The Internet age/reputation paradox

August 4th, 2010

A person's reputation tends to rise together with the age. The older one is, the more opportunities one had to do notable things, and to meet people who could appreciate those things and tell others about them. So this makes sense.

An online document's reputation also tends to rise together with the age. The older the document, the more documents link to it, and the more documents in turn link to those documents, raising the old document's PageRank. So this makes sense, too.

The paradox is that the older documents are written by the younger people. That is, it is one's younger version that wrote one's older documents. So the documents with the most reputation will tend to be written by people (or more precisely snapshots of people) with the least reputation; one's dumb young stuff may well pop up first in a Google search.

(Not that there aren't any counter-tendencies to cancel this effect at times; my old anxious, moronic report of an imaginary bug in ALL CAPS no longer shows up in my egosearches. So no, I'm not bitter. In fact, Google loves me more than I deserve – for instance, my review of Extreme Programming Explained has appeared in search results right after the Amazon entry for the book ever since I published it, and I've only skimmed through the thing. The only thing that bothers me in the SEO department is that the search for "C++ FQA" gets corrected to "C++ FAQ" – didn't expect that once the query got past the spell check barrier. I hope my collegue's riskily named DreamPie project will not experience a similar setback.)

1. Tommy NazarethAug 7, 2010

This leads to the question of how to divide my efforts, and also touches on why I am often not an early adopter. I have to decide how much work to put into revising my old output vs. plowing ahead into new projects. Every new project carries the same possibility of seeming incredibly stupid in retrospect, so if I haven't come to terms with a strategy for dealing past mistakes, I'll never make any progress.

It is a tough balance to attain. Conservatism has huge benefits, but the opportunity cost of conservatism makes it a poor choice when you value innovative thinking. Personally, I try to practice as much as possible in a sandbox, and when that isn't a possibility, I just accept that I can't always appear as intelligent as I'd like. It is not easy to develop humility, but it makes life a lot easier knowing that however stupid I think my younger self was is only a fraction of how stupid my older self thinks I am.

2. Yossi KreininAug 7, 2010

Revising old output, when it's not outright impossible 'cause I can't look at without tears appearing in my eyes to begin with, is so painful that I almost invariably charge ahead to do something new instead – redoing something, especially if it was done a long time ago, is usually almost as hard as doing something anew, and more aching psychologically. And specifically with writing as opposed to coding, for example, changing old stuff effectively breaks others' links. Another rule is that the dumbest stuff is precisely the stuff for which a reediting is not even an option – say, when you post to a public forum in the heat of an argument.

3. Tommy NazarethAug 7, 2010

So true. Thanks to the Internet, we live with our mistakes forever.

4. gus3Aug 9, 2010

Well, I own the website with my published articles, so I can edit them with corrections. Yes, I'm fallible, but I'm grateful for those who get my point and offer the needed corrections.

5. Damien SorressoAug 10, 2010

Your analysis presupposes that younger, unreputable (not disreputable) people are incapable of doing reputable things. How then would they become reputable old people?

6. Yossi KreininAug 10, 2010

It only presupposes that they are not incapable of doing disreputable things.

7. Amir BarakAug 10, 2010

eh.. I'm not sure that your paradox holds, there are plenty of old documents written by people who were old when they wrote them and are now dead; which sort of means they aren't getting older while their documents are getting older and.. um.. I'm not really sure where I was going with that.

8. Yossi KreininAug 10, 2010

Well, the document is still older than its author at the time of writing, so it's just about one's perception of death.

9. Xah LeeAug 12, 2010

i very much enjoyed your C++ article, though i'm not a C, C++ programer. (am lisp, mathematica) I more so enjoyed your article on Extreme Programing. It is exactly my view. I have links to your article collected here

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