Posts Tagged ‘Wikipedia’

In the mix…democratizing access to data, data literacy, and predictable responses to proposed privacy bill

Friday, June 18th, 2010

1) Infochimps launched their API. People often ask, are you guys doing something similar?  Yes, in that we are also interested in democratizing access to data, but we’re focusing on a narrower area — information that’s too sensitive and too personal to release in the usual channels. In any case, we’re excited to see more movement in this direction.

2) Wikipedia began a trial of a new tool called “Pending Changes.” To deal with glaring inaccuracies and vandalism, Wikipedia made certain entries off-limits for off-the-cuff editing.  The trade-off, however, was that first-time editors to these articles couldn’t get that immediate thrill of seeing their edits.  Wikipedia’s trying out a compromise, a tab in which these edits are visible as “pending changes.”  It’s always fascinating to see all the different spaces in which people in a community can interact online — this is a new one.

3) The Info Law Group posted various groups’ reactions to the privacy bill proposed by Representative Rick Boucher. Here’s Part I, here’s Part II. Fairly predictable, but it still never ceases to amuse me how far apart industry groups are from consumer advocates.

4) Great discussion continues on the concept of “data literacy.” I love this guest post from David Eaves on the Open Knowledge Foundation blog, with the awesome line:

It is worth remembering: We didn’t build libraries for an already literate citizenry. We built libraries to help citizens become literate. Today we build open data portals not because we have a data or public policy literate citizenry, we build them so that citizens may become literate in data, visualization, coding and public policy.

In the mix…EU data retention laws, Wikipedia growing

Friday, June 11th, 2010

1) Australia thinking about requiring ISPs to record browsing histories (via Truste).

Electronic Frontier Australia (EFA) chair Colin Jacobs said the regime was “a step too far”.

“At some point data retention laws can be reasonable, but highly-personal information such as browsing history is a step too far,” Jacobs said. “You can’t treat everybody like a criminal. That would be like tapping people’s phones before they are suspected of doing any crime.”

Sounds shocking, but the EU already requires it.

2) European privacy officials are pointing out that Microsoft, Google and Yahoo’s methods of “anonymization” are not good enough to comply with EU requirements (via EFF).  As we’ve been saying for awhile, “anonymization” is not a very precise claim.  (Even though they also want ISPs to retain browsing histories for law enforcement–confused? I am.)

3) Wikipedia is adding two new executive roles.  In the process of researching our community study, it really struck me how small Wikipedia‘s staff was compared to the staff of more centralized, less community-run businesses like Yelp and Facebook.  Having two more staff members is not a huge increase, but it does make me wonder, is a larger staff inevitable when an organization tries to assert more editorial control over what the community produces?

Building a community: who’s in charge?

Friday, May 28th, 2010

From http://xkcd.com/

We’ve seen so far that for a community to be vibrant and healthy, people have to care about the community and the roles they play in it.  A community doesn’t have to be a simple democracy, one member/one vote on all decisions, but members have to feel some sense of agency and power over what happens in the community.

Of course, agency can mean a lot of things.

On one end of the spectrum are membership-based cooperatives, like credit unions and the Park Slope Food Coop, where members, whether or not they exercise it, have decision-making power built into the infrastructure of the organization.

On the other end are most online communities, like Yelp, Facebook, and MySpace.  Because the communities are all about user-generated content, users clearly have a lot of say in how the community develops.

But generally speaking, users of for-profit online services, even ones that revolve around user-generated content don’t have power to actually govern the community or shape policies.

Yelp, for example, allows more or less anyone to write a review.  But the power to monitor and remove reviews for being shills, rants or otherwise violations of its terms of use is centralized in Yelp’s management and staff.  The editing is done behind closed doors, rather than out in the open with community input.  Given its profit model, it’s not surprising that Yelp has been accused repeatedly of using its editing power as a form of extortion when it tries to sell ads to business owners.

Even if Yelp is innocent, it doesn’t help that the process is not transparent, which is why Yelp has responded by at least revealing which reviews have been removed.

(As for Facebook, the hostility between the company and at least some of its users is obvious.  No need to go there again.)

And then there are communities that are somewhere in between, like Wikipedia.  Wikipedia isn’t a member-based organization in a traditional sense.  Community members elect three, not all, of the board members of Wikimedia.  Each community member does not have the same amount of power as another community member – people who gain greater responsibilities and greater status also have more power.  But many who are actively involved in how Wikipedia is run are volunteers, rather than paid staff, who initially got involved the same way everybody does, as writers and editors of entries.

