Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Building Ethos Out of Logos

The Ethosphere, in addition to preserving the privacy of the personae within it, should also be responsible for maintaining a sort of interaction history for them. Over time, this interaction history comes to represent the character or ethos of the individual persona. Ethos is one of the three elements of Aristotle's theory of rhetoric, and it means appealing to a speaker's character or reputation. This is where Ethosphere gets its name. Aristotle's other two elements, logos and pathos, refer to appeals to logic and emotion, respectively.

Lacking any connection with the real world credentials of a persona's owner, its ethos becomes an important factor in almost every interaction with other personae. Any trust relationships that evolve over the lifetime of a persona will be based on the persona's ethos. Whether or not @uncle_albert can find work as a financial advisor as well as how much he is able to charge for his advice all depend on how successful and honest he has been in past financial transactions with other persona. In many ways, a persona's ethos embodies and denotes its identity more so than its alias. As in RL, one can imagine a persona changing its name to something completely different and yet still being recognizable solely by its ethos.

Importantly, a persona's ethos, or rep as we've previously called it, is not directly manipulable by the persona, but rather it is maintained by Ethosphere based upon the persona's history of constructive interaction within a teamspace. "Constructive interaction" can mean all sorts of things, but here's a brief set of examples that hopefully help clarify the specifics of what I mean.

Rep Transactions

These example transactions may influence an alias's rep within a teamspace. A rep is a single floating point number that represents a member's ethos within a given teamspace. I will use the term rep share or simply share to mean a single point, 1.0, of rep for a member.

Note that any transaction where one or a few members can cause another's rep to be bumped or busted always comes at a cost to the members initiating the transaction. This is called a share transfer and it's implemented this way to guard against members colluding to artificially inflate or deflate the reps of others. Transactions that result from consensus of all the members of a teamspace do not have a cost associated for the voting members, but rather result in some number of new rep shares being created. These are called share grants and they will generally result in dilution of every member's rep share, just like issuing shares of corporate stock or additional currency.

Any member can put up a prop. There is no cost or reward associated with doing so. Likewise, any member can write a comment on a prop being considered for ratification. Rep shares are earned only when others in the teamspace recognize a positive contribution to the team. In rare cases, rep may also be lost when others reprimand a negative or destructive activity.

Teamspace Creation (+20 share grant)
When a teamspace is initially created, its founders receive an initial grant equivalent to the "founders' shares" of stock commonly issued in private corporations. This has the effect of bootstrapping the rep system within a teamspace since, as you may have noticed, nothing can happen in an Ethosphere teamspace unless there is at least one reputable member to vote and Like other other members' work. If there are multiple founders of the teamspace, the founders' rep shares will be divided equally among them.

Prop Acceptance (+5 share transfer)
Once a prop has been published by any member, there is a relatively short period of time during which other members can choose to accept the prop for consideration by the larger membership. Acceptance of a prop does not imply it has been adopted by the teamspace, but rather that some reputable member has declared it worth the effort to read and evaluate. There is no penalty involved if a member puts up a prop that is not accepted. It costs 5 rep shares to accept a prop. These shares can come from one or several members. If there are several, the cost of acceptance is shared amongst them. Upon acceptance, the sponsor of the prop receives 5 rep shares in recognition of his/their work. If there are several sponsors, the 5 shares are divided evenly among them. A member cannot vote to accept a prop unless it has a non-zero rep share. A member may choose to accept its own prop, thereby essentially paying for consideration of the prop. However, if any member who votes for acceptance is also a sponsor of the prop, then no sponsor receives any rep share benefit from the acceptance; only the cost is incurred.

Comment Like (+1 share transfer)
A member can "like" another member's comment on an accepted prop. One rep share is transferred from a reputable "liker" to the "commenter." Although the potential reward for sponsoring a prop may seem much higher than for writing a comment, one would expect commenting to be the most important mechanism for building reputation within most teamspaces. That's because a single well-thought out and well-phrased comment can be "liked" by many members, costing each of them only one share but accumulating perhaps significant rep for the commenter.

