Online reputation: it’s contextual

This post was the first in a new category for Ethnography Matters called “A day in the life”. In it, I describe a day at a workshop on online reputation that I attended, reporting on presentations and conversations with folks from Reddit and Stack Overflow, highlighting four key features of successful online reputation systems that came out of their talks.

A screenshot from’s sub-Redit, “SnackExchange” showing point system

We want to build a reputation system for our new SwiftRiver product at Ushahidi where members can vote on bits of relevant content related to a particular event. This meant that I was really excited about being able to spend the day yesterday at the start of a fascinating workshop on online reputation organised by a new non-profit organisation called Hypothesis. It seems that Hypothesis is attempting to build a layer on top of the Web that enables users, when encountering new information, to be able to immediately find the best thinking about that information. In the words of Hypothesis founder, Dan Whaley, “The idea is to develop a system that let’s us see quality insights and information” in order to “improve how we make decisions.” So, for example, when visiting the workshop web page, you might be able to see that people like me (if I “counted” on the reputation quality scale) have written something about that workshop or about very specific aspects of the workshop and be able to find out what they (and perhaps even I) think about it. Continue reading “Online reputation: it’s contextual”

Is the Web really dead?

From Webmonkey's 'How to web apps and native apps compare?'

I’ve really enjoyed this semester’s web architecture class taught by seasoned web geek, Erik Wilde. With lectures and assignments on everything from geolocation in html5, to the possibilities offered by offline storage, to security and privacy on the web, it’s been really interesting to get this big picture perspective on the web as a whole.

Erik recently pointed to two examples of Internet navel-gazing by Wired – once in 1997 in an article entitled ‘Push!‘ and more recently, ‘The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet!‘ from September this year. The 1997 article told us to ‘kiss (our) browser goodbye!’ declaring that ‘The Net has begun offering things you simply can’t browse.’ The basis for their reasoning? The web doesn’t (didn’t) work anymore.

If the Web were working perfectly for everyone, we might not need to contemplate subtle new variations. But strong forces are dislodging the browser from its throne:

First is the little-uttered secret that many Web users suffer a sense of being lost and overwhelmed. That’s why 50 percent of regular users in one recent survey report that they simply don’t surf anymore – they hit the same sites every time they log on. The best part of the Web is its worst: it’s a web. You don’t know where the good stuff is, and when you land there, the signal is camouflaged by all the noise. Clicking becomes Russian roulette. Yeah, rolling your own is very rewarding, but often we’d like someone else to slip us a ready-made. Even though it may not be as nifty as the one we made. Or maybe because it is niftier and better made. As it is now, there is an audience of millions with high expectations, and they aren’t being satisfied.

I agree that the Web became (is?) huge and overwhelming, but when Kevin Kelly and Gavin Wolf said that that would drive us away to the comforting arms of big (television-type) media producers where we would once again sink into the couch to have our content delivered (pushed) to us. What actually happened was that the companies who rose up were the ones who helped us find the good stuff. Google pushed out other competitors because it analyzed human-generated links to web pages (assuming web pages linked from many important pages are themselves likely to be important) rather than looking at individual sites say about themselves. Twitter enables us to tell one another what we’re reading – taking us places we’ve never been to before. Rather than “going back” to big media producers to show us what’s good (I, for one, never left for what it’s worth), we’ve found better ways of asking trusted individuals and communities where to find quality information.

It’s 2010 and the browser (and the www for that matter) are both still looking pretty healthy despite Wired’s doomsday predictions. But Wired (now from the perspective of Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff) are sticking to their guns and making the ‘push vs pull’ argument yet again. People want content to be pushed to them, says Wired. Take a look at APIs, apps and the smartphone. ‘Tens of millions of consumers (are) already voting with their wallets for an app-led experience,’ they say.

And the Web of YouTube, Twitter and weblogs? Ah, say Anderson and Wolff: that’s still going to be there — don’t you worry. Actually it turns out that they’re only talking about the ‘commercial content side of the digital economy’ (my emphasis) when they say that the ‘Web is dead’:

‘(T)he great virtue of today’s Web is that so much of it is noncommercial. The wide-open Web of peer production, the so-called generative Web where everyone is free to create what they want, continues to thrive, driven by the nonmonetary incentives of expression, attention, reputation, and the like. But the notion of the Web as the ultimate marketplace for digital delivery is now in doubt.’

So basically what they are telling us is that the Web is only dead for companies? We’re off on the Web sharing videos on YouTube and pointing friends to new blogposts we’ve found on newsworthy topics and the companies are off there in the apps delivering that same content back to us in app format? Anderson seems to think that, because it’s just the companies who are moving off the Web, we don’t have to worry about the decline of open standards:

(Jonathan) Zittrain argues that the demise of the all-encompassing, wide-open Web is a dangerous thing, a loss of open standards and services that are “generative” — that allow people to find new uses for them. “The prospect of tethered appliances and software as service,” he warns, “permits major regulatory intrusions to be implemented as minor technical adjustments to code or requests to service providers.”
But what is actually emerging is not quite the bleak future of the Internet that Zittrain envisioned. It is only the future of the commercial content side of the digital economy.

Is Anderson saying that it’s ok for commercial services to be closed simply because we can go off and do all this ‘noncommercial’ stuff on the Web where, presumably, such closed systems are not going to be in place?

