity, what causes a work to be targeted by slashfiction authors? Are the deciding factors commonly known/believed within your community?

Replies from: Alicorn
comment by Alicorn · 2009-05-28T13:46:26.098Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Everything is targeted by ficcers, slash and otherwise. If you mean what causes a work to get a lot of fic written about it, I seem to find that it's a function of how many characters there are (greater odds that any given fan of the story will find some pairing appealing), how popular the work is (ficcers feed off each other - feedback, beta readers, "challenges", community websites on which to post their fics), how well-developed the world's setting is (the more little, underused details, the more gaps there are for ficcers to fill; a setting that uses every element it has to the fullest has less "left to do"), and how much of a closed loop the plot is (I'm sure someone could write fanfiction on 1984, but it would not be a widely appealing challenge; it's pretty self-contained).

Replies from: Apprentice
comment by Apprentice · 2009-05-28T14:15:22.413Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that sums it up pretty well. Male-male romantic elements can be thought of as a special case of "gaps to fill". Many women would prefer the stories they read to have more gay sex in them - in the case I know best we're talking about teenage gay sex in particular. Maybe there's a sort of market failure here.

comment by Benquo · 2009-05-28T22:36:35.826Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Could it be that it's not the flaws that cause the fandom directly, but the tradeoff between emotional volume and flawlessness? Star Wars, for instance, leans really hard on all the emotional buttons it can press. After some point this button-pressing leads authors with a finite reserve of skill, attention, and time, to sacrifice other considerations (realistic characterization, narrative coherence) in order to produce a stronger reaction. On the other hand, works whose creator has taken the time to make them complete and eliminate flaws don't necessarily make the kind of sacrifices necessary to jump out and grab you immediately.

Are there any ready examples that establish the (flaws -> fandom) link in preference to the (emotional volume -> flaws AND fandom) link?


I think Twelve Virtues is a great example of my hypothesis; some of its turns of phrase have been criticized as unclear or ambiguous, on this site. I suspect the ambiguity comes from the fact that EY was trying to write something with high emotional relevance.

comment by Nominull · 2009-05-28T18:27:05.179Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This may actually be a feature, not a bug. If something is flawless, there is little danger that someone will turn away from it because of its flaws and miss out on a net gain. If something is worthwhile in spite of its flaws, however, some people will notice the flaws first and will turn away from it and miss out on the value they might otherwise have claimed. The fandom instinct is to tell these people, "no, once you look past the misogyny and the unbelievable characters and the plot woven from overcomplicated schemes and implausible coincidences, it's actually a great piece of literature."

We all seek to aid one another in our searches for delicious fruits, but the lush colorful fruit will look tasty to anyone, they don't need specific advice about it. Rather, spend your time talking about the warty hairy fruit with the thick rind that nevertheless contains a sweet nectar within.

comment by marc · 2009-05-28T11:42:15.335Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Were this true it would also seem to fit with Robin's theories on art as signalling. If you pick something bad to defend then the signal is stronger.

If you want to signal loyalty, for example, it's not that good picking Shakespeare. Obviously everyone likes Shakespeare. If you pick an obscure anime cartoon then you can really signal your unreasonable devotion in the face of public pressure.

In a complete about turn though, a situation with empirical data might be sports fans. And I'm fairly certain that as performances get worse, generally speaking, the number of fans (at least that attend games) drops. This would seem to imply the opposite.

Replies from: NancyLebovitz, byrnema
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-02-14T20:07:35.286Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think really liking Shakespeare is considered normal.

comment by byrnema · 2009-05-28T13:12:40.730Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, sports is the exception that explains the rule. The rule is that fandom requires some type of exclusivity to inspire your devotion. It's about identity. Star Trek fans really like Star Trek, but I suspect, even more, they like they fact -- when they're convening -- that they have something special in common that they all recognize. In some way, I'm too normal to go to a Star Trek convention -- don't worry, you won't see me there. But at an Indiana Jones convention, if you could muster the enthusiasm to go, you might see anyone.

Sports is only a half exception. You have devoted fans and "fair-weather" fans, depending on whether they identify with "their team" no matter matter what or only if it's doing well.

Perhaps fandom is a function of having appealing qualities/message and being able to create identification. I think there are certain identification "holes" here on Less Wrong so if someone with authority (like Robin) started filling those holes there would be sub-fandoms.

comment by newerspeak · 2009-05-28T07:37:43.927Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Bond is being caustic so people will pay attention to him. It's his schtick. He reviews Ender's Game and calls it 'pornography'.

His claim is backwards. People instinctively share their favorite stories for signaling reasons. Read Comeuppance if you don't believe me. The urge is probably strong enough that they'll drive across several states to get to a convention to find a receptive group of people with whom they can signal their approval. Indiana Jones fans don't have conventions because they aren't atypical -- most people like Indiana Jones movies.

He is sort of right, though. Anything that's good enough to attract a rabid fan base but still alienate the general public in spite of its virtues is pretty obviously going to have some even bigger faults.

Proust's following is small, rabid, and (being composed mostly of literary critics) is very far out of touch with reality. Why don't we call them a fandom?

Replies from: RobinHanson
comment by RobinHanson · 2009-05-29T00:40:50.216Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But Ender's Game is porn. Good porn, mind you, but porn nonetheless.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-05-29T06:41:54.638Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Are Gilbert and Sullivan bad in any dramatic way? They have serious fandom. How about Bach himself?
The Grateful Dead? I'm simply skeptical of the Shakespeare being seriously bad claim too. He had bad plays and no-one cares about them.

What about Chess? Poker? Why does D&D count but they don't?

Anyway, I think that the largest effect at work here is that if anything attracts great enthusiasm it will attack aggressive attack. Everything has its flaws. So what?
Tolkein's fandom is MUCH greater than that of C.S. Lewis or countless other fantasy authors who has MUCH more awful about their work. Snobs and the asethetically competent criticize Crichton and Dan Brown plenty but they don't have fandoms Wagner wasn't special. All Opera is comically awful as well as great. That's why we have terms like "soap opera" and "space opera". Actually, maybe the Marriage of Figaro is just great, but it's unique.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Lolita have the most passionate individual fans of any literature I know of, but they don't congregate to express their admiration. The phenomenon of organized fandom needs large bodies of work to gather around, and the larger the body of work the greater the opportunities for awfulness.

Replies from: komponisto
comment by komponisto · 2009-05-31T17:06:50.577Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

IAWYC, but I have a couple of musical issues:

My natural instinct is to ask why you singled out The Marriage of Figaro in particular (as opposed to, say, Don Giovanni or The Magic Flute)), but instead I'll just interpret as a synecdoche for Mozart's (later) operas in general -- which are indeed regarded as unusual in their level of perfection.

I'm not sure what you mean when you say "Wagner wasn't special". In any case, he was (and to a large extent still is) a perfect example of someone with a fanatical fanbase, and equally fanatical critics. According to my reading of the expert consensus, it places him as one of the Titans of Opera, while acknowledging that his output is not uniform in its greatness. In other words: mostly great, with flaws, but not dramatically bad. (Similar to your description of Shakespeare, actually: people really only care about the best of Wagner.)

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-05-28T13:02:35.832Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If this effect is real, I'd expect it to function as color politics. Both sides need to have enough to build their case, that is the work in question must have both good and bad sides. The sides must fail to understand each other, that is, the badness and goodness of the work needs to be sufficiently obscure or hard to figure out or requiring vast background. And there should also be emotional attachment, beyond in-group, to the selected positions for both sides.

For a rationalist community, this dynamic doesn't seem to apply, as the rationalists would need to be a color-side, blindly defending their position without understanding their opponents. A rationalist community would need a different kind of dynamic (but not at all necessarily novel).

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2009-12-29T14:09:54.138Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sherlock Holmes has quite a lively fandom, and I haven't heard of any horrendously bad features.

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2012-02-14T18:32:11.913Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, I'm not a detective fiction fan, but I've seen some criticisms. You can criticize Conan Doyle for a lot of things (his occultism comes to mind as being especially paining to us), but Sherlock Holmes in particular suffers from tremendous Anglocentrism and prejudices of empire (all those criticisms of Kipling's fiction? Work just fine for SH stories as well), and suffers from the mysteries being completely insoluble by the reader before Sherlock makes his absurd deductions:

'And so you see, Watson, this tuff of white hair (which I picked up behind your back and never mentioned) was sold by only one shop in the small Scottish town of Och'lag, which was open for only one hour before going bankrupt last week, from which I deduce that the crime was committed by a sailor on a tea clipper who had never been in England before or since. Wire Lestrade, there's not a moment to be lost, as I can tell by the gleam on your button from the waning moon that the tide will high in exactly 46.7 minutes!'

