Category Archives: Business

Tyra Seldon on “co-working with virtual strangers”

Sensei Tyra Seldon muses this month on “co-working with virtual strangers”.

These days terminology about work is confused and ambiguous, and it turns out that she is not specifically talking about “coworking” in the sense of physically sharing a coworking space.  And “virtual strangers” is not the metaphorical “as good as” strangers, but rather strangers known only through digital communications.

In short, she is describing digitally enabled distributed work groups. And her point is that freelancers not only can but should work in such teams.

we become members of shared virtual workspaces without leaving our homes or offices.”

Seldon sketches the plethora of software that makes these collaborations possible.

(Aside:  you youngsters have no idea how lucky you are. In my day, we built all this stuff from scratch – making it up as we went along, and with only 1% of the storage and bandwidth you have on your tablet.  Kid’s today have it easy. : – ))

Sensei Seldon advises that there are benefits, including “skills gained, resources generated, and relationships established”. She hints at the risks to be watched, such as contracts and payments.  The important thing to note is that these are really no different than the risks and benefits of any collaboration.

working with virtual strangers is going to be a significant part of the future of freelancing and gig economy jobs.

Seldon is correct, though I would say she understates the case by far.

First of all, the gig economy is pretty much designed with virtual teams in mind. Freelancing today is, almost by definition, going to involve virtual teams. So, no news there.

Second, these technologies were developed in conventional organizations which have geographically dispersed teams. There is a vast academic literature about the benefits and limitations of these work practices. My own summary would be that it has its strengths and weaknesses, but it is extremely cost effective so it is here to stay.

Third, I’ll point out that the contemporary Coworking Movement is a response and antidote to the isolation of working “without leaving our homes or offices”.  In a coworking space workers will find a face-to-face community of collaborators.  There the teams will use the digital tools as Seldon describes, but will also be able to talk in person and generally be less “strangers” to each other.  For many workers, this is the best part of working in a coworking space.

I would say that coworking spaces were developed to try to get the benefits of digital collaboration while mitigating the perils of isolation and distrust of virtual strangers. It’s a lot easier to establish trust and mutual respect face-to-face.

In short, Coworking spaces are designed to be where freelance workers collaborate.

I’ll note that the coworking movement has elaborated the perceived benefits of these collaborations far beyond Seldon’s own testimony, including enhanced happiness, productivity, and serendipity.  See perhaps [1-3].

So, I would agree with Sensei Seldon, though I honestly don’t think Freelancers have the option to not work in virtual groups. And I would strongly encourage freelancers to explore local coworking spaces (don’t stop at the first one, find one that fits), which may well be even more beneficial.

  1. Lori  Kane, Tabitha Borchardt, and Bas de Baar, Reimagination Stations: Creating a Game-Changing In-Home Coworking Space, Lori Kane, 2015.
  2. Liquid Talent, Dude, Where’s My Drone: The future of work and what you can do to prepare for it. 2015.
  3. Sebastian Olma, The Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0. 2012.
  4. Tyra Seldon, Can co-working with virtual strangers enhance your freelancing business?, in Freelancers Union. 2017.



What is Coworking

Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming in 2017 Real Soon Now.

Crowd Sourced Research Projects

There are many “citizen science” initiatives, and many of them are variations on crowd sourcing. One prominent example, Zooniverse, is a veritable cottage industry creating one crowd sourced project after another. These projects employ ordinary people, AKA “citizens”, in real scientific research.

These collaborations can be very effective, magnifying the efforts of our few remaining professional scientists and research dollars. Unfortunately, in most cases, the civilians are employed in routine, low skill roles. In the case of Zooniverse, the projects are almost exclusively visual (or aural) recognition tasks, asking people to look for significant objects in visual (or sound) data. These internet volunteers occupy the ecological niche that we used to pay students to fill, back when we had money for scientific research.

Is it possible to have more people participate in science in more interesting ways?

In the last couple of years, a Stanford-Santa Cruz project has deployed digital collaboration tools to create “Crowd Research: Open and Scalable University Laboratories,” [1] The idea is to involve volunteers from around the globe in the full array of research activities, including decision making, problem solving, and professional publishing.

Most important of all, the projects were not reduced to “Mechanical Turk” microtasks, but functioned more like actual science labs. The projects were organized akin to conventional university research, directed by a professional Principle Investigator, with institutional techincal support. The participants were recruited through open calls, and invited to study, investigate, propose, and critique the research problems.