Comment Dislike (-1 share transfer)
A member may also "dislike" a comment written by another member if they disagree with the comment or feel it is unfair in some way. As with the comment "like", the member who expresses its dislike of another's comment is charged one rep share, but here the commenter is also charged one share.

Comment Censor (-1 share transfer)
A censor works just as a dislike, but in addition a vote is cast to remove the comment altogether and replace it with a short statement to the effect that the comment was deemed unsuitable. If there are a sufficient number of such votes (say, 5), the comment is censored and removed by the teamspace.

Prop Ratification (+20 share grant)
If a prop is ratified by the team, as many as 20 new rep shares may be granted to the sponsor(s) of the prop. There is no penalty if a prop is not ratified within the allotted time period. If there are multiple co-sponsors, the granted shares will be divided equally among them. The actual number of rep shares granted depends on the outcome of the ratification vote. If the prop was ratified unanimously, the sponsor(s) will receive the full 20 rep shares. If it was ratified with only a 51% majority of the total teamspace rep, the sponsor(s) will only receive 51% of the 20 shares, or 10.2 rep shares.

This simple framework could result in a robust reputational economy within active teamspaces, with reputation being transferred from older, more established members to newbies, and new reputation being created as fresh members begin to collaborate and write new props. It may also be desirable to allow reps to decay over time in order to ensure current participation and reduce the impact of highly reputable members who disappear unexpectedly, perhaps because of a RL calamity of some sort.

Dictators and Ruling Parties

Initially, the founder of a new teamspace is the only member with rep shares. He is therefore a dictator, and nothing can happen within the teamspace without his vote and approval. One could imagine someone deliberately hogging all the power by never Liking anyone else's work and never voting to ratify anyone else's Props. Although this is possible within the Ethosphere, it doesn't seem very likely to happen because such a teamspace would be singularly boring for pretty much everybody. All the dictator's "subjects" would simply leave and go join a more vibrant, balanced teamspace someplace else and the dictator would be left with, essentially, an over-complicated personal blog.

Similarly, you can envision a sub-group of members who agree to form a ruling clique, Liking only each other's work and ratifying only each other's Props. Again, this would be pretty uninteresting for those members who are not in the ruling party, and they would just leave unless there were some external reward, like receiving a paycheck, for their continued contribution to the teamspace.

As undemocratic and dysfunctional as these unbalanced power structures may seem at first, there are many RL organizations in which such lopsided teams are common, and highly functional. For example, open source software projects often have "benevolent dictators," high-rep individuals who have disproportionate influence in approving designs and code contributions contributed by other members. The bylaws of commercial corporations typically create a hierarchy of ruling classes, the board of directors, the compensation committee, the executive team, etc., within those teamspaces.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Voting Variants - Range Voting

Range Voting (RV) and its variants, including Approval Voting (AV) and Score Voting (SV), asks voters to rate each candidate independently within a given range or scale, like one to five or zero to ten, or for AV, 0 or 1. RV ballots are more expressive than either IRV or plurality, allowing members to express rather complex opinions. For example, I might want to say something like, candidate A is my slight preference, and either B or C would be okay with me, but D would be a total disaster in my opinion. On a scale of 0 to 100, I might assign candidate A a 100, B and C an 80, and D a zero. There is no requirement that the scores need to add to anything, or even that every candidate receives a score at all.

Calculating the winner of an RV election is straightforward. One simply adds the scores for each candidate across all voters. The candidate with the highest score percentage wins.

Pros and Cons

RV in the form of "star voting" has been used a lot recently on the Internet for things like rating movies (Netflix) or buyers and sellers (eBay). Reality TV uses RV when a show allows the same caller to vote multiple times for a candidate; the score for each candidate is just the number of votes it receives. It does not have as much of a track record in the political arena as either plurality or IRV. Like everything else, it is still vulnerable to strategic voters who know or think they can predict partial results about the election before they cast their votes.

