Wednesday, April 05, 2023

Context Lost; Context Regained – Comments on iDPI's “A Manifesto for a Smaller, Denser Internet”

Here are my preliminary comments on a “manifesto” we should all read and get behind! -- arguably the most concise, yet comprehensive, sensible, and understandable vision statement for where our social information infrastructure needs to go. I suggest it as required reading for anyone who cares about the sad state of social media now, and where civilization needs our media tools go.

The Three-Legged Stool: A Manifesto for a Smaller, Denser Internet by Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci, Michael Sugarman, and Ethan Zuckerman (3/29/23), is a white paper on the seminal ideas Zuckerman and his team at the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure have been developing for some time, and a roadmap for their future work. It steps back from the current narrow and failing logics of social media to re-envision what new logics are needed.

I expected it to be a notable contribution, and was pleased that it exceeded my expectations for both substance and presentation. Here are initial impressions of key points that resonate with my own work, plus a brief list of some objectives that I would expand on as important to a longer-term vision.

A core failing of our current online media infrastructure is “context collapse” – the loss of the rich social context for information and discourse that human society has learned to sense and rely on for millennia. Here are ideas for restoring and augmenting that richness of context.

The iDPI Manifesto

The authors envision a public sphere supported by these three legs (quoting):

1. Consists of many different platforms with a wide variety of scales and purposes;
2. Users can navigate with a loyal client that aggregates, cross-posts, and curates;
3. Is all supported by cross-cutting services rooted in interoperable data.

The first leg is fundamental, and stands out from much current discussion as a “Both/And” solution that recognizes that neither centralized platforms nor the decentralization of the “fediverse” fully suit needs for global interconnections that support human diversity. The answer is an open architecture that can integrate Very Large Online Platforms (VLOPs) like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter with Very Small Online Platforms (VSOPs) like many free-standing online communities and the loosely interconnected fediverse of Mastodon instances. They call this a “pluriverse” a “world where many worlds may fit” with diverse “goals, norms, and governance.”

The manifesto explains why we need a fertile, flexible ecosystem of community-scale VSOPs which serve different purposes than the existing VLOPs, and how they can provide affordances and foster norms that nurture “civic social media” where “moderators are active guides and participants”

I have written over the years about a similar vision, both on my own, and in a recent four part Delegation series with Chris Riley. (Late last year, before Musk shut down the nascent linkage of Twitter’s platform to the fediverse via rudimentary cross-posters, I suggested the term “plativerse,” but agree that “pluriverse” is more descriptive.)

The second leg is also essential to this vision, and lets users delegate authority for accessing their data and managing their feeds to a “loyal client.” This is a “new architecture for choosing, customizing, and testing ‘lenses’ for your feed” based on “an open standard for developing and integrating third-party algorithms.” This has also been a major theme of my recent work, and something I wrote about as early as 2003, then brought up to date in 2021, before expanding on that in the Delegation series. I have referred to these as “filtering services’ and “feedware” and more recently lean toward “attention agents*” as being functionally descriptive and technology-agnostic. Others have made related proposals, and Francis Fukuyama’s group at Stanford brought their version, called “middleware” to the attention of the tech policy community – even though it is somewhat narrower in scope, lacking the multi-platform aggregation/cross-posting features.

The third leg provides further support, most importantly for what the authors call “The Friendly Neighborhood Algorithm Store” that would realize the open market in feed algorithms that many advocates of delegated attention agents, loyal clients, or user-controlled middleware envision. It highlights the need for algorithms to be tunable, auditable, combinable, and understandable. Few have recognized the importance of combinability – I have referred to this as composing and orchestrating

The manifesto also explains why achieving this vision will be difficult, but is essential, and how strategies such as contextual privacy, adversarial interoperability --and regulation -- can be important.

Looking down the road

As complement to this iDPI manifesto, I note some further directions that can enrich this infrastructure. (I do not know to what extent Zuckerman’s team might already have these in mind.) Having them in mind now can help ensure that the foundations are built for needed extensibility. These focus primarily on two aspects of context:

  • richly flexible interconnection of both virtual and real-world communities, and
  • attention agent algorithms that efficiently exploit social mediation at individual and community levels to augment context in our feeds.
(Note that I use the term “social media” in the broad sense of media that are open to user/social participation -- which will gradually extend to include nearly all media.)

[Ted Nelson]
Intertwingled communities: Communities in real life generally benefit from being interconnected through fuzzy and semi-permeable boundaries, often overlapping like Venn diagrams. This suggests that our media tools should support an interlinked web of communities (hyperspheres) with semi-permeable boundaries -- much as the web already does so well. (These ideas date from my 2003 design,** and were expanded on in the third installment of the Delegation series in 2022.)