The Crowd Research project uses techniques and tools familiar from virtual organizations and collaborative on-line work. Each project developed milestones, which were reviewed in periodic (weekly) meetings. These tasks might involve many familiar research activities, including reading papers, interviewing informants, generating ideas, or prototyping.

The large number of responses are peer evaluated to select a handful to discuss in the video conference. This process is essentially the same as reddit-style upvoting. It is interesting that “randomized a double-blind assignment, anonymous feedback was needlessly negative and evaluative” ([1], p. 834), so they use completely public reviews.

A small group of participants connects to the live video discussion, others can participate through digital comments and anyone can view the archived meeting. The weekly meeting discusses the top submissions, and decides what to do next. The PI may assign reading or other training activities. In some cases, an individual may be designated to lead execution of a particular milestone, e.g., when multiple efforts need to be coordinated.

I note that participating in the video conference is a “prize” for submitting a high rated response to the milestone. This converts the mandatory, “oh, no, not another meeting” situation, into a sought-after opportunity to meet the PI and top colleagues. I.e., this is an improvement over many collaborations, virtual or physical.

The project results are written up to meet profession style and standards. The contributions of individuals are visible in the digital collaborations, so the paper can assign credit as due. This is a significant opportunity for the participants to achieve visible academic credentials that usually are only garnered by students at elite schools.

The Crowd Research project created a decentralized system to assign credit to the contributions of each person. This helps the PI write letters of recommendation, even when the research group is too large and distributed to know every individual.

The Crowd Research Initiative has evaluated these techniques in a metastudy [1]. The digital infrastructure makes it possible to not only track participation, but also who did what. They document that most of the final ideas originated from “the crowd”, and most of the writing also was done by the crowd. It is important to note that this is about the same as a university lab, except the participants are not limited to selected enrolled students.

While there was little formal screening of participants, there was high attrition that filtered out the majority of initial sign ups. Many were not able to commit enough time due to other commitments, though there are also indications that some lost interest in the work as it developed.

The researchers document the relatively democratic spread of access and benefit from the experience. With publications and letters from PIs, many students gained admission to programs of study that they otherwise would not have.

The reputation system was correlated with the assignment of authorship and acknowledgement on the publications. Their algorithm (similar to PageRank) tended to reflect concrete contributions (such as checkins), though it was still possible to game the system to increase personal credit.

In their recent paper, they draw conclusions about “How to run a bad Crowd Research project” ([1], p. 838). They note the need to expect drop outs and conflict, and suggest that the project be carefully selected to match the strengths of the format. Also, as noted, they don’t recommend a competitive vibe.

This is an interesting and somewhat heroic project, harking back to the good old days when university researchers were generously supported and could tackle ambitious projects involving dozens of students.

One very important point to emphasize is that these projects were much more like “regular research”, and absolutely not the usual trivial crowd sourcing tasks. I would also say that they strongly resemble many software projects, and also collaborative non-profit projects (e.g., organizing a community workshop). I think this is not a coincidence, in that these virtual collaborations are similar social groups. As such, the lessons of Crowd Research probably should apply well to other digitally enhanced collaborations.

There are a couple of important caveats about this approach.

First, as they intimate in their anti-patterns, not every research topic or project is a good match to crowd research (or digital collaboration). A good project should “leverage scale and diversity to achieve more ambitious goals” (p. 838) I would also say that the project needs to have primarily digital deliverables. Obviously, it would be difficult to coordinate and share a single physical prototype or materials, with any digital technology.

Second, the high satisfaction of the participants, professional and non-professional, has to be taken with a grain of salt. In particular, the participants were self-selected at the beginning, and through attrition. Crowd Research is well designed to create a sense of commitment and ownership in the project, at least in those who persist. However, it isn’t possible to extrapolate these results to people in general.

Even in these experiments, more than half of the initial recruits dropped out. Whatever the reason for leaving (generally, lack of time), these drop outs did not benefit and could not have a very high satisfaction with the experience. This was a great experience for a tiny, select group of people. The successful participants were highly motivated, and had skill and interest matches. This is a natural feature of collaborative research, and crowd technology neither can or should change that.

A third point to consider is that these young (mostly undergraduate students) were surely digital natives, quite used to social media and communication media such as reddit and reputation systems. This study showed that these technologies can be used effectively, at least for a self-selected group who are proficient and comfortable with these digital interactions.

It isn’t clear how universal this sort of digital literacy may be, or whether there are different styles. The study had to deal with cultural and personal conflict, but it could only deal with them within the digital arena. People who could not or would not play the game were simple not in the sample.

