July 13, 2009
Are you familiar with the term "meta"? It permeates many concepts in programming, from metadata to the <meta> tag. But since we're on a blog, let's use blogging to explain what meta means. If you've read this blog for any length of time you've probably heard me rant about the evil of blogging about blogging, a.k.a. meta-blogging. As I said in Thirteen Blog Cliches:
I find meta-blogging -- blogging about blogging -- incredibly boring. I said as much in a recent interview on a site that's all about blogging (hence the title, Daily Blog Tips). I wasn't trying to offend or shock; I was just being honest. Sites that contain nothing but tips on how to blog more effectively bore me to tears.
If you accept the premise that most of your readers are not bloggers, then it's highly likely they won't be amused, entertained, or informed by a continual stream of blog entries on the art of blogging. Even if they're filled with extra bloggy goodness.
Meta-blogging is like masturbating. Everyone does it, and there's nothing wrong with it. But writers who regularly get out a little to explore other topics will be healthier, happier, and ultimately more interesting to be around-- regardless of audience.
Triple-meta alert! That blog entry was me blogging about blogging about blogging. See? Painful. I told you.
Generally speaking, I am not a fan of the meta. It's seductive in a way that is subtly but deeply dangerous. It's far easier to introspect and write about the process of, say .. blogging .. than it is to think up, research, and write about an interesting new topic on your blog. Meta-work becomes a reflex, a habit, an addiction, and ultimately a replacement for real productive work. It's something I think everyone should watch out for, whatever walk of life or career you happen to have. In fact, I've come up with a zingy little catch phrase to help people remind themselves, and their coworkers, how toxic this stuff can be -- meta is murder.
Yes, you read that right. Murder. I mean it. If enough productive work is replaced by navelgazing meta-work, then people will be killed. Or at least, the community will be.
Joel Spolsky had a great example of how meta-discussion can kill community in our latest podcast.
Let's say that you become a podcaster, so you get really interested in podcasting gear. You're going to buy some mixers, and want to know what kind of headphones to use, what kinds of microphones, when should I do the A/D conversions, all that kind of stuff.
So you find this awesome podcasting gear website. And you go on there, and the first subject of conversation is who's going to be elected to the podcasting gear website board of directors. And the second subject of conversation is whether the election that was done last year was orthodox, or was it slightly ... was there something suspicious about that whole thing. And you find a whole bunch of people arguing about that. And then you find a conversation about whether all the people who came in last year from South America and don't speak very good English should be allowed to hang around or should maybe be read-only users for the first six months.
That's all you find there, and you want to talk about mixers and mics. That's why you came to this site!
But they're bored talking about mixers and mics -- they've already had the full mixers and mics conversation all the way to the end, to its logical extreme. They all have, now, the perfect podcasting setup. Except for there's this one minor little thing about whether you should use Monster Cables that people still argue about.
So all they're talking about on this so-called "podcasting gear" website is the podcasting gear website itself.
If you don't control it, meta-discussion, like weeds run amok in a garden, will choke out a substantial part of the normal, natural growth of a healthy community.
The danger and peril of meta has been known for years. We had Josh Millard, a MetaFilter moderator, as a guest on the podcast last year. He described how quickly MetaFilter realized that meta-discussion, if not controlled, can destroy a community:
Millard: Matt set up MetaTalk sometime like 8 months after he started [MetaFilter], right about the beginning of 2000, because people were talking about MetaFilter on the front page. It's natural enough. People would say, hey what's with this, hey look at the post, hey this guy's a jerk. So he started up MetaTalk and directed stuff that was metacommentary to that part of the site. You could delete something and say, hey take it over there. If people wanted to have an extended argument that was derailing a thread, they could do it there.
A lot of people cite MetaTalk as a reason that MetaFilter works. If you talk to a regular from the site they'll tell you MetaTalk is key to the success of the site because it's a sort of release valve. Talk pages on Wikipedia are a similar thing. I had the same experience as you the first time I checked those out -- it's not necessarily comprehensible to the casual user what is going on there. But for the people who are regulars, the people who develop a certain amount of passionate attachment to the sites, or really, really need to make their voice heard out of day one beyond just normal participation, you have this safe place you can let people ... let their freak flag fly, as it were, without damaging the core function of the site. You don't have big messes on the front page.
