Show, Sort, Shill

The point of writing is to help others see, but what exactly do we help others see?  Consider:

  • Show – Show the world new ideas (or insights).
  • Sort – Attach quality signals to shown ideas.
  • Shill – Push ideas, via other sorts of influences.

Many new ideas or insights can be expressed clearly in just a few paragraphs.  Others may take a few pages; a few need whole books.  With more work, one can express ideas in different ways, for more chances to connect to different readers, and attach good descriptors and connections, so that folks searching for such things can find your idea.

The vast majority of intellectual effort, however, is not such “showing”, but instead “sorting” and “shilling.”  Advocates push ideas via repetition, celebrity endorsement, etc., pundits are witty, engaging, elegant, etc, and academics make impressive-looking math models, theorems, data collections, stat studies, prototypes, etc.

When readers have good reasons to think that ideas with certain associations are objectively more true or valuable, I’ll say efforts to create such associations “sort” ideas.  Otherwise, such efforts “shill”, i.e., they direct attention or belief but not preferentially to objectively better ideas.

Now sorting is no doubt a required function — we need to know where to focus attention and belief.  But while intellectuals often suggest that their effort is efficiently directed toward this goal, I am skeptical.  Instead, I suspect audiences of pundits and academics mainly want to affiliate with credentialled-as-impressive folks.  Academics are mainly rewarded for doing impressive-looking idea-work, that can be credentialled as such.  Pundits, wonks, columnists, etc. are similarly rewarded for writing that is witty, engaging, elegant, etc.

Now academics and pundits do sometimes have original ideas and news, and such contributions can add a bit to impressiveness.  And many audiences, all else equal, prefer to hear news.  But mostly the finding and showing of such ideas and news is a side effect of trying to be and affiliate with impressiveness; institutions designed primarily to achieve that function would do it far more effectively.

To me, the great charm of blogging is that I can think about interesting things, have an apparently-original insight about something, and then in a few paragraphs I can show that insight to the world.  If an idea seems especially valuable, I can re-express it again in future posts, to better explain and index it.

My great anxiety about blogging is my fear that merely-blogged ideas will not get the attention or belief they deserve, if they do not get the usual quality signals, and that if I don’t give my ideas such quality signals, no one will.

I could take a ton of time and effort to give very standard quality signals, but I can only do this for a tiny fraction of my ideas and I might really just be trying to seem impressive.  I could work to make more efficient signals of quality for a selection of my ideas, signals that do indicate their truth or value of an idea, but that do less well at showing impressiveness.  But how many would attend to such signals, and would that be worth the neglect of other insights I could instead find and show via more blogging?

Which of these options is the most fun, and how much do I really care about anything else?  I remain honestly torn and uncertain here.

Added 8a: Both sorting and shilling both have positional aspects that concern me; they both raise ideas only at the expense of other ideas.  Overconfidence could easily trick one into over-estimating the value of such efforts.

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  • Why not encourage other people to take your ideas and pretend that they were entirely their own. Then they have good reason to work to provide the quality signals. If the alternative if that they just resort old ideas again, then sorting your new ideas is an improvement.

    Not sure if you would be motivated to do that.

    If many quality signallers read your blog and your ideas permeate their thought through mere exposure, you may be having more influence on the sorting part of the process than you directly see.

  • Bryan Caplan

    This is why you need to write one of the multi-topic books I have assigned to you, Robin! Enough hand-wringing. Mush!

  • I sometimes worry that by thinking of some new idea, and showing it, but not “sort” for it, I may make that idea less likely to be widely accepted. Because if I hadn’t thought of it or shown it, it’s possible, perhaps likely, that someone else more willing to sort would think of it. If I show but not sort, then those who reinvent the idea would find little incentive to sort since I’d get most of the credit. I don’t know if this is something you’ve taken into account.

    • That’s a creative idea, but it seems implausible. If an idea is genuinely useful, and has high impact potential, then eventually it will be realized, albeit not in the exact form described by the first person to come up with that idea. Furthermore, the person who did the hard and competitive task of making those ideas impactful will get most of the credit, while the inventor will be a footnote.

      I wonder whether this is even wrong? We need people to make ideas impactful just as much if not more than we need people to make the ideas in the first place. An idea with no impact is worth nothing. If we frame the creation of an idea as simply part of the overall process of incorporating new ideas into society, then to be fair we shouldn’t credit “step 1” in the process any more than the other difficult steps.

      Society isn’t fair however, and overemphasizes and even glorifies the importance of creating ideas (Robin has a great article on this: ). What better way to correct this bias than for people who do the hard work of making an idea impactful to society to get most of the credit for that idea?

    • michael vassar

      In practice, if you don’t sort you won’t get credit.

      • Granted, but I think that might be because if I don’t sort, then nobody else will either, so there is simply no credit to go around. What’s needed to get rid of my concern is the inverse: “If you do sort (even for someone else’s idea), then you will get credit.”