Compare this to other detective fiction, like _The Tokyo Zodiac Murders_, where the author plays it completely straight with you, does in fact give you all the information you need, and even inserts a chapter break and a message to the reader, telling him the solution is in the next chapter and if they want to figure it out for themselves, they had best stop reading right there. I didn't figure it out, unfortunately, but I had to admit on reading the solution that the author had indeed dealt fairly with me. Even something like "The Purloined Letter" is somewhat soluble by the reader compared to SH stories.

comment by Akiyama · 2009-06-03T05:03:18.407Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The fact that something has flaws gives you a reason to think about it. A memeplex with no flaws would not stick in your head as long. I'll give some examples.

I can imagine writing Dr Who fanfic, because I know in my head what a good Dr Who story ought to look like, and very few of the actual Dr Who stories measure up. I can't imagine writing Lord of the Rings fanfic, because to me the book is perfect as it is.

Even though I'm not a Christian, I have read a lot of books on Christianity. For a while, I kept expecting, or hoping, to find a book that explained how the various different aspects of Christianity fit together to make a logical, internally coherent system. Then I started reading books about the early history of Christianity in order to try and understand how such a poorly designed set of beliefs came about. I have also read many books by liberal Christians because there are aspects of Christianity that I really like, and it would be nice to discover or work out a memeplex that takes these aspects and divorces them from the aspects that I don't like. I sometimes call myself a Taoist, but I don't have anywhere near the same desire to read books on Taoism because I feel I already get it, and I already know how to divorce the "bad" aspects from the "good" aspects.

I will make a prediction. In the coming century, Christianity will gain far more converts from Islam than Islam does from Christianity, because Christianity is the more interesting religion. It's memes have evolved over a longer time and in more demanding environments.

In romantic fiction, at least one character must have some character flaw. Elizabeth Bennet can see that Mr Bingley is a nice person, but it is the rude and arrogant Mr Darcy that she ends up falling for. In real ife, two people who spend a lot of time jocularly arguing or teasing one another often end up as a couple. People with no character flaws are just boring!

In Dungeons and Dragons, some people (myself included) prefer the earlier editions to the later editions. Later editions have rules that are more comprehensive, complete and elegant. But a game with rules that are sparse, incomplete and wonky is a game that implicitly invites you to tinker about with it, and change the rules in whatever way you want. It's a game with more possibilities!

So my conclusion is that flawed memeplexes can thrive because they engage the intellect and imagination of people with certain personalities. Perhaps this eventually leads people to have positive emotional reactions to the flaws in the things they love, so that you go all gooey inside when you think of your girlfriend's bossiness, or the saving throw tables in early D&D. People can be very good at explaining how features of the things they love, that might appear to the casual observer nto be flaws, are actually desirable features.

To move on to a slightly different subject, I was discussing this idea of "fannishness" with my wife (who cannot imagine that anyone can think Star Wars a bad movie) and we decided that in order to have Fans a work of fiction needs to be set in an imaginary world, have a number of important recurring characters, and take place over a number of episodes.

Another thought that struck me: I just got a book out of the library called "A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder". The author's thesis is that "moderately disorganized people, systems and institutions frequently turn out to be more efficient, more resilient, more creative and in general more effective than highly organized ones". I haven't read the book, but it strikes me that there may be some relation between the supposedly greater effectiveness of moderately disorganised systems, and the supposedly greater appeal of moderately flawed works of art.

comment by smoofra · 2009-05-28T19:07:15.969Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Probability Theory: The Logic of Science has elements of monumental badness, and intense fans.

Replies from: Matt_Simpson, Cyan, AndySimpson
comment by Matt_Simpson · 2009-05-29T04:14:51.980Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I haven't read past chapter 3 (or was it 4?), but I don't recall encountering anything which is monumentally bad. Care to give an example?

Replies from: smoofra, andrewc
comment by smoofra · 2009-05-29T13:35:28.101Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The treatment of Cox's theorem, the constant angst about infinite sets, the annoying barbs against straw-man mathematicians.

Replies from: komponisto
comment by komponisto · 2009-05-31T17:20:21.023Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Amen to this. Jaynes feels the need to be a vociferous partisan on the wrong side of an argument that was settled a century ago -- all because of some simple, outright errors committed by other people. It would be like encountering faulty reasoning about group selection and then deciding to become a proponent of intelligent design as a result.

comment by andrewc · 2009-05-29T09:25:21.396Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've yet to find a bug in the maths, but some people would find the unconventional style of delivery to be monumentally bad for a textbook. Me, I like the conversational, tangent taking, invective filled style, but I can imagine that others associate it with crank-ness.

Replies from: smoofra, AlanCrowe
comment by smoofra · 2009-05-29T13:35:32.541Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The actual calculations are great. I haven't found a bug in them either. It's just the philosophy that annoys me.

comment by AlanCrowe · 2009-05-29T10:41:35.234Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

bad for a textbook.

I think the answer is that PT:tLoS is not a textbook. It is part of a conversation amongst academics about the fundamentals of statistics. It gets mistaken for a textbook because it appears to be a description of the basics, but it actually participates in an argument about what the basics ought to be, and so includes the authors statement of what he thinks the basics are.

Writing a textbook on Bayesian statistics is an important challenge, but you could not possibly follow the plan of PT:tLoS. Not only is the mathematics of chapter 2, proving Cox's theorem, too hard for first year undergraduates, but its perspective, of deducing the rules from general considerations, is too sophisticated. It cannot possible precede the elementary sampling theory of chapter 3 in an undergraduate curriculum.

Replies from: smoofra
comment by smoofra · 2009-05-29T13:37:52.753Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not to mention the fact that he vastly overstates the impact of Cox's theorem and never honestly writes down the assumptions for the version of it he proves.

Replies from: Cyan
comment by Cyan · 2009-05-29T14:24:14.977Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What is your view as to the appropriate place for Cox's theorem in the collection of justifications for the Bayesian approach?

Replies from: AlanCrowe, smoofra
comment by AlanCrowe · 2009-05-29T16:28:30.616Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My view is that writing a textbook on Bayesian statistics is very difficult because it is hard to order the material in a satisfactory way.

Here is why I'm wrong: when we teach calculus we teach differentiation. Then we say that integrals are important because they are areas under curves. Then we drill our pupils in the computation of integrals by finding anti-derivatives. It is only two or three years later that we introduce the Riemann integral in order to have a rigorous definition of the area under a curve that can be used to formalise the statement of the fundamental theorem of calculus.

It seems natural to proceed in the same spirit: teach Bayesian updating, and drill our students in these methods of calculation. The fact that there is only one updating rule that really works is mentioned but not proved. Those who follow the maths track get to see Cox's theorem two or three years later.

Replies from: Cyan
comment by Cyan · 2009-05-29T17:11:38.234Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not asking about teaching or textbook-writing; my question is a tangent to that discussion. Smoofra invoked a notion of "impact"; I'm trying to determine how smoofra rates Cox's theorem on that scale.

I know of a number of paths to the Bayesian approach:

  • Dutch book arguments (coherence of bets)
  • more elaborate decision theory arguments in the same vein (coherence of decisions under uncertainty)
  • the complete class theorem (the set of decision rules "admissible" (non-dominated) in a frequentist sense is precisely the set of Bayes decision rules)
  • de Finetti's theorem (exchangeability of observables implies the existence of a prior and posterior for a parameter as a mathematical fact)
  • Cox's theorem (a representation of plausibility as a single real number consistent with Boolean logic must be isomorphic to probability)

My question is about which justifications smoofra knows (in particular, have I missed any?) and what impact each of them has.

FWIW, in high school my very first introduction to integrals used the high-school version of Riemann integration with a simple definite integral that was solved with algebra and the notion of the limit of a sequence. Once it was demonstrated that the area under the curve was the anti-derivative in that case, we got the statement of the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus and drilling in anti-derivatives and integration by parts etc.

comment by smoofra · 2009-05-29T17:07:50.501Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it's an important theorem, but if you want to talk about it you need to say what the theorem actually says in math, not try to badly paraphrase it in English and then claim it's all the justification you ever need for the Bayesian approach.

