Trusted feeds

As several folks rightly pointed out in comments here, a community site based on tagging and syndication is exquisitely vulnerable to abuse. In the first incarnation of the photos page, for example, a malicious person could have posted something awful to Flickr and it would have shown up on that page. Flickr has its own abuse-handling system, of course, but its response time might not be quick enough to avert bad PR for

My first thought was to attach an abuse-reporting link to every piece of externally sourced content. It would be a hair trigger that would — in a Wiki-like way — allow anyone to shoot first (i.e., remove an offensive item immediately) and enable the site management to ask questions later (i.e., review logs, revert removals if need be.)

I’m still interested in trying that approach, but not as the mainstay. Instead I want to promote the idea of trusted feeds. There are currently two on that photos page, one from Flickr and one from local blogger Lorianne DiSabato. I know Lorianne and I trust her to produce a stream of high-quality photos (and essays) about life in our community.

After reviewing the Flickr photostreams of the people whose recent photos match a Flickr search for “Keene NH” I decided to extend provisional trust to them, as well, so I put their names on a list of trusted feeds.

Then I restricted the page to just those feeds, and added a note explaining that anyone who sends an email request can join the list of trusted feeds.

Of course anything short of frictionless participation is an obstacle. On the other hand, based on my conversation with Paul English about customer service, there’s a lot to be said for a required step in the process that forms a human relationship — attenuated by email, true, but still, a relationship.

I think it’s even more interesting when the service, or site, is rooted in a geographical place. On the world wide web, I’m always forming those kinds of relationships with people I will never meet. But on a place-based site, I may already have met these folks. If I haven’t yet, I might still. Trust on the Internet has a very different flavor when the scope is local.

A couple of years ago I was on a panel of media types at a local community leadership seminar, where I was the token blogger. The topic was how the community gathers and disseminates news. NHPR’s executive editor Jon Greenberg said what needed to be said about blogging, which was helpful because it was more credible to that audience coming from him than from me. Even so, there was a lot of pushback. When it was suggested that people could consume a richer and more varied diet of news, they balked. “It’s your[the media’s] job to sift and summarize, not ours.”

Similarly, when it was suggested that people could produce news about the local issues where they are stakeholders and have important knowledge, the pushback was: “But you can’t trust random information on the Internet.”

I found that fascinating. Here were a bunch of folks — a hospital administrator, a fire chief, a school nurse, a librarian — who all know one another. What they seemed to be saying, though, is the Internet would invalidate that trust.

Now I assume that they trust emails from one another. Likewise phone calls, which are increasingly carried over the Internet. And if the fire chief wrote a blog that the school nurse subscribed to, there would be no doubt in the mind of John, the school nurse, that the information blogged by Mary, the fire chief, was real and trustworthy.

Until you join the two-way web, though, you don’t really see how it’s like other familiar modes of communication: phone, email. Or how the nature of that communication differs depending on whether the communicating parties live near one another.

If feeds begin to flow locally, it’ll be easy to trust them in a way that’ll supply most of the moderation we need. The problem, of course, is getting those feeds to flow. Bill Seitz asked:

So you think the “average” person will have Flickr and accounts in addition to joining your site?

No, I don’t, though over time more will use these or equivalent services. So yes, I also need to show how any online resource that’s being created, anywhere, for any purpose, can flow into the community site. It only takes two agreements:

  1. An agreement on where to find the source.
  2. An agreement to trust the source.

In the short-to-medium term, those sources are not going to be friendly to me, the developer. So I’ll have to go the extra mile to bring them in, as I’m doing on the events page.

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11 thoughts on “Trusted feeds

  1. Regarding the comment from the local media people about the internet (“But you can’t trust random information on the Internet.” ) you concluded that what they seemed to be saying was the Internet invalidated the personal trust they had already established with each other.

    I see a different interpretation. For people who are just beginning to come into the Internet, they often view it like a NewsPaper, meaning that the content has been edited, validated and is 100% trustworthy. I think that is the view that many people have of a newspaper even though somewhere inside they know it is not true. And they apply this same perspective to the internet : what is there must be authoritative.

    And while they have trusted relationships with each other, they know that what Bob is saying may not be 100% accurate, but it’s Bob. They know how to filter what he is saying. But what is on the internet should have a higher level of authority and validation, and Bob doesn’t have that.

    It takes a while for people to understand that the internet includes, in addition to newspaper content, lots of content from people with no official authority or acreditation, and that they as the reader need to begin making judgements about how much to trust one source over another.

    They will eventually discover the networks of related contributors and be able to establish trust through transitivity (I trust Jon, so I will trust who Jon trusts).

    This is a big learning curver for people to go through, especially those who are not in the high-tech business.

  2. You have an excellent blog, Jon. As an internet developer and the lead architect on a large community site (Absolute Michigan) and a smaller one ( where a bulletin board got waaay out of hand, I find the issues that you are dealing with very relevant.

    I am definitely considering hair-trigger abuse reporting, but I have to agree that trusted feeds (and users) are the first line of defense against abuse. I think that if you can get people to buy into the overall community (virtual or physical) you can expect their behavior to be more self moderated.

    Anyway, great site!

  3. “It takes a while for people to understand that the internet includes, in addition to newspaper content, lots of content from people with no official authority or acreditation, and that they as the reader need to begin making judgements about how much to trust one source over another.”

    Agreed. But are you saying that Bob, whom I know locally and trust, is /less/ credible when I read/watch/hear him over the Internet versus more conventional modes? If so, why? Because I suspect it might not really be Bob coming through that pipe? Because when my experience of Bob happens in an Internet context I have different expectations of Bob?

  4. “I have to agree that trusted feeds (and users) are the first line of defense against abuse.”

    If, and it’s a huge if, you can get people to produce those feeds. Which, though it may seem trivial to you and me, and may in fact be almost trivial if it’s only posting something somewhere with a couple of agreed-upon tags, is in fact not trivial if the reaction to “posting with agreed-upon tags” is “Huh?”

    The conceptual barrier is really formidable.

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