Reputation management services

Paul Raven @ 16-06-2011

If I were a bright-eyed huckster with a sharp suit and few morals (or should that be fewer?), online reputation management would be one of the business models I’d be thinking about putting into action. For as they say in Yorkshire, “where there’s muck, there’s brass”… quite a lot of brass, in fact, if this NYT piece is to be believed:

Reputation.com advertises an annual membership fee of $99, but Mr. Fertik said that costs could easily reach $10,000 for a prominent person who wanted to make a scandal harder to discover through Internet searches. (He said Mr. Weiner was probably out of luck: “It would take a long time and more money than he has.”)

For the detective work, the costs escalate quickly. Michael J. Hershman, president of the Fairfax Group, a risk and reputation management firm, said burying negative information could cost $500 to $1,000, but persuading search engines to expunge incorrect information could cost several thousand dollars more. Getting that information removed from aggregating Web sites like Intellius or PeopleFinder can add another couple of thousand dollars.

Costs can spike into five figures when a firm is asked to find the people responsible for the defamatory blog post or Twitter message. “If you’re going to hire a firm like ours to find that person, it’s hit or miss,” Mr. Hershman said. “We can’t guarantee success. It’s not as easy as going to the search engines.”

There’s a pretty obvious parallel here with the UK-centric phenomenon of super- and hyper-injunctions; the traditional privacy of the rich and privileged is becoming harder and more difficult to maintain in the face of network culture. (This is, if I understand it correctly, the intended meaning of the old saw about “information wanting to be free”, rather than as a dubious ideological justification for content piracy.)

It remains to be seen whether power and money will win the battle in the long run; it probably won’t surprise regular readers to know that I rather hope it doesn’t, because that would mean the rich and powerful would be obliged to think about the potential fallout from their indiscretions before committing them, or face the consequences like everyone else.

The flipside is that life-damaging falsehoods can proliferate with equal ease, deliberately or accidentally, and that corrections to erroneous reports rarely have the same high profile or link-back rate as the initial reports themselves. That said, the nature of network culture suggests that concerted efforts to publicise truth and retractions are likely to be just as effective as deliberate smears or falsehoods propagated with the same degree of effort. As more and more raw data and evidence becomes part of the online ecosystem, it should in theory be possible to defend the truth more effectively as time goes by… but that discounts the regrettable realities of confirmation bias. As so many sensitive topics demonstrate – from global-level biggies like climate science, all the way down to gender representation disparities in science fiction publishing – no amount of data will convince those who simply don’t want to be convinced.

At this point in my thought-train, it’s time to bring in that small yet hardy perennial of geek-futurist topics, the reputation currency. These are still in their infancy, and as such are very open to gaming and logrolling; Amazon review ratings, for instance, vary wildly in their utility from product to product, though the eBay system is a little more robust and trustworthy, provided one does one’s due diligence. But that’s the key, I suspect; in the same way that I think we have to take responsibility for regulating the behaviour of corporations by thinking carefully about where we spend our money and/or attention-time, I think it’s also down to us to make sure we only trust systems that are trustworthy.

Easier said than done, of course, as it would require a pretty fundamental shift in attitudes toward who is responsible for protecting us from the more miscreant members of the species. But there’s another topical example that provides a potential model for  a currency of trustworthiness, and that’s BitCoin. Only a trust currency would actually have to be a sort of mirror image of BitCoin, in that it would have to be completely transparent at the transaction level, with every exchange documented and verified by the cloud of peers. (Whether such a system could ever scale to a global or even national level is way beyond my limited grokking of cryptotech to grasp; it’s a subject I really need to dig into properly at my soonest opportunity.)

In the short- to medium-term, however, I think we can expect to see reputation management become an increasingly expensive and cut-throat theatre of business, alongside a broad swathe of attempts to reinstate the privilege of privacy using the statute books. With any luck, though, the continual exposure of politicians and celebrities as having the same suite of flaws and stupidities as the rest of us might eventually encourage us to look past the headlines and start asking the questions that really matter… namely what these people do when they’re actually at work on our dime.


