April 04, 2007

Mozilla's "The Coop"

Interesting follow-on from 'Flock' - Mozilla takes on the social browser baton with The Coop.

The Coop will let users keep track of what their friends are doing online, and share new and interesting content with one or more of those friends. It will integrate with popular web services, using their existing data feeds as a transport mechanism.

Users will see their friends' faces, and by clicking on them will be able to get a list of that person's recently added Flickr photos, favourite YouTube videos, tagged websites, composed blog posts, updated Facebook status, etc. If a user wants to share something with a friend, they simply drag that thing onto their friend's face. When they receive something from a friend, that friend's face glows to get the user's attention.

Posted by Ant at 11:08 AM | Comments (0)

April 03, 2007

Governance, Status & Accountability

The difficulty that faces any community, whether online or in our physical world, is how to govern it for the best interests of the members. There are many political structures that may be applied to a community to ensure that integrity is maintained or example, dictatorship; oligarchy; meritocracy; tribalism; feudalism and democracy (The Politics of Internet Discussion - H2G2). Anarchy is another political model that does not serve to ensure integrity, but should be mentioned as an alternate way to run (or rather, not run) a community space.

The Anarchic community has no rules or charter. There is no decreed right or wrong way to behave and all participants are equal in power. The difficulty with anarchic societies is that they are full of human nature, frequently displaying our more base and unseemly behaviors like bullying and harassment. Combined with anonymity – the absence of a true identity to which errant behavior can be traced – there is nothing to restrict community members from exploring aggression and delinquency that is not tolerated in normal society. There are no safeguards against spamming, flaming, impersonation or other bad behavior. Groups may be formed to create power and protection for members of them. Once this dynamic is observed, individuals are behooved to ally themselves with a group or be an outcast, subject to the wrath of them all. Like a post-apocalyptic gangland, eventually a few members will emerge as leaders of their packs. The criterion for their success can be any number of factors, from tenure inside the community space, to the ferocity with which they rebuke any would-be ascenders.

Dictatorship is the rule of many by one body that has absolute power to act in any way it pleases, without accountability. The subjects of a dictatorship tend to feel powerless and unappreciative of the omnipotent forces to which they are subjected – unable to take control of their own destiny. Within dictatorships, rebellion is commonplace as community members rail against authority. Because there are usually too few resources to manage this behavior sensitively, it is either dealt with severely (e.g. expulsion from the service) or ignored all together, creating an anarchic atmosphere of ‘survival of the fittest’. As there is no ownership of the space that would inspire investment by the community, it may be difficult to attain critical mass without good incentives for contribution. However, a dictatorship can be the best model for smaller communities, where member activity can be easily monitored and the dictator can be active within the community space. Problems arise when the member activity becomes too great to economically moderate it.

Oligarchy is the model of governance by a powerful few. Often justified through a notion that those ‘enlightened’ with power know what is best for the ignorant masses, succession of power is handed to those whom the powerful see fit. Oligarchy is therefore highly susceptible to cronyism and nepotism. The most powerful members of the oligarchic online community may have the power to perform crucial functions such as shutting the system down, banning users and editing or removing any content. More complex structures can be implemented in which the most powerful appoint subordinate members in a pyramid-like scheme. Subordinates may be given lesser power or privilege than their superiors. At its best, an oligarchy has a highly invested government who truly serve to create the best experience for all community members. However, like any system where the powerful appoint themselves, there is a high likelihood of the emergence of a self-serving ‘old boys club’ that is discriminatory and resists change.

Systems in which those who earn recognition are promoted to power are known as meritocracies. Online games often feature this system, enabling players to build up power over time through overcoming challenges and beating opponents. They are rewarded with capabilities that newer or less adept players do not have and build up inventories of virtual booty. However, this skill-based definition of merit does not always correlate to the average online community well. Merit may be achieved through different means and the definition of merit is for the designer of the community to determine. To inform this process, an audit of the behaviors that are desirable in the online space, such as writing content, making friendships or uploading photographs is useful. Incentivizing members by allowing them to earn privileges serves to encourage desirable behavior, however it can also lead to members attempting to sabotage or undermine the success of the powerful with a view to increasing their own.