Obviously, technical and language limitations could preclude effective participation. In addition, people with limited vision or motor skills would be at a disadvantage. And, of course, people who lack confidence or are just shy will be hard to get.

These challenges are important issues for all digital life and digital work. Indeed, at its best, Crowd Research is a great approach, because the PI and RAs offer positive and encouraging leadership. My own view is that the attention and leadership of the PI probably spells the difference between the successful CR project and the hundreds of failed digital collaborations. In this, CR is recreating one of the ways that university education succeeds through mentoring and exposure to professional role models.

  1. Rajan Vaish, Snehalkumar S. Gaikwad, Geza Kovacs, Andreas Veit, Ranjay Krishna, Imanol Arrieta Ibarra, Camelia Simoiu, Michael Wilber, Serge Belongie, Sharad Goel, James Davis, and Michael S. Bernstein, Crowd Research: Open and Scalable University Laboratories, in Proceedings of the 30th Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology. 2017, ACM: Québec City, QC, Canada. p. 829-843.


Ad Servers Are—Wait For It–Evil

The contemporary Internet never ceases to serve up jaw-dropping technocapitalist assaults on humanity. From dating apps through vicious anti-social media, the commercial Internet is predatory, amoral, and sickening.

This month, Paul Vines and colleagues at the University of Washington report on yet another travesty—ADINTUsing Ad Targeting for Surveillance” [1].

Online advertising is already evil (you can tell by their outrage at people who block out their trash), but they are also completely careless of the welfare of their helpless prey. Seeking more and more “targeted” advertising, these parasites utilize tracking IDs on every mobile device to track everyone of us. There is no opt in or opt out, we are not even informed.

The business model is to sell this information to advertisers who want to target people with certain interests.  The more specific the information, the higher the bids from the advertiser.  Individual ID is  combined with location information to serve up advertisements in particular physical locations. The “smart city” is thus converted into “the spam city”.

Vines and company have demonstrated that it is not especially difficult to purchase advertising aimed at exactly one person (device). Coupled with location specific information, the ad essentially reports the location and activity of the target person.

Without knowledge or permission.

As they point out, setting up a grid of these ads can track a person’s movement throughout a city.

This is not some secret spyware, or really clever data minig. The service is provided to anyone for a fee (they estimate $1000) . Thieves, predators, disgruntled exes, trolls, the teens next door. Anyone can stalk you.

The researchers suggest some countermeasures, though they aren’t terribly reassuring to me.

Obviously, advertisers shouldn’t do this. I.e., they should not sell ads that are so specific they identify a single person. At the very least, it should be difficult and expensive to filter down to one device. Personally, I wouldn’t rely on industry self-regulation, I think we need good old fashioned government intervention here.

Second, they suggest turning off location tracking (if you are foolish enough to still have it on), and zapping your MAID (the advertising ID). It’s not clear to me that either of these steps actually works, since advertisers track location without permission, and I simply don’t believe that denying permission will have any effect on these amoral blood suckers. They’ll ignore the settings or create new IDs not covered by the settings.


I guess the next step is a letter to the States Attorney and representatives. I’m sure public officials will understand why it’s not so cool to have stalkers able to track them or their family through online adverts.

  1. Paul Vines, Franziska Roesne, and Tadayoshi Kohno, Exploring ADINT: Using Ad Targeting for Surveillance on a Budget — or — How Alice Can Buy Ads to Track Bob. Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle, 2017.

The “Ethical Knob” Won’t Work

If the goal was to make a splash, they succeeded.

But if this is supposed to be a serious proposal, it’s positively idiotic.

This minth Giuseppe Contissa, Francesca Lagioia, and Giovanni Sartor of the Univerity of Bloogna published a description of “the ethical knob”, which adjusts the behavior of an automated vehicle.

Specifically, the “knob” is supposed to set a one-dimensional preference whether to maximally protect the user (i.e., the person setting it) or others. In the event of a catastrophic situation where life is almost certain to be lost, which lives should the robot car sacrifice?

Their paper is published in Artificial Intelligence and Law, and they have a rather legalistic approach. In the case of a human driver, there are legals standards of liability that may apply to such a catastrophe. In general, in the law, choosing to harm someone incurs liability, while inadvertant harm is less culpable.

Extending the principles to AI cars raises the likelihood that whoever programs the vehicle bears responsibility for its behavior, and possibly liability for choices made by his or her software logic. Assuming that software can correctly implement a range of choices (which is a fact not in evidence), the question is what should designers do?