The truth is that when you rigorously state the assumptions, they're actually pretty strong, and this fact is dodged and evaded and ignored throughout Jayne's treatment of the subject.

Replies from: Cyan
comment by Cyan · 2009-05-29T17:25:57.063Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Differentiability is strong in a mathematical sense, but I'm not sure I want a system of reasoning about plausibility that doesn't vary smoothly with smoothly varying evidence. I guess the answer is to actually look at such systems, but I don't have the chops to follow Halperin (or this paper that claims to prove the theorem under very weak assumptions that exclude Halperin's counterexample).

See my reply to AlanCrowe for a more precise statement of what I was asking.

Replies from: smoofra
comment by smoofra · 2009-05-29T20:28:20.652Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's not just differentiability. Why use real numbers at all? Why does P(A&B|C) have to be a function of P(A|C) and P(B|A&C)? Jaynes tries to prevent the reader from even thinking about these questions. I'm not arguing against his conclusion, but his argument is incomplete and inadequate, and he tries to cover it up.

Replies from: Matt_Simpson, AlanCrowe
comment by Matt_Simpson · 2009-06-04T06:39:43.132Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This paper formally states all of the assumptions necessary in the proof of Cox's theorem (R1-R5 in the paper) and notes where the controversies are before going on with the proof. R5 is obviously not well supported and the major dispute over R1 is whether plausibilities must be universally comparable. (R1 and R5 correspond to your two major objections above, in order).

As requested below, a top level post would be very interesting

Replies from: smoofra
comment by smoofra · 2009-06-04T20:24:43.871Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

thanks! I haven't seen that one before.

I'm working on a post on this topic, but I don't think I can really adequately address what I don't like about how Jayne's presents the foundations of probability theory without presenting it myself the way I think it ought to be. And to do that I need to actually learn some things I don't know yet, so it's going to be a bit of a project.

comment by AlanCrowe · 2009-05-29T21:36:28.074Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In section 1.7 The basic desiderata, the decision to use real numbers is emphasised as one of three basic desiderata and tagged as equation 1.28. Jaynes devotes section 1.8 Comments, chewing over this point for a little more than a page, before punting the issue to Appendix A. He writes

These remarks are interjected to point out that there is a large unexplored area of possible generalizations and extensions of the theory to be developed here; perhaps this may inspire others to try their hand at developing 'multidimensional theories' of mental activity, which would more and more resemble the behaviour of actual human brains - not all of which is undesirable.Such a theory, if successful, might have an importance beyond our present ability to imagine.

Perhaps Jaynes is trying here to prevent the reader from even thinking about these questions, but if so his strategy is more bold and unconventional than I can fathom.

As for P(AB|C) = F[P(A|C),P(B|A&C)] that is equation 2.1. Jaynes considers an alternative in equ 2.2 and then discusses how to organize an exhaustive case split, before refer the reader interested in "Carrying out this somewhat tedious analysis" to Tribus I confess that I have not worked through the 11 cases that Jaynes says need to be checked.

Notice though that in graduate level texts, dumping shit on the reader like this is standard practise. Jaynes is unusually helpful and complete for a text at this level. Compare it for example to Categories for the Working Mathematician. I like CftWM. MacLane takes pains to organise his material and to direct the reader's attention to points requiring special care. Yet, following the conventions of the genre, he ends page 9 with

More explicity, given a metacategory of objects and arrows, its arrows, with the given composition, satisfy the "arrows-only" axioms; conversely, an arrows-only metacategory satisfies the objects-and-arrows axioms when the identity arrows, defined as above, are taken as the objects (Proof as exerecise)

Yes, Jaynes argument is incomplete, but by being more complete than is customary, even compared to works that are admired for their thoroughness and clarity, Jaynes has bloated his book to 727 pages. Criticising his omission of tedious case analysis is unfair.

Replies from: smoofra
comment by smoofra · 2009-05-30T19:49:35.125Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps Jaynes is trying here to prevent the reader from even thinking about these questions, but if so his strategy is more bold and unconventional than I can fathom.

His strategy is to make them look like trivial details, things that can be safely assumed, things that only a pedantic mathematician could care about, things that don't matter.

As for P(AB|C) = F[P(A|C),P(B|A&C)] that is equation 2.1. Jaynes considers an alternative in equ 2.2 and then discusses how to organize an exhaustive case split....

This part, in particular is what struck me as the most absolutely, monumentally awful part of the book. The other cases jaynes considers in his "exhaustive case split" are only a tiny, minuscule, arbitrary set of the things that P(AB|C) might depend on. Why should P(AB|C) not depend on the specific structure of the propositions themselves?

What bothers me so much about this part of the book isn't so much that the argument is incomplete, but that Jaynes is downright deceptive in his attempts to convince the reader that it is a complete rigorous justification for the Bayesian approach. Jaynes (and Eliezer) make it sound like Cox proved a generic Dutch book argument against anyone who doesn't use the Bayesian approach. There may indeed be such a theorem, but Cox's theorem just isn't it.

Replies from: andrewc, Cyan
comment by andrewc · 2009-06-02T03:04:04.100Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd like to see this discussed as a top level post. Care to take a stab at it Smoofra?

comment by Cyan · 2009-05-31T18:57:25.938Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

the other cases jaynes considers in his "exhaustive case split" are only a tiny, minuscule, arbitrary set of the things that P(AB|C) might depend on.

That's a good point. I suspect that the oversight is due to the fact that the truth value of a conjunction of propositions depends only on the truth values of the constituent propositions, and not on any other structure they might have. I conjecture that the desideratum that propositions with the same truth value have the same plausibility could be used to demonstrate that P(AB|C) is not a function of any additional structure of the propositions, but Jaynes does not highlight the issue or perform any such demonstration.

comment by Cyan · 2009-05-28T22:37:00.832Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's a fair cop.

comment by AndySimpson · 2009-05-28T21:11:20.748Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What elements of monumental badness? I took Eliezer's use of the word "awfulness" to mean aesthetic repugnance. How does that, or something like that, apply to a field of mathematics?

Replies from: thomblake
comment by thomblake · 2009-05-28T21:30:13.677Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I take smoofra not to be referring to a field of mathematics, but rather to a particular book.

comment by astray · 2009-05-28T15:21:09.207Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are a fair number of Revolutionary War reenactments - it's a pretty spirited community, from what I've heard. They also seem to evade some of the corniness criticism Renaissance Fairs seem to garner. Chess and go may not count as "fandom", but they are reasonably popular.

I don't think it's the /badness/ that is required to have a fandom, but a constant stream of discussion. Without badness, it's harder to sustain the discussion. If everyone agreed pirates would beat ninjas or that longswords were better than katana, eventually conversation dries up. Badness spurs arguments that allow adherents to share their beliefs and signal their devotion.

Replies from: HughRistik
comment by HughRistik · 2009-05-28T17:18:34.544Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think this makes sense...

Another factor may be that for controversial and polarizing works, fandoms are more necessary, because the fans need to band together.

In the case of works that are universally recognized as good, there is no need for fandom, because there is no need for solidarity of the fans in the face of criticism or being made fun of.

Replies from: freyley
comment by freyley · 2009-05-28T17:56:12.029Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your last phrase, "there is no need for solidarity of the fans in the face of criticism or being made fun of" really gets to what I think of as the core of fannishness.

It's not about bad vs. good, it's about ingroup vs. outgroup. The things that have fanatic fans have other people/society/social norm telling them one or more of a number of things designed to create an ingroup/outgroup dynamic. Bad in an artistic sense is one, but so are uninteresting, geeky, against the social norms, etc.

Under this theory, I would expect more fannishness now for Star Wars than for Indiana Jones: space is geeky. But I wouldn't necessarily expect it back at the beginning, because in the 70s, space was cooler. And fannishness should have increased with time, as folks recognized that Star Wars has some significant artistic flaws.

This theory holds up, even in the face of Firefly, which is hugely fannish but doesn't, as far as I know, have major artistic criticisms (but does have geeky, and also has FOX and the world at large saying that it's not interesting enough to be worth keeping).