From a technical viewpoint, RV does somewhat better against the standard criteria used by experts to judge voting procedures. It is both "consistent" and "summable," for example. Unlike IRV, it fails the "majority" criteria in that it does not always elect a candidate that clearly has a majority of first place votes. On the other hand, the concept of first place vote in RV is somewhat ambiguous, since you may assign your favorite a 100 and your second favorite a 10, while someone else says their second favorite is a 90, indicating there's not much difference between the two. In this example, there's a strong and a weak first place vote. Due to the simpliciy of the vote counting procedure, RV is also more transparent than IRV.

There is a practical drawback of RV that could be very important in the context of the Ethosphere. Many people have a hard time assigning a numerical value to something as subjective as the fitness of a given candidate. I know when a doctor asks me to rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10 I often choose to respond with a verbal assault instead of a thoughtful opinion. This difficulty can result in some voters assigning 100 to their favorite candidate and not bothering to rate the others. This tactic, of course, degrades to simple plurality voting if enough members choose to adopt it.

Unlike plurality and IRV, RV tends to favor the centrist candidates a little more. Take an example similar to the one discussed in the IRV post. Candidate A receives a score of 100 from 51% of the voters while candidate C receives a score of 100 from only 49%. Both "parties" are comfortable with the centrist candidate, B, so it receives a score of 80 from all voters. In this case, RV will elect B, the compromise candidate. RV supporters claim this is a good thing because it minimizes a metric called "bayesian regret," a measure of how unhappy the teamspace as a whole will be with this outcome. In simple terms, it means the RV result produces the least unhappiness amongst the group. On the other hand, it should be pointed out that the winner ended up being a candidate that was nobody's first choice.

Monday, February 27, 2012

I'm Not Elitist, Just Better Than You

For ease of exposition, my discussions of voting methods often make a very common assumption, that every member has exactly one ballot and that all first place votes, for example, have the same voting power for every member. The One Member, One Vote (OMOV) principle does not hold in the Ethosphere, however. Instead, a member's influence in an election is proportional to its reputation within the teamspace. This may initially seem unfair, undemocratic, or even elitist. Here's where I argue it is none of those things. In fact, this merit-based system of vote apportionment is more fair, more democratic, and less elitist than many existing electoral systems in place today, and certainly those used within the U.S.

The U.S. constitution, which generally does not dictate voting methods for representatives, senators, or any other office, does in fact spell out a rather strange method to be used to elect the country's president and vice-president. The electoral college has not scaled well as the country has grown, and today it is legitimately maligned as being, well, unfair, undemocratic, and elitist. Why did the founders, who were otherwise so prescient and wise, spell out this terrible electoral procedure for what is arguably the most important office in the new country? The answer to this question, like so many similar ones about why the constitution was written the way it was, can be found in a series of props published by a highly reputable, pseudonymous author whose alias was @publius.

In The Federalist #68, @publius explains why the framers thought a few, reputable individuals would be better suited to electing the president than the entire electorate via direct vote.

A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation.

In fact, the founders' important distinction between a republic and a democracy was based, at least in part, on the desire to ensure that important views and decisions of the general population are refined and enlarged...

...by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.

-- The Federalist #10

But this idea of choosing electors and representatives whose decision-making power far exceeds an ordinary citizen, even a well-informed and highly-involved one, hasn't worked out all that well in many cases. In the last presidential election, who was the elector from your district? What were her qualifications? Did you help choose her, or was that done by the party machinery? Are you the least bit confident that her "patriotism and love of justice" were sufficient to warrant the trust you placed in her?

The founders were right in that the balance between ethical, expert representation and direct participation is an important one, and a difficult one to get right. Too far in the latter direction and you end up with "confusion of the multitude," as @publius called it. Too far in the former direction and you get tyranny.

