Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

July 17, 2008

Joel Spolsky Jumps the Shark

Filed under: programming — Tags: — codesmithy @ 10:40 am

In the 14th Stackoverflow podcast, Joel Spolsky worked on his credentials for being a fuddy-duddyBemoaning the criticism of a post he admitted he tried his best to phone-in, Spolsky sees these new-fangled kids and their conversational-style of blogging as leading to its demise.  He draws a parallel between the plethora of blogs and the low barriers of entry to endless September, which heralded the end of Usenet for many users.

The irony of the situation, the fact the Spolsky routinely employs many of the same devices he criticizes other people for using, seems to be completely lost on him.  How is one supposed to tell the good from the bad, Spolsky ponders?  Surely judging a blog by its design or a book by its cover is insufficient.  How is one supposed to tell the difference?  Here is a clue: PAGERANK.  There is this little company called Google, maybe Joel can remember them between his bouts of senile dementia.  Their whole shtick is that they tend to return good search results for whatever you are search for.

Let’s give it a try.  “Should I disable menu items?” I ask Google.  And, boy am I feeling lucky.  It brings me to this page, by this guy named Joel Spolsky that says “don’t do this.”  Problem solved.

So, let’s be clear about what Joel is really complaining about, it is not the lack of the good, but rather the preponderance of crap.  Joel wants a clergy, and what we have is a free market.  Higher barriers of entry don’t improve signal, they just reduce noise.  This all follows from Sturgeon’s Law: ninety percent of everything is crap.  As more players enter the market, the biggest winners are the dung beetles.

The market is, in fact, better than the clergy, but not for the reasons some people believe.  The market is not preferred because of its best case performance (a disinterested, benevolent dictator is convincingly more efficient).  Rather, the free market has the best worst-case performance, and it is precisely because some crap from the elite’s perspective is allowed to persist.

There is another argument in favor of the free market, but it speaks more to human nature than fundamental process.  When someone reaches a certain level of celebrity, their skill in the task they are famous for usually degrades.  This is part of the reason why sports teams find it so hard to win back-to-back championships, why news anchors are seldom good journalists any longer, artists become one-hit wonders, etc.  There is a tendency to rest on ones laurels and reputation, rather than focus on continually churning out a superior product and improving.  A clergy tends to become ensconced.  A free market ensures a steady stream of challengers and competition.  To the clergy, these challengers are perceived as fleas, and in many cases that is exactly what they are.  Nevertheless, it keeps the clergy honest, and threatens them with the only threat they truly understand, a revolution and a loss of status.  As Dawkins asks: was there ever dog that praised his fleas?  Probably not, but they are a sign of a healthy ecosystem.

In ending, I want to make a few things clear because a couple aspects do get lost in the medium.  I am actually a huge fan of Joel’s.  Disparaging comments above are just ribbing, a meta-example of how the best way for a flea (this blog) to improve its health is by attacking a big, healthy host at a point of perceived weakness.  Nevertheless, I do get annoyed when he takes up positions he obviously hasn’t thought all the way through.  I feel it lessens his authority on other issues I would like to cite him for when he espouses views he makes no effort to properly defend.  So, let us make clear the the creed of the fickle market: “you are only as good as your latest offering” and may we never forget it.

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