The Bologna team suggests that the solution is to push the burden of the decision onto the “user”, via a simple, one-dimensional preference for how the ethical dilemma should be solved. Someone (the driver? the owner? the boss?) can choose “altruist”, “impartial”, or “egoist” bias in the life and death decision.

This idea has been met with considerable criticism, with good reason. It’s pretty obvious that most people would select egoist, creating both moral and safety issues.

I will add to the chorus.

For one thing, the semantics of this “knob” are hazy. They envision a simple, one-dimensional preference that is applied to a complex array of situations and behavior. Aside from the extremely likely prospect of imperfect implementation, it isn’t even clear what the preference means or how a programmer should implement the feature.

Even more important, it is impossible for the “user” to have any idea what the knob actually does, and therefore to understand what the choice actually means. It isn’t possible to make an informed decision, which renders the user’s choice morally empty and quite possibly legally moot.

If this feature is supposed to shield the user and programmer from liability, I doubt it will succeed. The implementation of the feature will surely be at issue. Pushing a pseudo-choice to the user will not insulate the implementer from liability for how the knob works, or any flaws in the implementation.  (“The car didn’t do what I told it to.”, says the defendant.)

The intentions of the user will also be at issue. If he chooses ‘egoist’, did he mean to kill the bystanders? Did he know it might have that effect? Ignorance of the effects of a choice is not a strong defense.

I’m also not sure exactly who gets to set this knob. The authors use the term “user”, and clearly envision one person who is legally and morally responsible for operating the vehicle. This is analogous to the driver of a vehicle.

However, the “user” is actually more of a passenger, and may well be hiring a ride. So who says who gets to set the knob? The rider? The owner of the vehicle? Someone’s legal department? The terms and conditions from the manufacturer? The rules of the road (i.e., the T&C of the highway)? Some combination of all of the above?

I would imagine there would be all sorts of financial shenanigans arising from such a featuer. Rental vehicles charging more for “egoist” settings, with the result that rich people are protected over poor people. Extra charges to enable the knob at all. Neighborhood safety rules that require “altruist” setting (except for wealthy or powerful people). Insurance companies charging more for different settings (though I’m not sure how their actuaries will find the relative risks). And so on.

Finally, the entire notion that this choice can be expressed in a one-dimensional scale, set in advance, is questionable. Setting aside what the settings mean, and how they should be implemented, the notion that they can be set once, in the abstract, is problematic.

For one thing, I would want this to be a context sensitive. If I have children in the car, that is a different case than if I am alone. If I am operating in a protected area near my home, that is a different case than riding through a wide open, “at your own risk” situation.

Second, game theory makes me want to have a setting to implement tit-for-tat strategy. If I am about to crash into someone set at ‘egoist’, then set me to ‘egoist’. If she is set to ‘altruist’, set me to ‘altruist’, too. And so on. (And, by the way, shouldn’t there be a visible indication on the outside so we know which vehicles are set to kill us and which ones aren’t?)

This whole thing is such a conceptual mess. It can’t possibly work.

I really hope no one tries to implement it.

  1. Giuseppe Contissa, Francesca Lagioia, and Giovanni Sartor, The Ethical Knob: ethically-customisable automated vehicles and the law. Artificial Intelligence and Law, 25 (3):365-378, 2017/09/01 2017.


Robot Wednesday

Annual report: Freelancing in America 2017

Every year the Freelancers Union*  produces a report on “Freelancing in America”.

This year’s report follows up the 2016 report, asserting that 57.3 million workers are freelancing, including 47% of “millennials” [2].   The total is up from 55 million in 2016 and 54 million in 2015. They project forward from these figures to imagine that freelancers will be more than 50% of workers by 2027.

As in the previous reports, this report defines “freelancer” to be “Individuals who have engaged in supplemental, temporary, project- or contract- based work, within the past 12 months.” [1] However, examining the methodology, these labels are misleading (from [1]):

Diversified Workers (a mix of employment, including freelancing) (35% / 19.8 million)

Independent Contractors (full or part time) (31% of the independent workforce / 17.7 million professionals)

Moonlighters (23% / 13.0 million)

Freelance Business Owners (who define themselves as “freelance workers”) (6% / 3.4 million)

Clearly, the number of freelance workers who have the equivalent to a full time job is much smaller than 57 millions, perhaps 20-30 million depending on how you classify self-employed business owners. (Considering this, the future projection is even less believable.)