Thermodynamic demonology: extracting energy from information

Paul Raven @ 16-11-2010

Here’s a potential plot device for one of Charlie Stross’ Laundry novels or, rather more seriously (though perhaps not as entertainingly), as the hinge for a Greg Egan story; a team of Tokyo researchers reckon they’ve managed to summon up a very tiny version of what physicists call “Maxwell’s demon”. Ars Technica breaks it down:

Maxwell’s demon has haunted thermodynamics for well over a century, since James Clerk Maxwell first suggested that a small demon might be able to selectively allow only hot atoms through a small gate, gradually extracting heat from a gas without expending much in the way of energy. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and the demon feeds on information: it needs to know which atoms are hot. Eventually, it was recognized that information was being exchanged for energy, and an equivalence between the two was calculated based on theoretical considerations. Until now, however, nobody has managed to build a demon that could help see how well real-world behavior matched the theory.

[…]

The metaphor the authors use is a spiral staircase. A particle placed on a small staircase will be buffeted by energy, and typically go up or down a stair; on average, it’ll go down more often than up, eventually settling at the bottom of the staircase. The demon stands at the side of the stairs with a barrier. When, by chance, the particle happens to move up to a higher energy state, it inserts the barrier behind it, preventing it from dropping down. Given time, the particle will reach the top of the staircase.

Their real-world implementation involves a bead on a tether that is able to freely rotate around a full 360° axis. Below the bead, the authors set up four electrodes that generated electric fields that were shaped like a sine wave. When the bead was in the trough of the wave, it would be at its lowest energy state. If the bead was jostled anywhere else, it gained potential energy that would eventually be lost again when it fell back down to the trough.

Remember, though, that not even demonologists get a free lunch:

If you ignore the apparatus involved, the authors could directly compare the energy gained against the amount of information required to flip the switches involved. And the results appear to agree very well with the theoretical predications.

As far as thermodynamics is concerned, however, you have to consider the apparatus, since it’s necessary to balance the books in order to avoid thinking that we’re getting energy for free. And, as it turns out, the system for tracking the bead and switching currents is rather elaborate, involving “microscope by constructing a real-time feedback system including video capture, image analysis, potential modulation and data storage.” As an accompanying perspective notes, you’d probably also have to throw in the energetic cost of the grad student who was operating the whole thing, too.

So, no chance of heating my garret with information, then… unless I burn all my books. (Not. Gonna. Happen.)


Wikileaks making the news rather than breaking it

Paul Raven @ 15-07-2010

Everywhere I look, I seem to see Wikileaks. The site’s founder, Julian Assange, appears at The Guardian and delivers a cautious guess at the shape of world media after another decade:

Is WikiLeaks the journalistic model for the future? He gives a characteristically lateral answer. “All over the world the barriers between what is inside an organisation and outside an organisation are being smoothed out. In the military, the use of contractors means that what is the military and what is not the military is smoothed out. Newswise, you see the same trend – what is the newspaper and what is not the newspaper? Comments on websites from the general public and supporters . . . ” His point trails away, so I press him to make a prediction about the shape of the media in a decade or so from now. “For the financial and specialist press, it’ll still look mostly the same – your daily briefing about what you need to know to run your business. But for political and social analysis, that’s going to be movements and networks. You can already see this happening.”

An insight into his stated political stance (or lack thereof):

In his talk, Assange had said that he is neither of the right nor the left – his enemies are forever trying to pin labels on him in order to undermine his organisation. What matters first and foremost is getting the information out. “First the facts, ma’am,” is how he summarises his philosophy to me. “Then we’ll get down to what we want to do about it. You can’t do anything sensible until you know what the situation is that you’re in.” But while he rejects political labels, he says WikiLeaks does have its own ethical code. “We have values. I am an information activist. You get the information out to the people. We believe a richer intellectual and historical record that is fuller and more accurate is in itself intrinsically good, and gives people the tools to make intelligent decisions.” He says an explicit part of their purpose is to highlight human rights abuses, no matter where they are carried out or who perpetrates them.

And some sidebar from Wired UKWikileaks runs pretty frugal for what is, in some respects, a new media non-profit startup:

Wikileaks has received 400,000 euros (£333,000) through PayPal or bank money transfers since late December, and spent only 30,000 euros (£25,000) from that funding, says Hendrik Fulda, vice president of the Berlin-based Wau Holland Foundation.

[…]

The money has gone to pay the travel expenses of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and spokesman Daniel Schmitt, as well as to cover the costs of computer hardware, such as servers, and leasing data lines, says Fulda. Wikileaks does not currently pay a salary to Assange or other volunteers from this funding, though there have been discussions about doing so in the future, Fulda adds. The details have not yet been worked out.

“If you are drawing from volunteers who are basically doing stuff for free and if you start paying money, the question is to whom, and to whom not, do you pay, and how much?” Fulda said. “It’s almost a moral question: How much money do you pay?”