There are some obvious benefits to a community that largely governs itself.

It’s another way for the community to feel that it belongs to its members, not some outside management structure.  The staff that runs Wikipedia can remain relatively small, because many volunteers are out there reading, editing, and monitoring the site.

Perhaps most importantly, power is decentralized and decisions are by necessity transparent.  Although not all Wikipedia users have access to all pages, there’s an ethos of openness and collaboration.

For example, a controversy recently erupted at Wikipedia.  Wikimedia Commons was accused of holding child pornography.  Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, then started deleting images.  A debate ensued within the Wikipedia community about whether this was appropriate, a debate any of us can read.  Ultimately, it was decided that he would no longer have “founder” editing privileges, which had allowed him to delete content without the consent of other editors.  Wikimedia also claims that he never had final editorial control to begin with.  Whether or not Wikimedia is successful, it wants and needs to project a culture of collaboration, rather than personality-driven dictatorship.

It’s hard to imagine Mark Zuckerberg giving up comparable privileges to resolve the current privacy brouhaha at Facebook.

But it’s not all puppies and roses, as anyone who’s actually been a part of such a community knows.

It’s harder to control problems, which is why a blatantly inaccurate entry on Wikipedia once sat around for 123 days.  Some community members tend to get a little too excited telling other members they’re wrong, which can be a problem in any organization, but is multiplied when everyone has the right to monitor.

Some are great at pointing out problems but not so good at taking responsibility for fixing them.

And groups of people together can rathole on insignificant issues (especially on mailing lists), stalling progress because they can’t bring themselves to resolve “What color should we paint the bikeshed?” issues.

Wikipedia has struggled with these challenges over the past ten years.  It now limits access to certain entries in order to control accuracy, but arguably at some cost to the vibrancy of the community.  Wikipedia is trying to open up Wikipedia in new directions, as it tries a redesign in the hope it will encourage more diverse groups to write and edit entries (though personally, it looks a lot like the old one).

Ultimately, someone still has to be in charge.  And when you value democracy over dictatorship, it’s harder but arguably more interesting, to figure out what that looks like.

Building a community: Does a community have to be diverse to be successful?

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

Last year, Wikipedia made headlines when a survey commissioned by the Wikimedia Foundation discovered only 13% of Wikipedia’s writers and editors are women.  Among people who read but don’t write or edit for Wikipedia, 69% are men and 31% are women.  The same survey found that Wikipedians were much more highly educated than the rest of the population, with 19% saying they have a Master’s degree and 4.4% saying they have a Ph.D.

Facebook and MySpace have similarly gotten press for news that the demographics of the social networks’ members vary across race, class, and education.

It shouldn’t surprise us that these sites, or any other sites, would be more popular among certain demographic groups.

All communities, online or off, tend to reflect their founders and the worlds they come from.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook

Facebook was founded by Mark Zuckerberg while he was at Harvard.  Facebook ended up more popular with Ivy League students.  Wikipedia was founded using wiki technology and principles from the open source software movement.  Wikipedians, not surprisingly, are “mostly male computer geeks,” as described by founder Jimmy Wales.  Yelp started in San Francisco, and the irreverent, young tone echoes the tone of many Silicon Valley start-ups, attracting irreverent, young people.  It’s not just that the sites’ founders attract people who are like them.  They set the tone, based on values they hold, that tend to be shared by people similar to them.

Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia

Even as sites grow and expand beyond the first adopters, communities can develop cultures that are more attractive to certain groups than others.

Women are allegedly more active than men on Facebook, whereas the opposite is true on Twitter. 

Although both sites involve sharing information, the mechanisms are quite different.

I’m not going to hazard a guess as to why women are more drawn to Facebook or why men are more drawn to Twitter.  I do think it’s funny when writers forget their personal preferences might not be universal.  This writer, this writer, and this writer, who agree Twitter is much better than Facebook — all men.

Martha Stewart

Here’s one prominent exception, Martha Stewart, who says,

First of all, you don’t have to spend any time on it, and, second of all, you reach a lot more people. And I don’t have to ‘befriend’ and do all that other dippy stuff that they do on Facebook.

Which sounds like a stereotypically male sort of thing to say.

But it is worth noting that certain ways of interacting are more appealing to some groups than others, even when sites are not being marketed specifically to one group or another.

Why does it matter?  A successful community is not necessarily a diverse one.

A forum for breast cancer patients won’t measure the health of its community by the number of men on it.

One of the most attractive things about the Internet is its ability to concentrate people with esoteric interests.

