Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Britannica fights back on trust

Encyclopedia Britannica, the once-uber knowledge harvester, is still trying to hold on despite the bulldozer growth of Wikipedia. Their claim has always been that their knowledge is approved by experts and can be trusted much more than what you read on Wikipedia. That's fine when there's equivalent depth of information from each source, but there just isn't, so Wikipedia gets more visitors and becomes the loyal destination for knowledge.

Today, Britannica announced they were going to compete with Wikipedia by opening the doors slightly to user-generated content, allowing only approved qualified people to contribute. According to the article, users can "list their qualifications" and they will be manually approved to contribute.

Wouldn't it be more scalable, consistent and trusted (and offer a hope of competing with Wikipedia) if users' qualifications were not just claimed by the user themselves, but part of an objective, automated system of credibility accreditation? Users would be accredited with knowing about certain subjects through their other contributions online. Know Between aims to offer such features.

Lending money to individuals

You lend money to your bank, and trust that they will look after it. They're a big organisation afterall, and your money is pretty much guaranteed. This didn't stop a huge drop in trust when UK bank Northern Rock got into trouble in September 2007.

You also lend money to friends and family. You trust they will pay you back, and you know where to find them if they don't. But what about people you don't know? How do you trust them, especially if they're online rather than face-to-face?

The rise of social or peer-to-peer lending websites such as Zopa is luring people into the benefits of lending money direct to individuals rather than banks. Better rates, but can you trust the borrowers? They provide a profile on the borrower rating. This is based on credit checks, borrowing history and lender feedback, much like an eBay seller.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Beyond answers

I've talked a lot about looking for information or knowledge and how to ensure that it's trusted, especially when coming from individuals. But this extends beyond getting answers about something. Consider the following:

Buying things
Let's suppose you want to buy a second-hand car. You may prefer to get a private sale rather than pay excessive fees through a dealership. However, how do you trust sellers? Sure, someone may have a good eBay feedback rating, but are they reputable when it comes to cars and car sales? Without such authority, perhaps you would prefer to buy from someone you know, directly or indirectly? If you have 200 direct connections, you may easily have 10,000+ friends-of-friends, one of whom may have a car for sale.

Finding a flatmate
Looking for a trustworthy flatmate? A friend or friend-of-friend would be an obvious choice. Why then do so many people resort to looking for strangers on sites such as Gumtree and Easy Roommate? Is there an easy way to validate the credibility and suitability of strangers?

Friends-of-friends again are an obvious route again. But it's not that easy to find out about them without going to lots of parties!

Looking for job candidates
If you can't find suitable candidates in your immediate network, what about people in your 2nd and 3rd degree networks? They're more likely to be trusted than complete strangers. But if you do look for people unconnected to you, how can you validate that they have the expertise they say they have?

Know Between is considering venturing into all these areas. There are big opportunties to better find trusted people for you and your transactions.

Expanding your knowledge network

The group of people you can look to for information, advice or something more tangible (such as a job or access to a car) is often limited to those you know directly. People invest a lot of time into social or professional 'networking' to build such groups.

But just knowing a large number of people is not necessarily the most useful measure (contrary to what Facebook or LinkedIn would have you believe). Smart, successful, popular or senior-level people are typically more valuable to know and may be able to help you out when you need it. If they can't help directly, they're more likely to know people who can, and can connect you with their friends. The idea of friends-of-friends has been powerfully adopted by LinkedIn to offer some access to your expanded 2nd and even 3rd-degree network.

That's all very well, but just having access to the right kind of people may not be the best to offer expert knowledge on a specific topic. Out of all those people you have access to, how do you know who may be able to help? Having an objective and comparable view of relative expertise in different areas will be immensely valuable. Know Between attempts to nurture people's 'credibility profiles' alongside their networks and offers a powerful way to target questions to the people who are most able to help.

You're more likely to get people you know directly to help you, somewhat likely to get friends-of-friends, and will typically only get help from anyone else if you pay for it. However, there are a number of non-monetary incentives for people to help those they don't know. Internet forums such as Experts Exchange and Yahoo! Answers are good examples. Contributors get kudos, online exposure and a high ranking rather than cold cash.

Another interesting approach to get those you don't know to help is to consider knowledge trading. Everyone will benefit from knowing more about something they're interested in, even if they're the world's top expert in something else. Matching experts in one field to experts in another can be a powerful way to expand professional and social networks.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Free 'expert' knowledge

Getting expert knowledge used to cost something. Experts need to make a living - they write papers or books, attend speaking events, or use their expertise to make or sell something.

Encyclopedias used to be written by a small number of well paid experts. Now, the world's most popular one, Wikipedia, is written by millions of unpaid contributors, some are experts, but others are not.

It's an immensely valuable resource, and surprisingly accurate in most cases. Thanks to the vast number of watchful eyes, if someone writes something incorrect, it'll probably be corrected within hours or even minutes.

It's fair to say that if only certified experts were able to edit Wikipedia then it wouldn't be such a comprehensive resource, and it probably wouldn't be free. The top experts in a subject are probably not the ones editing Wikipedia - they're better incentivised by selling their knowledge or getting attributed public exposure. So how can you really trust Wikipedia and the anonymous editors who write for it?

Wikipedia is acutely aware of the trust concern and has put in place a number of initiatives to build trust in their knowledge resource. Reputable editors will gain 'trust' points, and information about editors may be publicly displayed. All very well, but a reputable editor for King Henry VIII may not be a reputable editor for the 3G mobile standard. And 'reputable editor' is not the same as 'trusted expert'. Still some way to go I think.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Answer this

There has been a rise of services that claim to either 'answer anything' or give you some personal information about someone you know. These services are often text/sms driven and charge around £1 (US$2) to answer your question. Examples in the UK include, AQA and Texperts. Judging by the advertising, their target market is typically the young, drunk or bored - hardly a professional audience.

The most dubious and least reliable services are those that try to tell you something about someone you know. You can ask them about yourself, a partner or close friend, and you'll get some obvious or eerily accurate 'how did they know that?' response, or perhaps a false accusation loosely based on exaggerated truths.

There is absolutely no credibility associated with the answers you get. The people answering the question are arguably no more qualified than you are to do so, but they have access to Internet search engines, social network data and other publicly available information. They can also make stuff up. Why would you trust them to answer your question? Why would you pay for such a service?

There is a market for this but not if you need to depend on the answer you get, or cite the source of the information. I'd pay for a service I could trust.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Trusted people

In general, you're more likely to trust people you know and people who are experts in particular fields than the average unknown layperson.

Of course, people you know directly, however willing, may not actually be very knowledgeable in the areas you want to find out something about. And experts are not always at your disposal. Even if they are, they may charge a fine sum for their knowledge providing services.

So what's so wrong with a Google search? Well, you may not find a suitable answer to your question has been published on the web. In that case you need to look at other resources, including perhaps (shock!) asking people. And there comes the dilemma. Who do you ask? Sure, there are forums, messages boards and mailing lists, but why would anyone answer your question anyway? What's in it for them?

Even if your question has been answered on the web somewhere, how can you trust it? Chances are it's not written by anyone you know directly, so you'll be looking for other signs of credibility to assess your level of trust. These may include a personal profile, independent ratings and recommendations, possibly links other resources to back up an answer. Are they genuinely helping you or are they trying to sell something? Or fake their expertise? Or waste your time perhaps?

Should it really be this complicated to get trusted answers?