The big question here is whether the organisation can keep itself small enough to stay free of spook infiltration, and keep close enough to its core ethics that they don’t suffer a serious case of mission slippage or internal fraud. It’ll never be a big-bucks business, I’d guess, but the accrued counter-authority power and kudos will appeal to a lot of people with axes to grind. But what if they manage to make it an open-source process, so that the same work could be done by anyone even if Wikileaks sank or blew up? An amorphous and perpetual revolving-door flashmob, like Anonymous without the LOLcats and V masks? It’s essentially just a protocol, albeit one that runs on human and electronic networks in parallel.

That Assange is a real character, though; wonder how much he’s playing on the Warhol similarities deliberately? Strikes me as the sort canny enough to play the media on the symbolic level, that’s for sure. Definitely a name to watch out for.


The Cyclenet: Bangladeshi InfoLadies bring web benefits to the unwired

Paul Raven @ 24-05-2010

Here’s another story that’s all over the shop (I got it via both MeFi and Chairman Bruce), that reminded me a fair bit of Geoff Ryman’s Air: a report at The Guardian about “InfoLadies” in Bangladesh, young women who saddle up on a bicycle with a netbook, a mobile phone and a bunch of medical supplies in order to sidestep corrupt infrastructure, deliver useful knowledge to rural citizens, and transform their lives in the process.

“Ask me about the pest that’s infecting your crop, common skin diseases, how to seek help if your husband beats you or even how to stop having children, and I may have a solution,” says a confident Akhter.

“An InfoLady’s netbook is loaded with content especially compiled and translated in local Bangla language,” says Mohammed Forhad Uddin of D.Net, a not-for-profit research organisation that is pioneering access to livelihood information. “It provides answers and solutions to some of the most common problems faced by people in villages.”

[…]

The success of the InfoLadies is making the failure of the state more noticeable. “We have corruption and political interference in every sector,” says Gullal Singha, a state executive officer of Sagatha sub-district. Sagatha is severely affected by soil erosion and is home to the poorest of the poor. “Even the ultra-poor entitled for food relief are segregated as Bangladesh Nationalist Party poor or Awami League poor,” says Aziz Mostafa, an elected representative of a local civic body.

This explains why thousands of Bangladeshis have embraced InfoLadies and their laptops, which are making lives easier and arguably better. “In most cases I’m able to provide an instant solution using my database,” says Luich, who is educated to secondary school level. For skin infections, she sends the patient’s picture to her organisation’s call centre in Dhaka, where experts help with diagnosis and advise hospital referral if required.

“In many places there are no doctors for miles, and fatalities for easily curable diseases are very high. An InfoLady can save lives,” says Shahadat Hossain of NGO Udayan Sabolombi Shangstha. Government statistics show Bangladesh has only three doctors per 10,000 people.

This is certainly a very disruptive thing to be happening, and it looks as if the disruption is largely positive so far, at least for the villagers themselves – I’m not sure the minor functionaries cut out of the baksheesh loops will be so pleased, for instance. But there’s a kind of technological (or maybe informational) colonialism occuring here, too; it’s not inconceivable that the men and clerics so discomforted by the InfoLadies might find that many of the changes taking place are not to their liking… and that could get ugly. The state won’t like being made to look superfluous to people who already consider it to be little more than an apparatus of exploitation, either; I’m not sure which I feel less sorry for.

How long before the InfoLadies get a sense of personal kudos and cultural agency about their transformative outsider status, start wearing a lot of American Apparel threads and riding fixies? Less snarkily, how many rural daughters will want not just to learn new things from the InfoLadies, but to follow in their footsteps? And how many traditionalist fathers will accept that? Change is a double-edged sword; in Bangladesh and other developign nations, the incredible speed with which cultural change will occur (as the world and its wide web encroaches closer) will be individually empowering, but collectively destabilising. Choppy seas ahead, captain.


Drowning in data

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2010

Maybe we’ll have flooded our culture-lungs with angry YouTube comments and pharmaceutical spamblogs before the rising sea-levels get a chance to touch our toes… [via MetaFilter]

According to one estimate, mankind created 150 exabytes (billion gigabytes) of data in 2005. This year, it will create 1,200 exabytes. Merely keeping up with this flood, and storing the bits that might be useful, is difficult enough. Analysing it, to spot patterns and extract useful information, is harder still.

Actually, I don’t see this deluge of data as a bad thing, but I’m very interested in how we’re going to store, manage and curate it.


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