But this theory has a significant flaw: celebrity worship seems to be another side of the fan behavior, but fails to be explained by this. Sure, celebrities are high status, highly desirable people who, as primates, we would expect to worship -- it's not the worship itself that I think needs to be explained by group dynamics. But celebrity worship behavior and fan worship behavior seem to be very similar (and very different from other kinds of respect and worship), and I would hope there'd be an underlying unification of thinking to draw from that.

comment by David_Rotor · 2009-05-28T14:16:16.865Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the same vein as newerspeak's reference to Proust, how about Joyce fans and their annual bloomsday celebrations?

Changing genres, I believe all of these references* have both fans and "conventions", and anyone would be hard-pressed to call any of them "bad" or flawed:

Architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright

Jazz: Davis, Coltrane, Peterson, Brubeck

Toys: Lego, Barbie, and Play Mobil

Military aircraft: P51 Mustang

Racing: Volvo Ocean Racing, F1, World Rally, MotoGP

Cars: 1955 Gullwing, 1965 Shelby Cobra, Enzo Ferrari

Birding: The Great Horned Owl

  • and many many more.
Replies from: Psychohistorian, ShardPhoenix, AndySimpson
comment by Psychohistorian · 2009-05-28T16:43:46.374Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think many people would be hard pressed to call Barbie flawed.

I can't speak for most of the others you've cited (though the fact that I am not aware they have fanatic fanbases suggests they're several orders of magnitude below, say, Star Trek).

Replies from: David_Rotor
comment by David_Rotor · 2009-05-28T20:29:37.560Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd suggest that Bond didn't restrict his comments to a degree of magnitude of fan base (or for that matter Eliezer with his reference to Vance's books).

But I'm quite willing to state that the fan base of F1, many who spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars of year to attend a single race, and which attracts a global viewing audience of some 50 million per race (1 billon over a season) surely is in the same magnitude of Star Trek.

Or take Playmobil, with something like 2.2 billion sets sold and an annual turnover of close to Euro 500M, and which has inspired many annual conventions all over the world.

I'd, respectfully, suggest that your unfamiliarity with my examples speaks more to your range of cultural, artistic, sporting, and commercial, interests than it does their global fan bases.

Replies from: Psychohistorian
comment by Psychohistorian · 2009-05-28T22:10:40.718Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd, respectfully, suggest that your unfamiliarity with my examples speaks more to your range of cultural, artistic, sporting, and commercial, interests than it does their global fan bases.

You're almost definitely right.

Though I'm curious, do these see the same level of Han-and-Leia-wedding-style fanaticism, or is it just that such levels of fanaticism for these things are normal enough that they don't make the news?

Replies from: David_Rotor
comment by David_Rotor · 2009-05-29T21:09:46.299Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd say that the level of fanaticism can be pretty high in many of the examples I used. F1 fans travel all over the world, dress up in funny costumes, and parade around carrying massive flags showing which team or driver they support. Google "Tifosi" for a flavour.

Lego fans do things like build this 46' self-supporting bridge

Each of the other have their own version of fanatic behaviour ... my favourite for sheer lunatic fun remains the annual Bloomsday celebration of Joyce's Ulysses.

comment by ShardPhoenix · 2009-05-29T08:00:24.128Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A lot of people are critical of F1 for various reasons. At any rate it seems necessary to establish exactly what constitutes a true "fandom".

comment by AndySimpson · 2009-05-28T21:09:11.001Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This seems to broaden the discussion considerably from works of art with fandoms to anything with a following. I think you'll agree that there's a noticeable difference between the attitude of otaku toward anime and F1 followers toward F1 cars and races.

Replies from: David_Rotor
comment by David_Rotor · 2009-05-29T21:14:12.594Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps my error ... I didn't read anything in Bond's article that suggested he was only referring to fans of fiction and movies. Are there differences between otaku and tifosi? What are they?

Replies from: William
comment by William · 2009-08-20T22:39:31.974Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Bond's article was mostly referring to fans of fiction and movies, but as someone who has spent time on fora related to both sports fandom and anime fandom, I can safely say they're very similar. You see the same sort of memetics in both--sports message boards frequently fill up with people "quoting"(I don't think this is the best word) the chants made in the stadium itself, much like you'll often see anime-related boards fill up with people quoting famous lines from certain series. You see the same sort of provincialism in both--"If you're a fan of X, you're not allowed to be a fan of Y, and vice versa" is a common refrain in certain tvtropes pages about Fan Dumb, and that's also pretty much the definition of a sports rivalry. And there's also the internecine stuff, where you have endless debates over the worth of a player or the motivations of a character.

So yeah, I'd say fandom is universal.

comment by Alicorn · 2009-05-28T13:38:26.730Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suspect that it doesn't take much to get the ball rolling on a knock-down drag-out fight between fans and opponents of any Work X: all you need is for enough people to have heard of Work X, and then you wait for polarization. As long as the work is popular enough that most people have heard of it, everyone will take a side and defend it to an extreme degree in a shrill voice. Works that are just good tend to acquire fans more slowly - Shakespeare, George Orwell, and Bach, while widely known, could not really be described as "sweeping the globe" at this time - and so they rarely have the critical mass of people who are newly excited about them and want to talk about them with their friends in casual settings.

A good example of polarization is the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer (a vampire romance quartet mostly aimed at teenage girls) - no one seems to be neutral. Everyone either adores it and can't say anything about it that isn't incoherent squealing over how much they want to romance this or that character, or heaps it with such derision that you'd think it had killed their cat. Some people have opinions on it without even having read the first book, let alone the whole series. (My full defense of Twilight against the common criticisms may be found here for interested parties; warning, spoilers for all four books.) Each side fuels the other - there's apparently a belief latent in these people that the more extreme one's expression of love or hate of Twilight, the more successful one will be in converting the heathens/rallying support/setting every copy in the world on fire/getting Stephenie Meyer to come to one's house in person and give one an advance copy of completed-only-with-one's-encouragement Midnight Sun/whatever.

Replies from: steven0461, Jonathan_Graehl
comment by steven0461 · 2009-05-28T13:42:21.852Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Upvoted for the first paragraph, but:

Some people have opinions on it without even having read the first book, let alone the whole series.

Eh? There's lots of information available about books from sources other than the books themselves. Why wouldn't this sometimes be enough information to base opinions on?

Replies from: Alicorn
comment by Alicorn · 2009-05-28T13:50:06.854Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

People can certainly decide whether or not a series is likely to interest them on the basis of things like reviews and genre description. If the words "vampire romance quartet mostly aimed at teenage girls" make you want to run screaming, you can certainly have the opinion that the Twilight series is not worth your time to read. It would be unwarranted for you to also pick up other anti-Twilight beliefs (the protagonist is a Mary Sue! The entire series is a vehicle for Mormon morality! There are too many adjectives o noes!), especially given that most of the people who say those things also have not read the books.

I submit, also, that it's unfair to judge a series's plot and character development without having some idea of where it ends up; Twilight requires this charity doubly so because so much happens in the last book.

Replies from: MrHen
comment by MrHen · 2009-05-28T23:00:24.218Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I submit, also, that it's unfair to judge a series's plot and character development without having some idea of where it ends up; Twilight requires this charity doubly so because so much happens in the last book.

Disclaimer: I have decided not to read any of the books because I am fairly certain I will not enjoy them. This is based on reactions from people whose tastes agree/disagree with mine and people I consider to be an authority on any particular book's quality.

If a book's plot is 75% not entertaining and 25% amazing I would find myself hard-pressed to call the plot good. I think it is totally fair to judge a series' plot and character development by reading a majority of the plot and character development. If the last quarter is denser than the first three-quarters it speaks more of the last book than of the entire series.

The counterpoint is easier to agree with: If a series has 75% amazing plot and the last book was terrible many people find it frustrating that the last book "ruined the series." Movies or books with bad endings tend to swing favor against themselves. When I think about it, if 75% good and 25% bad is overall bad, why is 75% bad and 25% good considered overall good?

Obviously this is skimming over huge and valid exceptions and has nothing to do with Twilight itself. Possible objections:

  • The last 25% is denser and therefore should weigh more heavily than the first 75%
  • The last 25% brings new meaning to the previous 75%
  • The first 75% wasn't really all that bad and the end was totally worth it
Replies from: Nominull, Alicorn
comment by Nominull · 2009-05-29T16:54:22.853Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is just a fact about how humans experience events - the end matters more than anything. See the peak-end rule.

Replies from: MrHen
comment by MrHen · 2009-05-29T17:25:10.129Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In terms of books, I happen to know a lot of people who will put down a book that they do not "get into." The cutoff will usually be within the first 25%. The peak-end rule would explain how people judge the last thing they read as more important than what they have read before that. If they end part way through the book, those last few pages will matter more.