In the Ethosphere this balance is struck using member reputation. Members who have proven to the team they are capable of participating constructively have greater reps, and therefore their votes count more than others'. Everyone participates, but stability and fidelity of the teamspace as a whole is more certain, as it is guided by those who are knowledgeable and who may best discern the true interest of the teamspace. Yes, some members' votes count more than others, just as in the electoral college and other representational elections of the U.S. The difference is, the apportionment of voting power in the Ethosphere happens continuously and organically as a result of day-to-day interactions. A member's rep has nothing to do with its user's success or fame in the real world, or in any other context (teamspace) for that matter. Voting power is not influenced by one's race, family name, bank balance, religion, or party affiliation -- only by the pseudonymous member's reputation within that teamspace.

I believe Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison understood the wisdom of merit-based reputation and anonymous attribution when, writing as @publius for a few months starting in the Winter of 1787, they convinced the people of New York to ratify the U.S. Constitution. And I believe the deeper question they sought to examine in those articles is still being pondered.

It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.

-- The Federalist #1

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Voting Variants - Instant Runoff Voting

A great deal of interesting work and research has gone into the study of voting procedures over the years. There are many different ways to vote and to tally those votes. I will try to summarize the high points of several of these voting methods in this and subsequent posts. Remember that all these boil down to the same thing for simple, single-choice votes, so the differences between algorithms only matter for multi-choice elections.

Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) and its variants, including Single Transferable Vote (STV), require a voter to rank the multiple candidates in preference order. The Ethosphere GUI can facilitate that kind of voting using a simple drag-and-drop interface, allowing a member to arrange all the candidates in the desired order, favorite on top. It is not necessary that each member rank all candidates, allowing for the possibility that new alternate props can be added after the member has already voted.

Calculating the winner of an IRV election is somewhat complicated and, if done by hand, time consuming. In Ethosphere of course, it will be done by computers so this isn't much of an issue (but see the transparency discussion in Pros and Cons below). Basically, it works like this. First, the first place votes are tallied for each candidate. If one of the candidates has enough first place votes to exceed a defined threshold, say 51% simple majority, that candidate is declared the winner in the first round and the election is over. However, if no candidate receives a majority of votes, no clear winner can be declared and the race goes to a runoff election. Rather than going to the trouble and expense of conducting a second election, we use the ranking information on the original ballot to break the tie (hence the name, instant runoff). First, the candidate who had the lowest number of first place votes is eliminated, and the ballots of all members who voted for it are re-examined. For just those ballots, we take the second place choices and add them to the first place totals of the remaining candidates. This process is repeated until one of the candidates has the required majority.

Pros and Cons

IRV has a reasonable track record of use in practical, political elections throughout the world. Australia and Ireland have both used this method for many years. Many U.S. states and local governments use IRV for local or specialized elections. The Academy Awards for motion pictures also uses it. (Coincidentally, the Oscars are being broadcast tonight.) The practical, real world results from these various experiments have been mixed. It is undoubtedly better than plurality voting, but it's still vulnerable to strategic voting, of course. Duverger's Law, which says that plurality voting systems will always, eventually result in a two-party division of candidates, does not seem to apply to IRV, although in several real world cases it has resulted in just two viable political parties emerging.

Of the dozen or so standard criteria by which experts typically judge voting systems, IRV fails a couple of them, sometimes leading to unexpected, and unwanted behaviors. For example, IRV is not "consistent," meaning that if the membership is divided into two parts and votes counted separately, even if the same candidate wins in both sub-elections it may not be the winner when the votes are combined together. A different but related drawback is that IRV is not "summable," meaning it is not tractable to count votes in a sub-group, say a precinct, and pass the totals up to be combined at a central election office or some higher tier.

Like plurality voting, IRV tends to favor the more extreme candidates over the more moderate ones. Suppose there is an IRV election where candidate A has 51% and candidate C has 49% of the first place votes, but candidate B, the moderate candidate, has 80% of the second place votes. In other words, most of those members who favor candidate A and most of those who favor candidate B would all be okay with candidate B if it came to that. IRV would still declare A as the winner in the first round. In this admittedly contrived example, nearly half the members would be very unhappy with the result, having lost to their least favorite candidate by only a small margin. In Ethosphere, more so than real life, it is easy for unhappy members of a teamspace to secede and form their own teamspace. Of course, this tendency is undesirable and counter to one of the important goals of the system.

