Monthly Archives: March 2008

Wikipedia: to delete or not to delete?

The Economist has an interesting story about the debate raging within Wikipedia about whether Wikipedia should let a 1000 flowers bloom (or in Wikipedia’s case, over 2,000,000 entries) or should limit the number of articles to ones it deems of broader interest. For example, should there be 500 articles on individual Pokemon characters or not?

It’s analogous to the debate about whether community is built top-down or bottom-up. The bottom-up folks “the inclusionists” believe that letting contributors determine what is newsworthy (or article-worthy) builds a stronger sense of community and participation. Top-downers (or “deletionists”) believe that, although the storage space for these relatively obscure or not well edited articles is minimal, that having too sprawling content leads to lower citizen participation in editing and improving these entries. An appropriate analogy might be that it would be easier to get volunteers to work on a small but usable urban park than blanket Denali National Park (a park the size of Massachusetts, even if people lived close to Mt. Denail in Alaska). Also, potentially Wikipedia’s perceived quality is only as good as its weakest articles or average articles and as the volume of articles rises and the level of editing doesn’t rise proportionately, average quality article gets weaker.

The bar has been raised, whether appropriately or not, for new wikipedia entries and as a consequence a greater percentage of new wikipedia articles get denied. As a consequence, “[m]any who are excited about contributing to the site end up on the “Missing Wikipedians” page: a constantly updated list of those who have decided to stop contributing. It serves as a reminder that frustration at having work removed prompts many people to abandon the project”

The Economist notes that it is getting harder and harder to draw the appropriate line around inclusion. “How do you draw editorial distinctions between an article entitled “List of nicknames used by George W. Bush” (status: kept) and one about “Vice-presidents who have shot people” (status: deleted)? Or how about “Natasha Demkina: Russian girl who claims to have X-ray vision” (status: kept) and “The role of clowns in modern society” (status: deleted)?

“To measure a subject’s worthiness for inclusion (or “notability”, in the jargon of Wikipedians), all kinds of rules have been devised. So an article in an international journal counts more than a mention in a local newspaper; ten matches on Google is better than one match; and so on. These rules are used to devise official policies on particular subjects, such as the notability of pornographic stars (a Playboy appearance earns you a Wikipedia mention; starring in a low-budget movie does not) or diplomats (permanent chiefs of station are notable, while chargés d’affaires ad interim are not).

“Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, has himself fallen foul of these tricky notability criteria. Last summer he created a short entry about a restaurant in South Africa where he had dined. The entry was promptly nominated for deletion, since the restaurant had a poor Google profile and was therefore considered not notable enough. After a lot of controversy and media coverage (which, ahem, increased the restaurant’s notability), the entry was kept, but the episode prompted many questions about the adequacy of the editorial process.”

Other related Wikipedia items: Kevin Kelly notes that his answer to the Edge’s question in 2008 –“What have you changed your mind about?” — is the success of Wikipedia which he thought would never work. And there’s a fascinating insider account by Nicholson Baker (masquerading as a book review in New York Review of Books of “Wikipedia: The Missing Manual”) discussing the amazingly unscientific process of deciding what articles makes it in or not to Wikipedia.

See the Economist article here.

Phone stalking or phone schmoozing?

The Wall Street Journal reports on new technology that will make it easier for cellphone users to know which of the friends in their social networks are nearby. Is this a new e-tool for building more social capital or a stalker’s wet dream?

For sure much of this is going to depend on user controls and interfaces. In a world where “friendship” can become cheapened on Facebook, will cell users want to let anyone they called a “friend” know where they are? In the same way as it may be socially hard to refuse a Facebook-won’t-you-be-my-friend request of a relative stranger or someone you dislike, imagine the next generation. Someone you don’t really like, is now sidling up to you, noting how “serendipitous” it is that you two happen to be in the same place at the same time and suggesting that you two hang out.

Viewed on the positive side, maybe propinquity software, by imposing such risks will start to raise the bar of who people call their “friends” on social networking software, and maybe it will increase the likelihood that more virtual e-ties become grounded in face-to-face real encounters.

