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The Nature Of The Good And The Neutrality Of The ‘Check-In’ Gesture

“Just checking in.” It’s such a neutral phrase. It doesn’t imply any engagement or transaction— the connection has been opened and tested, but no activity is required or expected. From a Unix command line, the ping serves a similar function. The social geo-location services have brought the “check in” into common parlance on the Network. The FourSquare check in can be a neutral communication— no message attached, merely a statement that I’m at such-and-such a location.

The neutrality of the “check in” gesture began to interest me as I started thinking about the explicit gesture of giving a star rating to a restaurant. While I was recently visiting New York City, I decided to try and make use of the Siri and FourSquare apps on my iPhone. I could be observed sitting on a park bench saying ‘good pizza place near here’ into my iPhone and eagerly waiting for Siri to populate a list of restaurant options. I also checked in using FourSquare from several locations around Manhattan. When Siri returned its list of ‘good pizza places’ near me, it used the services of partner web sites that let users rate restaurants and other businesses on a one to five star system. When I asked for good pizza places that translated into the restaurants with the most stars.

The interesting thing about user ratings of businesses by way of the Network is that it’s completely unnecessary for the user to actually visit, or be a customer of, the business. The rating can be entirely fictional. Unless you personally know the reviewer and the context in which the review is proffered— a good, bad or ugly review may be the result of some alternate agenda. There’s no way to determine the authenticity of an unknown, or anonymous, reviewer. Systems like eBay have tried to solve this problem using reputation systems. Newspapers have tried to solve this problem by hiring food critics who have earned the respect of the restaurant ecosystem.

So, while Siri did end up recommending a good Italian restaurant, the Chinese restaurant it recommended was below par. Both restaurants had the same star ratings and number of positive reviews. This got me thinking about the securitization of the networked social gesture. Once a gesture has even a vaguely defined monetary value there’s a motivation to game the system. If more stars equals a higher ranking on Siri’s good pizza place list, then how can a business get more stars? What’s the cost?

I ran across a tweet that summed up the dilemma of wanting a list of ‘good pizza places’ rather than simply ‘pizza places.’ I use FriendFeed as a Twitter client, and while watching the real-time stream I saw an interesting item float by. Tara Hunt retweeted a micro-message from Deanna Zandt referring to a presentation by Randy Farmer at the Web 2.0 conference on Building Web Reputation systems. Deanna’s message read: “If you show ppl their karma, they abuse it.” When reputation is assigned a tradable value, it will be traded. In this case, ‘abuse’ means traded in an unintended market.

Another example of this dilemma cropped up in a story Clay Shirky told at the Gov 2.0 summit about a day care center. The day care center had a problem with parents who arrived late to pick up their children. Wanting to nip the problem in the bud, they instituted a fine for late pick up. What had been a social contract around respecting the value of another person’s time was transformed into a new service with a set price tag. “Late pick up” became a new feature of the day care center, and those parents who could afford it welcomed the flexibility it offered them. Late pick ups tripled, the new feature was selling like hot cakes. Assigning a dollar value to the bad behavior of late pick ups changed the context from one of mutual respect to a payment for service. Interestingly, even when the fines were eliminated, the higher rate of bad behavior continued.

Now let’s tie this back to the neutral gesture of the check in. While in some respect the reporting of geolocation coordinates is a mere statement of fact— there’s also the fact that you’ve chosen to go to the place from which you’ve checked in. There’s a sense in which a neutral check in from a restaurant is a better indicator of its quality than a star rating accompanied by explicit user reviews. If a person in my geo-social network checks in from a restaurant every two weeks, or so, I’d have to assume that they liked the restaurant. The fact that they chose to go there more than once is a valuable piece of information to me. However when game mechanics are assigned to the neutral check in gesture, a separate economics is overlaid. If the game play, rather than the food, provides the motivation for selecting a restaurant, then the signal has been diluted by another agenda.

By binding the check in to the place via the geolocation technology of the device, a dependable, authentic piece of information is produced. Social purchase publishing services, like Blippy, take this to the next level. Members of this network agree to publish a audit trail of their actual purchases. By linking their credit card transaction report in real time to a publishing tool, followers know what a person is actually deciding to purchase. A pattern of purchases would indicate some positive level of satisfaction with a product or service.

