A few years ago I used to participate in an online community called Kuro5hin which was founded by Rusty Foster. K5, as we affectionately called it, eventually became a haven for people trying to escape from the ills of Slashdot. There were several problems with Slashdot that folks like Rusty and Karsten Self planned to fix with K5. These included
  • Lack of democracy in selecting stories
  • Moderation system that encouraged group think and punished not toeing the party line
  • Visible karma score which encouraged treating participating in the community as a game

The solution was to allow all users to create stories, vote on the stories and to rate comments. There were a couple of other features that distinguished the K5 community such as diaries but the democratic aspect around choosing what was valuable content was key. K5 was a grand experiment to see if one could build a better Slashdot and for a while it worked.  For a while, it worked fairly well although the cracks had already begun to show within the first year. A lot of the spirit of the first year of the site can be gleaned from the post K5, A One Year Retrospective.

Now five years later, I still read Slashdot every day but only check K5 out every couple of months out of morbid curiosity. The democracy of K5 caused two things to happen that tended to drive away the original audience. The first was that the focus of the site ended up not being about technology mainly because it is harder for people to write technology articles than write about everyday topics that are nearer and dearer to their hearts. Another was that there was a steady influx of malicious users who eventually drove away a significant proportion of K5's original community, many of whom migrated to HuSi.  This issue is lamented all the time on K5 in comments such as an exercise for rusty and the editors. and You don't understand the nature of what happened.

Besides the malicious users one of the other interesting problems we had on K5 was that the number of people who actually did things like rate comments was very small relative to the number of users on the site. Anytime proposals came up for ways to fix these issues, there would often be someone who disregarded the idea by stating that we were "seeking a technical solution to a social problem". This interaction between technology and social behavior was the first time I really thought about social software.

Fast forward a few years to earlier this week. I wrote a blog post entitled When did Blogrolls Become Evil? which started an interesting dialog in the comments which I've been thinking about for a few days. Below are excerpts from my post and its comments which got me thinking

Dare Obasanjo:  I was going to write a lengthy counterargument to the various posts by Shelley Powers about blogrolls then wondered whether the reason I even cared about this was that her writing had convinced Uche Ogbuji to drop me from his blogroll? Wouldn't I then be justifying some of the arguments against blogrolls? It's all so confusing...

While I'm still trying to figure this out, you should read Shelley's original post, Steve Levy, Dave Sifry, and NZ Bear: You are Hurting Us and see whether you think the arguments against blogrolls are as wrong as I think they are.

Kingsley Idehen: Anyway, Shelley raises a really important issue which actually highlights what is more than likely a flaw in the concept of blogrolls. I certainly saw you vanish from Uche's blogroll, and I was really curious about the underlying algorithm that lead to this (I suspected that Uche wouldn't have done this by hand :-) ).

Blogrolls are static and to some degree completely ambiguous, what are they really? My published blogroll is at most .01% or lower of the total blogs that I subscribe to, and actualy read with varying degrees of frequency

Dare Obasanjo: There is a social and technological aspect to blogrolls. The fact that to some degree a blogroll is a way for people to indicate what community they belong to and/or share links to people they find interesting, it is social. Whether the blogroll is static or dynamically updated is an implementation detail that is wholly technological.

The fact that Technorati uses blogroll links as part of their mechanism for calculating 'authority' is quite broken from my perspective and too easily gamed. Just a few short months ago they had to scramble because they were counting the various links in the 'Updated Spaces' and 'Newly Created Spaces' modules that exist on millions of spaces. We've since used rel=nofollow on these links to prevent other simplistic link calculators from being similarly confused.

Going back to social aspect of blogrolls, I liked the fact that one could go to Uche's blog and find links to other Nigerians who were doing interesting things in the technology industry. I don't think the fact that Technorati would use that link to count one more point of 'authority' to our URLs is any reason to stop doing this. We shouldn't change social behavior due to design flaws in software.

As for blogrolls being static or dynamic, to me this is just an implementation detail and where there is a will there is a way.

Uche Ogbuji:Kingsley,

I've learned an important lesson from the fact that both you and Dare noticed that he went missing from the Copia blogroll. We hacked at the blogroll in a bit of a careless manner and that was wrong. We always planned to go back and fix things as we clarified what those links actually meant, but things got in the way, and the result looked worse than the intention.


Good points.

"I liked the fact that one could go to Uche's blog and find links to other Nigerians who were doing interesting things in the technology industry."

Very important note. I think it's very fair for such a dispersed group as we are to have these sorts of mini-hubs.

"The fact that Technorati uses blogroll links as part of their mechanism for calculating 'authority' is quite broken from my perspective and too easily gamed."

Yikes! That is friggin' broken, and perhaps helps explain some of the sensitivity of this issue when Shelley took it on.

Blogrolls are definitely a social construct as are popularity lists. However how they are generated and calculated often boils down to a technology issue. This overlap between technology and social behavior is what I find so interesting about social software.

We face a lot of the issues surrounding the overlap between technology and social behavior everyday at work as we build software that millions of people use to communicate with each other. We regularly have to answer questions like how to deal with rejection in instant messenger invitation scenarios (Joe asks Jess to be his IM buddy but she declines), how to deal with people impersonating other users in blog comments, and whether it is a good idea to let people have access to the blogs of their IM buddies in two clicks.

I had assumed that the renewed interest in social software in recent years would create an environment where discourse about the overlap between technology and social behavior would become more commonplace. However I haven't found good communities or blogs where this discourse abounds. I recently unsubscribed from the Many-to-Many weblog because I got tired of reading Clay Shirky raving about how tagging/folksonomies are the second coming, David Weinberger and Ross Mayfield's verbose yet obvious observations on the state of the art in social software, and Danah Boyd's inane prattling. I also subscribed to the blogs of various members of the Social Computing Group at Microsoft Research but not only do they post infrequently there's also the fact that most of them just got re-orged into the Windows division to work on Longhorn.

Any pointers to other communities on social software or even just interesting research papers would be much appreciated. Holla back!