I quibble about this point because the report portrays freelancing as the future of work, and paints a rosy picture. However, if the future of work is mainly about underemployment and self-employment, this is not such a rosy picture.

In this survey, the self-identified full time freelancers report an average of 34 hours of work per week [1]. In addition, freelancers report income unpredictability, low savings, and high debt. Many freelancers rely on ACA for health insurance, which is highly uncertain at this time.

In short, freelancers may report high satisfaction, and a determination to never choose conventional employment, the objective measures describe marginal employment, and possibly a race to the bottom.

The 2017 report focuses on several impacts of technology. Obviously, the gig economy is enabled by digital technology, and a majority of freelancers report finding work online.

The report spins freelancing as an adaptation to the “fourth industrial revolution”.

Freelancers report anxiety about AI and robotics displacing them. Nearly half of them say that they have already been affected. Freelancers expect technical change, and upgrade their skills frequently. (Online job services are a good guide to chasing the demand for specific skills.)

It is clear that freelancers are in the front lines of this revolution, though it isn’t clear that they are doing better than other workers, or that freelancing is either necessary or sufficient to survive.

Sara Horowitz demands that we “don’t call it the gig economy”. Nearly half of freelancers prefer to call it “the freelance economy” [3]. That’s fine, and obviously its the Freelancers Union, not the Gig Workers Union. (Though The Gig Workers of the World would be a great name for either a union or a rock band. Slogan: “Gig Strong! Gig power!”)

Look, I’m a member of the FU, and I strongly support the union and stand with my fellow workers (whatever they care to call themselves). One for all, and all for one.

But I can’t let this kind of misuse of data pass without objection.

Freelancing is important, and it is a significant part of the new way of work. But it isn’t reasonable to claim that it is going to be the predominant mode of employment any time soon (if ever). And if it does dominate the economy, it will be an economy characterized by massive under employment, economic insecurity, and poverty.

The whole point of the FU is prevent the last part from coming true. Let’s not lie to ourselves about it.

*Disclosure: I am a proud member of the FU.

  1. Edelman Intellignece, Freelancing in America: 2017. Freelancers Union, 2017.
  2. Freelancers Union and UpWork, Freelancing in America: 2017. Freelancers Union, 2017.
  3. Sara Horowitz, Freelancing in America 2017, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2017.


Fixing Journalism? Two Approaches

Everybody knows that journalism is in crisis. It turns out that the Internet lowered the cost of delivering information to the point that anyone can play the role of journalism. Anyone. For any reason.

Worse, as the information economy has been increasingly captured by the advertising industry, all other interests have been obliterated. Everything is subordinated to the need to command a large enough audience to generate revenue for advertisers. We now have a word for this, “click bait”.

At the same time, the idea of “mass” media has been replaced with individually filtered channels. It isn’t necessary to serve a least-common-denominator, each person receives a custom stream, potentially different from any other. This has shattered cultural consensus that, for better or worse, was a side-effect of mass media.

These developments have had pernicious effects everywhere, but the destruction of quality (or even mediocre) journalism is particularly damaging to civil society and democratic government.

Scarcely a week goes by without hearing about some new effort to “save” or “reboot” journalism. Shorn of marketing hype, these ideas are basically about money. How can you sustain the activities of journalists or equivalent content creators?

There aren’t many candidate solutions, and they are all pretty much the same ideas as sustained print based journalism.

  1. be a captive propaganda organ
  2. advertising
  3. subscription

Setting aside the “ministry of truth” approach favored by political groups, let’s look at two recent examples of the other approaches.

Civil: Self-Sustaining Journalism

One diagnosis of journalism’s malaise is that they need to adapt to the new world of on-line advertising and the accompanying need to “attract eyeballs”. Conventional journalistic organizations must be rebooted for this new world.

There are many versions of this, but one interesting concept comes from “Civil”, which not only aims to fix journalism, but uses trendy blockchain technology to do so.

The goal is “is a self-sustaining global marketplace for journalism that is free from ads, fake news, and outside influence”. Wow!

One of the key insights in this approach is to view the goal as a global marketplace for journalism, which eschews notions of a special fourth estate with a critical role in democratic self-governance. From this point of view, journalism is one kind of content, and it has to compete in a global marketplace filled with lots of other content.

In one sense, this is essentially conceding defeat. Journalism is over, so we’ll reuse the term for journalism-like content.

Their promised solution sounds too good to be true. Somehow this global, unregulated market will be free of influences, and “self-sustaining” without ads. How will this work?  Magic.

