Posted by: Ben | May 9, 2010

Filling Gaps in the Online Ecosystem

I am still amazed daily at how quickly the internet is maturing.  Lately I’ve been looking for decent freeware and finally moved from the iPhone+AT&T to the HTC Droid Incredible+Verizon. (Verizon makes AT&T look horrible, by the way…I will never go back.)   The level of cloud integration is exciting, but still sub-surface.  Most of my friends are still skeptical of Gmail, and are wary of Facebook’s privacy rules.  But there’s so much more going on than just these things, although e-mail as one’s verifying identity and the social graph are crucial building blocks for the internet.

While I’m happy with the internet (and recent FCC enthusiasm for net neutrality), there are significant gaps that affect me professionally and personally which, when addressed, will help the online ecosystem to flourish.  Here they are:

Head Coverings, Niqabs, and Faces:  Visual Security

Some Anglo countries are wrapped up in argument about whether people should be allowed to wear head scarves or niqabs in public or in school.  An incident in Australia where a man wearing a burqa committed an armed robbery has caused some in the opposition government to push for a ban on full-face Islamic veils.  A woman in Italy was told by police to remove a veil covering her face.  In Belgium last week, every single deputy in the lower house voted in favor of a ban on the burqa or niqab in public, so now the vote goes to the Senate.  Germany and France could be following suit.

Certainly Europe is having trouble with integration — it is seen that Muslims and immigrants are not becoming fully European enough.  Arguments against veils also summon the complaint that women are not treated as equals in much of Muslim society.

From Jawa Report:

Both sides have valid complaints here; it is true that Muslim immigrants worldwide (not as much in the US, but that’s really not saying much given the anti-Muslim distrust Americans have right now) are having trouble freely expressing their identity in the face of prejudice.  It is true that some Muslim women choose to cover their faces and bodies, as part of their culture and expressing positively their religious faith.  It is true that Muslims feel under siege by the rest of the world, and this has united the Muslim faith about as much as that is possible (it is still highly fragmented by country, culture, sect, etc. etc. etc.).

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not a terrorist apologist.  I joined the Army to join the hunt in killing those who follow Al-Qaeda’s beliefs.  I respect the sentiment of online terrorist hunters and harassers like those at Jawa Report who point out jihadists who are threatening violence against the US out in the open and are not being prosecuted/shut down for it.  While there are many white Americans who say despicable things about Muslims in general, there has also been a sharp rise in the number of American-born men who have become radicalized.  Some degree of political correctness has muddled efforts to investigate those who are becoming true risks to national security.  It is true that the attackers have all been Muslim, so it would be dumb to not link the two.

This is for another time, but I do regard jihadist-based terrorism as mainly a function of US foreign policy, but it has become inter-mingled with American patriotism, Muslim identity, freedom, and security.  Not simple to unpack.

What I mainly want to talk about here is one way in which I think technology, openness, and transparency can mitigate cultural traditions.  In Daniel Suarez‘s books Daemon and Freedom (which compare with Ender’s Game, The Matrix, and Snow Crash in my mind), he writes about a genius programmer who created a company, successful worldwide, which let players play online in different virtual worlds.  [Here’s a good review of the book.]  Eventually though, the programmer, diagnosed with a terminal disease, sought to create a networked game that hooked into the real world.  He ended up creating an alternative economic system that used augmented reality, social reputation, and vast computing power to replace corrupt, established security and economic interests.

To explain, people could wear custom-made glasses which had a HUD which showed datapoints mapped onto their field of view, so you could look at a city street and see text labels of the buildings and reputation scores and online identities for the people who walked by you.  Here’s a sort of mock-up, combining Suarez’s vision with mine in a simple way:

Sam Martin’s article “Envisioning Your Future in 2020” has some better-designed mock-ups:

This sort of digital identity verification (it used biometrics to verify the wearer’s identity) could turn visual identification on its head.  One big issue I see with the burqa bans is that it shows how primitive our identification system still is.  We consider it less safe in the west if we cannot see someone’s face.  If someone’s face is hidden, we cannot trust them.  We assume they have something to hide or they’re about to do something that requires them hiding their face from us and from the growing number of surveillance cameras.  We cannot read their facial expressions to (oftentimes incorrectly) judge their intentions and mood.

Now, to someone who believes women should hide themselves, this, I would presume, indicates that he feels less concerned about strangers committing a crime against him than he is about acknowledging women as individuals.  To a fair degree, it is the opposite in the west.

There was a good op-ed in the NYTimes about this whole debate just last week.  The US has an analog to burqas by the way:  baggy clothing, sweatshirts, and sagging pants.  These represent a style, an identity, to many kids.  But by security professionals they are seen as clothes that hide one’s face (see in The Wire, the muscle always puts on their hoods right as they attack), clothes that can hide the bulges of firearms and weapons, and clothes that make one appear to be larger than they actually are.

