Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Analyzing reputation systems, or a new look at claims

Randy Farmer and Bryce Glass are drafting a book on reputation systems, and a draft chapter is now online. What strikes me about the chapter is that in some ways it strongly resembles the Toulmin analysis that we sometimes assign to rhetoric and composition students in first-year courses. (I'm thinking particularly of my colleague John Ruszkiewicz's textbook Everything's an Argument.)

In a Toulman analysis, the student identifies a claim, supported by reasons, which in turn are supported by evidence. Here's an example:
CLAIM: Harvard is not the best law school for my needs.
REASON: Harvard is expensive.
EVIDENCE: Bill says that Harvard is expensive.
In this case, the evidence is ethos-based: we take it on Bill's authority that Harvard is expensive. His authority constitutes the evidence that underpins the reason. Obviously we could look at other kinds of evidence - for instance, we could undertake our own comparison - but at some point ethos underpins evidence, since we can't investigate everything in the world, even if we had the expertise and inclination to do so.

In reputation systems, of course, it's ethos all the way down. All evidence is explicitly grounded in ethos. So Farmer and Glass say that

All of these reputation statements—and many more besides—can be generalized as:

There's the claim, just as in the Toulmin analysis. But the claim is always an evaluative claim about a target, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit. And the claim is always underpinned by explicitly ethos-based evidence, which means that we must identify a source. So, in my reading, Farmer and Glass' basic analysis of reputation systems is a special case or subset of Toulmin analysis.

An implicit reputation statement, the authors continue, might look less like an argument although it still is:
And, for completeness, here's another. This is actually an action, and is an implicit reputation statement about the quality of Harvard.

Yes - since reputation statements are built on ethos, a statement like this one - which short-circuits the reason and instead supports the claim with the simple evidence of someone's action - is a legitimate implicit statement. In isolation, such statements stand or fall on the authority of the source (Wendy). But aggregation means that the statement rests on the authority of many, many individuals (Wendy+Suji+Elton+Trudy+ ...). The individuals may have very different evaluative criteria - which is why I always look at Amazon comments, not just ratings, for instance - and arguably each endorsement can be analyzed as a separate argument. But the aggregation becomes its own argument; at some point, we start treating the aggregated endorsements like the index of a set of diversified stocks.

It would be interesting to apply this approach in a rhetoric class, I think, especially since such arguments are increasingly influential. For that reason among others, the book holds a lot of promise, especially if the authors can deliver on this promise:
But this book will attempt to propose a system that accomplishes this very thing for the social web: for the multitude of applications, communities, sites and social games that might benefit from a reputation-enriched approach, we'll take you—the site designer, developer or architect—through a process for: defining the targets (or the best reputable entities) in your system; identifying likely sources of opinion; and codifying the various claims that those sources may make.
Looking forward to seeing more of this.

Supporting the activity of homeschooling

Via Joshua Porter, here's a service for supporting homeschooling. From the blog announcement:
What is Simply put, it is a web application that allows you to create, record, and review your homeschool activities quickly and easily. We want you to spend time with your kids, not your computer, so our focus has been on quick and easy setup. Create your courses, enroll your students in the courses and you are ready to create this week’s schedule. Are you someone who prepares your schedule a month in advance? Terrific, we have recurring activities and easy input to build your schedule as far out as you like. Or are you someone who creates your schedule the night before (like at our house, ahem)? No problem, we make it easy to enter tomorrow’s activities before you drop off to sleep.
Zuboff and Maxmin point out that the rise of homeschooling relates to the more general desire for customized experiences. This desire manifests elsewhere as a trend toward co-customization (Victor & Boynton, theoreticaly elaborated by Engestrom). On a related note, Castells argues in The Power of Identity that the US is undergoing a kind of shear across local, state, and federal control, a shear that (particularly on the right, at least in 1997) manifests in terms of shifting control over money, mores, and education to individuals or local authorities. The trends toward (1) localization of control and (2) customized experiences are greatly abetted by the spread of information technologies, so I am not surprised to see that sites such as are being constructed. In fact, I expect that far more such communities are developing sub rosa in Facebook, Ning, Google Groups, and other community venues.

What will be really interesting to watch, I think, is how such communities handle localization issues related to state and county statutes. Online communities connect far-flung locations in rhizomatic networks, but those locations are also spatially, legally, and economically situated within hierarchies and markets. So we can expect to see mechanisms for adapting general solutions (in this case, homeschooling solutions) to specific locales, whether those mechanisms are formal or informal.