However, for communities with more universal goals, diversity is an important issue.

It makes sense that Wikipedia has publicly been working on making its community of writers and editors more diverse.  If Wikipedia’s goal is to create “a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge,” it has to include the knowledge and perspective of people other than male computer geeks.  (I can’t say for sure, but I would bet there were a couple of male computer geeks involved in the writing of this rather literal exposition of the “sanitary napkin.”)

As part of that plan, Wikipedia is rolling out a redesign, which they hope will encourage more people to contribute their knowledge.

Whether or not the redesign drastically affects Wikipedia’s numbers, the plan will likely involve a delicate balancing act.

Wikipedia needs to attract new members without alienating the original members of its community.

If the old interface was intimidating to some people, it was probably equally attractive to others.  Those who didn’t find it intimidating could identify as part of a hard-core, committed group, an identity that can be crucial for energizing early members of a community.

It’s the problem of any community that wants to grow – how do you grow without destroying the sense of community that helped it start in the first place?

Large organizations have traditionally tried to maintain a sense of community with local chapters.

The Sierra Club and Habitat for Humanity International are both built on a network of local affiliates that have a certain amount of autonomy.  The Catholic Church and other religious organizations operate using a similar organizational structure, though with varying degrees of centralized control.

Online, the examples are fewer.

In fact, the only example of a community in our study that’s grown obviously beyond the boundaries of the original group is Facebook, and as I’ve discussed earlier, it’s an outlier.

It contains communities but is not actually a community in and of itself.  Despite the demographic differences between Facebook and MySpace, Facebook has arguably grown so big, those differences have become negligible.  It almost doesn’t matter if Facebook is somewhat more popular among certain groups when it has 400 million active users.  At the same time, though, each Facebook user’s experience of Facebook is filtered through is or her friends.  Even though the dilemma of whether to accept a friend request from a parent has become a common joke, most people on Facebook haven’t directly experienced how quickly Facebook has expanded.

This may be why Facebook has managed to transcend its origins so quickly as an online social network for Harvard students.  The feeling of intimacy and connection hasn’t changed for the average user.  It’s questionable whether Facebook can maintain that sense of localized community with the various changes it’s made to how user information is shared, but Facebook is gambling that it can.

Building a community: Just because it’s a social network doesn’t mean it’s a community.

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Yelp via Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works

Yelp and Facebook have a lot in common.  As I wrote in my last two posts, they both emphasize or require the use of real profiles and they use people’s concerns about their reputations to motivate activity and interaction on the site.

But Yelp and Facebook are fundamentally different.  In short, Yelp is a community and Facebook is not.

Although Facebook is a social network, it is not a community.  It began as a social network for Harvard students, basing itself on the existing connections within that community.  When it grew, it grew from community to community, from Ivy League universities to all colleges to high schools and then certain corporations, before becoming open to anyone with an email address.  When people interacted with other people on Facebook, it didn’t feel as funny or sleazy or strange as interacting with a stranger in a chatroom.  You might not have personally known a new friend, but he likely knew someone you knew.  Facebook emphasized real people and real connections.

So Facebook certainly contains communities.  It contains people who know each other from college, elementary school, an office, or even a party.  But it is not in and of itself a community. 

There is no ethos or set of values that all Facebook users share together.

Facebook users may be active on the site, but they don’t write status updates, upload photos, and play Farmville for Facebook.  They do it for themselves and for the people they want to interact with.  If another social network came along that was better, their friends were there, and it was easy to transfer their profiles, people would do it without a single pang of disloyalty.  It’s why Facebook has resisted calls for portability of profile data.  As addicted as people claim to be, no one calls himself a Facebooker.

In contrast, many people consider themselves Yelpers and Wikipedians. Yelpers have inside jokes and a self-conscious recognition that Yelpers are a tribe.  The Yelp Elite Squad gets together at events, while Wikipedians gather at Wikimania.  Although Facebook may have more users interacting in the offline world than any other site, it’s never an activity organized by or devoted to Facebook.

To me, the biggest reason for this difference is that Yelp and Wikipedia have a mission and Facebook does not.

The Wikimedia Foundation obviously has a mission; it’s a nonprofit organization with altruistic goals.  In a recent survey of Wikipedians, when asked why they contributed, 73% indicated, “I like the idea of sharing knowledge and want to contribute to it,” while 69% said “I saw an error I wanted to fix.”  They’re motivated in part by their belief in Wikipedia’s mission, to provide knowledge for the world. Yelp may not have a mission in a traditional sense, but its goal to provide informative reviews of local businesses is one that’s shared enthusiastically by many of its reviewers.  As a result, the users on Yelp are helping to create Yelp’s product, reviews, while the users on Wikipedia are helping to create Wikipedia’s product, the encyclopedia.