An equally serious practical drawback for this method is its subjective impact on transparency of an election. Explaining why a particular candidate prop won an election is somewhat difficult if there were two or three, or more, rounds of instant runoff required. Imagine explaining that candidate A won because, "More members ranked candidate A as their third choice and candidates X or Y as first or second, and candidates X and Y received the fewest first and second place votes."

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Attack!

There are many trust and reputation systems on the Internet today, and some are more robust than others in protecting themselves from ill-intentioned users. There is already some research available on robustness of reputation systems and the types of attacks they must defend against. Another goal of the rep system in the Ethosphere is to thwart most of the more common shenanigans that nefarious users can inflict. Here are a few of the infamous ones.

Sybil Attacks

Named after the (largely fictional) book by Flora Rheta Schreibe (1973) about a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder, this exploit is carried out by having a single user create many, perhaps thousands of, different aliases within the Ethosphere. In fact, multiple personality disorder is an advantage here, allowing a single user to diversify his personality and identity in order to function efficiently in diverse, unrelated teamspaces. It is the idea of reputation in the Ethosphere that helps ensure this beneficial feature does not lead to chaos and instability.

Although it is free and easy to create new aliases, each alias begins life with a rep of zero. Any influence exerted by such a "newbie" alias is limited to what it can convince other reputable members to do, members with non-zero reps. There is no voting or other numerical advantage in having numerous alises. While it is conceivable for a user to obtain non-zero rep shares for each of many different aliases within a teamspace, having a thousand aliases with reps of 1.0 each is no better than having one alias with a 1,000 rep share.

Collusion

A coordinated effort by many teamspace members, especially if they are owned by the same user (see above), might be used to unfairly influence voting and decision making. However, it wouldn't really be unfair unless such collusion could be used to artificially inflate the reputation of some or all the colluding members. The Ethosphere is designed to avoid all such possibilities by ensuring that rep shares cannot be granted from one member to another without some equivalent cost to the granting members. In all cases where a recommendation or accommodation from member @foo can cause an increase in the rep share of member @bar, such shares are actually transferred from @foo to @bar rather than being created out of nothing. For example, if @foo "likes" a comment made by @bar, a single rep share is transferred from @foo to @bar. This makes it impossible for members to collude to unfairly boost the reps of others.

It is still possible for subjective collusion to occur, where several cooperating members, perhaps belonging to the same user, all write valid but different comments in support of or against some prop. The plurality of support or opposition, rather than the merits of the arguments, might be more convincing to some. However, if there are indeed many different arguments for or against something, perhaps that should be a valid consideration.

Persona Breaks

This exploit is sometimes called a playbook attack. The basic scenario is, a member may behave well and participate constructively for some period of time, building up a high rep share, but then change abruptly with the intent to unethically influence or cause damage to the stability of a teamspace. Of course, this exploit can occur in real life also, either by design or through natural processes. For example, a person of great influence such as a prime minister, president, or CEO can experience a sudden mental break, an emotional crisis, a religious epiphany, or just a simple change of opinion, causing others who have developed a trust relationship to suddenly feel alienated or betrayed. In such cases, our only goal is that Ethosphere be no more vulnerable than real life.

There are other potential causes of reputational discontinuity in Ethosphere that we do attempt to address. For example, logins can be hijacked and passwords can be lost or stolen, enabling someone else to pretend to own an alias. It is even conceivable that valuable, high-rep aliases may be sold or traded in real life, causing an ownership change and, perhaps, a persona break. To protect against these kinds of exploits, Ethosphere allows members of a teamspace to challenge an alias in two different ways, if they become suspicious of a break. First, members can perform an action known as a auth challenge, which will cause the framework to require the user of an alias to re-enter her password and re-authenticate her identity. In more extreme cases, the members of a teamspace may see fit to perform an ID challenge for a "misbehaving" alias. An ID challenge will cause the framework to validate the user's email address before he can continue.

