Friday, December 02, 2005

Because We Forgot What Being On The Internet Does to people is the main brand of a network of sites for men with particular fetishes and kinks in sex. The network incliudes sites like and Men can put up a profile, which consist of a short description like age, height, location and other stats, a piece of free form text to describe themselves, and lots of pictures. Users can search for other profiles or have their own be found, exchange messages, and see who saw their profile.

Recon has become the premier site network for kink homos with an electronic life to put up their profiles to meet each-other, from what I have seen. Like any ther social networking system, being in it is only valuable if it connects you to the people you want to be connected to, and once the networking site is global and the biggest one in its niche, that value increases fast, because you get to 'touch' new people from a pool big enough you will find many with the same interests. LinkedIN seems to have crossed that threshold now in the business niche, from being a cozy site to 'touch' your professional contacts as a novelty and then forget, to now having a serious network effect for people who connect well that finding new jobs and contacts in IT is a credible proposition.

Well, guess what. Recon got bored, and a couple of days ago instituted a rating system. You can now rate other profiles with a number between 1 and 10. Not the biggest change in social sites, many allow you to rate friends and associates positively. But between 1 and 10 almost automatically gets valued by everyone with 10 being best, 5 being on the edge of bad and good, and 1 being an utter failure. The ratings a profile get get averaged together. Rating on hotness is not new, has done it forever. However, according to Dean, HotOrNot says that they had to use a very sophisitcated weighing algorithm for each vote, one in which they took into account how the voter -- tracked per cookie I presume -- voted on a number of profiles, so that the algorithm could factor in the voter's voting style. Doing straight averaging basically made almost everyone end up with a score of 5 over time-- it just happened that way. So therefore the creation of the new algorithm that teases out the voters intentions, not directly the scores the voter gives, for the resulting grades.

OK, so Recon seemed to be doing standard averaging. Questionable. Rating was anonymous, a profile owner couldn't see who rated his profile, just what his end-score was. The end score was public. That was already beyond questionable to begin with, in what is supposed to be an open accepting site where people can live out their kinks and needs-- suddenly you went from having your own little corner to explore yourself to being explicitly judged for it, which is what most kink players want to get away from. Bad. Now notice the tense of my last description. Indeed, was. Because starting today, your end score is no longer public, but you get to see who rated you, in a complete reversal of the implicit contract raters entered yesterday when they rated. So everyone who yesterday was handing out 1s with abandon, today suddenly is being seen by everyone they rated badly.

Yes, we tech savvy people know that that usability contract was just a facade: of course who rated who how much could be divulged at any moment. But that is not what users have as their model in their minds when they use a specific facility on a website, they just see the possibilities (to not use the technical term 'affordances') which are there, and are not usually able to think through that those capabilities and implied contract of what can and cannot be done, is really very plastic in software. By changing the capabilities of the site overnight, Recon basically ended up misleading its users, in ways that could have unpleasant social repercussions for members on its own site, By not having thought out the model, or properly field-tested it, but instead by tweaking it live, Recon has now introduced two days of exposed social judgment -- also termed as backstabbing and High-School-ness -- into a site where many of its members are in a pretty sensitive state about being judged anyway, since they are exposing very private, socially-unsanctioned, parts of themselves there.

Thing is, it was a completely unnecessary move. Recon was doing great anyway without the rating system, and on top of that, anyone with a tiny bit of historical perspective on how social interaction on the internet works could have predicted how anonymous and then identified rating would end up being used. No matter what example Google has set with its decades-long public Beta-testing and tweaking of sites, this was simply just not the way to go. You just do not make changes like that overnight in a social space.