Facebook, in contrast, has a stated mission but it means nothing to its users.  No one joins Facebook because he believes in Facebook’s mission.  He joins because that’s where his friends are.  He is not interested in helping Facebook create a product.  In fact, as Bruce Schneier put it,

“Alice is not Facebook’s customer.  Alice is Facebook’s product.”

Facebook itself admits more or less that it has no interest in building a community.  Rather, it’s building “info aggregation with a great photos app.”.  It’s why it’s trying it’s hardest to become Twitter, and why it keeps trying to think of new ways to make more of its members personal information public.

Building a community — will the real Mrs. Del Toro please stand up?

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

As I discussed in my last post, having real profiles can really change the dynamic in an online community.  Yelp, which has more or less encourages Yelpers to use real identities, has created a community where people really care what other Yelpers think of them.  In contrast, Wikipedians care about the work others are doing, but they’re not so invested impressing other Wikipedians with their taste in music or food.  Yelp and Wikipedia have some similar incentives for people to create good stuff, like increased status and privileges, but Yelp feels like a social network while Wikipedia does not.

So how does the power of real profiles play out within Facebook, which is a social network and nothing else?  How do people’s concerns about their reputations play out when there are no reviews to write or encyclopedia entries to edit?  And how does Facebook in this context encourage people to create content?

(MySpace is a social network as well, but it’s so different from Facebook that I’m going to address it in a separate post.)

Facebook cares even more than Yelp about having real people.

Poor Peowtie, her Facebook account's been disabled.

While Yelp encourages people to use real first names and last initials and a real photo, Facebook requires it.  The Statement of Rights and Responsibilities states, along with other rules:

  1. You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission.
  2. You will not use your personal profile for your own commercial gain (such as selling your status update to an advertiser).
  3. You will not use Facebook if you are under 13.
  4. You will not use Facebook if you are a convicted sex offender.
  5. You will keep your contact information accurate and up-to-date.
  6. You will not share your password, let anyone else access your account, or do anything else that might jeopardize the security of your account.
  7. You will not transfer your account to anyone without first getting our written permission.
  8. If you select a username for your account we reserve the right to remove or reclaim it if we believe appropriate (such as when a trademark owner complains about a username that does not closely relate to a user’s actual name).

Although we all know people who’ve sneaked through with a profile based on the name of a pet or a nickname, Facebook is diligent enough that it was very difficult for Caitlin Batman, Tim Six, Becky Super, and others with unusual names to sign up for an account.  My friend’s Peowtie Del Toro account, which she opened in October 2007, was disabled just this year.  (The above is a mock-up as it is completely inaccessible to her now.)

Facebook doesn’t create a product, like business reviews or an encyclopedia, separate from its social network.  Its product is essentially human relationships, to the extent that they can be captured through status updates, photos uploaded, articles linked, and virtual gifts/pokes sent.  For all the personal detail Yelpers put into their reviews, it doesn’t compare to how personal content is on Facebook.

As real people, Facebook members are hyper-aware of their reputations.

The fact that they are creating content that is solely about their lives means that Facebook users care even more about the way that content affects their reputations.  It’s not just about whether they write witty Yelp reviews or edit correctly on Wikipedia — it’s about who they are. As much as they horrify middle-aged adults, the kids who post drunken photos of themselves on Facebook do care about their reputations.  It’s just that at that moment in their lives, it’s more important that they project that image than a more staid, responsible one. Some people want to be the kind of people who have 900 Facebook friends; other people want equally strongly to be the kind of people who have 50.  Some people want their friends to know they made pickles with seasonal ramps that weekend; other people want their friends to know they were watching football.

And despite the fact that Facebook has become a symbol of our over-sharing culture, Facebook wants us to share even more.  The more we share, the more it can make in advertising.  The more we share, the more valuable its data becomes.

But Facebook can’t give you a gold star for being a cool person…

Because people on Facebook are creating content about themselves, Facebook can’t use the same incentive systems used by Yelp or Wikipedia.  Yelp can promote good reviewers to the Yelp Elite Squad, Wikipedia can give privileges to reliable editors, but it would be laughable for Facebook to create a Facebook Elite Squad.  Imagine if Facebook deemed some users’ vacation photos better than others, or gave karma points like Slashdot to those whose status updates were wittiest.