So there's a pretty strong culture of regulars who hang out on MetaTalk. Insofar as you have the big contributors and the serious regulars at any given site that make up the core of the community, there's a strong correlation between those people and the people who actually spend time on MetaTalk dealing with policy stuff and talking about user issues.
Atwood: Right. I totally get that. This is one of the things about designing social software -- you don't really understand it until you've lived through it. For the longest time I couldn't understand why people couldn't respect the rule we had to not discuss this meta stuff on the site itself. I totally get this now.
We've dealt with our meta problem on Stack Overflow, finally. OK, I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to finally do what I should have done months ago, but what else is new?
Anyway, my point is that meta isn't just a social software problem. Meta is a social problem, period. It's applicable to everything you do in life.
Software developers are known for their introspection, and a certain amount of meta is healthy. It qualifies as sharpening the saw -- mindfulness of what you're doing, and how it can be improved. But it's amazing how rapidly that can devolve into a crutch, a sort of methadone for Getting Things Donetm.
So sure, get meta when it makes sense to. But do be aware of what percentage of the time you're spending on meta. And consider: how is progress made in the world? By sitting around and debating the process of how things are done ad nauseam? Or by, y'know … doing stuff?
Allocate your time accordingly.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
I thought metamorph meant a change in form, as from caterpillar to pupa to imago.
Word verification: nadirs. How apt.
wow there are a lot of negative comments. this must be the least popular ch post ever.
i liked the story about the podcast gear forum. i've definitely showed up late at forums and found that nobody wanted to talk about what they're supposed to talk about anymore.
but my reaction has been to just check out. i never sign up for forums anymore. i just treat them as a readonly catalog of information.
I think it's about time you tackle (another?) post about how people will just get ruder and less appreciative the longer a blog runs, regardless of merit. I see it happen everywhere and it's pathetic and sad. Aren't developers supposed to be more mature than the average person instead of the whiny children I see in these comments all the time? Grow the hell up, everyone.
@Dale: arguably it's Jeff complaining about his own blog. It could get dangerous. Hope he didn't use "On Error Resume Next"!
Meta might also mean all that stuff found in System.Reflection - which without there would be no ActiveRecord, no Reflector, no xxx (put in your favorite Reflection based framework here) etc. So meta in its pure sense have obviously different levels of values and justifications depending upon where and why you do it. I found SEO sites pretty interesting when I wanted to build a popular website for a previous startup of mine ...
For those of you querying the meaning of meta - it means many. As in metamorph (many form).
Is seems you think the meaning, and perhaps it has become so, is something to do with reflection and introspection.
Lets try and reclaim the true meaning of meta! Meta Means Many! Chant it with me.
Then why are you going rehashing meta about an old blog post? Is this just a part of "keep jabbing?" You've made this point many times before and it, as surely you know, is kind of ironic.
As far as those talking about what "meta" means, I recommend studying some philosophy, it might make a little more sense. It doesn't mean "many" or anything like that. It means something much closer to "beyond" and in CS we typically use it to mean "about" so metadata is data about data. Pretty simple.
I found this one of the most interesting posts, to be honest. I think there is a lot to be said about the efficiencies or lack thereof, of meta-work. Obviously there is a certain level of meta thinking that is productive, and a certain level that is not.
The business metaphor is really what degree of management -- they aren't actually doing the work, but they are thinking about it and coordinating it. It's been rather extensively studied (optimal levels of management) , and frankly it remains a contentious and suboptimal aspect of business -- there is much hand-wringing about micro-management or why if there are so many adminstrators/overseers, things end up so easily missed, yadda yah.
I think that meta about meta is deadly serious. Too many people screw it up in either direction.
"For those of you querying the meaning of meta - it means many."
Oh no it doesn't. It means many things, but "many" is not one of them. It's origional Greek meaning was along the lines of "after" or "with". It's modern usage is "about", as in "metamathematics"; using mathematics to study mathematics.