The magic is blockchain based “autonomous” organizations. This technology replaces a conventional organization with code, and, most important, aims to replace the critical functions of journalism with “autonomous” processes—protocols that are not controlled by any person.

So, Civil proposes a suite of processes that they believe replace everything important from conventional journalism,  and avoid costly overheads and intrusive outside interest.

Who are the stakeholders in the journalism game? At the heart, there are journalists (“sellers”) and citizens (“buyers”). There are  funders, owners, advertisers, and sponsors.

But the critical piece that makes it journalism rather than entertainment is quality control, selection of topics, honest investigation, and careful fact checking. In a conventional organization, this role is performed by editorial staff and other managers, who exercise power with judgment.

The ‘Civil’ project eliminates all of these players except the producers and consumers.

Civil aims to create a marketplace model for journalism where citizens and journalists connect around shared interests and standards.

This is both technologically and organizationally identical to many other Internet markets.

The Civil project diagnoses the weakness of this “Amazon” model as being the ease with which “anonymous black hats to cheaply produce and spread fake, malicious content in pursuit of clicks-for-cash ad dollars or nefarious propagandist aims.

Their solution is inspired by Wikipedia, and seeks to “incentivize journalism” while defeating non-journalistic behavior. In their analysis, the way to do this is to create a cryptocurrency and use it to implement micropayments. It’s a bit more complicated than this, because they want to encourage more than just personal payments. They want stable channels of information with strong quality or at least reputation for quality.

Their design has three pieces:

Newsrooms” – “Newsrooms allow citizens to pool funding to support coverage for a specific topic. The more citizens, the more funding, the more journalists will be drawn to cover it.”

Stations” – “Stations allow journalists to productize and price their work to their own dedicated audience however they want”

Fact-checking-as-a-service” – this is crowd sourcing of the editorial role.

These ideas are to be implemented with Ethereum-style “smart contracts”, creating protocols for buying and selling content, as well as voting, penalizing ‘inaccuracy’ and other activities.

The two “innovations” here would have to be the “newsroom” and the “fact-checking-as-a-service”. (“Stations” are indistinguishable from many other digital channels, including this blog.)

The Newsroom concept is an interesting take on how journalism is supposed to work. The idea that journalists should cover what “people” want them to cover is, well, problematic. There are lots of things I don’t want to know about (e.g., wars), but I need journalists to tell me about it. The idea that journalistic coverage should be driven by customer demand is pretty poor journalism.

The “Fact-Checking-As-A-Service” is even more problematic. This concept replaces the efforts of editors and quality control staff with an unspecified crowd sourcing. They don’t explain how this might work or even what it does.

First of all, “fact checking” is only the first level of journalistic quality controls. A report can be 100% “accurate” and still mislead by omission or bias. For that matter, much of the “fake news” is based on interpretation and even “alternative facts”. If there are multiple “fact checkers” who give different rulings, how does that help?

Second, actual quality control is far more than just double checking names and dates. Tracking down alleged events and sources isn’t trivial. More important, judging the weight to give various sources is hard. In this, journalists act as trusted sources of information, and we implicitly trust their sources because we trust them. Replacing this chain of trust with a “trustless” system is dubious.

As an aside, I’ll point out that the best journalists are not “incentivized” by money. They are motivated by a desire to be a trusted source of information. And the best of them report on things that no one wants to know about—and they make us care whether we want to or not.  Thus, the incentives of this system are probably misguided from the start.

The bottom line is that “Civil” is almost a caricature of the cryptocurrency culture. They aim to “fix” journalism, but they seem to misunderstand what it is, and misdiagnose its ills. Not surprisingly, the proposed “fix” is problematic, and unlikely to work.

The Conversation

“The Conversation” offers a rather different “fix” for at least part of the same problem. The conversation is a not for profit enterprise, dedicated to promulgating reliable, fact-based information.

Provide a fact-based and editorially independent forum, free of commercial or political bias.”

The Conversation is responding to the challenges described by Civil. They also perceive a disconnect between universities and the public. Universities are repositories of knowledge, but that knowledge is poorly represented in journalism.

The Conversation sees itself as a source of trusted information dedicated to the public good.

In contrast to Civil, The Conversation does not rely on a “market” to “incentivize” their producers. For one thing their writers are already highly motivated. What they do focus on is careful editing, which is not just ”fact checking”, but also helps create clear, understandable information for non-specialists.