Facebook, however, can use people’s concerns about their reputations to motivate and promote activity.  There are ways for users to give each other the Facebook equivalent of badges, stars, and compliments: virtual gifts and “pokes.”

Facebook’s ways of motivating activity are generally more subtle.  Facebook doesn’t just ask people to share — it asks people to respond.  I once had a friend ask me why I never commented on her status updates.  She clearly cares whether people respond to what she says.  It’s part of why she uses Facebook.  If Facebook didn’t allow people to comment on each other’s status updates and posts, I imagine the level of activity would rapidly decrease.

Facebook’s “like” button serves an interesting purpose in this context.  Like Yelp’s “useful, funny or cool,” it lets people respond to their friends without having to write out an actual sentence.  It’s equivalent to a nod or sympathetic “uh-huh” offline — it’s a way to show you’re paying attention.

But of course, Facebook isn’t really satisfied with the level of activity currently happening.  Everyday, I’m given suggestions, not only for new friends but ways in which I could interact with existing ones.

I’m curious how many people actually see this and then go out and write on the wall of that elementary school friend who they haven’t communicated with since they accepted the friend request.  (In my case, I feel like it’s always telling me to reach out to Alex Selkirk, who I see almost everyday.)

It’ll be interesting to see what else Facebook tries as it works to monetize itself.  I don’t see how it can ever give out gold stars or badges or create elite classes within Facebook.  Not only would it be weird to rate a person for being a person, it would be difficult to come up with an incentive structure that appeals to its 400 million registered users.  Being a member of some Elite Squad, having karma points, being the Mayor of a local business as FourSquare does, might be appealing to some people.  It definitely won’t be appealing to all of them.

Building a community — populated by real people or anonymous cowards

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Mimi’s comment on my last blog post about building communities made an important point – although both Yelp and Wikipedia reward their users for their activities with increased status within their communities, they do so in very different ways with very different results for their content.

There are many, many differences between Yelp and Wikipedia.  (I’m curious how many people are registered users on both sites.)

But one really obvious one is that Yelp has created an active community of reviewers who largely use real photos and real names (or at least real first name and last initial), like peter d., a member of the Yelp Elite Squad.

Wikipedia, in contrast, is a free for all.  Many people who write or edit are anonymous.  They may register with pseudonyms, or they may not register at all, so that their edits are only associated with an IP address.  There are occasionally Wikipedians who reveal their real names and provide a lot of biographical information on their profile pages, like Ragesoss, who even provides a photo.

But for every user like him, there are many more like Jayjg and Neutrality, who seems to identify with Thomas Jefferson, as well as users who have been banned.

Obviously, there are other communities that encourage the use of real identities — Facebook, MySpace, social networks in general.  And there are communities where being pseudonymous or anonymous is perfectly fine, even encouraged — Slashdot, Flickr, and many more.

So how does the use of real identities affect the community?  How does it affect the incentives to participate?  The content that’s created?

Yelp’s reward system, as described in my earlier post, is very focused on the individual.  The compliments, the Elite Squad badge, the number of “useful, funny or cool” reviews written are all clearly attached to a specific person, such as peter d. above.  Although people are complimenting peter d. for the content he’s generated for Yelp, they’re also complimenting him as a person, as he’s told that he’s funny, he’s a good writer, and so forth.

Yelpers are encouraged to develop personas that are separate from the reviews they write.  The profiles have set questions, like “Last Great Book I Read” and “My First Concert.”  They know that it’s not just about one review they’ve written, but where they’ve eaten, where they’ve gone, what they’ve done, that shows something in a generation that recognizes tribes based on what people consume.  There is a suggestion that Yelpers might interact outside of Yelp, and in the case of the Yelp Elite Squad, an assumption that they will, as one of the major privileges is that members get invited to local events.  The reputation you seek to develop on Yelp is not necessarily so different from the reputation you seek to develop in real life.

Yelp isn’t just a review site.  It’s a social network that feels almost like an online dating site — you can see how easily compliments could be used to flirt.

Wikipedia’s reward system, based on the open source software model, is more low-key.  Wikipedia does rate articles as “good articles,” and notes which articles have priority within certain classes of subjects.  If you write a lot of “good articles,” or otherwise contribute substantively, you can get various gold stars and badges as well, like the Platinum Editor Star Jayjg has on his profile page.