The pattern revealed in these examples is that the speech of the agent cannot be trusted. So instead we look to the evidence of the transactions initiated by the agent, and we examine the chain of custody across the wire. A check in, a credit card purchase— these are the authentic raw data from which an algorithm amalgamates some probability of the good. We try to structure the interaction data such that it has the form of a falsifiable proposition. The degree to which a statement of quality can be expressed as an on or off bit defines a machine’s ability to compute with it. A statement that is overdetermined, radiating multiple meanings across multiple contexts doesn’t compute well and results in ambiguous output. The pizza place seems to occupy multiple locations simultaneously across the spectrum of good to bad.

Can speech be rehabilitated as a review gesture? I had a short conversation with Randy Farmer at the recent Internet Identity Workshop (IIW 10) about what he calls the “to: field” in networked communications. The basic idea is that all speech should be directed to some individual or group. A review transmitted to a particular social group acquires the context of the social relations within the group. Outside of that context its value is ambiguous while purporting to be clear. Farmer combines restricted social networks and falsifiable propositions in his post ‘The Cake is a Lie” to get closer to an authentic review gesture and therefore a more trustworthy reputation for a social object.

Moving through this thought experiment one can see the attempt to reduce human behavior and social relations to falsifiable, and therefore computable, statements. Just as a highly complex digital world has been built up out of ones and zeros, the search for a similar fundamental element of The Good is unfolding in laboratories, research centers and start ups across the globe. Capturing the authentic review gesture in a bottle is the new alchemy of the Network.

What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?
Nick Lowe

As I walk through
This wicked world
Searching for light in the darkness of insanity.

I ask myself
Is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?

And each time I feel like this inside,
There’s one thing I wanna know:
What’s so funny about peace love & understanding? ohhhh
What’s so funny about peace love & understanding?

And as I walked on
Through troubled times
My spirit gets so downhearted sometimes
So where are the strong
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
Sweet harmony.

Cause each time I feel it slipping away, just makes me wanna cry.
What’s so funny bout peace love & understanding? ohhhh
What’s so funny bout peace love & understanding?

So where are the strong?
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
Sweet harmony.

Cause each time I feel it slippin away, just makes me wanna cry.
What’s so funny bout peace love & understanding? ohhhh
What’s so funny bout peace love & understanding? ohhhh
What’s so funny bout peace love & understanding?

Comments

  1. Edward Vielmetti | May 25th, 2010 | 5:36 am

    Nicely put.

    Reviews of restaurants in particular are complicated. Your “good Chinese place” could have all manner of honest reviews from 1-5 stars where the various reviewers were expecting one thing and either got it or didn't. Perhaps the 5 star reviewer could read the secret “red menu” and could order from it and enjoyed things that the 1 star reviewer who ordered off the tourist menu didn't even know existed.

    It's also worth wondering whether there are some places that are best reviewed in the context of group experience, not just an individual. Imagine the restaurant review system – we'll call it fourtop for now – that requires four individuals to check in at the same time at the same place to make a group review. How would it differ from egocentric behavior of a foursquare? Food for thought.

  2. Tweets that mention echovar » Blog Archive » The Nature Of The Good And The Neutrality Of The ‘Check-In’ Gesture -- Topsy.com | May 25th, 2010 | 5:21 am

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Cliff Gerrish, G. Chomic. G. Chomic said: Long read, but thought inspiring. The value of a neutral check-in vs. that of a review. http://icanhaz.com/fdgdfd courtesy of @cgerrish [...]

  3. cgerrish | May 26th, 2010 | 11:13 am

    The 'honesty' or 'authenticity' of a review gesture may only be possible at an unconscious level. The explicitly conscious review tries to optimize its value across multiple economic overlays. Will this review make me mayor of the restaurant? Will I earn a discount? Will my friends envy me because I'm eating here?

  4. cgerrish | May 26th, 2010 | 5:13 pm

    The ‘honesty’ or ‘authenticity’ of a review gesture may only be possible at an unconscious level. The explicitly conscious review tries to optimize its value across multiple economic overlays. Will this review make me mayor of the restaurant? Will I earn a discount? Will my friends envy me because I’m eating here?