In terms of a book's quality, I am not sure that the peak-end rule is the appropriate way to judge the book. It may be a good way to judge the experience of the book, but the book itself can have a great ending and still be terrible. I can also immensely enjoy a terrible book.

In terms of Twilight, I am fairly certain that even if I enjoyed the ending I will not enjoy reading the series as a whole.

Replies from: thomblake
comment by thomblake · 2009-05-29T17:47:33.405Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems strange to judge the experience of a book differently than the book itself. Does the book have value other than in ways that affect you?

Maybe I'm misreading you?

Replies from: MrHen
comment by MrHen · 2009-05-29T18:17:55.027Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do not enjoy reading most biographies but I consider the information gleaned to be good. The book as a whole is worth reading but the experience of reading the book is not high on my list of good experiences. I suppose the end result of knowing more can be wrapped into the term "experience." I, however, am more thinking of "the experience" as aesthetics.

Also, if I read the same book twice I will have different experiences. Does the quality of the book change? If I read a book out loud with my significant other the experience will have much more meaning than the book provided on its own.

comment by Alicorn · 2009-05-28T23:56:36.262Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The last book (slightly more than 25%; it's the longest of the four), in this case, provides a well-worth-the-wait payoff for the slow pacing of the first three. Endings in general are worth more than their weight in paper, because they either give the story's journey a destination, or they make the entire story pointless. A story with a punchy beginning and a disappointing ending is a worse story than a story with a meandering beginning and a stunning finish. For instance, I think the Liveship Chronicles have about the same ratio of good-to-bad, but because Liveship used it all up in book one and then left me with a total downer of an ending, I'm never touching the books again (nor, in all likelihood, anything else by Robin Hobb). Twilight was slower to start and had a great finish; it has reread value.

Replies from: MrHen
comment by MrHen · 2009-05-29T00:39:31.447Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Endings in general are worth more than their weight in paper, because they either give the story's journey a destination, or they make the entire story pointless.

Hmm. I guess I look for different things in books than you do. I like the journey of the story. I really do not care too much about where the journey ends or starts. I like the middle. If the middle is crap in a book I will never, ever read it again. I can endure a bad beginning or a mediocre ending, but if the middle is a desert I have a hard time liking the book. If 70% "blah" leads into 30% "wow", why did I bother with the first 70%? Give me a summary of the 70% and let me read the good parts.

I suppose some of this sentiment comes from the fact that there is no good reason for any part of any book to be blah. 70% bad and 30% good is strictly worse than 70% good. There are books that exist where the entire thing is worth reading and I only have so much reading time.

Another guess at the source of this sentiment is that I actually enjoy the writing. I like good writing as much as I like a good story. I enjoy books that are about nothing in particular and have no great story to tell if they are written well. 70% bad writing is not worth 30% good story.

Of course, as I mentioned, I am not talking directly about Twilight since I have not read more than a few sentences.

The last book (slightly more than 25%; it's the longest of the four), in this case, provides a well-worth-the-wait payoff for the slow pacing of the first three.

I am not really talking about pace. I like slow pace if it fits.

Replies from: dclayh, Alicorn
comment by dclayh · 2009-05-29T17:51:48.960Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think people like Alicorn who enjoy books for story and plot, become annoyed at unsatisfying endings, etc., generally tend to group themselves into what's called "genre" fiction (particularly SF/F, although SF has the "cool ideas" component also), while people like you who are more attracted to good prose style and what you might call "small-scale enjoyability" tend to group into "classic" fiction.

I have this debate ("what makes a book good?") with my friends frequently, since they're mostly in Alicorn's camp and over the last decade I've drifted steadily into yours.

Replies from: MrHen
comment by MrHen · 2009-05-29T18:25:06.072Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree.

I really do not think there is anything inherent in any genre that prevents good writing or good stories. I like cool ideas for stories but get really annoyed when the writing is poor. I would claim I like the story but dislike the writing.

I have this debate ("what makes a book good?") with my friends frequently, since they're mostly in Alicorn's camp and over the last decade I've drifted steadily into yours.

My camp is one where bad writing trumps a good story. A bad story pushes me toward disliking a book with good writing but with a much lesser force.

My justification for this is that it is really easy to come up with a good story and really hard to write well.

For comparison, good stories hold much more weight in other mediums. Movies, in particular, have to have a good story or I will probably not watch it again.

Replies from: dclayh
comment by dclayh · 2009-05-29T18:34:58.538Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Personally I wouldn't go so far as to say writing "trumps" story, just that they both have significant weight.

My justification for this is that it is really easy to come up with a good story and really hard to write well.

My justification is simply that good writing should be good through its entire power spectrum, from individual word choice, to a well-crafted sentence, to an engaging scene, to a meaningful overarching plot. Having one component that's excellent doesn't justify poor performance in others; everything weighs in together. (Of course, there are some authors (Dan Brown springs to mind) whose prose style is just so awful that I can't make it through even a single page, so I have no chance of appreciating the plot.)

comment by Alicorn · 2009-05-29T01:08:47.857Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suppose I'm probably unique in my approach to stories because I loathe surprises (to the point where I'd rather get nothing at all on my birthday than anticipate getting something but not know what). So I tend to like re-reading more than reading for the first time, since I know what to expect. This causes me to place a high importance on endings, because if what I expect while re-reading a book (or reading it for the first time, if I've found a synopsis on the Internet) is a lousy ending, I won't enjoy the rest of it much.

Replies from: MrHen
comment by MrHen · 2009-05-29T16:10:51.052Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suppose I'm probably unique in my approach to stories [...]

Well, probably not unique, but certainly nowhere near how I approach them. As such, I doubt that you or I could ever recommend a book to each other with any useful accuracy. Good to know, I guess, if Less Wrong ever turns into a book club?

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2009-05-29T08:13:01.163Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

All (two) of the people I know who have read Twilight claim to have only enjoyed it as a guilty pleasure, and spend more time detailing its flaws than pushing it on me. They don't seem to hate it.

I'm aware of Twilight antifandom. and that people participate while having only seen brief excerpts of the books.

comment by bgrah449 · 2009-06-09T15:21:50.864Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wouldn't say it's the goodness or the badness of the work, but the purpose of the work. Any work that changes the criteria for what "winning at life" is, or in any other way indicts the status quo, is going to turn off anyone who likes the current game, and it's going to attract anyone who would benefit under the new game. Being a fan is signaling one's unfitness at the current game. (The average fan of Star Wars has a good reason to dream of a place far away - his life sucks.)

Anything that is either descriptive or reaffirming the current game is probably fine - Animal Farm, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Anything prescriptive is a threat to the people with the highest status currently - the people whose winnings are maximal under the current game.

As the work becomes more wildly prescriptive, it will attract fewer people, and the people who are attracted are the most unfit at the current game. As the prescription loses credibility as the concensus builds against it, the devotion of the fanbase must increase to a) combat the pervasive bad reputation that new potential converts encounter and b) keep the fanbase itself motivated in the face of derision and mockery on all sides.

comment by TimRMortiss · 2009-05-29T20:56:19.023Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

About Jack Vance:

"That's serious fandom. Aimed at work that - like Animal Farm or the Well-Tempered Clavier - is merely excellent, without an aspect of monumental badness to defend."

The history of the Vance Integral Edition is full of flamewars and intensely stupid quarrels, not to mention some off-the-wall exegesis of Vance's work that would make Charles Kinbote blush. I think the most ridiculous aspects of Vance fandom are not well known because it is a much smaller cult, compared to other fandoms. (And yet the VIE project was reasonably successful.)

"If Jack Vance had been so clever as to keep all the poetic phrasing and alien societies, but now and then have his characters make crazy political speeches - if he had deliberately introduced an aspect of monumental badness - would he now be worshiped, instead of just loved?"

Well, there are some obnoxious political speeches in Vance's work, only not in his best regarded or better known works. See for example the regrettable "The Gray Prince".

comment by Unnamed · 2009-05-28T22:28:23.778Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fandom is social - a big part of it is interacting with other fans. So here's an alternative hypothesis: works that especially appeal to a narrow subset of the population are more likely to develop a fanatic fandom (with things like conventions), because they allow fans to get together with other people like them, form a fanatic community, and radicalize as a group. With broadly popular works, fans won't be all that similar to each other so they'll be less likely to come together to form a fanatic community. Trekkies and Randians seem consistent this hypothesis.

comment by CannibalSmith · 2009-05-28T08:31:30.067Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? They have Towel Day, and as far as I know, unless you reject it whole as nonsense, it has no glaring flaws.

comment by JamesCole · 2009-05-28T07:57:03.953Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Just from reading the quoted segment of Bond's argument, I think there's something missing from it.