But the compliments are less about the Wikipedia user, even when stars are given, and more about the Wikipedia-related contribution he or she has made.  Some Wikipedians may be flirting with each other, but it seems really unlikely, at least not within any Wikipedia-built mechanism.  Jayjg clearly feels no need to tell us where he’s from and what his first concert was — it’s not relevant here.  The Wikipedians who do share more personal information aren’t required or even encouraged to do so by the Wikipedia system.

It doesn’t matter who Jayjg is.  It only matters what he does for Wikipedia.

So although both sites use rewards and feedback loops to encourage participation, they’re creating fundamentally different content with fundamentally different communities.

Yelp’s entry for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden has 126 reviews, each wholly written by a single user with that user’s photo, name, number of friends and number of reviews immediately visible.  The reviews are clearly personal and subjective, as made obvious by references to what that person specifically experienced.  In peter d.’s case, his review notes how his brother once pushed him into the Japanese Pond.

When you look at Wikipedia’s entry on the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, you see a seamless, unitary document.  Unless you click on the tabs that cover history or discussion, you won’t even see who worked on the article.  There is no personal perspective, there is no author listed with stars next to his name, there are no buttons asking you to rate that author’s contribution as “useful, funny or cool.”

This makes sense, given their respective missions.  Yelp’s goal is to generate as many reviews as possible about local businesses, recognizing that taste is really subjective.  Wikipedia’s goal is to produce a free encyclopedia with unbiased, objective content.  Yelp doesn’t want you to write one review and go away.  If you do, your review may not even show up, as the spam filter may decide you’re not trustworthy.  But of the thousands and thousands of people who’ve edited Wikipedia, the vast majority have done a few, maybe even just one edit, and never come back.  Wikipedia is a collective work; Yelp is a collection of individual works.

I don’t have an opinion on whether a community of real profiles is better or worse than a community of anonymous and pseudonymous contributors.

The different structures seem to shape the content of Yelp versus Wikipedia in appropriate ways.  What’s less clear to me is how this difference affects the make up of their communities.  Wikipedia has recently been in the news as it examines the demographics of its users, which is “more than 80 percent male, more than 65 percent single, more than 85 percent without children, around 70 percent under the age of 30.” Its rewards system and its open source model clearly attracted the right kind of enthusiastic people who were willing to write encyclopedia entries without personal recognition and glory.  Wikipedia wants more and different kinds of people to be writing entries.  Would a system like Yelp’s that encourages a more explicit sense of community and social networking change who is attracted to Wikipedia? Or would it attract precisely the wrong kind of people, the ones who couldn’t work collaboratively without explicit credit and acknowledgment?

Yelp isn’t a model of community building either, of course.  Its users are more diverse than Wikipedia’s in that its breakdown by gender is 54-46, male-female, but it’s also a very young community.  It’s less international than Wikipedia, partly because it grows city by city, but its American youth-oriented culture may not translate well either.  It’s facing its own credibility problem as business owners accuse Yelp of extortion.  It’s not surprising, as it’s fueled by people who are addicted to writing reviews and complimenting each other, but it’s paid for by advertisers who don’t participate in that same incentive structure.

Both Yelp and WIkipedia have managed to attract active, enthusiastic contributors willing to do a lot for no pay (or mostly no pay in the case of Yelp, which has admitted to paying some reviewers.)  But moving forward, which model of participation and rewards will be more attractive to more people for the right reasons?

For more on this issue, see today’s New York Times article on how news sites are considering getting rid of the anonymous option for commenters.  Or they could do what Slashdot does, which is call anyone who chooses to post anonymously an “Anonymous Coward.”

Building a community — with karma and elite squads

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

In high school psychology, I learned that rats that are rewarded for good behavior, i.e., given positive reinforcement, will repeat the good behavior.  Humans aren’t really that different.

Several of the online communities I looked at need their members to do stuff to make their communities work.  Some of them have decided to explicitly reward their members for good contributions.  For example, Yelp is a site with reviews of local businesses.  It knows that ratings alone aren’t very useful, as people have different standards, and it also knows one-line reviews claiming a restaurant is “great” or “terrible,” aren’t very informative either.

Yelp encourages detailed, specific reviews in several ways.  Yelp invites members to rate each other’s reviews as “useful, funny or cool.”  Members can send each other compliments, little encouraging notes about what good writers they are or how cool they are.  Yelp removes reviews it deems to be rants or shills.  (This has led to some controversy as business owners have claimed Yelp removes reviews to extort business owners to take out ads, to which Yelp has responded with some changes.)  The biggest gold star, literally a “badge” that gets attached to the user’s profile, is reserved for Yelpers in the Yelp Elite Squad.  To be eligible to become a member of the Elite Squad, a reviewer must post a real photo, use a real first name and last initial, and “be active Yelp evangelists and role models, on and off the site.”  Members of the Elite Squad are invited to local events, and they become another community onto themselves.