So imagine we had a system where you could use your glasses to see what someone’s rating and reputation was, to see how networked they were within their community, to see whether they had any jail offenses or criminal records, to see how trustworthy they were.  Would it then matter what they wore?  Would it become like online games where people spend many hours tinkering how they appear even though it has no game mechanic value?

Perhaps it could even have positive effects:  in Freedom, Suarez has one of the characters go to a mechanist to imbue a 3D-printed object with “magical” properties — that is, it is a real-world object that is identified (presumably through something like RFID) as something that can unlock things in the virtual world.  Perhaps wearing a burqa in this new system would improve one’s rating as it is seen by those of that person’s religious faith.  While this may or may not be a good thing in terms of women’s equality, it removes much of the tension of visual security vs. individual/tribal identity.

Public Sensors

This brings me to my next topic.  We need more reporting, both intentionally created by observant humans and automatically by sensors and devices.  One of Twitter’s strengths is that it’s so accessible for sharing content quickly.  A sensor that detects changes in its environment can easily use the Twitter API to publish its statistics and results to the web for immediate analysis.  At the same time, mobile phones and cameras are becoming faster and more connected to networks, allowing individuals who witness events such as police brutality, spontaneously-created social gatherings, magical NBA moments (barring copyright restrictions, sigh), massive accidents, terrorist attacks, and weird stuff that happens every day to be immediately reported online.

Trendsmap aggregates tweets by location for tracking trends.

This will require more technological literacy.  People will need to be more comfortable using their tools.  That will be the easy part.  The hard part is getting people to understand the utility of sharing what they experience every day.  Most people still think sharing online is narcissistic, useless, and degrading to quality social interaction.  They think it is more important to call or meet up with a friend than to share a photo online to the internet that is directed towards no one in particular.  Further than that, they value their privacy and want to control who knows certain things about them.

While this is understandable, there are considerable reasons to share.  If you witness a car accident, or someone assaulting someone else, you recording footage of the incident and uploading it may allow for justice to be served.  It is evidence.  If you witness an ephemeral moment of kindness or happiness and share it online, it is saved in the digital record of humanity that we will one day be able to search for, catalog, and show as example of our collectiveness as a civilization.  If you live near the beach and you see tar balls coming in from the Gulf oil spill, you putting photos and videos online show on-the-ground proof that it is happening — this is citizen reporting/journalism.  It makes it better for journalists who are trying to get an accurate picture, and it helps civil and governmental leaders allocate resources better when they have better perspective of how bad something is.

Louisiana Bucket Brigade, using the free Ushahidi software to record oil spill-related incidents.

Also, as I have argued constantly, I believe that maintaining our personal reputations will become a primary way we receive access to credit and to jobs, as we will have public evidence testifying to our quality of character, ability to share and learn and lead and educate, and more.  Those who decide they value their privacy will not be as trustworthy in the minds of those who do share more.

In other words, they will be seen as wearing a digital data burqa by the rest of the wired society. I see people who are deleting their Facebook profiles and writing long screeds against Facebook and sharing online as the same as media companies.  Media companies are fighting the distributive, massive computing power online.  That data is just about free to share and disseminate means that those who had monopolies on that data before will lose their ability to control (and therefore monetize) that data.  It is no surprise why those who own magazines, book labels, album deals, and so on would fight against the sharing of media freely online.  That is their monetary stream, and they are no longer the only distributors of it.  Their value as aggregators is still needed, but it must adapt to the changing conditions introduced by the internet in the same way that the Gutenburg printing press took away power from monks and scholars.

Individuals, most of whom have little inkling of what privacy actually means or what it should mean to them, attack Facebook instead of the NSA.  Certainly it is more visceral to be worried about what your boss might see about you than what the FBI might obtain about you through a warrantless wiretap (which you might see yourself as something that would never possibly affect you).  But our priorities are off.  People like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Shawn Fanning of Napster and Sergei Brin/Larry Page of Google do not value the old industries and ways of doing things very highly.  They understand the power of the internet and how it can be used to create more efficient, useful systems.  Just like Fanning did not really care about copyrights on music, Zuckerberg doesn’t care about privacy.  I would say that Zuckerberg DOES care about protecting privacy, but he also envisions a digital world (like Fanning does) where data is shared openly and transparently, allowing it to be used by a wider amount of people and getting far more reach than what was possible before.

It is people like these who are unlocking the doors to a more democratized world, where power is more evenly distributed amongst a larger swath of people and away from governments and gatekeepers who seek to hoard that data and sell it off/use it to protect themselves.  I’m not saying Zuckerberg is a peace-loving democracy builder, since he, like Brin, Page, Gates, and Jobs all seek to create models for making money, but I do think that he “gets it” when it comes to the future.  Far ahead of what society claims it’s ready for (yet it continues to flock to Facebook…).

