Responding to “The Problems With rbutr”

I was very excited to see that someone had taken the time to write a blog post explaining everything that is wrong with rbutr. It means we are starting to get enough attention for people to care enough to dislike us! I was however sad to see that every concern and criticism laid at our feet….didn’t…actually relate to what rbutr does, and how it works… I’m afraid the article constitutes a strawman version of rbutr, with a lot of valid concerns about that strawman rbutr. I hope that by the end of this article TJ will agree that rbutr actually does exactly what he would want it to do, and none of what he fears it does.

Easiest way to do this, is point by point, so here we go!

rbutr is a browser plugin aimed at skeptics and academics

Ultimately we’re aimed at the general population, but we have to start somewhere, and the skeptic community and academics usually ‘get us’ better than anyone else.

approaches the internet with the idea it is “broken” because it allows anyone to write anything without need for substance, credibility or citation

Half true – I think the internet’s power comes from the fact that anyone can add anything, but I also think that human minds are ‘broken’ due to extensive cognitive biases, blind spots and other flaws. I think TJ’s assertion here comes from a small animation I made a few months back which starts off with “The Internet is Broken”.

This is just a catchy title to get peoples attentions. It does overly simplify a complex issue , but that is necessary to do if you want to attract people in to a nuanced web app which is completely novel and outside of anyone’s sphere of expectation. So novel, and so far outside of it infact, that someone like TJ, someone heavily involved in the skeptic community with qualification in Psychology and Neuroscience,was unable to understand the idea correctly, though he no doubt did a little research in to how rbutr works before reviewing it so negatively.

In a noisy world you are constantly balancing catchyness and ‘bite sized’ with substance and nuance. This article, for example, is substantive and detailed. And therefore 90% of people who land here won’t bother reading it all.

but painting freedom of speech as a problem, as something that makes a system broken is a seriously bad idea for everyone

We never painted freedom of speech as a problem. The animation attempted to paint misinformation as a problem. ie: We were showing that the problem was with people believing the misinformation, not with the fact that people post the information.

Of course the rebut to that would refer to fraud, defamation and of course that rbutr doesn’t end up directly limiting free speech, so let me quickly address those points too.

The rest of this paragraph isn’t relevant, because we never called free speech a problem, and rbutr not only ‘doesn’t directly limit free speech’, it actually drastically enhances free speech. I will explain how soon.

Essentially the plugin works like this, say you visit a website that is pimping homeopathy, and being the concerned citizen you are; completely devoid of any egotistical motives I’m sure; you want to warn visitors to the site that homeopathy is just water. Well Rbutr let’s you do that with a header bound comments style drop down that is intended to allow for people to cite references and make arguments as to why website X is wrong and the websites claims are bunko.  What rbutr is essentially doing is providing a comments section to websites that did not intend there to be a comments section, or who maybe even have their own comments section. You’d be forgiven for thinking this might actually assist free speech, not hinder it, but you’d be wrong.

This is where it becomes clear that TJ hasn’t really spent much time investigating how rbutr works. He has just described Third Voice. Or Google Sidewiki maybe. There are roughly 50 previous attempts at website annotation which attempt to overlay comments on page content where users can argue against the content. And when Third Voice was launched back in 1999, it was heavily criticised for ‘Defacing the web’ in exactly the way TJ is describing here. Adding comments to websites without consent of the website owners etc.

rbutr, on the other hand, has no such website comment overlay. rbutr is a semantic map. We allow people to connect one page to another – and that is pretty much all. Webpage B argues that Webpage A is wrong.  We store the connection, and allow people to go from A -> B.

Think of us as context driven content discovery of an opposing nature. We are StumbleUpon, for the specific page you are on, as long as you like disagreement. We are the next natural step after Google, if you want to understand the deeper conversation behind the page you are currently viewing.

rbutr does not even offer the opportunity to ‘comment’ on pages – it has a ‘description’ field where people can type text, but it isn’t really a comment so much as a title of how the two pages which you are connecting relate. What is it that the ‘rbutl’ says which makes it a rebuttal of the source page?

So when I said above that rbutr enhances freedom of speech, it does so by completely allowing all opinions to be expressed, and then allowing all opposing opinions to be accessed from those originating opinions…. and yes, including ‘misinformation’ – which TJ raises shortly against the Strawman rbutr.

the only people who have it installed already know things like homeopathy, psychics and chemtrails are bunk

Not completely true. Definitely we have more ‘skeptic’ users than anyone else at the moment, but this is a result of strategic growth more than the fact that ‘only skeptics will use it’. Everyone will use rbutr – they just need to be able to see the benefits in using it first. And one benefit I used just last night to bring on board a couple of Chiropractic practitioners was the fact that they can get their arguments in front of a captive audience of several thousand skeptics; so they should install rbutr, and start submitting the best responses to the relevant articles so they can correct the errors in the skeptic belief system.