Re-Entry

Reputation systems that allow negative scores are vulnerable to re-entry exploits where a low-scoring entity simply leaves the system and re-invents itself as a new alias. The Ethosphere avoids this by starting all new aliases entering a teamspace with a zero rep and not allowing the rep to ever be negative. A zero rep means the alias has no numerical influence whatsoever within that teamspace. Although there are some punitive reputational transactions that can decrease one's rep, such punishment cannot accumulate beyond the zero point.

Denial of Service (DoS) Attacks

DoS exploits are notoriously difficult to defend against, and there are many potential ways for evil doers to cause the Ethosphere service to experience slow or even curtailed operation. Protection against one incarnation of this exploit, bots pretending to be aliases, can be provided by using "captchas" in the login process to try to distinguish between human (good) and robotic (bad) users.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Do We Have Consensus?

Voting and consensus are at the heart of the Ethosphere. It will be essential to choose the right voting algorithm(s), focus on transparency, and build and maintain a high level of trust in the consensus mechanics. The goal is that every user will come to trust the system so that, even after losing a contentious vote, there is confidence that the outcome of the procedure was, in fact, a true reflection of the will of the team, taking into account the relative reputations of the members.

This will be a tall order, given how little trust there is in the real life voting procedures and mechanisms currently used to decide issues and elect leaders throughout the world. There are major issues, both technical and political, with these real world systems, many of which Ethosphere has a unique opportunity to remedy given the benefits of its smaller scope, electronic nature, and years of research and thinking about the nuances of social choice.

In particular, the Ethosphere improves upon many other social choice systems in at least four major ways:

  1. Voting Algorithms - We will choose a voting method that is less susceptible to strategic/dishonest voting and fairer with respect to minority opinions.
  2. Rational Representation - Member reputation provides an excellent opportunity to balance the need for involved, knowledgeable electors with a fully-participatory, direct democracy.
  3. Protection of Minorities - The temptation of factions to secede from a teamspace because of a losing, perhaps contentious, vote will usually be outweighed by the benefits of staying with the team.
  4. Transparency - Every vote can be examined and audited by any member.

Voting Algorithms

There are basically two types of decisions that will often need to be made in Ethosphere: single choice and multi-choice decisions. A single choice decision asks the question, is this prop acceptable to a majority of the members of a teamspace, where "majority" means reputational majority. A multi-choice decision is involved in choosing from among a number of alternate props.

The single choice, yea/nay votes are the easiest to get right, in so far as the voting algorithm is concerned. Almost any algorithm, including the crusty and hopelessly broken plurality method in use today in the U.S. and many other places, reduces to something that works just fine for single-choice elections.

Multi-choice elections are mathematically and socially more challenging for the voting mechanisms. There is a ton of research and opinion about voting procedures and consensus algorithms, going all the way back to the ancient Greeks and including such luminous names as Plato, Daniel Bernoulli, Daniel Webster, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Bertrand Russell, and John von Neumann. Ironically, it seems completely impossible for experts, even professional mathematicians, to reach consensus on what is the best way to reach consensus.

There are literally dozens of different algorithms and hundreds of variations in use today. Rival web sites devoted to one method or another contain pages and pages of calculations, simulation results, and oratory wherein otherwise rational mathematicians and social scientists argue like school girls over who has the cutest boyfriend. But they all seem to agree on one thing: the first-across-the-bar plurality procedure still being used today in many places is one of worst, if not the worst possible choice.

The Ethosphere draws from two of the leading contenders among modern voting procedures: Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) and Range Voting (RV). We will describe each of these briefly in future posts, but if you wish to learn more about them and you don't mind sifting through a whole lot of silly bickering along the way, you should visit www.fairvote.org and www.rangevoting.org which are maintained by the respective advocacy groups.