Often when anarchy is left to its own devices, tribalism emerges from it – groups of competing tribes that are frequently oligarchies in themselves vying for influence over the community as a whole. Tribes will bring together like-minded individuals to share knowledge or just converse. Often allegiances are formed between tribes to form sympathetic factions, but the tribes themselves will retain their individual oligarchic hierarchies. Tribal society as a series of oligarchies serves the community as a whole better than a larger single oligarchy would. Should members no longer find their tribe satisfactory, they may move to another or form their own. While individual tribes are subject to the failings of any oligarchy (cronyism and conservatism), a collection of them can form a dynamic and rapidly changing social space, abundant in diversity and depth. Naturally, when competing tribes turn against one another in wars of bitter and ugly behavior, the results can be distressing and negative for all concerned. Supporting the inherent attributes of tribal systems is to the advantage of the community designer who feels that this system is an appropriate model. To do so, the individual tribe needs to be supported through facilitating oligarchic or democratic hierarchies, allowing the tribe to govern itself. For example, a set of tribal leaders must have powers such as appointing subordinates, banning members and editing or removing content within tribal confines. But above this, the overall system must provide means by which tribes can compete and make clear what it is that they are competing for.

Feudalism works on the premise that an ultimate master allows people space on their land (or web server) in return for service such as management of the space. Those delegated the space are traditionally known as Vassals, who may allow others to use the space in return for services, who may delegate further and so on. This is a popular model on the web with the most well known example being Yahoo! Yahoo’s groups are owned and hosted by Yahoo, however, they are administered by volunteers that have the ability to delegate certain functions to other members. The reason this works particularly well is because businesses that own a wide array of user communities could never possibly afford to run them all properly. The community must self-regulate to some extent in order to avoid the pitfalls of anarchy. Feudalism plays to our inherent understanding of hierarchy and is therefore readily understood by those who participate in the system.

Online democracies are truly rare on the Internet, due to the fact that web server space is rarely given to a community to do with what they please for free. Those who control the server, ultimately control the space. But there are some examples where the principle of democracy exists, such as where a popular vote may decide what content is featured, or which members should be banned. Individual aspects of control may be given to a member, such as the ability to filter content or block certain members from their view. However, there are inherent flaws to the average online community that makes a true democracy impossible. For example, without stringent verification it is difficult to ensure the same person does not assume many identities and bias the voting process. In the real world, states or counties are established to allow certain communities to vote on issues that affect them only. Online communities that wish to explore democracy need to observe these real-world issues carefully, then emulate their solutions as closely as is practical to ensure success.

With most of these political models, a person or a few persons with power are needed to manage the community space. Other than the desire for power over others, what motivates people to step up to positions of responsibility? How do you create the incentive for community members to spend time managing the community space? In some cases this may be easily solved through monetarily reimbursing them for their time, thereby essentially employing them. If your community operates with premium membership (offering some services only to those who pay for it) it may be as simple as giving members who undertake roles of responsibility a premium membership in return for their services. But payment alone may not be incentive enough to ensure long-term interest. A quasi employment system can also be exposed to exploitation unless mechanisms are built to closely monitor the unofficial employees. When first starting out, most providers do not have this advanced facility and may wish to seek other ways to police the community. It is of comfort to know then that the most common motivation for people to take responsibility for their community, is appreciation for it and the desire to protect it from defacement. Simple mechanisms for the community to police itself use a voting system, which tells the system to remove an offensive or inappropriate piece of content after a certain amount of reports. The catch here is, first a community must be perceived to be valuable i.e. populated and active, before it will attract protectors. Not many will invest in the maintenance of a ghost town. Other than policing, you need volunteers to make conversation with people, make newcomers feel welcome, restart dead message threads and generally encourage participation else the community may fail to remain active. How are you going to convince people to do that?

Looking to real-world examples, how do we encourage people to participate in society – work, spend money, govern, police etc? In the real world, free market economies are based on choice – the freedom to choose between many different opportunities. In failing economies that choice is limited. For example, a small rural town with a small economy has few educational institutions, few viable occupations for residents, less culinary variety in the supermarket, fewer choices for sexual partnership, etc. Large cities with big economies offer a proportionately larger array of choice. A good economy provides not just money for a community, but many choices of how to spend that money and how to earn it. Choice is a currency and it can be used to incentivize or reward those inclined to step into roles of responsibility just like money can. Status is attributed to the amount of choice a member has available to them.