(2) if all these people are using rebutr, what stops those who believe in woo using it to overlay their nonsense on science pages? What stops a creationist overlaying their argument on an evolution website or an anti-vaxxer overlaying their content on a credible vaccine education site?

No one does. We don’t. We encourage it creationist and anti-vax usage, because when you understand how rbutr works you will understand that that usage is absolutely necessary. What we are doing is allowing every belief system (which is already present on the internet btw) to have their best arguments represented in a structured manner. In a discussion. So no matter what content you start on, you are able to immediately move to an explanation as to why someone might disagree with that content. And then move to an explanation as to why that argument is in turn incorrect.

For example, TJ could submit his blog post as a rebuttal to I will indeed be submitting this page as a rebuttal to his post. Now, whenever someone visits rbutr, they will be able to easily access an explanation of why rbutr is a bad idea. And immediately following that, they will be able to access this article, explaining that what they just read was a strawman version of rbutr and its arguments and criticisms bear no actual relevance to how rbutr works.

In fact, I stand so firmly behind my belief in this principle, that I will happily submit TJ’s article as a rebuttal to the rbutr homepage myself. Perhaps there are others out there who share TJ’s concerns about rbutr, and this response is exactly what they need to lay those fears to rest.

(3) You run the very real risk of defamation occurring on your network and without suitable limiters and appeals the author becomes liable in the defamation

This is an interesting one which again, fortunately, doesn’t apply to rbutr at all. Remember, rbutr is ONLY a semantic connection. We say URL-X is rebutted by URL-Y. Claim – > Rebuttal. We don’t write the responses. We don’t store the responses. Webpages do all of that already. ie: The internet already exists. People create content for it. All we are doing is mapping it.

rbutr being sued for defamation, is like a road map company being sued for breaking zoning violations on buildings marked on its maps.

If someone writes defamatory content on the internet, we are no more liable for a lawsuit for directing people to that content, than Google is for listing that content in its search results.

Right now this plugin is being propagated with information that in itself isn’t necessarily wholly correct but pretends to be none the less

Another misunderstanding – rbutr never claims that a rbutl is true or correct. It only asserts that “there is a rebuttal to this page”, which I actually want to clean the language up on, because what we are trying to communicate is : “Someone on the internet disagrees with this page. If you want to know why, click through and read the article they have written in response to it”.

rbutr isn’t really about “correcting” misinformation in a direct fashion. Our goal is to destroy false beliefs, but our technique is subtle. It involves teaching people to critically analyse every piece of content they read, by reminding them that every claim of truth is disputed, and regularly showing them examples of critical analysis for them to emulate in their own thinking patterns.

The internet isn’t broken, I’ve just managed to successfully rebut the rebutr plugin without overlaying anything, limiting anyone’s free speech or using a plugin.

Yeah…sorta…. You have written a blog post in your own blog, which will be read by people who follow you who probably already agree with you (maybe not on this issue, but generally speaking), and otherwise would have zero impact on the growth of rbutr as people who find rbutr through promotional activities and press coverage would never find your blog post. This is the problem with the internet – there is no way to move from positive reviews and arguments to critical ones. This is what we solve.

So, like I said above, I will add your article as a rbutl to the rbutr home page, and then every rbutr user who visits the rbutr homepage, will be able to see ‘the best’ argument against rbutr available on the internet. (Actually, there is one other, and I’m not sure which one might be the best – I’ll leave that up to the readers to decide)

And whilst I do not agree with many of those voices, I would not wish to silence them.

And we are in complete agreement.

But the biggest problem with rbutr isn’t that it makes odd assumptions or is ripe for a bb style flame war, it’s that it makes the same mistake these misinformation sites make, it attempts to tell people what to think from the top down, and that my friend solves nothing

Hopefully by now it is clear that rbutr does nothing of the sort. It doesn’t actually offer any medium within which to have a decent flame war (beyond what the internet already makes possible), and it definitely doesn’t tell people what to think. Shit, we don’t even tell people where to go next! We simply say “Hey, you like this article? Well someone thinks it’s wrong. If you want to, you can access that response through this plugin!” and then we leave them alone!

If you really want to fight misinformation it can only be done by teaching people TO think and HOW to think critically, not in WHAT to think , regardless of how many citations you provide.

And THIS, is EXACTLY what rbutr does.

I suggest you watch my TAM2013 talk. I think it gives a pretty good overview of what we are trying to achieve. Perhaps also watch my lightning fast demonstration of rbutr, so you can see how the app actually works.

*high five* to anyone who actually read this far!



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