Above all, The Conversation is aiming to create trusted and trustworthy information. They enforce strong rules on transparency, including disclosure of financial interests. The authors are not paid in cryptocurrency or anything, and the content is open for anyone to reuse under Creative Commons Attributions-No Derivs (CC BY-ND). This license preserves the attribution and precludes modification of what the author said, which are necessary to maintain both the trust of the readers and the reputation of the writers and editors.

In short,  “We aim to help rebuild trust in journalism.”

The content is not driven by user demand, it is curated by The Conversation. They are looking for people who know a lot about a topic of public interest, who want to inform the public about it.

Authors must agree to “Community Standards”, which amount to straightforward rules of civil discourse: mutual respect, staying on topic, be constructive, be responsible. It is interesting that one of the rules is “Be You”. No anonymous or pseudonymous posts allowed: you must take personal responsibility for what you say.

Articles are “pitched” to the staff, and if selected an editor is assigned to help create the article. The editor is not a “fact checker”, she or he is a co-creator,  charged to help design the article to be valuable for the general audience.

The published article will include the name, qualifications, affiliations, and funding sources of the author. In this, they are taking practices from academic publishing out to general readers.

The content is free for readers, and available for republishing. No one is writing to make money, but there is plenty of reputation on the line.

One reason this works is that the contributors must be affiliated with an academic institution. Aside from filtering out complete fakes and robots, this means that the authors have their own funding, and generally have a mission to publish. The Conversation doesn’t need to “incentivize” with a starvation wage.


These two (of many) efforts to “fix journalism” offer an interesting comparison.

Both Civil and The Conversation say that there is a crisis in journalism, and describe the illness in similar terms. But these two projects diagnose the underlying disease rather differently, and therefore prescribe different treatments.

Civil is concerned with the financial underpinnings of journalism, and seems to be mainly interested in coverage of current events, especially local events. They seek to use digital technology to create a more efficient, decentralized funding model. Specifically, they use trendy blockchain technology to design “markets” that replace the processes of journalism.

While Civil deploys “disruptive” technology, it’s processes aren’t especially novel, nor even that different from conventional practice. The main novelty is the replacement of editorial decision-making and quality control with market incentives and rather hazy notions of “fact checking as a service”.

The Conversation is concerned with creating better content in ways that are distributed as widely as possible. They are particularly interested in disseminating the deep knowledge accumulated at Universities to the general public.

The Conversation is focused on trusted information. As such, quality control is at the center of the solution, and incentives are aimed to support public interest, not market share.

The Conversation uses digital technology (of course), but musters motivated people from the existing pool of academic researchers who have a desire to support the public good. Authors are not paid, and the content is given away for free. Editors, on the other hand, are paid. If there is a market, it is a reputation economy.

It is notable that The Conversation has been operating for a number of years. No one is getting rich, but there is a lot of solid journalism being made. In that sense, it is a proof by existence.

Civil, on the other hand, is untried as yet. The blockchain technology it aims to use is not only new, it is extremely shaky.

My own view is that Civil’s approach to journalism exhibits fundamental misunderstandings and even a repudiation of what journalism actually used to be. Editors have always been aware of market forces, but are supposed to act as a buffer between producers and raw demand. That is, editors want to foster solid reporting, even if there is no immediate “demand” for it, and they want to report accurately regardless of what the customers want to hear.

Editorial staff does fact checking, but fact checking per se is only the most trivial aspect of quality control. In any case is neither an optional after market service, nor something that you choose to match your own prejudices.

I think that The Conversation’s focus on trust is a great idea, and I’m glad to see it working. On the other hand, The Conversation is focused on a small part of the problem with journalism, which is the poor use of expert knowledge. This problem has been around for decades in the form of anxiety over the challenges of disseminating scientific understandings.

The Conversation works because it uses already existing social mechanisms, specifically, the credentialing and public mission of Universities. These institutions are designed to create trusted information and conduct civil discourse. The Conversation extends the reach of these processes.

However, the entire enterprise of public universities is increasingly threatened by both cultural attack and politically motivated defunding. The Conversation only works if you think that University affiliated experts are trusted sources, and that belief is far from universal. A lot of “fake news” is simply nihilistic denial of expert opinion, and no amount of editing can overcome the will to deny.

The bottom line is that neither of these projects is much of a cure for journalism. The Conversation does a good job, but depends on the fate of academia and rational debate in general. Civil misunderstands journalism, and attempts to fix the problem of trusted information via “trustless” technology and market forces. Whatever Civil is doing, it isn’t good journalism.