For both these voting procedures, the ballot is a little different from, and slightly more complicated than, the simple one-chit-for-my-favorite type of ballot we are used to seeing in plurality elections.

Strategic Voting

These voting algorithms are vulnerable to so-called strategic, or dishonest voting whereby, given advanced information about the relative strength of the candidates, a member can sometimes help its preferred candidate more by ranking them in a way that doesn't reflect the member's actual preferences. Obviously, this is an undesirable characteristic, but unfortunately there is a kind of uncertainty principle for voting systems, called Arrow's Impossibility Theorem which essentially says all voting systems are vulnerable to this kind of strategic voting to some degree at least. In other words, voting theory is a branch of game theory. So be it.

Because of this, the Ethosphere should discourage dissemination of information about a vote's partial outcome before it is closed. In fact, it should not be possible for any member to know who has voted, or how, until the vote is finished and the winner is determined. Of course, this doesn't prevent unofficial, but perhaps accurate, polling of members via messaging or email. Those annoying pundits, pollsters, and prognosticators who hover around real-life elections will likely evolve in the Ethosphere as well.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Trust Me, I'm @HamsterOfDoom

When an alias becomes a member of a teamspace, it brings no experience, no track record, no reputation within that context. Instead, a member's rep is accumulated over time as a result of constructive participation in the teamspace. If an alias becomes a member of more than one teamspace, its rep within each is independently earned and maintained. A member's reps in other teamspaces are publically visible to all members, but those other reps do not have influence across teamspace boundaries, except possibly as a consideration during the membership application process.

In a later post, I will begin to define what is meant by "constructive participation in a teamspace" by discussing some of the specific activities that can effect, positively or negatively, a member's rep. But before getting into the detailed mechanics of reputation transactions, let's first discuss the general goals and philosophy of the Ethosphere reputation mechanisms.

Within Ethosphere, and elsewhere on the Internet, anonymity is both a blessing and a curse. The ability to choose a handle like @HamsterOfDoom that does not divulge any private information about you and to choose different handles for different contexts are highly valuable, if not essential, features for navigating through the privacy minefield that is the Internet. On the other hand, if you are posting or commenting at, say, a political site as @HamsterOfDoom, your insights and opinions are valued no more or less than every other poster, whether you happen to be a pundit or a produce manager in real life. It all boils down to trust, or lack thereof. The basic goal of the rep mechanism in Ethosphere is to enable such trust relationships between pseudonymous members of a teamspace.

Obviously, you would tend to have more trust in another team member with whom you have personally had a history of constructive and beneficial (if not always agreeable) interaction. This is how you might come to trust, or at least identify another commenter on, say, the NY Times or Fox News web sites. Similarly, if you are following a Twitter user called @TomHanks, the only real way to be sure this is the real Hollywood actor/producer instead of a teenager from Cleveland or something, is to watch its tweets and build, over time, a trust relationship with that anonymous handle based solely on what it says online.

The rep mechanism provides a simple way to quantify this type of contextual trust and share it with others. In the Ethosphere, the question, "Who is this really?" will rarely come up. A member with a high rep is likely to be trusted, at least within the context of that teamspace, based on its cumulative interactions with many different members of the team. The member's identity in real life, whether she has a degree or a famous father or a big bank account, is irrelevant in Ethosphere. This may sound strange at first, because we have come to equate integrity with personal identity. But does it really matter so much if the tweets posted by some user named @BarackObama were physically typed by the President of the United States, instead of someone close enough to him to know his thoughts and activities? Moreover, if you are within a teamspace whose charter is to solve American national political problems, what really matters is how successful @BarackObama is proposing good solutions and driving consensus for those proposals. Whether that member is a political science professor, a meat market manager, or POTUS is completely irrelevant.

The Ethosphere is not only a meritocracy, it is also a simple economy and rep is its fundamental currency.

