Re: anonymous collaborative filtering

From: Mitch Howe (
Date: Mon Sep 23 2002 - 15:26:05 MDT

----- Original Message -----
From: "Cliff Stabbert" <>
> For a while now I've been walking around with half an idea that I wish
> I could figure out the second half for.
> The concept is roughly this: a collaboratively filtered discussion
> where *ideas* trump *people* by somehow having everything anonymous.
> A sort of IRC channel or newsgroup without FROM: identifications. And
> where *concepts* or posts furthering the discussion constructively
> can get "voted up".
> As I said, it's only half an idea, and I'm at a loss as to how,
> precisely, to get this to work...

I thought this was a pretty interesting idea, and I wound up losing a bit of
sleep thinking about how something like this might be made to work.

One of the specific things that came to mind was the online forums of public
discourse that figure prominently in the novel *Ender's Game* by Orson Scott
Card. These were very popular and had enormous sway over public opinion --
so much so, that two gifted children were able to wield a surprising deal of

But one has to wonder how such forums could ever arise without collapsing
under the weight of petty human squabbles and inept, unintelligent posts.
Anonymity, I think, is just part of the answer. Here are my ideas for such
a system, which I envision as a modified bulletin board:

Rules (for enforcement, see below):

--No user can intentionally try to eliminate the anonymity of themselves or
--Posts must be reasonably well constructed, textually and
argumentatively -- making some kind of point rather than existing purely to
skew point values (see below).
--Hateful or obscene posts are not allowed.
--Posts must not exceed some set length (probably no more than a few hundred
--Posts must relate to the subject category they were posted under (though
users can open new subject areas).

All users can, in response to any post, award it 1 point, raising the value
of the post so that it rises higher up the rankings. Users can, at any
point, remove a point they gave to a post, but cannot vote "down" a post.
The only way this can be done is by awarding a point to an attached
rebuttal, which has the effect of driving down the value of the original
post. Users can post rebuttals to these rebuttals, however, in a
potentially endless chain... For statistical purposes, each unique user
that views a post adds to a *read* total on the post.

Immediately I can envision a number of interesting lists arranged not just
by post value, but by controversialness (total number of points on the
*post* and on the rebuttals -- providing post value is not too low), impact
(number of points on posts/rebuttals vs. number of reads) activity (number
of reads, posts, and points added over a given time frame), and size (total
number of rebuttals and counter rebuttals).

To keep the whole thing from getting watered down, and to reduce the need
for moderators, users would need the ability to *flag* posts that they feel
violate any of the rules. If a certain number of flags (depending on total
users, perhaps) are added to a post, the post is removed from the board. If
the author of the post has a certain number of posts removed in this way,
the user can be temporarily or permanently banned from posting, flagging,
voting, or some combination of the three. This means, of course, that the
system itself would need to track the origins of each post, even though
anonymity on the boards would remain one of the rules. (Beware of hackers!)

But with any kind of system like this there is a potential for abuse by
people who take out multiple accounts, either to artificially inflate the
value of their opinions or to get around flagging limitations. I'm not sure
how to counter this -- perhaps by requiring the users log in and place votes
several times over several days before their points or flags can start
taking effect? This would at least make the most heinous violations not
worth the effort (but could favor wealthy people who don't mind hiring peons
to do the grunt work). If this kind of forum were taken to the level of an
actual public institution, then login names and passwords might be dished
out according to the same criteria as voting registrations to help prevent

Another consideration: It seems likely that in an older forum, many users
would log in, only look at and participate in those ideas that are in the
higher in the rankings, and not waste their time with fresh posts. This
could have the effect of making it very difficult for new ideas to rise to
the top of an old board. To counter this, the system might require or ask
users to examine a few ideas each day/login that are selected randomly (or
semi-randomly, favoring newer posts). This might also have the interesting
effect of exposing users to new ideas that they would otherwise never have
ventured near enough to read.

It might also be useful to have different forums using slightly different
rule-sets, rather than trying to squeeze everything into one uber-forum.
For instance, some of the more scientific forums would require actual
evidence to be cited, rather than accepting purely philosophical
argumentation. This might threaten the anonymity a bit, but not so much if
people are citing their own research the same way they would anyone else's.
The rebuttal system would act as peer review. Could these forums be a
viable alternative for scientific journals? I realize that there are some
online journals open to pretty much anyone, but am under the impression that
these suffer greatly for lack of filtering.

--Mitch Howe

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