'Bad' is too vague. It's not (usually) like people watch a film (or read a book or whatever) and think "man, i found that truly horrible. It was so bad I'm going to start obsessing over it and attending conventions".

Rather, there are specific properties of the work that attract them. These properties (or other ones that go hand in hand with them) also happen to mean the work has bad qualities.

It can't simply be any properties to do with 'badness', because fandom only accretes around certain bad things, not every bad thing.

The question is, what are those properties?

At a quick guess, I'd say one is that the work allows the person to deeply immerse themselves in an appealing imaginative vision (e.g. a fantasy realm), and perhaps to construct an identity around that (e.g. dressing up as a character), perhaps in conjunction with others in a social group (such as in discussion groups and at conventions).

Replies from: JamesCole
comment by JamesCole · 2009-05-28T08:00:58.647Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

BTW, in my first sentence above I mean there's something missing from Bond's argument (not that the quotation omits something)

comment by Kallisti · 2012-02-14T20:46:44.099Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fandom is a subculture that grows up around people who are passionate about a work when the rest of the world isn't.

If the work is part of the dominant culture, nobody has to build a fandom around it. The Well-Tempered Clavier is assigned to every piano student -- nobody has to organize clubs to listen to Bach in secret.

To have a fandom, a work doesn't have to be bad. It can just be overlooked, forgotten, or left behind by the mainstream. Gilbert and Sullivan operas are pretty good, but they have a fandom made up of old-fashioned Anglophiles and intellectual showoffs. (I'm one of them, naturlich.)

It helps if there's something totalizing about the work itself -- if the author insists that it should change how you see everything about the world, then those who like it will make fandom part of their identity. (See: Wagner, Rand, Kerouac.)

comment by jmd · 2009-06-02T00:25:09.592Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Cultural products that create fandom usually have younger target audiences. Those products tend to be of uneven quality. This seems to explain the correlation noticed by Bond. Products for the young of undeniable quality can be used to test the hypothesis. They do create fandoms: -The catcher in the rye -Jimi Hendrix Older products of uneven quality do not produce fandom... (But since they have been forgotten, I won't give examples!) If older great work didn't create fandom, it's simply that they came before fandom.

comment by haig · 2009-05-29T05:19:56.085Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Warren Buffett seems to fit all the criteria of the counterexample Eliezer asked for. And if you doubt the fanaticism of his fandom, just look over some videos of his annual shareholders' meeting/convention.

Replies from: dclayh
comment by dclayh · 2009-05-29T18:00:17.579Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Agreed: my father owns about five different books on the theme of "how to be like Buffett".

comment by roland · 2009-05-29T03:06:30.133Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Eliezer, I think you missed something big here: to what kind of audience does the work appeal?

Take GEB: if you want to read and understand it you really have to invest some intellectual effort and I suspect the kind of people who end up appreciating it are not the ones who indulge in emotional fandom.

Star Wars on the other hand has a lot more emotional than intellectual appeal and thus it will select another kind of fans, a subset of them are the kind of people who go to conventions and dress up in appropriate clothing.

Make the experiment: go to a group of kids and ask: who wants a laser sword and be a jedi for the next hours? Or would you rather sit down and discuss self-refentiality? Do you want to be Gandalf and use the magic wand or sit down with the Tortoise and Achilles for an intellectual conversation?

Edit to make it clearer: a movie like Star Wars offers a lot more possibilities of emotional appeal: the cool clothing, being a jedi knight, sexy scenes with a hot princess, fighting against evil and saving the universe, etc...

Replies from: dclayh
comment by dclayh · 2009-05-29T17:57:58.329Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This argument seems strange to me because I've known many, many people who love both stringent intellectual debate and fantasy-dress-up-make-belive. They seem to be correlated rather than anticorrelated, in fact.

Replies from: roland, Jiro
comment by roland · 2009-05-29T18:15:44.496Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How would you dress up to a GEB meeting?

Replies from: Aurini
comment by Aurini · 2009-06-03T21:32:24.882Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Take my word for it; you do not want to read any of the GEB slash/fic out there.

comment by Jiro · 2013-12-20T20:21:51.859Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, but it's compartmentalized to some degree. An intellectual work and a fantasy work may appeal to the same person, but one appeals to the person while wearing an intellectual hat and the other doesn't, and the first kind of appeal is the wrong kind of appeal to result in fanaticism.

comment by Luke · 2009-05-29T04:09:21.353Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

These works with huge fan bases (Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter) have tons of improbable stuff, things clearly added for no reason other than drama, things that are designed to turn your logical brain off. Awful stuff... But they maintain self-consistency. A fan is typically someone who is familiar with the universe's rules, accepts them, and uses them to make predictions about the characters. The author may throw in a surprise or two, but that eventually gets added to the rules. The rules provide the fan with a psychological reward every time they are proven right about the outcome.

Knowing and accepting the rules of a fantasy universe is not unlike knowing and accepting the rules of a religion. The more immersed you are in them, and the more they differ from real life, the more fanatical you become about them. It is as if we are wired to form internally consistent sets of rules for universes, even if (perhaps especially if) they are not real.

This is, I think, why a scientist can be religious. They see neither the physical universe nor their religion's universe as particularly connected to everyday reality. But both have internally consistent rules, and thus provide a psychological reward when you make predictions based on them. Just as a Trekkie does not expect to be beamed out of trouble, or die as the penalty for wearing a red shirt, the nobel-winning scientist is not expecting God to intervene in the laboratory.

I am not sure whether awfulness is important... Distance from reality probably is though, since it helps distinguish the two "magesteria" from each other.

Replies from: billswift
comment by billswift · 2009-05-29T11:17:59.124Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I prefer science fiction to fantasy, but read plenty of fantasy too. Good fantasy is internally consistent, but none of the massively popular fantasies, including all three of the series you mentioned, is internally consistent. And the longer they continue the series, the worse they get. I long ago quit watching Star Wars and Star Trek movies because they got sillier and sillier.

Replies from: Vichy
comment by Vichy · 2009-06-01T20:00:57.785Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I feel that most good fiction is internally consistent since that's sort of definitionally necessary of actually having a plot. But many people seem to read things that satisfy their emotional biases; rather than to follow a coherent narrative.

comment by Ttochpej · 2009-05-28T15:10:55.448Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would like to propose the idea that the fans don't necessarily have to have anything to do with what the original work that started the group going. The original work could just bring together a group of people, that group of people then creates there own reasons for being together and reinterprets the original work to suit there needs. Maybe the strongest fan bases are formed around works that have a "badness" about them, because they are easier to reinterpret to suit the needs of the fans.

comment by lavalamp · 2009-05-28T17:23:34.893Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have a theory that the harder people try to convince me of something, the more it means they're really trying to convince themselves. (Example: creationism)

This seems related...

More seriously, I've seen at least one study in which it was noted that the more stringent religious sects have better retention rates, i.e., the more an ideology demands from its adherents, the more committed they are. This sounds like it could be another manifestation of the same effect.

comment by Roko · 2009-06-01T11:52:10.955Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It strikes me that the correlation between "is bad" and "has fanatical fans" is partially due to a common cause - a piece of fiction has to conform to certain popular prejudices entertained by tens of millions of idiots in order to have a really big fan base, and a really big fan base is highly conducive to having a hard core of fanatics - the more people that are interested in something, the more hardcore fanatics you'll get.

Replies from: MrHen
comment by MrHen · 2009-06-01T14:10:42.017Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

[A] piece of fiction has to conform to certain popular prejudices entertained by tens of millions of idiots in order to have a really big fan base.

I am listening, but not agreeing quite yet. What are the prejudices in Star Wars or Star Trek?

Restating your point in different words: Popular prejudice is conducive to having lots of fans and the more fans you have the more fanatics will be in the fanbase. "Bad" creeps in because of the popular prejudice.

This makes sense, but going the other way sure doesn't: Having a set of fanatics does not imply a large fan base, nor does it imply lots of popular prejudices.