  1. Civil Civil: Self-Sustaining Journalism.June 20 2017,
  2. The Converstaion. The Conversation: In-depth analysis, research, news and ideas from leading academics and researchers. 2017,


Cryptocurrency Thursday

More Blockchain Use Cases

For the past few years, we’ve been hearing about all the amazing things that Nakamotoan blockchains could be used for(e.g.,  [2]). As the technology matures, reality has been sorting out what is likely to work and what isn’t.

This week Jonathan Keane writes about “5 Apps Already Being Built on the Decentralized Web”. Specifically, he’s talking about applications that are using Blockstack which is a software layer that manages cloud storage. Blockchain manages identity and metadata, and all data is encrypted. Essentially, this replaces a conventional database with encrypted records accessed through a decentralized blockchain.

The overall goal of this decentralization is to eliminate censorship (and tax collection). They think that “major internet players wield too much power over users, and this is exactly what Blockstack was created to disrupt.” One founder went so far as to assert that with blockchain technology, it’s not “don’t be evil”, it’s “can’t be evil”.   (Obviously, this is true only for certain values of “evil”.)

Keane gives an optimistic view of this technology which has attracted some investment and has a number of applications cooking. His list gives us another reading on where blockchain technology may actually be used.


This system is actually operating. It is a clone of Silk Road and other market places, which provides wide open market for anything. Openbazaar actually only uses one part of OpenStack, though who knows. This is a classic Nakamotoan use case, making the world safe for money laundering and illicit commerce. How this isn’t “evil”, I don’t really see.


Casa aims to be a clone of AirBnB, paid via Bitcoin. It’s not clear what the business model is, exactly, but they aim to compete on price: blockchain is cheaper than corporate servers. Whether they can catch up to AirBnB’s massive user base remains to be seen. Customers care about convenience, not back end processes, so who knows? And how many people want to be paid in Bitcoin?  Do people really want a less regulated AirBnB?

We’ll see.


Afia is said to be another entry in the growing field of portable health records. The idea is to hold your own records securely encrypted, and, presumably, provide them to other digital systems such as providers and insurance companies. The goal is to reduce the risk when third parties hold personal data.

Regardless of the blockchain technology, this idea depends on those third parties participating in the scheme. I.e., they must not hold records of you, and they must accept your records from you. This requires quite a bit of trust, and a ton of social engineering. We’ll see.


Guild is a clone of medium, yet another blockchain based blogging platform. The idea apparently is that the Internet isn’t unfettered enough, what is needed is the ability for anyone to post anything they want. Blockchain technology assures that people can post anonymously, and there is no way to block or delete content.

In the forty years of the Internet, we have run this experiment many times. It never works. In fact, this approach has reduced the Internet to a near useless patchwork of junk information, slander, and propaganda.  This is certain to encourage and sustain ‘evil’.

Ongaku Ryoho

Ongaku Ryoho is a clone of music streaming apps. The music (however obtained) is encrypted in your cloud storage, metadata is managed with the blockchain. This replicates the servers of a streaming app with a decentralized system.

The economic case is to cut out the middle man, to let artists publish directly to consumers. It’s not clear, but it’s probable that it will be difficult to enforce copyrights and licenses on the content. It will be difficult to “take down” pirated material, once it is in the system.

This could potentially work pretty well, because music consumers are pretty motivated to get their music, and everyone hates the music industry. Everything depends on whether they can get content, and that will depend on how good a deal this is for artists. If artists’ rights are protected, it will work, if not, it will just be another pirate kingdom.

“Disruption” But Not Especially Innovative

Overall, these coming-real-soon-now applications may “disrupt” current Internet businesses, but they are certainly not especially innovative. The innovations are mostly in the back end processing, which users neither see nor care about. Will this be enough to successfully overtake existing companies? I doubt it, but much depends on the details of the user experience.

Some of the ideas are banking on the dubious proposition that people want a less controlled Internet. There are certainly people who grate under the ability of big companies to censor them, turn over data to the government, or get hacked. But most people really wish for a much more filtered experience (which is part of why Facebook succeeds). So it isn’t clear that these apps will have anything other than a niche appeal.

  1. Jonathan Keane, Blockstack Today: 5 Apps Already Being Built on the Decentralized Web. Coindesk.September 2 2017,
  2. Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott, Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin is Changing Money, Business, and the World, New York, Portfolio/Penguin, 2016.


Crytptocurrency Thursday