Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Inchoate Ideas

It's autumn here in western Pennsylvania. The picture of Zinnias is from years past, but there still are some bright Zinnias blooming in the garden. I once let it slip that Zinnias are my favorite flower in front of a friend. In truth my favorite flowers are probably what's blooming in the garden that I most recently noticed. For two seasons now my friend has given me packets of of Zinnias from Johnny's Selected Seeds. Johnny's sells some Zinnia seeds from the great German plant breeder Benary. The seeds are expensive but both my friend and I agree they are simply the best Zinnias we've grown. The Zinnias in the picture are not Benary Giants, still the great color and cheerfulness comes through. Oh, I miss summer already.

The problem with most of my ideas is they are not very fully formed. A good example of that is Bazungu Bucks. I printed out 100 Bazungu Bucks and it turned out I couldn't give them away. In theory my giving a Bazungu Buck away meant that it could be claimed for an hour of my time. But people seemed to understand that in accepting a Bazungu Buck was somehow a claim on their time. They understood the idea of a small economy premised on giving time that in some yet to be determined way was supposed to jump start a time-based currency of in a particular Ugandan community. They wanted nothing to do with it. Surely not because they had animus toward me or the community in Uganda, but rather because they didn't want any promise of their time hanging over them. The promise of my time in exchange for Bazungu Bucks they might accumulate wasn't worth the potential of getting suck into spending their time on something not important to them.

That's ancient history now and I should add that my friends did contribute real dollars to the Ugandan community. But the kernel of the idea was to find a way of sharing time in service of making things that matter to us happen. Real dollars do that well, but are scarce. Our time is scare too, but we often have some to spare. Still what comes out loud and clear is people value their time very highly. And that's as it should be.

That makes it all the more remarkable that so much really cool stuff gets made with the voluntary contribution of people's time, things like Wikipedia, blogs, and the fantastic free and open source software that's available today. I'm stuck on the idea that making data about each of our commons based peer production more visible to us and to others has great potential to encourage doing more great things.

I'm really loving my new computer with Ubuntu as its operating system. One of the very cool features is what is essentially an App Store. It's a program that makes it easy to find and install, as well as uninstall, software. One of the best things about running Linux is a wealth of free software available. I'm using the Lucid Linx version of Ubuntu. In a few days the new version 10.10 Maverick Meerkat will be released. At Platform Wars Phil Jones asked:
Why shouldn't Ubuntu's Synaptic package manager / package store count the number of people who are using each package? Or allow people to vote for packages that they find good / useful?
Ah, well there's no question in my mind both are desirable because it fits with my inchoate idea of making peer production data more visible.

According to the Wikipedia article on the Ubuntu Software Center the Maverick Meerkat OS will allow users to rate software and to see others ratings. I suspect that he knew that when he posted, I did not. so I wrote some gibberish comment. It's bad form to blog at other's blog, a lesson I seem to be very slow to learn. And the great thing is there's basically no hurdle to making a blog of ones own. So I've got this blog and can try to flesh ideas out here.

Now there's nothing really new about ratings, for example SourceForge has been doing it for as long as I can remember. But there are a couple of points to be made. User ratings are a way of establishing reputation and trust online. Thousands of Web sites have some method of doing this. So the first point is that lots of data about reputation is already collected. The second point is a bit more hazy. Facebook collects all sorts of reputation data by way of their Like button. Developers can add them to their sites. I'm not a developer. I don't quite understand all of it, except that it's advantageous to Facebook.

Anyhow there's this economy that's being created on the basis of lots of us spending a bare minimum of time to press a button that says "Like." Our time may be valuable but we hardly notice that brief moment. I don't absolutely begrudge Facebook profiting from my likes, after all each take but a moment. But I am keen to have some way to get and give some of this reputation value that Facebook and others already have ways to capitalize on. My being able to use some of the credit I get for my online production to spend on encouraging others to produce does not diminishes the value for Facebook.

If I've hit "like" 100 times on my niece's posts why shouldn't my neice be able to see a running tally of my likes about her stuff? And likewise that I might see data of where I'm putting my likes? The data is already being collected, it just isn't visible to us in an aggregated form.

I don't look for something like this to happen at Facebook anytime soon. But I'm not alone in seeing the value in having a currency which is based upon social capital displayed online.

Whuffie is a funny sounding word coined by Cory Doctorow in his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom for a reputation currency. Tara Hunt popularized the word in her book The Whuffie Factor where she explores the value of social networks in the business world. So Whuffie is commonly used word for this sort of currency I'd like to see.

The Whuffie Bank is an organization which trying to make the value of our social networks at Twitter and Facebook a currency. I haven't delved into it much, but the sad part is that with whatever algorithm used the result is I have zero whuffie. I want my whuffie, so basically I'm mad at the Whuffie Bank. No not really, but my lack of any whuffie means the Whuffie Bank is of no use to me at least now.

American Express has partnered with FourSquare for a social currency app for iPhones. Frankly this platform seems to have all the creepy aspects of Facebook "Like" and very limited upside for users so far as I can see. My vision is poor because I don't have a cell phone and hardly ever go anywhere so Foursquare isn't something I use. Nonetheless, both the Whuffie Bank and Foursquare's Social Currency rather point in the direction of something I want.

What I would like is a way that I could bring together measures of reputation gained from the various Web sites which I frequent that already collect it in one way or another. There are a couple of big problems that make this hard. First, places like Facebook don't provide users with easy tallies of our likes, that is, many Web sites collect data but don't share it with users. The second problem is that at sites having some sort of visible reputation system, all the various systems are different.

The Whuffie Bank is a non-profit organization and that's probably the most appealing approach to a repository of social capital data to me. But as evidenced by American Express building a platform for social currency, big companies will compete in this field. I might be terribly wrong about this, but it seems to me that the organization or corporation that is allows users to join social capital data from the most sites will be the platform with the greatest adoption.

With my really hazy thinking, I've thought that Microsoft with more than a billion people regularly using their products is in an excellent position to make a big splash on the social Web. A Microsoft platform for social currency could be that.

Microsoft seems so committed competing against free they appear incapable of seeing value on the table that other companies like Google, Facebook and even American Express are rushing to grab. I'm not so keen on this rush to grab value on the table in the first place, but I'm bemused that Microsoft doesn't even try. Oh maybe Bing is an attempt, I don't know because I've not found a good reason to use it.

So my very inchoate idea is a currency which in some way represents my value in online social networks. I want something I can earn and ways then to spend towards ends I think worthwhile.

1 comment:

The 27th Comrade said...

Actually, all systems that are derived from Debian GNU/Linux (a huge, huge family that includes Ubuntu) have exactly such a system: the popularity contest.
It has two huge problems, though: it is a package (so it has to be installed—and if it were accurate, it would lead the scores, because it would have to be installed for each such system that takes part in the contest), and also it is not installed by default.

On social currency, you once mentioned a pertinent post by someone, wherein hits and generally attention on the Net was a signalling system similar to money. That rocked.
However, I give only one piece of advice to those I give a damn about: fuck social networks. I have grown to be really, really suspicious of anything that seeks to define my life in terms of … algorithms. Bad. The necessary end of a World gone mad, and very bad also.