November 6, 2007

Personal essay: Some early thoughts regarding the CCLaPocracy

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

CCLaPocracy: A new kind of online community

Okay, all you computer programmers out there (and I know there's a lot of you); I got an idea I'd like you to cook yr noodle on for a bit, if you don't mind. I might lose some of you non-programming people out there over the course of this entry, so I apologize in advance...

One of the things I've been spending some serious time thinking about since this summer is the idea of a CCLaP community site; a forum if you will, a bulletin board, a social network, some kind of online space where regular readers can get together and communicate directly with each other, regarding a whole range of artistic subjects and maybe even as a personals network for single creative nerds (this site's number-one demographic). The only thing that's stopped me from opening such a thing, in fact, is that I detest the options available these days for policing such sites; how just one bad apple, for example, can get in there and cause a flame war that will tear the entire community apart, with almost nothing the people in that community themselves can do about it without some sort of constant online administrator overlord. I hate the fact that current forum systems encourage anonymous hate and short blurts of offensive responses; if I were to open a forum system myself under the CCLaP name, I would want it to be a thriving community of intelligent, well-versed artists and arts lovers, where encouragement and tolerance is rewarded, hate and flame wars dealt with quickly and decisively.

And then I read Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and experienced a revelation; that if you could just get a couple of programmers to whip up a fairly simple framework for you, you could actually use Doctorow's idea of a reputation-based economy to create the kind of forum system precisely like I mention above. The situation in Doctorow's novel, for those who haven't read it, is that in the far future, nothing is scarce anymore, including human life; one can now not only clone one's body at any time, but also download all of one's memories into a computer, to be inserted into that new clone after your original body dies, so that one effectively becomes immortal.

In such a world, of course, money is no longer needed; but it turns out that the pursuit of money was in fact one of the main motivating factors in most humans' decision to contribute to society, to be civil to one another, to participate in the arts seriously enough to actually be good at it. What this society ends up creating, then, is what they call a "reputation-based economy;" one with virtual credits called "Whuffies," exchanged in an online form only, with your total amount being a public figure that basically floats over your head as a virtual graphic 24 hours a day, in that 500 years in the future everyone has the internet sent directly to their brains. If your neighbor brought over some mis-delivered mail, then, you could instantly send 10 or so credits their way, as a little thank-you for being thoughtful; if you made a popular movie, on the other hand, then maybe a million people would send you 10 credits for having a great time at the theatre. What almost everyone does, then, whenever they meet you for the first time, is glance above your head and see what your Whuffie score is; it's an instant way, in other words, for anyone to see what society in general thinks about your ability to contribute to society, keeping your motivation to be a contributor to society high despite there no longer being any money or any scarcity in the world.

After reading Doctorow's book and frankly being floored by it, I suddenly realized that the exact same thing could be applied to an online forum system, as long as you could convince a couple of programmers out there to whip such a system up for you; where on top of the usual message boards where people are leaving notes and having debates, and on top of the usual "friendship" features at such places like social networks, you could also cook up a way for people to exchange imaginary credits with each other, with a public display of those credits on a person's profile page, whether or not they want that number to appear. Say, for example, that any member of the community has the ability to give any other member of the community up to 10 credits a day, every day; that if you come across a message that you found exceptionally helpful or constructive or insightful, you could instantly send that person 10 credits, with there being no limit to how many people you could do that for on any given day. And then if you "friend" someone and they "friend" you back, it becomes even more dramatic; both you and they can send each other up to 100 credits a day, of course profoundly encouraging people to become constructive and optimistic contributors, maintaining a healthy circle of formal "friends."

Ah, but here's the catch; that it works backwards as well, that you can take away 10 credits from any other person in the community every single day, concerning as many people as you like, and up to 100 credits a day from people who are your "friends." And that is what self-polices the system; it's what forces people, for example, to only "friend" the people they actually want to be friends with, and to work vigorously to keep those existing friends happy, because those so-called friends actually have the ability to make your life pretty miserable too. It's what helps avoid a "friend whore" situation, like is rampant these days at places like MySpace and Facebook; because in those systems, becoming a friend of someone else is literally worth nothing, convincing people to link to sometimes tens of thousands of others without a single care in the world. Under a reputation-based economy, these friendships would actually be worth something, as well as there being big things at stake; it keeps the entire system a lot more balanced, a lot more realistic, a lot more indicative of what they were meant to signify in the first place (an easy way for someone to see who your real friends are) instead of being the meaningless tokens they've become at most social-network forum systems anymore.

And this provides another powerful benefit as well; that much like the "flagging" system at Craigslist, it quickly gives the entire community a way to quickly deal with a legitimate creep or flame-fanner, but in such incremental doses that a legitimately significant amount of people end up having to be peeved before any permanent retribution is enacted. And again, you just make it part of the credit-based system; that anytime a member falls below a score of negative 500, for example, they immediately come to my attention as the owner of the site. Because ultimately, of course, you do need a subjective human(s) at the top of it all, able to look at each trouble-making situation and determine what common sense has to say; otherwise you end up with a Digg-type situation, where people are able to "game the system" all too easily and the entire point is to see who can game it the best. That way, if a person is being an obvious disruption to the entire community, the community as a collective series of individuals can bring it to my attention, without me having to be a 24/7 part of the system myself; but if a cabal decided to "gang up" on an innocent victim for personal reasons or as part of a flame war, it would also come to my attention and I could instead deal with the cabal that is causing trouble.

If I'm thinking correctly, this would basically be a way to self-regulate and self-police an online community, in a way that's not only much more powerful but much more fair than any of the ways that currently exist; and not only that, but as CCLaP expands in scope and budget, it'd be a way to reward the most valuable members of the community as well, with for example a person earning a free t-shirt or paper book when reaching a certain score level. Programmers, what do you think? If I have things right in my head, this would involve pretty much nothing more than a plain ol' friendship-style social network and bulletin-board system, only with the ability to exchange credits baked in as well, in the way that I described, and with a person's credit score involuntarily appearing on their public profile page. Do I have my logic correct? And more importantly, would any programmers like to actually throw together such a framework on behalf of the center? I've got the room here at the website, after all, to host such a system; and I also have permission from the server owner to run a dynamic relational-database framework here, the kind of backend needed to run such a system. (Of course, there are only specific software systems I can use; let me check with Jimi and see what they are, and I'll update this entry at a later time.) Or maybe someone would be interested in helping me put it together module by module at Hmm!

Thanks for slogging through this entire theory-heavy entry; and of course I encourage you to share your thoughts as comments below, or to send them privately via email to cclapcenter [at]

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:28 PM, November 6, 2007. Filed under: Arts news | CCLaP news |