Analogies of a Parking Violation, Part Two: Governing Communities

Community governance was the second nerd thought that came to mind as I was soaking and scraping the parking violation sticker off my vehicle. Rules and guidelines exist within any reasonable community. The fun is in how strict they are and how they are enforced. My community’s homeowners association enforces rules centrally–it is the one that calls the shots and levies punishments. The community doesn’t have much say in individual cases. Online communities, however, do handle individual cases as a community, which results in better monitoring, better decision making, and better enforcement.

Many sites have terms of use. Sites assume that typical uses are valid but provide a way for users to report misuses. Facebook, for example, has a “Report This Photo” link whenever you view an album image. If an image is reported, it is inspected by a Facebook team member who makes a final decision on whether the photo stays or goes (source: http://www.facebook.com/help.php?tab=safety#ansj7).

Facebook Report This Photo

This technique was first popularized by the dating site HOTorNOT around 2000. One of the site’s founders, James Hong, originally hired his parents to screen flagged photos so he could continue coding. James quickly realized that the enforcement model had two problems with it. First, it didn’t scale well as the number of photos on the site increased exponentially–he needed to hire more people. Second, his parents were looking at inappropriate pictures eight hours a day.

Over the past seven years, the site has slowly matured from a centralized moderation system to a decentralized one consisting of volunteers. There is a nice explanation on Wikipedia of the site’s implementation of the principles found in The Wisdom of Crowds–a book that discusses how decentralized decision making results in better decisions. Although effective, the system requires volunteers who are willing to subject themselves to potentially vile images. In addition, as addressed in The Wisdom of Crowds, judgments rendered by appointed individuals do not reflect the values of the community accurately. We need a solution that relies on the community to make judgments. Digg is a popular news and media aggregation site that thrives on democracy. Readers vote for or against published content. Higher-ranked content gets more exposure, while other content gets buried. One of its weaknesses though is its susceptibility to mob-effect.

A community-based solution to the “Report This Photo” feature would be a voting mechanism that would kick-in if an image had been flagged as a violation of the terms of use. When community members would stumble upon a flagged image, they would be given the option to vote for or against it. Once a certain threshold had been met (albeit relatively low), the image could be flagged as appropriate or inappropriate permanently. Inappropriate images would be blurred beyond human recognition or removed completely. After time, those who voted in-line with the community’s final decisions could be given weighted votes to expedite future judgment calls. Such weighted voters would have more influence on future cases not because they are considered experts on morality but because they make judgments that best reflect the entire community.

In order to provide a truly decentralized judgment system and avoid mob-effect, the vote tally would need to remain hidden. Taking this idea further, “Report This Photo” could simply be a facade to the voting system so that flagging and voting is truly blind. Views of the photo without the link being clicked would be a vote for the photo to remain on the site and views with a “Report This Photo” click would be a vote to remove the photo from the site. Obviously, views would be tracked once per user. (Maybe Facebook is doing all of this already but just hasn’t updated its help documentation.)

If my real-life housing community was self-governed (like my parents’ neighborhood), monitoring and reporting would be handled by the community. If what I was doing was truly an inconvenience to the community, it would act appropriately. Punishment would still need to be levied by the association but the punishment would be more in-line with what the community deems appropriate.

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3 thoughts on “Analogies of a Parking Violation, Part Two: Governing Communities

  1. Sam Purtill

    Ian,

    I just got this book called “The Four Steps to the Epiphany” by Steven Gary Blank. I’ve read through the first chapter and it is already changing some of my thinking, it is about startups and the Product Development cycle as well as the Customer Development cycle, which he argues is the most important part of the first few years. I got it off a recommendation from Marc Andreessen’s blog (blog.pmarca.com). Anyways just wanted to see if you’ve read it, and if not I think you should pick it up and read it while you’re doing a startup yourself.

    Reply
  2. Ian Lotinsky Post author

    I haven’t read it yet. I’m still trying to get through “Founders at Work” when I’m not thumbing my way through Rails material. I’ll take a look at it.

    Thanks for the recommendation!

    Reply
  3. Jonathan

    Good stuff, Ian. I like your ideas about community regulations, but I think an important thing to remember is that websites such as Facebook want content regulated according to their terms of service (namely they are only looking to remove images which are innapropriate by their terms, not by somebody else’s definition or because the general public thinks its inappropriate/scandalous). That might be harder for a community to regulate because they don’t care about Facebooks terms of service, they are simply expressing their opinion (and furthermore, they can tend to be biased one way or another because they are friends/acquaitances of the people who posted the picture in the first place).

    Reply

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