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Explain Like I'm Five (or Calvin) ; Humor ; News

October 20th, 2011
reddit, news, humor  [html]
Reddit does a good job with restricted forms and collaborative humor. For example, there's explain like I'm five:

Why can't we ride Zebras like horses? (link)

We know that parents pass their features on to their children. This is why you look kind of like your parents. This also means mean animals tend to have mean babies and calm gentle animals usually have calm gentle babies. For a long long time, people only let the nice gentle horses have babies and the mean horses went away. This is called domestication. Zebras are wild so there are still many mean ones and it is hard to find nice ones. Nice horses are easy to find because of domestication.

It turns out that explaining things for five year olds isn't that fun if you have to be truthful. In fact, it's really hard to choose the right amount of complexity and get into the right frame of mind. So while people liked this idea, and it quickly gathered subscribers, there just weren't that many good posts. So explain like I'm calvin was born:

Why does Santa Claus give better presents to rich kids? (link)

It's all a question of taxes. You know those prizes people win on game shows? Well, the contestants have to pay taxes on those prizes. The bigger the prize, the more tax you pay. Christmas presents are the same way. Santa wouldn't want to put a family with less money in the unfortunate position of owing a large amount of tax money to the government. So, he gives the presents that require that money to people who can afford it.

This is also why we always seem to have a little less money after Christmas. Taxes.

How come pizza is delivered, but we have to drive to the burger place? (link)

Pizzas have to stay in motion to taste good. That's why you toss pizza dough in the air when you're making it. If they're stationary for too long, they stop tasting good, which is why the third slice is never as good as the first. You can trick pizza into being tasty again by putting it in the fridge--the coldness dulls its senses and makes it thinks it's moving.

Why do I have to eat my vegetables? (link)

You see son, Vegetables keep growing if you don't pick them. Things that grow need food. So pretty soon the vegetables get big enough they can eat people. So we eat them before they can eat us.

The broader issue is that it's easier to be funny than insightful, and it's easier to evaluate whether a post is funny than whether it is well reasoned and adds to the discussion. With a community voting system, this means more positive renforcement for humor than clarity. Reddit has had this problem for years: jokes and memes displace other kinds of posts and comments. Hacker news deals with this by positioning itself in opposition to reddit as a bastion of humorlessness. Facebook has this issue too: especially since the change to include larger pictures in the newsfeed I've seen far more funny meme posts than deeper contributions.

This is not a solved problem. The hn approach is too restrictive, the old slashdot approach didn't work, my facebook and g+ newsfeeds are full of memes, and changing my my subreddit selections is only temporary.

A bunch of things make this hard: some amount of humor is good, it's just bad when it overwhelms everything else. We want different things at different times, as we don't always have the time or patience for a 5000 word investigation. Different people have different preferences. Our long term preferences for staying informed about the world and our areas of interest often lose out to short term preferences for easy laughs.

Newspapers dealt with this by having a continuum, from serious papers to more sensational ones through full on tabloids. [1] Newspapers are pretty different though: switching costs are higher because a lot of people have subscriptions, there are fewer of them so they can have more of a reputation, and they have an editorial team which keeps them focused and minimizes topic drift and distribution over time. Twenty years ago I would have subscribed to the globe as the paper closest to my interests: good boston and international coverage, good balance of topics, good editorial team. I enjoyed reading it's frontpage, editorials, and comics growing up. Modern news sites and social networks do a better job of covering my more specific interests: people I know, technical issues, geeky stuff. If I preferred the globe, it still exists (and has a beautiful liquid layout). I want to subscribe to a site that has the good qualities of facebook, the globe, and reddit. That understands what kind of content I want right now. That pushes me to read things I will be glad that I read.


[1] For some reason the less serious papers are less humor and more shock, scandal, outrage, and celebrities. I'm not sure why online and offline news sources are different this way.

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