The choices you may provide are only limited by your imagination and should be guided by what is valuable to your community, but to get the thought moving here are some examples of how you might provide greater choice to a select few within a community. Allow them to:
•Permanently or temporarily boot people out of a community space
•Officially warn people not to misbehave
•Create new topics on message boards or retire old ones
•Reward the desired behavior of other members
•Create new content or interactive areas of the service
•Have access to ‘elite’ sub-communities
•Visually alter their representation on message boards, profile or in MUDs
•Have access to purchase exclusive goods
•Have a say over future developments of the service

In addition to a greater array of choice, a member’s higher status and credence in the community may be tied to factors such as longer tenure, greater knowledge, higher frequency of use and popularity. It is in the community’s interest to showcase these, for without indicators of an individual’s status, newer members of a community won’t appreciate the hierarchy nor understand that there is status to be attained. Moreover, if you don’t show the status of a member they may not work to get it.

Administrative functions are only one of many behaviors you may wish to reward with status. In most cases, communities do not function without members communicating in various forms on message boards, on profile pages, chat etc. Communication takes the format of one-to-one (e.g. private chat & email), one-to-many (e.g. blogs) many-to-one (e.g. letters to the editor) or many-to-many (e.g. message boards). Representing the most value to a community is one-to-many communication, which by nature provides content to many viewers from just one contributor – with more contributors the proportion of value is exponential. It is one thing for a community to enable one-to-one communication between members, but alone this is not as ‘sticky’ a proposition as it might be. Having content to view (in the form of one-to-many or many-to-many communication) keeps members coming back, encourages them to contribute their own and ultimately supports critical mass. Persuading a member to make one-to-many communication is key to engaging members with the service, so you may wish to reward this behavior.

An effective way to reward the creation of content is to simply display a count of the number of contributions by a member. For example, some message board systems will display the total number of posts for a member next to their name or handle. This essentially shows all others in the community how active a contributor is and infers a status reflective of tenure or participation. By making this transparent, it also adds an incentive to the member to increase that number, thereby contributing more to the community space.

But, it is fair to question whether quantity of content is as valuable as quality. Discussions that are pages long but full of one lined glib comments, or user profiles with disconnected nonsense don’t create the best experience. The merit of a contribution can also be engineered to give a member status. How that merit is measured will be determined either by the sophistication of the software, or by the model of the community. In dictatorships, the dictator decides what is quality and what is not. In meritocracies or democracies, members of the community can rate the quality of a piece of content utilizing a voting system. When a contributor gets mostly positive responses, they can be rewarded with another visual cue like a star-rating. This works in the same way as the visual count, as it encourages more quality contributions. In very sophisticated systems, viewers can filter content by the star rating, allowing them to see only the good stuff.

Evidence of high frequency visitation to a space ensures that the community feels like it is active when people visit and is somewhat self-perpetuating in nature. High frequency guarantees that communication between people will be closer to real-time and therefore drive them to return to the space sooner. Indicating how recently a member visited also allows potential communicators to gauge how quickly they’ll likely get a reply. Frequency is most commonly displayed as a ‘last visit’ date as part of a member’s profile information. However, it is equally effective when displayed as a ‘last visitors’ roll in areas of the community space. On a cautionary note, frequency indicators can work against their intended function when latent frequency is low. In this case, it creates a feeling that the community is indeed stale and discourages people from participating, further perpetuating the inactivity. When frequency is low some community providers choose to show a generic last visit label like “longer than 1 month ago” against inactive members, rather than displaying a date that might reveal the member no longer visits the space at all.

On the flipside of status as a carrot to dangle in front of members to encourage desired behavior, it can also be used as a stick of accountability. When we earn status we are behooved to keep a hold of it. The threat of having it removed is enough to discourage us from acting in ways that would put our status at risk. We can see this in society with the most obvious form as incarceration for breaking the rules of our society. In effect, removing someone’s freedom to choose how they lead their existence is the ultimate stripping away of status. In the virtual world, the equivalent of incarceration is total removal from the community. Booting someone out is the ultimate punishment but we can also ‘fine’ people by removing other items of status they may have attained. In some communities, resetting a member’s post count amounts to the heaviest of fines – especially if it is directly tied to the amount of choices available to them. It seems like an abstract concept but when the only way to distinguish yourself as an up-standing, venerable member of the community is through the amount of posts you’ve made, stripping this away is the equivalent of being demoted at work or disgraced at the town meeting.

Posted by Ant at 09:17 PM | Comments (0)