I also claim that something can have a large fan base without popular prejudices and something can have popular prejudices without having a fan base. I do agree that with a bigger pool of fans you are probably picking up more fanatics.

So, yeah, I guess the loose correlation makes sense. But it is right?

Replies from: Vichy, Annoyance, Roko, MrHen, timtyler, alvarojabril
comment by Vichy · 2009-06-01T19:53:30.208Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"What are the prejudices in Star Wars or Star Trek?" Star Trek is uber yuppy social democrat space, and Star Wars has an extremely predictable plot with unbelievable magic elements and exactly the sort of bad advice people love (follow your feelings, stop trying to think; our Enemies are Pure Evil).

Replies from: pjeby
comment by pjeby · 2009-06-01T21:47:08.443Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

the sort of bad advice people love (follow your feelings, stop trying to think; our Enemies are Pure Evil).

The only thing that makes these bad advice is context. In the context of activities requiring fast action, following your feelings and not thinking may be excellent advice, for example.

A basketball player finding the shortest path through the opposition to the net will probably epic fail if s/he does not follow his/her feelings, or tries to think. IIRC, even the renowned Bayesian basketball player (who uses an extremely probability-driven strategy) has trained himself so that his intuitive response is to go where the probabilties say to go, rather than actually doing the probability calculations in his head during play.

Replies from: Nick_Tarleton, Vichy
comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2009-06-03T20:25:03.333Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd like to know why this has been voted down.

Replies from: pjeby
comment by pjeby · 2009-06-04T01:14:27.833Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd like to know why this has been voted down.

Most likely it was one of the one or two people who systematically downvote a large number of comments. As I've mentioned before, there's at least one user who appears to periodically downvote all my comments, ever since I first ended up on the top 10 contributors list.

It's kind of weird to watch, because my karma will drop by dozens of points in an hour, and I can see which comments were voted down. Then, most of the comments that are on active posts get slowly voted back up above zero. Then, sometimes the second downvoter comes through and knocks the marginal comments back to zero or negative. Depending on how old the comments are when the second wave hits, they may get "left behind" and not re-upvoted by readers.

The silly thing about all this is that the downvoters are simply teaching me to ignore any negative scores on my comments, especially if the comments fall just outside the trailing upvote window created by post activity.

comment by Vichy · 2009-06-03T20:03:04.438Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"A basketball player finding the shortest path through the opposition to the net will probably epic fail if s/he does not follow his/her feelings, or tries to think. " Well, yes, I wouldn't want to rule out the efficacy of unconscious calculations; trying to use vectors to calculate how to catch a frisbee is likely to be unsucessful. Conscious rationcination is resource intensive and slow.

Where is is bad advice is when people use these processes as a substitute for rationcination; forming of abstract theories on the basis of emotional pleasantness is unlikely to render accurate beliefs. Of course, accuracy isn't everything.

comment by Annoyance · 2009-06-01T17:12:48.293Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What are the prejudices in Star Wars or Star Trek?

The future will be fundamentally better than the past or present. 'Progress' will occur. Humanity has a useful role in space. People in red shirts exist only to die.

Replies from: MrHen
comment by MrHen · 2009-06-01T17:22:09.717Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Okay. I guess I was thinking of "prejudice" as in "anti-specific-group-of-people." But yeah, pro-humanity or pro-future prejudice makes perfect sense.

comment by Roko · 2009-06-01T17:08:52.991Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What are the prejudices in Star Wars or Star Trek?

that you can tap into some cosmic life-force by sheer effort of will? you must have seen some of the pseudo-scientific nonsense in 'treck, too.

Replies from: MrHen
comment by MrHen · 2009-06-01T17:26:51.597Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mmm... I am not happy pointing at a specifically designed premise of a series as a prejudice. Attacking The Force as prejudice seems petty.

That being said, I could see your comment making more sense from the perspective of, "People who really, actually think you tap into some cosmic life-force by sheer effort of will will flock to Star Wars because of The Force." I really doubt that was the intent of adding The Force to Star Wars.

You could make the same claim about The Matrix. But really?

comment by MrHen · 2009-06-03T17:23:52.487Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am a little surprised at the responses to this comment. Am I using the wrong definition of the word "prejudice"?

Also, I think that there is a very big distinction between premise and prejudice. If I assume a distopian future awaits so I can write a novel about corrupt governments, would the distopian theme be considered prejudice? Where is the line drawn?

comment by timtyler · 2009-06-03T16:24:02.980Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Re: What are the prejudices in Star Wars or Star Trek?

That advanced techology and humans will coexist in the future. Scientifically, Star Wars and Star Trek look pretty ridiculous. They are action movies - not futurism.

comment by alvarojabril · 2009-06-01T17:24:03.759Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I also think we can think of "prejudices" or pre-judgments common in popular media which aren't necessarily bad. Star Trek, for instances propagates prejudices toward tolerance, rationality, exploration, etc. So I think there's a lot of popular media which is also "good." I guess I may have misread your point - I'm talking instrumentally and you mean aesthetically.

Replies from: billswift
comment by billswift · 2009-06-01T23:21:57.569Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Promotes rationality? Star Trek? Where?

comment by vizikahn · 2009-05-29T09:53:44.729Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can imagine meeting another Vance aficionado in person: we just nod politely, in silent agreement, or talk in cryptic sentences like vorlons.

H. R. Giger is an excellent painter and sculptor, anyone can see that, but for most people his sculptures are just too... alien. I discoved that I really like Giger and Vance, but I can see that others would have to acquire the taste.

comment by kip1981 · 2009-05-29T01:01:05.879Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

GEB has always struck me as more clever than intelligent.

comment by dclayh · 2009-05-28T19:17:32.068Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also somewhat related: the Onion A/V Club has an ongoing Gateways to Geekery series, which gives newcomers introductions to various genres that are the subject of fandom (though not necessarily at the con level), explaining why they can be inaccessible and how best to approach them. There are 18 entries so far; it might be interesting to look for commonalities.

comment by Psychohistorian · 2009-05-28T16:55:01.653Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The mechanism makes perfect sense, though that doesn't mean the theory is right. If you have a very good, relatively unobjectionable movie/book/etc, most people will like it, some people will dislike it, but it's unlikely there'll be much conflict. By contrast, if you've got some movie that's got some good parts, and some really awful parts, then you have the potential for some people to really like it, and then actually have to defend it against the bad parts. Since they don't want to part with liking it, they develop all kinds of defense mechanisms, they talk amongst themselves, maybe you get some social evaporative cooling, and they start liking it more and more, because they spend so much time thinking about it and defending it. Not to mention they actually have to look to find people who like it as much as they do. If pretty much everyone liked it pretty much the same amount (or within a proper upper bound), this need never arises, and fandom does not form. But if it's there, and the group needs to defend itself from the Philistines who don't understand, pretty soon people are getting married dressed up as Han and Leia. Of course, some movies/books/etc. fall below critical mass and never develop a fandom despite having similar characteristics.

The main problem with that theory is that I'm not sure it's causal, and it may fit too well. That is, when you look at the actual development of such groups, they may not actually be defined by opposition (I don't personally know). Though the "needing to seek out other people who also ignored or even liked the bad parts" may still be a driving force.

Of greater concern, it's probably possible to find something seriously wrong with damn near anything. If you've got a bunch of people speaking Klingon, it's also much more entertaining to find some reason to call them idiots. I, for one, would be significantly less pissed off by some of the moronic parts of, say, Harry Potter, if it weren't one of the most successful series ever written. So it's quite possible that we understand the badness because the fandom exists and people want to make fun of it, and pretty much anything that evolved a fandom would present us with similar fodder.

comment by gabbert · 2009-05-28T15:22:13.391Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe there are Shakespeare conventions, they're just not an object of public ridicule, because Shakespeare is better than Star Trek.

I'm a poet and hang out with a lot of literature lovers, but I think I still know more people who get excited about Star Wars and Star Trek than Shakespeare. So I'm not sure I accept that Shakespeare lovers are a dime a dozen and Star * lovers aren't.

comment by loqi · 2009-05-28T07:18:05.092Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Replies from: Nick_Tarleton
comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2009-05-28T07:49:03.626Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Not commonly criticized"? Are we on the same Internet?

Replies from: Emile
comment by Emile · 2009-05-28T08:37:27.104Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Seems to me the main object of criticism is the presence of fans. I haven't heard many people complain about Apple products (or marketing) first.