And this starts to get closer to software that Keith Hampton (a scholar at Univ. of Pennsylvania) theorized where you could create a new latent *group* from people who attended an interesting conference or talk together, and then have the cellphone software increase the chance that these relatively weak ties could strengthen and persist over time by being activated when you were close to others in this network.

I think it will have some potential for good, but some terrible stories may lead Americans to chuck both baby and bathwater.

For more information, see original article “Spy Cells: Phones Will Soon Tell Where You Are” by Amol Sharma and Jessica E. Vascellaro (WSJ, 3/28/08), p. A1.

The article describes how Sprint Nextel has signed up hundreds of thousands of users through Loopt technology and Verizon Wireless plans to offer in the next few weeks to 65 million customers. The software reminds users that they are being tracked, lets users turn off these features at any time, and tries to shield users against

“… [I]increasingly, the wireless industry is deciding that location tracking has so much sales potential that it’s worth the risks, so long as tight safeguards are in place. It’s a result of the convergence of GPS with another digital phenomenon: a generation of young people who are comfortable sharing a great deal of personal information on social-networking Web sites and eager for still more ways to stay connected. The initial target market of location-tracking services: 18- to 24-year-olds.”Vivek Agrawal, a 22-year-old composer in Palo Alto, Calif., uses the service offered by Sprint to know where 10 friends are at any given time and organize impromptu get-togethers. ‘I’m using it amongst my closest friends,’ he says. ‘Those are the people that I’m used to asking questions like, ‘Where are you?’ “

“The wireless industry is cracking open this new market gingerly, mindful that it could face a huge backlash from consumers and regulators if location-tracking were abused by stalkers, sexual predators, advertisers or prosecutors. ‘When it gets to privacy, that’s quite frankly an area where we can’t afford to make any mistakes,’ says Ryan Hughes, a vice president at Verizon Wireless.”

Certain protections are in place: Among them, “cellphone users who sign up can make their whereabouts available only to a network of friends who also buy the service. They can view each others’ location any time, with the proviso that users always can temporarily turn off location-tracking. The service doesn’t continuously update, because that would overtax the carrier networks and consume too much battery life; it “refreshes” every 15 minutes or so, and users can always manually refresh….Children under 14 can’t sign up. And for the first two weeks, new users are to get several messages reminding them that the service is on and that they’re being tracked.”

Customers have to sign a waiver of any liability from customers’ location being disclosed. The service will eventually cost several dollars a month, but Sprint is initially offering it free as a promotion.

A whole range of products are being offered, Loopt, Whrrl (by Pelago), oneConnect (on Yahoo)

Also, see the Peersonalizer: a Facebook application and a module inside the free, downloadable WiPeer software developed by lead researcher Professor Roy Friedman’s team in 2007. [WiPeer makes direct wireless (WiFi) communication between computers possible - without intermediary devices (such as Internet routers) - at distances of up to 900 ft.]. This software could help you find other Facebook friends in proximity, even without an Internet connection.

Cheaters (and now diehard punishers) never prosper

As AP reports it “Screaming sports coaches and cutthroat tycoons have it wrong: Nice guys do finish first, a new study suggests.”

The current issue of Nature summarizes the results of a Harvard study with 100 college students from Boston playing prisoner’s dilemma game.
The AP reported: “Common game theory has held that punishment makes two equals cooperate. But when people compete in repeated games, punishment fails to deliver, said study author Martin Nowak. He is director of the evolutionary dynamics lab at Harvard where the study was conducted….”On the individual level, we find that those who use punishments are the losers,” Nowak said his experiments found.” And those who punished the most, did the worst.

Nowak and all found that none of the top 5 finishers used costly punishment and the use of costly punishment didn’t help groups overall. Effective players used a *tit for tat* strategy, much as Axelrod found earlier. Punishment may force others to do what you want, but researchers found that the situation could rapidly deteriorate.

See article on their story “It Pays to be Nice.”