As a result, reviews on Yelp are considerably more detailed than reviews on comparable sites, and there are more of them.  For Abraco, a coffee shop in the East Village, Yelp lists 241 reviewsMenupages, which doesn’t do any of the things Yelp does, has 7, and they tend to be a bit more prosaic:

Of course, everything has a downside.  Yelpers have a tendency to be self-indulgent in the way they write, with details about their personal lives and more that aren’t always relevant to the business they’re reviewing at hand.  But the details aren’t totally worthless.  I appreciate the way Yelp encourages detailed reviews because the details are often helpful in helping me determine whether the reviewer is someone whose taste is similar to mine.  When someone tells me that he doesn’t like Chinese food and thought the restaurant should be serving white chicken meat, I know instantly that he does not have the same taste as me, and I will not rely on his review.  Whereas if that same person had only written, “Terrible food!”, I wouldn’t know enough to judge.

If I really want to know more about the reviewer’s tastes and preferences, I can even click on the reviewer’s name and see what else he or she has reviewed.  I can get a much better sense of who Mark L. is than of TheJuicyShow.

Similarly, Slashdot uses “karma” to encourage smart comments.  As a news aggregator for self-described nerds, Slashdot is as much a place to comment on stories as to read them.  Anyone who has read open comments on popular blogs knows that they are often full of inflammatory rants where people spout rather than read/listen to what others are saying.  Slashdot tries to deal with this by rating Slashdot users on their comments.   The better your comments, the more “karma” you get, in the form of assessments that your comment is “insightful,” “interesting,” etc.  Karma give you the power to moderate others’ comments, though you have to spend the points within 3 days.  Good comments are considered an “achievement” that gets included on the profile of each user, which means, like Yelp, Slashdot users have personas that can be viewed by clicking on their profiles.

Wikipedia awards activities in a slightly different way. Although Wikipedians also get rewarded with higher status, it’s not in as prominent a way as it is for Yelp or Slashdot users.  There are no badges or notes like “Insightful.”  Rather, as registered users contribute, they gain a reputation in that community. Those who meet the threshold for number of edits can vote in Wikimedia board elections, as well as be a candidate for the board.  Other privileges, like administrator privileges, are granted to those who request them after a lengthy review of their contributions.  Wikipedia is following the model of open source software projects where people are granted more responsibility, like commit privileges, as they demonstrate that they do good work.  They’re rewarded with status, but not in as prominent a way as the badge Yelp Elite Squad members get.

Offline organizations also reward good participation, with awards that recognize exceptional volunteers and positions of leadership.  Habitat for Humanity affiliate chapters are often run by volunteers who have taken on responsibility after demonstrating their commitment.  But because activities online are transparent to the whole community, the rewards given for those activities are similarly transparent as well.  It’s easier to reward online activities in small as well as large ways.  It’s also easier to keep track of large groups of people online.  Thus, the reward system for these online organizations is more visible and more apparent than for offline organizations.

And because the rewards systems are visible and apparent, they really affect the culture of the community.  There are people who claim to be addicted to Yelp; there are also people who really don’t care about being made a member of an elite squad.  Yelp’s reward system probably repels as many people as it attracts, and it’s important for anyone building a community to think about who they want to attract and how.

The meaning of membership

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

BSA Member Card, Focht, Flickr/Creative Commons License Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works

We’ve been talking about a “datatrust” for awhile now, why we think we need one, how we envision it as a long-lasting institution, what kind of technologies we might employ for it to provide measurable guarantees around privacy.

But we’re now starting to get down to the nitty-gritty.  How will it actually work?  What will it mean to an actual researcher, nonprofit organization, policy-maker?  To you?

First and foremost, we imagine the datatrust as a member-based data bank where organizations and individuals can safely contribute personal information to inform research and public policy.

The member-based part is key.  We plan to be both non-partisan and absolutely transparent.  We have no particular academic or policy ax to grind. Our only goal is to maximize the quantity, quality and diversity of sensitive data that is made available to the public.  To ensure that decisions aren’t made even with an unconscious bias, we plan to build a decentralized structure that relies on the participation and contribution of members to build and sustain the datatrust.

