Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Pull the Curtain and Vote

Voting in Ethosphere (and any other online venue for that matter) must take into account a troublesome but unavoidable fact of Internet life — members/users can lie about who they really are. A senator can pretend to be an ordinary citizen, a law enforcement officer can pretend to be a teenage boy, and a middle-aged, married American man can pretend to be a gay girl in Damascus. Elections in Real Life (RL), especially in the US, require us to pull the curtain, as it were, to carefully obfuscate the connection between a person's true identity, his satnam, and the ballots he casts.

Facebook, among others, is discovering how difficult it is to ensure that user logins are associated with real, authentic people and that each person has only one such login. While other social networks, notably Twitter, allow users to have as many pseudonyms, aliases, as they wish and do not try to enforce authenticity with RL identities. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. Apart from the technical impracticality of verifying users' true identities, there are some unexpected bonuses in allowing members to assume an alias, or many aliases, that can never, as a matter of principle, be traced back to the owner's true name.

But the only way to be able to maintain a trust relationship, including consensus building and voting, with such pseudonymous members is to associate and maintain a reputation of some sort for each persona. The Ethosphere does this using a straightforward mechanism. Each member has an associated rep, which is simply a non-negative real number. A member that happens to be a part of more than one teamspace will have a different rep in each space. Upon first joining a new team, a member's rep within that team is initialized to 0.0. Reps cannot be directly manipulated, but they can be bumped (increased) or busted (decreased) as a result of certain activities within a teamspace. In general terms, a member's rep increases as a side-effect of constructive participation within the teamspace.

The degree of influence a given member has within a teamspace is directly proportional to its rep. To be precise, when a member casts a vote for a prop within a teamspace, her vote counts only so much as her current rep within that teamspace. Older, established members contribute stability and robustness to the society, but nothing prevents new members from building up their own reps and, eventually, exerting their own guidance and influence. Ethosphere is a pure meritocracy.

By allowing pseudonyms with their associated reps (let's call those pairs personae), and diligently protecting the connection between a persona and a real life identity, we have effectively moved the curtain. Online elections can now be completely transparent, publishing exactly which persona voted for which prop, fostering trust in the electoral machinery and the voting algorithms. But at the same time, nobody will ever know that, for example, Jim Dutton voted yea or nay on a given prop. As with Twitter aliases, members will feel freer to express themselves and their opinions without fear of reprisals or embarrassment from their RL friends and families. Unlike Twitter, Ethosphere personae are more likely to show restraint and consideration in their teamspaces to preserve and improve their reps, and thus their future influence.

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