Martha Stewart Syndrome

Martha Stewart Syndrome

An 18 year-old crocheter has an amazing analysis of Ravelry data in the New York Times' Freakonomics blog. Although she draws some interesting conclusions from the data, I find it only supports something that I have long suspected.

Every knitting and crochet pattern on Ravelry has two ratings: how much you liked the pattern, and how difficult it was. Sarah Johnson has crunched some numbers and found out that out of the 205,069 patterns in Ravelry's database, only 68 of them have been rated a 9 or 10 in difficulty.

As Johnson drily comments, "Apparently, statistically speaking, nothing in the handicraft world is extremely difficult."

Furthermore, it was just one lone Ravelry user who was responsible for the few 10 ratings on the site. Without that user, NO pattern would be rated a 10 for difficulty. This includes crazy-ass stuff like Nieblung's notoriously difficult knitted doilies, and Alice Starmore's fiendishly cabled sweaters.

Johnson proposes two hypotheses: first, that knitting patterns aren't that hard. (I think we can dismiss this, if only due to the basics of statistical distribution.) Second, that a small core of super knitters are throwing off the scores.

Here's my third theory: knitters lie.

You see this often in knitting blogs. The author will toss off a complicated design in seemingly no time at all, tra la la, couldn't be simpler! This of course serves the dual purpose of A) making the knitter look awesome and B) making the audience feel like crap.

I call it "Martha Stewart Syndrome," for obvious reasons.

Many people are surprised to learn how competitive and cut-throat the knitting world is. But trust me, it's true. There is considerable pressure to appear competent - expert, even.

The thing about Ravelry is, everyone can see your pattern ratings. Which means that there is no percentage in rating a pattern as "difficult." It's only going to make you look dumb. It gives other knitters an excuse to feel smug.

On the other hand, there is much to be gained by rating a pattern "easy," like a 2 or a 4. It makes you look pretty good!

(And realistically, "difficult" is in the eye of the beholder. There are many patterns that were "difficult" for me as a new knitter, but which I can bang out now without a second thought. That is what it means to improve at a skill. But I'm telling you: mostly, this phenomena is the work of knitters lying.)

A telling statistic that Johnson overlooks is that only 42,703 of the site's 205,069 patterns have been given a difficulty rating. This is no doubt due to three factors:

1. Knitters who see the minefield of rating a pattern's difficulty, and opt not to. (This is the coward's way out. It is also the approach that I myself take.)

2. Most people just don't care about things like rating patterns to improve the user experience. (Fair enough.)

3. People aren't sure how to rate "difficulty." What makes a pattern difficult? What about an easy pattern that happens to be written badly? What about an easy pattern that I made difficult by substituting a weird yarn and adding an intarsia pattern?