But the word membership can mean a lot of different things.  When my local public radio station exhorts me to be a member, membership doesn’t seem to come with something more than a tote bag.  In contrast, if you’re a Wikipedian, it means you’ve actually written or edited an entry, and the more you participate, the more access and privileges you get, including the right to vote for members of the Wikimedia Foundation Board.

So for the past couple of months, I’ve been looking at member-based communities.  Not all of them would call themselves member-based communities, but they all have in common a structure that requires participation from a large group of people.  Some are nonprofits, some are businesses running social networks; most are online, a few are not.  Over the next couple of posts, I’m going to summarize how these communities work, what motivates the members, how the communities monitor themselves, and how diverse they are, because all of these issues will inform the decisions we make in creating our datatrust.

Here are the ten communities included in this study:

MySpace is one of the world’s largest social networks with about 125 million users, though Facebook has in the last year surpassed MySpace with the number of users and pageviews both in the U.S. and the rest of the world.  The look and feel of MySpace is very different from Facebook, since MySpace users are allowed to customize their pages.  There’s also been a lot of press about the demographic differences between MySpace and Facebook, but those differences are probably disappearing as Facebook simply grows and grows.  MySpace remains more popular than Facebook as a site for bands and music.

Facebook is the world’s largest social network with about 400 million users.  Despite its popularity and recent news that it even surpassed Google in Internet traffic, it’s also been the center of controversy, particularly regarding user privacy and terms of use, with each major change made to the site.

Yelp is a social network-based user review site for local businesses in multiple cities in the U.S.  It’s growing much faster than older sites like Citysearch, and its spawned offline events where really avid reviewers meet and socialize.  It has also gotten controversy with accusations that it extorts businesses to take out ads in return for highlighting good reviews or pulling bad ones.  Although Yelp has denied these accusations, a class-action lawsuit was recently filed against Yelp.

Flickr is a popular social network-based photo-sharing site.  Unlike many photo-sharing sites like Kodak Gallery or Photobucket, Flickr has emphasized sharing photos with the general public and organization by crowdsourcing via tags. Although it does have some services for printing photos and mugs, its main service is photo-hosting and storage, particularly for bloggers and photographers.  In addition to hosting photos, Flickr also manages projects like “The Commons” with the Library of Congress and other institutions interested in putting their public domain photos in wider circulation.

Slashdot is a news aggregator for self-professed nerds with estimated traffic of 5.5 million users per month.  It shares news stories contributed by its users, who also comment on the stories and moderate the comments.  Useful contribution is rewarded with karma points, which increases the privileges each user gets.

Wikipedia is “the free encyclopedia anyone can edit,” run by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation.  The number of named accounts for writers and editors is at about 11 million; about 300,000 have edited Wikipedia more than ten times.  Despite early skepticism, Wikipedia has become one of the most trafficked sites online and has expanded into multiple countries around the world.  Wikipedia has clearly developed a community of avid and enthusiastic users who contribute without monetary compensation, but in its tenth year, it is evaluating the lack of diversity among Wikipedians (only 13% of contributors are women, for one) and what steps it should take to provide access to a free encyclopedia all over the world. Wikipedia has also instituted a number of changes over the years to deal with vandalism and inaccuracies.

Open Source Software – rather than look at one particular open source project, for this study, I focused on the book Producing Open Source Software by Karl Fogel, which describes how projects should work.  Obviously, actual projects will vary widely, but we decided this was an area worth looking at because the open source movement has spent years figuring out how to structure shared work.

The Sierra Club is one of the oldest grassroots environmental organizations in the U.S.  It has 1.3 million members, but because it is not a primarily online organization, it isn’t easy to evaluate the activities of its members online.  However, it recently created a series of social media sites for online networking among Sierra Club members and supporters and our report focuses primarily on this aspect of their member activities.

The Park Slope Food Coop is a local cooperative grocery store in Park Slope Brooklyn.  (DISCLAIMER: I’ve been a member since 2005, and my research on how it works is based on my experiences there.)  Unlike many coops, membership is predicated on work.  All of its approximately 150,000 members are required to work a two hour-45 minute shift every four weeks, which reduces labor costs and thus reduces prices.  Despite being a place many people love to hate, it continues to thrive and attract new members.

Habitat for Humanity International is a major nonprofit organization that seeks to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness by building decent housing around the world.  (DISCLAIMER: I volunteered for Habitat for Humanity in high school and college and participated in a fundraising bike trip in 1999.)  Like the Sierra Club, it is also an offline organization, but its website provided more detailed information on how its affiliates work and I drew on my personal experience in trying to understand how Habitat encourages and retains volunteers.


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