I'm not sure what this post means by "the meta" though.
(Captcha "information atop" - seems apt.)
//indirection here we come....
Reminds me of something I learned a while ago about group dynamics. Where the most successful groups tend to spent more time than average working out organizational issues when they're first organized, and then go on to spend less time than average on those issues when they're up an running. In other words it's not a simple issue, the hard part is having meta when you need it and not when you don't.
As a software developer, have you ever worked with a MetaMetaModel?
"For those of you querying the meaning of meta - it means many. As in metamorph (many form)."
Doesn't poly mean many? As in polymorphism.
Dude. Seriously. Let this one go.
I find Meta discussion far more entertaining and relevant than your Quixotic quest to end it.
BTW, I'm sad to see the orange go :)
Yo Dawg! I heard you like blogs so we put a blog in yo' blog so you can blog while you blog!!
For disliking meta as much as you do, you certainly do write a lot about disliking meta. Seems like it's own sort of meta.
I found this meaningful. I am using this knowledge in my bylaw change effort at church... (They are happy to have bylaws that don't match how we do business forever apparently in order to avoid talking about the meta discussion) I have to figure out how to either encourage people to tolerate the meta discussion or figure out how we as a "democratic Community" can avoid it all together...
I'd bet you didn't think of that angle. It seems to me that there are meta people who are willing to discuss how we are going to do things, and non-meta people who cannot comprehend why we would want to change anything ever... I'm sure there is some truth here I hope I figure it out before we try to bring it again to a vote.
I stand corrected. I had always assumed meta meant many, but I can't remember from where I read it.
Interesting post .. can't believe I read so many boring comments though .. I wonder whether your moderator would push this off to another site or section of the site.. oh wait, that's you. The best way to get your meta-post on the home page is to own the site, hey. Technically, you could have posted this on StackOverflow while the rest of us couldn't have - amazing the power one has when they are The Leader, haha.
You're starting to see it in food too. They have pizza flavored Hot Pockets, its only a matter of time until they have Hot Pocket flavored Hot Pockets. It'll be a Hot Pocket Hot Pocket!
Isn't meta-thinking the cornerstone of humble programming? Doesn't that include the self-reflection about ourselves and our processes that makes us all the Best Programmer Ever?
I agree that writing about writing about writing has a limited audience, but murdering meta seems too extreme.
I like how the people who are saying that this post is a waste of time are doing exactly what they're criticizing it for. Godel strikes again!
we're going through CMMI certification now ... the process is already "meta", refining the process is "meta-meta", having meetings to plan on how to refine the process is "meta-meta-meta", or something...
This is a very real trap. Thanks for the warning!
yes it's agood web thanks for sharing .
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It was a very nice idea! Just wanna say thank you for the information you have shared. Just continue writing this kind of post. I will be your loyal reader. Thanks again.
So to summarize: You are blogging about a podcast referencing another site admin discussing one of his sites as a mechanism for shunting off-topic ("meta") discussion from another one of his sites. Not only that, but you are blogging about yourself blogging about this.
In other words, you're meta-meta-meta blogging about meta-meta-discussions.
Reminds me of the quote from Liz to Dilbert when he was reading a hint book for his golf game: "I think that's about as close as you can come to being a non-organic life form."
And yes, I am aware of the irony of commenting on a meta-meta-meta blog post about meta-meta-discussions, and no doubt somebody else will comment on my post, making this a meta-discussion about your meta-meta-meta blog post about meta-meta-discussions.
I am following your blog for 2 years now and I'm not a programmer, actually, I can't write a single line of code. So I guess I'm not your ordinary audiance.
I consider your blog to be a "model" of how to write and manage a good blog and I'm reading your meta posts more intentley than other posts.
So keep up the good mix :)
You went a little too far with the headline.
A simple "don't waste your time on meta blogging" would do.
You are also meta blogging a lot, so what's your point?
My company is especially bad at meta. We have meetings about having meetings...
Wouldn't blogging about blogging about blogging be only a "double-meta alert"? But you linked to this from one of your other blog posts and that, my friend, sounded the MEGA TRIPLE META ALERT!!!