The manifesto seems to refer to communities in terms of platforms (VLOPs and VSOPs), but those semantics seem likely to blur. I see this as primarily a functional issue of supporting a wide range of human communities, and only secondarily an matter of platforms. The structure of communities need not align with the structure of platforms. I suggest thinking of VLOCs and VSOCs (Large and Small-Communities) -- with a full spectrum of mid-sized or compound communities in between. This enhanced interconnection functionality might arise from both directions:

  • Independently served VSOCs (as iDPI suggests and is developing) might generally have more independence, and might increasingly outsource complex support to an ecosystem of distributed services – including marketplaces for clients, mediation/moderation, privacy/security, etc. This is the direction that is very feasible now.
  • Conversely, VLOPs might offer increasing levels of agency and support services to communities (VSOCs) that they host -- to approach the functionality tailoring of VSOPs. That is now offered in only basic form but could be enriched at scale quickly.
  • Either way, loyal clients/attention agents could add support for semi-permeable community boundaries, in combination with underlying platform support affordances. This could add support for the many ways traditional communities are not islands, but interconnect via their common memberships and various levels of non-member participation.

Integration with real-world community infrastructures: Perhaps the greatest tragedy of our wrong path on social media is the accelerated disintermediation and decay of the vibrant ecosystem of real-world communities that have been the lifeblood of human society. The manifesto refers to Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone) and suggests that “libraries, newspapers, public broadcasters, cultural institutions, local governments and others have a role to play in re-envisioning the digital public sphere.”

Regardless of whether they are funded publicly or privately (such as private academies, churches, clubs, unions, etc.) all these real-world communities might regain their important role in the social mediation and context of discourse. Social media platform support for them should be better enabled and integrated with their existing analog and digital infrastructures. In addition to building anew from green fields, there is an urgent untapped opportunity to rejuvenate the community institutions we already have.

Context-enhanced algorithms:  Algorithms can be enhanced to select and discover content items based on the reputation, with respect to relevant interests and values, of those who post and interact with those items.

  • Importantly, managing semi-permeable boundaries can make algorithms far richer, drawing on a wider universe of human judgement, focused through the lens of a network of communities chosen for interest and value.
  • Applying a recursive reputation model much like Google’s PageRank (The Augmented Wisdom of Crowds: Rate the Raters and Weight the Ratings) would make such algorithms smarter, by drawing on a powerful way to refine the best of human judgement, and would be harder to spoof or game.
  • Such algorithms could partition the user feedback they draw on to dynamically assemble and reassemble relevant communities of interest and value on demand.
  • Challenges to doing this include a need for a stable identity that builds reputation history, and the need for contextual privacy strategies to provide controlled access to the interaction history and ID metadata needed to track and evaluate reputation.
  • Reputation also provides a way to finesse the dilemma of anonymity, aliases, and verified identities (that Musk’s Twitter is now shining a harsh light on). Reputations can be developed even for a persistent alias, without the need to divulge a real identity that might need safety.

Interplay of community-context-driven algorithms:  Algorithms can be more powerful when controlled by delegated client agents that are aware of community boundaries and relationships. This builds on the idea of community level feeds that are composed into composite feeds.

  • Community-level feeds can use community reputation for items and for people, to decide community-based rank in the feed for each community member.
  • Openness to outside communities can be based on not only on explicit referrals from users and external recommenders, but also on implicit rankings for other similar members – both within a given community, and in related communities, based on cross-cutting connections.
  • Thus (as iDPI may have in mind), feeds can draw on signals from within a community as well as from other communities that users choose to orchestrate together. Consider a Long Covid feed that draws on implicit metadata from communities of doctors, researchers, patients, and medical journalists. This could uprank items from global sources that are liked, shared, or commented on by members of those communities, weighted by community-specific reputation.

Business models: I would also look to innovation that would apply adaptively win-win business models that can seamlessly blend subscription, donations, ads, and public subsidies to make these new services sustainable without being extractive of user value and agency. Core principles are outlined in HBR and journals, as cited in my FairPayZone blog, and promise to enable revenue models that are affordable and offer fair value to a full range of users and ecosystem participants. The pluriverse may unleash a new era in business model innovation and experimentation that might bring these strategies into the mainstream.

I applaud the work iDPI is doing, and their manifesto provides a very helpful overview of why it is important. While there is much that went wrong with the VLOPs, we can remold the world of online media to the heart’s desire without shattering the platforms to bits.

(*Drawing on the "attention-allocation" terminology suggested by Ovadya and Thorburn, and emphasizing the issue of agency.) 

(**Update 7/14/24 - even earlier, to the days of extranets in 1997.)