6 Dec 2005 raph   » (Master)

Time for a website for free font development?

With all the recent activity in free font land, I decided to set my ideas down "on paper", and posted a thread over on typophile. I chose to post it there rather than here because I want the input from people in many different communities, especially type wonks. If you're interested in free fonts, whether as a user or as a developer, head on over and add your 2 {(euro )?cents|pence|yen|whatever}.

Time for a trust metric enabled wikipedia?

I see that Wikipedia is having some well-publicized troubles with vandalism and the like. This will be a somewhat bittersweet response.

The success of wikis has taken a lot of people by surprise, but I think I get it now. The essence of wiki nature is to lower the barrier to making improvements to content. The vast majority of access-controlled systems out there err strongly on the side of making it too hard. The idea of a wiki is to err on the side of making it too easy, and to lessen the pain (somewhat) of undoing the damage when that turns out to be a mistake. In cases where that doesn't work out, I think the solution is to make the decision process of whether to grant write access a bit more precise, so you can still err on the side of trusting too much, but you don't have to err quite as often or as badly.

In that regard, the trust metrics designed and implemented for Advogato are a near-perfect match for the needs of a Wikipedia-like project, but for the most part, nobody is paying much attention to my ideas. Yes, I am bitter about that. I've written them up in a howto and some draft papers, arguably not as polished a presentation as the ideas deserve, but still comprehensible to somebody motivated to understand them. I've implemented them and released the code under GPL. That implementation is too tied to the somewhat quirky mod_virgule design, but adapting and modifying is what free software is all about, no?

So I haven't exactly gift-wrapped the trust metrics and presented them to the world on a silver platter, but they're not sitting at the bottom of a locked file cabinet in the basement of the local planning commission either. With Google now worth a brazillion dollars, due in large part on the success of their eigenvector-based trust metric, and with the problems of spam and abuse showing few signs of just going away on their own, you'd think there'd be more interest in creative, high-tech solutions to the problem.

Let's say for the sake of argument that there's a 50% chance that I'm a raving moron when it comes to this stuff, that my belief that a trust metric would go a long way to solving problems such as Wikipedia's is just plain wrong. Say there's also a 50% chance that there are practical problems I don't forsee, so, while the basic ideas might be valid, they just won't work on a project like Wikipedia. Of course, you can dispute the exact numbers, but that leaves something like a 25% chance that it really would be worthwhile for someone to invest the time and energy into making it happen. How much is Wikipedia worth to people? How much is the idea of decentralized collaboration, especially so that you don't have to rely on "content serfdom" to get the good stuff?

Of course, the Free Software Way(TM) would be for me to pick up a shovel, dig in, and implement a trust metric enabled wiki myself. Well, pardon me for ranting, but in this case I believe the FSW is just plain dysfunctional. A large part of the reason I'm reluctant to invest much more of my own time and energy is the tepid reaction to the work I've put in so far. How is it that a community can generate dozens of IRC clients, me-too distributions, window managers, and PHP bbs engines, and yet leave the development and implementation of the Advogato trust metrics almost completely ignored?

Wow, even I am amazed at the intensity of that rant. I did say this post would be "bittersweet", but so far it's been pretty much all bitter. The sweet part is basically that I have faith that, in time, the Advogato trust metrics will be understood and implemented as widely as deserved based on their ability to resist abuse. Free software development, in particular, operates on a pretty slow clock. My last post contains a striking example - the roughly many year lag between my release of a prototype watercolor simulator and the inclusion of the ideas in an actively developed app.

And already, I see some tentative signs of that. The Wikipedia development boards have some discussion of "trust metrics," although I don't see much evidence they actually understand the power of Advogato's. Additionally, there is some academic work starting to build on my own, including Paolo Massa's evaluations of the various extant trust metrics, and Daniel Stewart's "Social Status in an Open-Source Community", published very recently in the American Sociological Review.

And who knows, maybe even this post, despite the bittersweet tone, will inspire someone to take another look at my trust metric ideas. Hopefully somebody who has the technical ability to implement something a little more sophisticated than the usual PHP hash, and whose idealism about free culture and individual-centered web content has not become quite as jaded as my own. If someone out there were to do a nice job implementing an attack-resistant wiki, that would do wonders for reinforcing my faith in the community.

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