And a related article in Nature called *Punisher Pays* by M. Milinski and B. Rockenbach. Abstract: The tendency of humans to punish perceived free-loaders, even at a cost to themselves, is an evolutionary puzzle: punishers perish, and those who benefit the most are those who have never punished at all.
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Journal Nature

Play prisoner’s dilemma (without Nowak’s costly punishment) against a computer.

Spending money on others “buys” you happiness

They say money can’t buy you happiness, but new research suggests that it can, if you spend it on someone else.

“Simply making very small changes in how you spend money can make a difference for happiness,” said Elizabeth Dunn, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, who led the research along with a professor at Harvard Business School.”

They tested their theory at a small Boston-area medical supply company, where employees received fat bonuses averaging about $5,000, measuring levels of happiness before and after. What they found, said Michael I. Norton, assistant professor at Harvard Business School, was that “the size of the bonus you get has no relation to how happy you are, but the amount you spend on other people does predict how happy you are.”

Read Boston Globe article here and view other Social Capital blog entries on happiness.

Dunn et al. article appears here: “Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness” by Elizabeth W. Dunn, Lara B. Aknin, and Michael I. Norton, Science, 3/21/08 319: 1687-1688

See also Harvard Gazette article on this research.

Randy Pausch’s passing away and legacy

Many people wish to know inspiring Randy Pausch’s current medical condition. Alas he passed away last night at home in Virginia early on July 25, 2008 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 47.  Here are the 8 ways I see him influencing my life (his legacy).

I wrote about his amazing Carnegie Mellon University “Last Lecture” earlier (which has been viewed by more than 6,000,000 Americans. I also wrote how he has lived to fulfill his last unfulfilled dream of playing with a professional football team. [Randy was the head teaching assistant when I was a teaching assistant in an introductory computer class at Brown University some years back.]

He lived a bright life to the end, he went back in June to give a charge to the graduating seniors at his beloved Carnegie Mellon University. Randy who called himself an “accidental celebrity” and says there are not many of these for pancreatic cancer since people don’t survive long enough for there to be a Michael J. Fox, mustered the energy, in March, 2008, to testify powerfully and movingly before Congress on pancreatic cancer research.

Pausch noted that no progress has been made on pancreatic cancer research in the last 30 years and there is now a far better chance of living with AIDS than pancreatic cancer. Randy noted that pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths, a disease which strikes innocent victims: Randy exercised, ate right, didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, but still contracted this disease. Randy Pausch thinks we can protect ourselves from this disease but not without dramatically increased funding for research. The disease is genetic and he goes to sleep at night fearing whether kids (ages 2-9) have this genetic marker, although he hoped with dramatically increased funding for pancreatic cancer research that by the time any of his kids get this disease (which usually strikes later in life), doctors will know how to cure it through genetic treatment.

See notable quotes from Randy here and his life wisdom here.

Note: Randy’s book The Last Lecture (Hyperion Press) was released (April 8, 2008), co-written with WSJ reporter Jeff Zaslow. See Randy’s video about the book and preview of interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News special about the book (airing April 10, 2008).

Barack’s powerful speech about race in America

Barack Obama delivered an eloquent and compelling speech today in Philadelphia about race in America and its underlying historical roots and complexities, and noted the understandable tendency to demonize others for our woes. Barack voiced the belief that the “union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.” Barack pointed to his own candidacy and the millions who have supported him as proof of the country’s racial progress over the last half century and our ability to change. Finally he acknowledged the underlying reality that fuels the hate-mongering of the Geraldine Ferraros and Rev. Wrights of this world, but contended that we need to understand their worldview and work on the underlying situation rather than simply either ignore these type of individuals or refuse to understand those who differ with us on racial issues.

Barack distanced himself from Wright’s off-putting comments calling them “not only wrong but divisive”. But by refusing to simply discard and disavow any relationship with Rev. Wright, it evinced a higher level of moral and political courage. Moreover, Barack sought to show the complexities of individuals, be it Reverend Wright or Barack’s white grandmother; unlike Hollywood’s two-dimensional and either good or evil characters, Barack pointed out that in many a relationship you can simultaneously admire some traits while strongly disagreeing with others (e.g., his white grandmother’s negative comments about black men!).