Replies from: thomblake, Peter_Twieg
comment by thomblake · 2009-05-28T14:35:33.606Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I used to complain at length about Apple products - especially the PC software they've made. iTunes should die in a fire, and I refused to download quicktime for a while since they were sneakily bundling iTunes with it (and it messes with your startup stuff without asking).

comment by Peter_Twieg · 2009-05-28T13:55:46.994Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, there are complaints about "Apple premiums" on pricing, but if those actually exist they're most likely largely the result of the fact that the company can "exploit" its devoted fanbase...

I think Apple is a good choice, though. I'd also point to Prius or hybrid vehicles in general or other items of objectively-good quality which turn into status signals of various sorts... and then you see criticisms aimed at the signalers and not the underlying goods or their functionality. Or the criticisms are aimed at the fact that the fans overstate the value of their choice objects, which doesn't exactly impinge the actual value.

comment by David Althaus (wallowinmaya) · 2011-06-08T07:06:00.755Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But badness, especially badness of an obvious, monumental variety, inspires devotion. The quality of the work, in the face of such glaring shortcomings, becomes a matter of faith -- and faith is a much stronger bond than mere appreciation.

IMO this, among other things, can explain why religions still exist.

comment by Vichy · 2009-06-01T19:50:39.823Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"And so the fan groups of Tolkien, Star Trek, Spider-man, Japanese kiddie-cartoons etc. develop an almost cult-like character." I like some of all of these examples, and I agree there are horrible, asinine elements to all of them. They all have ludicrous philosophical positions, arbitrary physics, inane plots and villains with motivations that manage to be incoherent and predictable at the same time. Although I've seen every episode of every series of Star Trek before Enterprise, I have to say I spend most of my time watching it making fun of the gaffs and absurdities. I don't know that I'm typical, but Star Trek wouldn't be the same if it wasn't so plainly atrocious. The absurdity is, for many people, an appealing aspect of it.

Jack Vance is one of the few 'science' fiction authors I can find no significant flaws with (other than that the term 'science' is rather misapplied to his genre), and although he has many dedicated fans you are right that there are no Demon Princes Conventions where everyone dresses up with giant earlobes and exchanges mining company stock.

I think it's also probably true that widely popular fiction is so bad at least partially because people have demands on fiction that is only tangentially related (if at all) to plot coherence, believability and skilled writing. Some of Stephan King's most popular books are ones that he considers to be poorly written.

Replies from: Jiro
comment by Jiro · 2013-12-20T20:39:03.449Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Star Trek, Spider-Man, and anime have something in common that Tolkien and Vance lack (and I don't think Tolkien belongs in the group you put it in): they're visual media, and not only that, they're visual media with a lot of distinctive clothing and devices. You can watch Star Wars and actually see the uniforms and the light sabers. Of course you'll see a lot more people dressing up for those than for Vance, or for Tolkien or Twilight.

Also, I'm not convinced that the lack of Jack Vance conventions is caused by the different nature of the fandom as opposed to just the smaller size. It's quite possible that the Jack Vance fans who exist are proportionately as passionate as Harry Potter fans.

comment by timtyler · 2009-05-30T17:02:53.406Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have noticed some criticisms. Try this, for example:

Replies from: MichaelBishop
comment by MichaelBishop · 2009-06-01T19:12:42.753Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The argumentation is not particularly rigorous and resorts to lots of name calling. Voted down because this guy does not appear to be worth engaging.

Robin's debate with Eliezer over the future of AI is much more thoughtful.

Replies from: timtyler, alvarojabril
comment by timtyler · 2009-06-02T06:32:10.891Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Richard appears to not know what he is talking about, yes. That doesn't stop him, though!

comment by alvarojabril · 2009-06-01T19:34:34.031Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Just read over that for the first time and it seems to me that Eliezer's argument relies heavily on the anthropic principle, that is, it underestimates the amount of resources it has taken the universe to produce a very small amount of life, so far as we know.

Replies from: Nick_Tarleton, MichaelBishop
comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2009-06-02T02:00:45.097Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Despite the anthropic principle, we should still expect to have been produced in a relatively likely way for intelligence to have been produced; it would still be surprising for us to observe ourselves to have evolved from chimps so quickly, conditioned on it being extremely hard to go from chimp to human.

...well, in general. In this particular case, it could also be, say, that conditions selecting for intelligence are very unlikely to persist for more than a few million years, but I can't think of any independent reason to think that likely.

Anyway, I'm pretty sure most of Eliezer's statements about evolution are just slogans to illustrate arguments with deeper support.

comment by MichaelBishop · 2009-06-02T01:48:01.163Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is not something I know a lot about, perhaps that is why I don't understand either part of your comment.

comment by bungula · 2009-05-28T21:51:11.168Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Beatles.

comment by Annoyance · 2009-05-28T19:26:59.288Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

True fanaticism requires a reservoir of unconsciousness into which contradictions and faults can be swept aside.

Without flaws which fans feel guilty about overlooking or ignoring, fanaticism is unlikely to arise. Nor is it likely to arise among people with well-developed emotional balance who won't or can't harbor monumental blind spots and unconsciousness sinks.

People who defend something vehemently are often compensating within themselves for a negative reaction which they cannot acknowledge. If the matter isn't truly important in a life-or-death sense, and people are getting vehement, it's probably a defensive reaction. Best defense is a good offense and all that.

comment by Dagon · 2009-05-28T18:20:55.098Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are a couple of different aspects to fandom, and it's worth splitting them apart. I'm a HUGE fan of GEB and the Well Tempered Clavier, and have been for over 25 years. Neither of these are the basis of any social group I'm part of (though GEB fandom is rife in a some, it's not the core of any).

The aspects of fandom you're looking at - the clique or socially-separate group, would seem to come not from bad elements of the work, but from a desire to form tribes and share hardship, normally by repelling out-group attack (or perceived attack). Note that an attack on the group does not require an attack on the work, though less-generally-liked reasons for group membership probably make it easier to find attackers.

I'd recommend you avoid changes in your book to cater to such tribal instincts, unless you're using it as an example of how people trick themselves.

comment by JamesAndrix · 2009-05-28T17:00:00.658Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by astray · 2009-05-28T14:50:59.055Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your PS for the newly imported post is out of date- the colored text doesn't seem to have come with it.

comment by blogospheroid · 2009-05-28T08:40:08.961Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Renaissance time paintings? The Taj Mahal?

Or are these works of art gone too much into the past and thats why they are not criticised?

Replies from: Eliezer_Yudkowsky
comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-05-28T13:39:05.349Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do they have fandoms? Do the fandoms have conventions?

Replies from: MrHen
comment by MrHen · 2009-05-29T16:31:55.208Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Did they have fandoms?

Shakespeare keeps popping up in examples, but does it change if we look at his reception during his own time?

The same with Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or Dune or Stephen King or Charles Dickens or Tangrams or Hot Pants. We talk about fandom as being here and now but fandom has certainly existed before now. People flock to certain objects. Trying to say that some of the flocking is distinguished by the word "fandom" and that "fandom" means that the flocked-to item has a bad quality seems... petty.

People flock to good things. People flock to bad things. People defend good things. People defend bad things. People argue about which things to flock toward. If we took software piracy as an object of flocking, would it qualify as an object of fandom? It fits the description: It has easy to attack "badness" that is controversial. Untold numbers are obsessed with it while most of the fanbase really doesn't care all that much. When new things to pirate arrive there is a frenzy to get it as soon as possible. I suppose there is no piracy convention... and I am sure no one in the world would call the pirates a fanbase. But why?

I guess my point can be bullet-pointed as such:

  • People flocking to an object does not imply a fandom
  • People flocking to a bad object does not imply a fandom
  • Fandom implies people flocking to an object
  • The question being asked is: Does fandom imply people flocking to a bad object?
  • The question I am asking is: Why are we studying fandom instead of flocking?

Instead of looking for examples of fandom that flock around non-bad objects we should be wondering what makes people flock to bad and non-bad objects. "Fandom" is a loaded social term. Trying to get a strict definition of "fandom" is pointlessly controversial.

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2012-02-14T18:14:57.503Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What confuses me here is the use of 'convention'. Yes, Shakespeare has conventions. (So does Joyce. So does Wagner. I bet so does Bach.) He has had hundreds of them, if not thousands. His hometown's economy is apparently built on them. It's just that we don't use the word 'convention', we use synonyms like 'conference' and 'festival'.