Comment Systems

Another huge gap I see in the internet is within comment systems.  Right now, some news sites allow for comments, while others don’t.  I’ve seen small border town newspapers with vibrant comment communities, and large metro newspapers that don’t even allow you to give feedback.  There still exists no global comment system that lets you give comments on any web site you visit for anyone else to see when they visit (although attempts have been made here).  There doesn’t even exist many good systems that allow you to rate comments and filter them out by post quality, humor, utility, anecdotal evidence, etc.

All of which makes reading comments mostly a useless endeavor.  If I can’t read ONLY the comments that share new insight into a topic, or those comments which are hilarious, then I’m left with YouTube, which has absolutely the most offensive, stupid, and pointless comments anywhere.

Plug-and-play comment systems like Disqus and Intense Debate don’t even let you search all their comments on a topic.

The lack of more sophisticated commenting on the internet is surprising since it was one of the first things one could do online (via replying to e-mail, and writing to Usenet), but I suspect it is because those companies don’t have the massive capital necessary to invest in the computing power it would take to index those comments for global searches.  This hints that such a task is something Google would be especially good at tackling.

We need both supply and demand in comments.  We need news sites to build a network of searchable comments that are aggregated by post quality and also by topic (via standard tagging of the stories the comments are from).  So that I can read all the comments on the internet that relate to the topic of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, for example.  Right now, those comments are scattered across hundreds of web sites.

If I want to read what oil rig engineers are saying about it, or what beach property owners in Alabama think, or what ecological scientists think, I can only read their opinions at great expense to my personal time by way of searching local blogs, sifting through hundreds of junk comments, and so on.  This must change.  It must be easier, cheaper, and more integrated and ordered.

Topic discussion on reddit.

Right now the quickest way to get intelligent comments is to use reddit or hackernews or other niche sites.  What’s great about reddit is that it attracts interesting people who do interesting things, and they find the newest cool stuff on the internet.  I would estimate that much of the content you eventually find going viral starts off on sites like reddit and digg.  I love reading reddit comments to get quick feedback.

Another request I would have for the comment system gap is to link all comments one makes to an identity.  This is, fortunately, one of the more developed features within the identity layer right now, as Facebook is letting us log in to web sites, and Disqus lets you view all your comments that you’ve sent using their service.


Lastly, the internet needs to find its humanity.  Anthropologically speaking, online folks in my opinion tend to have little understanding of the importance of tradition, ritual, faith, and tribe.  I think they should be able to intuit it, at least, because many of the most hardcore internet folks had to undergo a rite of passage to become a hacker or a web geek/designer.  They know they exist within a virtual tribe that the rest of the world can barely understand or place value in.  I don’t think the online world has provided much to people in the way of religion or faith, though — that is one piece that you can only get offline for now.  Unless, of course, you are Muslim; while Christians don’t really use the internet to organize (while most web geeks I would bet are mostly agnostic/atheist), the cases of jihadists online have shed light into how Muslims disconnected from their people worldwide will use online forums to learn proper Muslim practice of prayer, meditation, and custom.

What I’m proposing is something I’m working on for  See this screenshot:

I want to build in records of one’s rites of passage, both real and virtual.  Achievement systems within games (like Modern Warfare 2) and on Xbox Live are like rites of passage systems — they mark achievements you have made as you transform from a nub to a pro.  I want to build in digital incentives for public service and volunteering in the real world, to affect your online reputation.  All those good things that can be done that many don’t do because they don’t see it as advancing themselves or being noticed, should be captured.  Right now it, sadly, takes a great amount of caring, dedication, and commitment to do all those good things in the world that receive almost no recognition.  I’m not saying that people should do good deeds or give back to society only if it gets them notice, but I do believe it is inherently human (and even mammalian) to seek external as well as internal encouragement.  We are social beings.

Lastly, I think we’d be able to properly assess and monetize worthwhile careers that have traditionally been paid less well.  For instance, we all know that there are journalists and authors and priests and social workers and mothers and soldiers who provide a public service and who are valuable to the community and those around them in ways that cannot be compensated in money.  Imagine if, like an MMORPG like World of Warcraft, you were rewarded and could level up for doing these deeds?  Imagine if you used your level 20 status to get a job at the Washington Post, or if you used your level 15 hiker rating to get a job with Parks and Wildlife?  What if your high math and quant levels got you in at Wall Street?  Isn’t that what we’ve been trying to create and use all along?


Anyway, these are major gaps I think need to be filled.  Until I find myself in a lot of money, I cannot fund these myself.  If I ever get off the ground, I’m worried that I’ll have to quit my job and do it full-time and raise at least enough money to hire people to work for me.  That is a risky proposition.  I am hoping that the proper funders like Ted Leonsis or Mark Cuban or Bill Gates will invest money in filling these gaps, approaching it from a humanitarian point of view and less of just a venture capital-what’s-in-it-for-me point of view.

I’m happy to see more and more projects just in 2010 geared towards OAuth, OpenID, and distributed online identity projects such as Diaspora* (which I helped back on Kickstarter, and which reached its minimum level of funding).  I think the growth of identity layer tools is actually starting to take off in 2010.  And we’ve needed that for a very long time.


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