And perhaps most amazing, Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic is reporting that Barack wrote the 45 min. eloquent speech by himself (with basically no involvement of speech writers), an extremely rare event in modern American politics.

You can read the transcript of Barack’s speech on race here.

Others’ comments: The NYT editorial “Mr. Obama’s Profile in Courage” noted that Barack’s speech had the rare power to take this conversation about race and religion to a higher plane and Maureen Dowd praised Barack for failing to pander to others the way Mitt Romney did in his religion speech. John Dickerson on Slate finds the inclusion of Geraldine Ferraro not once, but twice in the speech a jarring note that cheapened Barack’s address and took the conversation from the soaring heights down to street level by trying to score political points when Rev. Wright’s and Geraldine Ferraro’s comments couldn’t be seen as parallel. A Washington Post editorial said he turned the concerns about Wright into a “teachable moment” about race. And the L.A. Times editorial said it “redefines our national conversation about race and politics” and as a serious discussion of race, was a rare moment in U.S. politics. Even conservative Charles Murray, of National Review Online gave it a rave: “it is just plain flat out brilliant—rhetorically, but also in capturing a lot of nuance about race in America. It is so far above the standard we’re used to from our pols.”

Putnam diversity study may explain Obama-Clinton dynamics

Matt Bai mentioned our research on diversity and social capital in his “What’s the Real Racial Divide?” article in this weekend’s New York Times Sunday Magazine section, 3/16/08.  Bai talks about how  our research on racial diversity might explain why white rural voters are more comfortable supporting a transracial candidate like Barack Obama, since increased diversity in a community is associated with less inter-racial trust.  (Bai notes that strangely whites in more rural, more homogeneously white parts of the U.S. have been more willing to support Obama than whites in more diverse, more urban communities.)

See “What’s The Real Racial Divide?”  See Robert Putnam’s original diversity research, including his paper “E Pluribus Unum”  here.

Capitalizing on one’s social capital

Two recent examples enabling individuals to capitalize on their social capital: 1) a Facebook application (called Market Lodge) that pays friends a 10% commission for bringing in new customers; and 2) Prosper.com (the eBay of loans) that lets lenders and borrowers explore, in making peer-to-peer loans, whether they have friends in common.

Market Lodge: to some extent, using friendships to attract new customers is an age-old marketing approach. (Recall discounts or free records if you got someone to join a CD club like BMG, or MCI’s Friends and Family approach, where you got cheaper phone calls by bringing more of your friends onto MCI, etc.) But this seems like the first effort to try to marry the hyperactive online social networking with marketers’ realizations that friends can often sell friends on a new product better than advertising or strangers. This is all the more true in a day-and-age when people are more wary of advertising. (See my earlier post about “buzz agents” who get surreptitiously paid to recommend products to their friends.)

Prosper.com: borrows some of wisdom from microcredit associations (based of the innovation of the Grameen Bank by Nobel prize winner Muhammad Yunus) that shows that people are less likely to default on loans to their friends, especially if it is going to impede their friends in getting future loans. But rather than forcing social lending circles, Prosper takes an eBay approach by removing the middleman and letting peers agree directly to make loans to peers. See my earlier comments on peer-to-peer lending. Prosper cleverly calls this “bringing together George Bailey and Gordon Gekko.” Interview with Prosper.com founder, Chris Larsen, here and also in today’s WSJ. Prosper interestingly agrees to take back loans if fraudulent lenders get through their screens; what looks like high risk and cost on Prosper’s part may be much lower because of the need for lenders to help explain their social ties (and hence make themselves more vulnerable to being caught). Chris Larsen also notes: “One thing that works really well is friends bidding on borrowers’ loans — that can result in a 35% to 50% improvement in default rates on those loans.”  One wonders whether the default rate is lower because the borrowers pay up more, or whether the lenders are less likely to foreclose on the loan of a friend than banks would be with a stranger.