        Imagine if Darwin, after seeing Alfred Wallace’s letter, wasn’t able to prove that he came up with evolution independently of Wallace, so he publishes his book claiming only to shore up Wallace’s idea. Would he still be as famous today?

  • Sounds like you’re trying to maximize two opposing variables: 1) fun, 2) impact.

    To have impact, you have to market your ideas. It sounds like this isn’t much fun for you (too much sorting and shilling). That leaves you with 3 approaches:

    1) Find ways to enjoy marketing your ideas.
    2) Bite the bullet and market your ideas, even if the process isn’t fun.
    3) Accept that the impact of your ideas will be lower/delayed/uncredited.

  • Nick Ernst

    I was very tempted to just write “Very good post Robin! I like the ideas you presented!” as a joke about your audiences comment, but that’s probably an old one around here.

    This has all of the main reasons I gave up trying to maintain a blog – I didn’t show new ideas at a frequency high enough to maintain an audience, and had to shill other news to fill the gaps (also my ideas within my constraining topic mostly weren’t blog-worthy, criteria described below). Then I realized that for my less-sorted ideas, of which I was often hesitant to post, there were places (forums) where pools of people were eager to sort them.

    Of course, there’s very little prestige with a forum post, and that’s part of the payoff for a blog’s difficulty in maintaining an audience. Simply having a blog, updating it frequently, and having non-zero comment counts on each post ups some prestige, increases likelihood that people will shill/sort your ideas, in comments or elsewhere. Good blogs demand ideas of a high enough quality that many people will navigate to an independent website just to see it, and also such that other people with respected blogs will comment and sort ideas of yours (this is advertising for them, but their words have a higher risk of harming their prestige, I would think). The sorting comments and references from blogs of equal prestige give a blog enough prestige to maintain the audience. It seems like the many successful independent blogs still have just enough of an audience to make their ideas worth sharing (judging just by comment density).

    I guess the first questions with anything you write are “where is the audience?” and “what do I want the audience to do with the idea?” and “does the prestige of the audience matter?”

    Your ideas are all of quality for maintaining a blog, and I assume you’re in no danger of changing the size of your audience much by a slight adjustment of sorting. Assuming audience size and prestige are pretty stable, and that your audience is the blogosphere, I think the only question to worry about is “how sorted do I want this idea to be in the near future?” Your audience is pretty damned good, so they would likely take a bare thought and sort it in comments as much as you would if you worried a bit more about quality signals. However, if you want to see the idea developed beyond what you’re capable of in a few moments, then sort it more, and make a higher-standards job for the audience.

    If you write a book, you’ve done a huge amount of sorting, leaving far less for the average blogger to sort, more to shill – further sorting will be done in news columns and other books. But then, that’s stepping into a more prestigious medium yet – it’s almost perfectly analogous in external sorting to the transition from forum to (successful) blog. How far do you want your ideas to be developed, and how much do you want to claim?

    Establish the minimum level of pride necessary in something you write, establish max_interesting_sort(idea), then sort the idea a bit less and let your audience do the rest. To keep the audience’s sorting expectations high (and to have fun), mix it up! Write some posts which demonstrate how sorted you want your ideas to be, then write some with lots more work for other bloggers and commenters.

  • Nick Ernst

    Oh, then there’s obviousness vs conciseness (value vs work) of sorting. There’s some cutoff point in every post where the details which qualify the writing are more work than the value of writing them. I guess I just mean that this point should be evaluated after considering how much more the audience will likely contribute (given that they may value that work more, to gain or maintain prestige for instance).

  • Marshall

    I for one am so happy that you chose to continue blogging. Your ideas, your cognitive style and your implicit “idea-generator” are thus spread. Who knows with what effect.
    And that is the value of your blogging. Broadcasting one drop at a time. The rest is up to the invisible hand.

  • etc

    In the long term, the starving artist is better remembered.

  • Rob and Wei, unless an idea is very distinctive or famous, most readers are plenty capable of forgetting where they heard it and then imagining they thought of it anew later, if that is in their interest.

    Nick, I don’t see blog comments as doing that much idea sorting.

    • Whenever I write up some seemingly new idea, I always google to see if it has been published before, in order to avoid the potential embarrassment of someone showing up and saying I stole their idea (which has happened to me before). I could be wrong, but I imagine that most people do this.

    • Wei, only a small class of ideas can be easily “looked up”. A much larger class of ideas can be described in so many possible ways as to make them very hard to find.

    • Nick Ernst

      I suffer from excessive verbosity, 2am impaired reasoning and possibly misunderstanding of what you were getting at.

      I read “I’m afraid that my blogged ideas may not get the sorting/shilling I want them to, and want to evaluate whether or not to spend more effort sorting them myself.”