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.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Teamspaces and Props

The Ethosphere is a (currently imaginary) collection of online places and communities where decisions are made, conclusions are drawn, and progress is achieved. These are places where all sorts of non-physical endeavors can be carried out, and where productivity scales with the number of participants.

The Ethosphere allows users to create teamspaces around any desired topic or charter. A teamspace is basically a structured web site together with a community of members. Membership in a teamspace is completely controlled by the existing team members, as is most every other aspect of the teamspace.

Members of a teamspace can publish short opinions, ideas, resolutions, proposals, referenda, plebiscites, or propositions for consideration by the team. Such documents are referred to generically as Props and to publish one for consideration is to "put up a prop." Most activities in a teamspace revolve around the life cycle of props, their publication, acceptance, ratification, repeal, and/or amendment by the team.

Whether a prop is allowed to transition to another state, like accepted, ratified, or repealed, is determined by the team as a whole using a specialized voting procedure. The exact parameters of each vote depends on the type of transition (acceptance generally will require a weaker consensus than ratification, for example) and may be customized for different teamspaces. Similarly, the amount of time a prop is allowed to stay in a given state will vary by state and is customizable by teamspace. The consensus procedure is designed to keep props moving through their lifecycles and to encourage timely decisions be made about them.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Introduction to Ethosphere

There are many places on the Web to socialize, to passively share family photos or connect with your friends. But there are relatively few sites designed to encourage collaboration at scale. Blogs, micro blogs, and social networks are all essentially equivalent to walking into a crowded room and shouting something (this may sound familiar if you've read some of the other posts here), usually something about yourself or your cat. When the room becomes full, the result is unstructured chaos — plenty of conversation but few, if any, conclusions. Facebook has shown us that socializing online is highly amusing, even addictive. But is it the right way to actually accomplish anything?

In his letter accompanying the recent Facebook S-1 filing, Mark Zuckerberg gives us a tantalizing hint of things to come for the social networking giant.

We hope to change how people relate to their governments and social institutions.

We believe building tools to help people share can bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time.

By giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible. These voices will increase in number and volume. They cannot be ignored. Over time, we expect governments will become more responsive to issues and concerns raised directly by all their people rather than through intermediaries controlled by a select few.

Joe Evans over at Techcrunch has more to say about this.

This little tease from FB might turn out to be nothing, but in my opinion, it briefly describes what is missing from social networking, the land of kitty cats and grand-babies. Now that Facebook has redefined not just how we socialize online, but how we socialize period, it is time to take the next step from social to societal, from "me" to "we", from Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to something I call Ethosphere.

Ethosphere is a framework for building online places and communities where decisions are made, conclusions are drawn, and progress is achieved. These are places where all sorts of non-physical endeavors can be carried out, and where productivity scales with the number of participants.

New Directions

Some of you know that I stepped down as Caringo's Chief Architect last summer to pursue my next endeavor. I'm still very positive about the company and its products, and, most importantly, the team of very bright software folks who continue to work on CAStor and the future of the cloud.

My interest in distributed computing has not waned, and I will continue to write about related topics here as the spirit moves me. However, having watched the emergence of social networking systems like Facebook and Twitter over the last few years, I have begun to think again about broader, but related topics. In a way, social networking - "distributed people" - is like distributed computing and it shares many of the same challenges and opportunities. Both fields ask essentially the same question: How can we build systems in which autonomous, distributed entities collaborate with one another in order to accomplish goals?

So I am going to expand the focus of this blog to include some of the fascinating (at least to me) ideas I've been exploring over the past few months. We will touch on issues such as distributed collaboration, online voting, reputation, and identity and discuss them from both technical and social viewpoints.

Given that we're talking about people now, and not just computer hardware, I expect some of the topics will be more controversial. And that's good! Feel free to comment on any post if you disagree or want to correct my assumptions. Part of the point of this blog for me is to learn from my readers (assuming there are any) and test some theories of mine that so far only my dog has vetted.

This should be fun.