I get the Netflix example, but I really don’t understand how this will play out in the so-called user-generated content space. And I’d give my left kidney (maybe) to know what would happen to Facebook if they started charging for their service in app-format.

I just can’t see it happening but that’s the funny thing about the future…

The ‘Digital Open’ is now open

Friends Jess Hemerly and David Evan Harris have asked Simon Dingle and I (from SA, at least) to be judges in this awesome competition/community initiative from BoingBoing, Sun and the Institute for the Future where they work. As always, the devil is in the detail, and I really love the details of this competition – great social networking features and badges that will be unlocked when users achieve things like writing 10 comments etc. Best among the prizes (gear, tech, bags etc) is that winners in each category will be featured on BoingBoing Video.

Institute for the Future, in partnership with Sun Microsystems and Boing Boing, invites youth worldwide, age 17 and under, to join us as we explore the frontiers of free and open innovation. The Digital Open: An Innovation Expo for Global Youth will celebrate projects in a variety of areas ranging from the environment, art and music to the more traditional open source domains of software and hardware.

From April 15 until August 15, 2009, we’ll accept text, photos, and videos documenting projects from young people around the world who want to contribute to the growing free and open technology community.

But the Digital Open is more than an online competition. By submitting a project, you’ll become a valuable member of a community of creative young innovators working in the exciting world of free and open technology.

Collaboration is encouraged! In addition to a variety of prizes and achievements you can earn through community participation, the top project in each category will earn a fantastic prize pack and be featured on Boing Boing Video!

The future is yours to make! Get started at

The organisers are looking for stewards to help get the word out and gather submissions in South Africa (one of the target countries). If you’re interested in helping out, please contact me.

Two-year old beaten to get his mother to confess in Zimbabwe prison

A search result from Afrigator for the two-year old yields 3 results. Why aren't we talking about this?

This morning I woke up to a story on Global Voices about two-year old Nigel Mutemagau who was abducted with his parents three months ago and taken to Zimbabwe’s most notorious prison, Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison where he was held in solitary confinement with his mother and beaten to get his mother to confess. I had just signed a petition on Denford Magora’s blog for the release of two-year old when I read in the Zimbabwe Times that he has just been released.

The release of Nigel follows last month’s order by High Court Judge Justice Yunus Omerjee ordering the release of the child, as well as various MDC members and human rights activists who were abducted from various locations over the past three months

They include former newscaster Jestina Mukoko who was abducted from her home in the town of Norton, 40 kilometres west of Harare.

Although Omerjee ruled that Mukoko, the director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, and eight MDC members must be released to a private hospital for medical examination after alleged torture, the state has defied the ruling.

According to ‘This is Zimbabwe Blog‘:

As Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, Jestina is viewed as the most high-profile person to be abducted by the State to date. Her role as a human rights activist, and her work in documenting the range of human rights violations and atrocities by the Zanu PF regime, made her a threat to a despotic regime intent on holding onto power at all costs.

The site also gives a list of recommended actions from Amnesty International (download PDF version of appeal here) which includes:

  • expressing grave concern over the abduction or arrest of Jestina Mukoko, the director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, who was forcibly taken from her home by people believed to be state security agents on 3 December 2008;
  • stating that Amnesty International considers that Jestina Mukoko is solely detained for expressing her views, without advocating violence, and considers her a prisoner of conscience. Amnesty International therefore calls for her immediate and unconditional release;
  • calling on the Zimbabwean authorities to immediately end its practice of enforced disappearances and follow international standards on arrest and detention for persons under criminal investigation;
  • expressing concern about continued harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and political activists by the Zimbabwean security forces;

and a list of fax numbers and contacts to send your appeals to.

I have avoided researching the Zimbabwe situation for too long – it had seemed so hopeless in the past. But stories like this make me realise how important it is to add my voice to this campaign. As an activist myself, I know how tenuous my own situation has been in the past, and how important it is for me to be able to say in the future that I didn’t stand by and let those brave enough to be living in and speaking out in Zimbabwe be tortured and assaulted in this way.

We can’t stay silent any longer.

Open Innovation Studio opens in Cape Town


Dirk Visser of Brightest Young Minds just sent me the great news that their new co-working space in Cape Town is now open. The prices seem really affordable, the location is great, and Dirk says that ‘There are still a few more features that will come on-line in time such as a podcast studio and even a bed for overnight visitors.’ There are a range of different prices – from part-time to full-time – and most important is the commitment to ‘good coffee’.

Interested? Call them on 021 476 4760 or email

Support Afrigadget’s grassroots reporting project


It’s always so great when you can see how the little you can give can make a huge difference. This from the fabulous folks at AfriGadget, a new project called ‘The Grassroots Reporting Project‘ that aims to find, equip and train more AfriGadget reporters in the field throughout Africa.

As this is our pilot project, we want to start small and learn lessons before we expand to other parts of the continent. Our first group is made up of some youth from the Khayelitsha township outside of Cape Town. Local blogger Frerieke van Bree is acting as their blogging and multimedia mentor as they are taught how to find and tell stories about local inventors, innovators and local people doing ingenious things around Cape Town. Two of the individuals that will be taking part in the program are Lukhona Lufuta and Zintle Sithole. Both live in Khayelitsha Township near Cape Town.