      My response was “worrying about not getting enough sorting/shilling could be either about audience maintenance, or actual idea development. Here is how blogs maintain themselves (in your framework, sorting the idea of showing, sorting and shilling). Conclusion: This probably isn’t your concern. Then if total sorting is your concern, here are the factors to consider, and an approach to minimize effort for sorting. Also, how publishing fits into the framework. Perhaps I did unnecessary sorting, and certainly in too many words, but my comments were not void of sorting unless I misunderstood something.

      • Nick Ernst

        I can’t edit or delete previous posts? Perhaps those luxuries have reinforced my sloppiness. I wanted to replace the above with the following:
        “I agree, the sorting was small (but non-zero). I get from your tone that length signals perceived worth of a post, so you may have assumed I was attempting to signal as much, or under the illusion that I thought I did more sorting than I actually did, when in fact I simply need to work on editing skills. I will be more concise next time I have a comment to make – but go easy on me, it was my first comment on OB!”

  • Dave


    I’m listening to your podcast with colin marshall in which you discuss the (excess) returns to specialization rather than a more omnivorous intellectual appetite.

    I think your answer, if Robin Hanson were asked this question by someone else, would be “how relevant do you want to be in the greater intellectual discourse?” the answer to THAT is the degree of specialization you’ll need to undertake.

    A comment to your update: some people probably want another to do the sorting for them. Shilling, though? Probably not that useful to society.

    Sorry, I don’t think that’s the answer you wanted.

  • Nanonymous

    My great anxiety about blogging is my fear that merely-blogged ideas will not get the attention or belief they deserve, if they do not get the usual quality signals, and that if I don’t give my ideas such quality signals, no one will.

    Then you don’t need to worry. There aren’t that many original ideas around – and while most cannot come up with an original idea, many can recognize one. So no, your ideas won’t vanish languish if you don’t disseminate them “properly”. People are not that stupid. The only thing reason to worry then is others not giving you a credit for the ideas. This may or my not bother you/someone.

  • Linda Gottfredson’s Apprentice

    As Dan Sperber points out, the purpose of communication is to manipulate the internal states of others. Writing is a higher status form of communication.

    Let’s not deceive ourselves.

  • Lord

    Seems like an overly narrow range of communication considerations. There are also attempts to sharpen ideas, to define and delimit them, to analogize and apply them, to compare and contrast, to counter and counter counter, to spot and spinoff, to encircle and extend, all of which seem more important than sorting and shilling.

    • If these activities directly make an idea better, easier to understand, or to find, then I’d call that showing. If they instead make people more willing to attend to them, I’d call them sorting or shilling.

  • Rob
  • burger flipper

    I suspect you have gotten more ideas “out there” thru the blog than your academic publications. A throwaway comment of mine a year or 2 back was the catalyst for a NY Times article:

    My sage wisdom:
    1) continue blogging, but maybe cut back the volume
    2) ready some of your stronger/repeated ideas (near/far applications, dreamtime) for journals
    3) Caplan’s popular book

  • Robin, the solution seems obvious to me. You need to continue blogging in obscurity, die in obscurity, and then wait some unspecified period of time for some academic with a high desire to seek status to “discover” your writings and make them famous. Then you’ll go down as an unrecognized genius who had it all figured out, if only someone had listened to his great ideas, and still get at least one or two ideas into the main stream through your yet unborn academic parasite.

    But, ha ha, only serious.

  • mjgeddes

    Excellent classification Robin! This actually matches my fundamental 3-fold ontological ‘joint carving’ of reality.

    Identity Condition: Show (Defining the idea itself).
    Scalar Transform: Sort (Scalar rating signals attached to idea)
    Representation: Shill (Effective representation for communication)

    ‘Shill’ seems to be equivalent to ‘far’ mode, ‘Sort’ is the near mode. ‘Show’ should perhaps be labelled ‘very near’?

    Readers note that in logic, the same 3-fold ontological division appears to be present:

    Identity Condition: Axioms (Defines subject) and deductions (implicate)
    Scalar transform: Probabilities and Bayes (mental ‘force’ of evidence)
    Representation: Categorization (deals with logical uncertainty).

    I feel the LW/OB crowd has failed to grasp the significance of the third ontological joint, ‘far’ mode is not understood!… for example in logic, categorization is the solution to the problem of logical uncertainty!!

    Distrust of ‘far’ mode may cause you to underrate the significance of ‘Shill’ – Shill has its place, effective representation for communication purposes is important, there’s nothing wrong with propaganda .. Of what use is an idea if no one is moved by it? Surely, more Shill is precisely what you want to alleviate your concerns?

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  • Nick Walker

    You observed in a previous post insights rarely signal high status since insight without execution signals lack of power or connections.

    Mark Zuckerberg didn’t invent the social network (GeoCities, Myspace, Friendster came before) but he sorted it.

    Bill James of baseball statistics “sabermetrics” fame is a shower. He’d show a statistic like on base percentage and runs scored were important, but he left the heavy research and refinement to his subscribers and followers. His work was largely ignored until a general manager in Oakland used it, and that general manager is typically given equal credit for the evolution of baseball statistics.