Picture a bell curve. It represents the distribution of people that use the Internet. Where a particular person falls left-to-right on the bell curve is determined by how much that person contributes to the "well being" of your Internet. People on the left contribute less; people on the right, more.
In the center of the bell are the everyday masses. They don't contribute much to the Internet or its culture. They "harm" the Internet in mostly passive ways: They weigh it down with their sheer numbers and dilute its culture with their own.
On the left side of the bell are the folks that you will find particularly troublesome. These folks prey upon the Internet masses because now (when there are masses to prey upon) it has become profitable to do so. These are the spammers, the markteroids, the gatekeepers, the fearmongers, the legislators, and their ilk. These folk are especially nasty because their assault on the Internet and its culture is active: They are trying to reshape it into something that better serves their purposes.
And finally, on the right side of the bell, are the folks we love to love. The comp.sources.unix contributors of old, the folks who bring insight and graciousness to everyday online conversations, and the students who slave day and night setting up discussion boards or wire-wrapping circuit boards so that they can put their lab Coke machines online. This group actively contributes to the Internet, making it a better place for all (except maybe for a few folks in the far left tail of the curve).
Six or seven years ago, if we would have drawn such a curve, the "old curve" let's call it, it would still have a bell shape. It would be smaller -- both flatter and skinnier. Most importantly, it would be shifted to the right. If we were to superimpose the old curve over the modern-day curve, I would guess that the old curve's center would fall somewhere about one and a half standard deviations to the right of the modern-day curve's center.
In other words, the bulk of the old Internet users were by today's standards what we would call first-class, good Internet citizens. While this isn't going to surprise anyone, it does make one wonder... Where have all these good citizens gone?
Now, about scent.
For the most part, the good citizens have not gone away. They're just harder to find, now that the Internet is such a big, noisy place. I'd even venture to say that there are more good citizens now than ever before. So, why can't we find them?
A few years ago, I attended a talk at CMU where the speaker (from Xerox PARC, I believe) introduced me to the notion of information scent. He explained that in order to efficiently find and navigate through complex information spaces, you would greatly benefit from having traces of the information distributed throughout the space in such a way that you could get a "whiff" of interesting pieces of information even when you were distant from them. You could then follow the most interesting scents to the most interesting information. For example, one type of scent on the Web is hyperlinks. Another is index entries in search-engine databases. They're not necessarily the most effective scents, but scents they are. (For more on this, check out the publications at Xerox PARC UIRG.)
Now, getting back to our topic, it would seem that in the same way that scent could be used to locate interesting information, it could be used to locate interesting people. Could we not derive definitions of scent for people such that that it becomes easy to sniff out the interesting people and their contributions to our Internet?
If such definitions of scent and the tools to use them were widely adopted (even by a fixed community), it could be possible to "live" within the right side of the bell curve. The left side would still exist, but you would pay it no notice.
It's interesting to note that k5 already has the makings of a richly detailed scent system. Imagine that we tweaked the rating system just a little bit. Instead of each rating being an average, what if it was a score based on your particular scent preference, as implicitly defined by your ratings of other comments and how well those ratings correlated with other users' ratings of the same comments?
For example, if Joe and Biff rated a comment 1 and 5 respectively, and in the past your ratings have been strongly correlated with Joe's and not at all with Biff's, k5 could strongly trust Joe's rating and discount Biff's. Perhaps the comment in question would be rated 1.2 for you. In the example, k5 learned that you trust scent left by Joe but not by Biff, and it redistributed k5's information space accordingly. Joe's ratings moved into the right side of your personal bell curve; Biff's, into the left side.
If such trusted-scent systems were widely in use, the Internet would (seem to) be a much better place. We could each draw our own bell curves and choose which portions of them to let into our lives.
K5 might be a nice place to start.
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