Badges and the Social Fabric

Mozilla started a project called Open Badges; they propose to develop of something of a cross between a human-readable Geek Code and traditional Scout badges.  They recognize learning on the internet, so that if you put forth the time and effort to learn about a topic, you earn a badge that displays that ability to others.

Screenshot of Google News, Politics Section showing a story about Conan the Barbarian
Screenshot of Google News, Politics Section showing a story about Conan the Barbarian

Google News has initiated its own Google News Badges, where by reading stories about a given topic you can show off your subject prowess through a badge.

Today’s post delves into the social fabric of the internet, and looks at the pitfalls that these badges try to bridge and how to improve the efforts.

Google works hard to make their news more relevant, so please do not take this as a criticism of their efforts.  The problem they look to solve holds its ground, and the Google News site still beats the other, non-user-driven news aggregation sites I’ve seen.

Media quality varies wildly, so reading a lot of articles does not necessarily make one informed.  Also, for a lot of stories the headline tells the tale, but users receive no credit for a story they understood at a glance.  But, possibly worst, taxonomical issues devalue the results.

For the last example, the current Google News results suffice.  The second headline under Politics for me is about the movie Conan the Barbarian.

Bad enough in itself, there are two other problems, namely the Murdoch Empire bookending the Conan story.  This, despite my best efforts to rid my Google News sections of those sources which I consider too biased to bother with.

Subjectivity abounds in badges for news and similar pursuits, and Google News’ categorization attempts have not been dependable to date.  I would not want a badge based on reading those stories, and would not trust someone’s badge based on them either.

This symptom simply represents the larger problem with crafting badges, namely taxonomy.

Someone possessing a given skill, in name versus practice, might meet, exceed, or fall short of expectations.  The fact that I read a book or watched a film does not mean I understood it, and the fact that I did not, I could know it implicitly from cultural references (eg, Citizen Kane).

The delicate art of communication riddles us to decipher who knows what in an efficient manner.  Our ability to solve large problems depends on such things, and yet we often fail to uncover the knowledge pool.

Studies reveal that groups with more women tend to have higher group intelligence.  For example, quoting “Collective intelligence: number of women in group linked to effectiveness in solving difficult problems,” from Science Daily:

When it comes to intelligence, the whole can indeed be greater than the sum of its parts. A new study co-authored by MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, and Union College researchers documents the existence of collective intelligence among groups of people who cooperate well, showing that such intelligence extends beyond the cognitive abilities of the groups’ individual members, and that the tendency to cooperate effectively is linked to the number of women in a group.

While the studies tend to cite sensitivity to the emotions of the group members, it seems plausible that the type of communication, beyond simple sensitivity, holds a key.  More social groups construct better social taxonomies (ie, recognition of the role capabilities for the members) and do so more efficiently.  A study purely about discovery of the social taxonomy would probably reveal as much.

Badges may improve discovering the group ability.  Chiefly, badges should assist in motivating learning and crediting it.  But to truly uncover the promise of the internet, both pieces are needed.

One of the ways to improve badges might be to grant special statuses, like teacher, atop the regular badges.  Teaching refines existing knowledge, as it challenges you to present information in different ways and to approach the subject differently than as a learner or user.

Most specifically, teaching relies on formalizing the models of a subject, taking them from primordial form to crisp edges and smooth, consistent surfaces.

The other major challenge and improvement involves ascertaining the existing skills.  Some websites already work toward that end.  For example, the Reddit community, AskScience currently marks members with scientific training so that readers may measure the reliability of their answers on a given topic.  If new-web initiatives like badges take hold, those acknowledgments may be transformed into true badges.

The internet’s potential remains untapped, but with all of the experimentation going on, results will come.