August 05, 2006
Getting good -- not just more -- stuff in at Wikipedia
At the three day Wikimania conference this week, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales urged contributors to start focusing more on quality than on quantity.
Interesting incentives problems. The article count is a very visible sign of group accomplishment, and individuals can also make verifiable claims about the number of articles for which they were the initial creator. But what reward is there for improving the quality of entries? This seems like a case where the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic incentives may be important, particularly if designers want to induce contributors to shift along the quality-quantity axis in user-contributed content resources. Surely some, perhaps most of the rewards for quantity of contribution are also intrinsic, but for the designer, it might be easier to tweak the extrinsic rewards, disadvantaging quality.
August 02, 2006
Placeholder: ICD isn't perfect, but...
Fact is, incentive-centered designs in general won't be "perfect", but that's not a fundamental flaw: solutions to any interesting humanoid problem generally won't be "perfect".
What's really nice is that ICD happens to have a clear and useful way of explaining most solutions can't be perfect. Here's the brief version: when private information is valuable, and its asymmetric distribution is costly to social welfare, it is generally necessary to "pay" or provide incentives to the information owner to share it or behave in a way that reveals it: we want the information get improve social outcomes, but it costs something to get it.
I plan to write a longer entry on this fundamental issue later.
Beating code with code
CAPTCHAs are a great example of a clever incentive-centered design for an information world problem. But, as many people point out, they aren't perfect. Matt May at W3C has a nice slide presentation explaining CAPTCHAs and a number of their accessibility problems (based on a nice paper for those with more taste for details). He also discusses a variety of ideas about how to do better. Clever as some are, they all suffer a common problem: the incremental improvement from each is largely a technological fix, not an improvement in the incentive structure of CAPTCHAs. And technological fixes in this area are doomed to fail approximately equally rapidly.
What do I mean by this? The costs of computing cycles are falling exponentially, and the implementing usable clever algorithms is probably falling at a slower but still exponential rate (if for no other reason than a big part of the cost is the enormous computational power needed for some tough problems like password cracking and automated visual recognition of CAPTCHAs, etc.).
Technological fixes are just a loop in an arms race. CAPTCHAs, for example, grew out of the observation that automated visual recognition of distorted alphanumerics was pretty poor a few years ago. But now, largely in response to CAPTCHAs, automated breaking has rapidly advanced, and CAPTCHA security is getting rather weak (which is why it's used only to protect relatively low value resources).
Unless we identify a human cost (or more precisely, difference in cost between good guys and bad guys, a difference we can use to distinguish between them), and design incentives around that cost (or benefit, if you want to flip the sign bit) tech fixes will be very short term and their efficacy will decrease rapidly. Incentive-based solutions can be more durable if they are based on features of humans or their utility functions that are are not subject to technological end-runs. It's true, it's not always easy to find incentives that aren't susceptible to end-runs, but it's not hopeless. Money works pretty well in many cases; sure, technology (i.e., counterfeiting) can sometimes do an end-run, but the rate at which technology has been making money obsolete as an effective incentive is a whole lot slower than pattern-recognition software is advancing on CAPTCHAs and the post-CAPTCHA fixes that W3C discusses.
Spam as cockroach (welcome to blog spam)
Cockroaches: doesn't matter how many times you think you've killed them all and blocked their entry points, they keep coming back.
For those who think (foolishly, in my opinion), that Gmail has "solved" the spam problem...it's not just email: Blogosphere suffers spam explosion. This isn't hot news, exactly, but it's a nice comment on the growing problem of splogging (and notice that Frauenfelder uses "pollution", my favorite word for characterizing the problem). It's a cost imposed on a by-stander by the self-serving activities of another (in this case, usually advertising products for sale).
Been a while...
Quick note: I haven't been adding much to this blog since April, but I have collected a variety of tidbits in draft posts. I'm going to try to clear out the drafting box, and generally be more regular (but not continuous!) in posting. The next several posts will mostly be about things I saw and saved in draft during the spring.