How we reinvented Whuffie

Or: what did you do during the Rape Troll Wars of 2013, dad?

We had built an electronic village where people could say whatever they wanted, whenever, wherever. And that was powerful, and governments had toppled and secrets had been told and careers had exploded and imploded.

But it turned out that people were still people and the infrastructure just moved bits of text from place to place and we had grown up so quickly, so fast, from conversations face to face to those at a distance.

It was okay at first, because our conversations at a distance were generally with people we knew. But we exploded that all, tore it up, threw it away. We wanted to connect everyone. So we did.

And that’s when we started seeing that yes, people were still people and that everyone around the world we were unwiring together, well, they could suddenly talk to each other.

And some of that talk wasn’t that nice. They weren’t people we knew.

You see, something we had learned about was this thing called the Dunbar number. It’s 150: the number of people we can keep track of in our heads, unagumented and supposedly reflective of our tribal past.We knew how to keep track of personalities and keep behaviour in check.

And it turned out that when you could suddenly interject into a conversation another tribe is having, you would say things you wouldn’t say into their eyes, into their face, in their house, in their bed.

So we grafted on a reputation management system. There was precedent, of course. Over a decade ago, a forum called slashdot allowed the moderating up and down of both users and comments. The integer that tracked someone’s ranking — the function of their comments rating — was even called Karma.

Then there were other fora — but because we built them, generally speaking, by engineers for engineers, we built them to help us accurately assess information at a glance, we built them for efficiency of communication.

Not for nuance.

Not necessarily for judge of character.

We didn’t build in the feedback mechanisms. We didn’t allow for the disapproving looks that didn’t have to be public, but that still communicated undesirable behaviour. We couldn’t show, easily, what it felt like to be ignored because what you were doing or saying wasn’t appropriate.

Then someone pointed out what happened when your mother saw what you said on those networks. And for some people, that mattered.

Do you speak to your mother with that mouth?

So we remembered Whuffie. Karma. Klout. All of those names, those blunt tools. We repurposed them so that we would communicate and understand the measure of character.But we couldn’t use a score, not just an integer. It was too blunt. Not enough nuance. Exactly what happened before.

This rebuilt Whuffie, this one, we built with nuance. We built it networked. We built it for real-time. And we built it with weighting for the people you respected.

That’s why we all have symbols next to our profile photos.

It’s so people know how to judge us.

Because we didn’t behave.

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