5 Intriguing Things: Monday 1/27

Online reputation, the aesthetic categories of our time, Disney data, George Washington Carver's knitting, and the people who try to take firearms on planes.

1. Online reputation systems in the so-called sharing economy don't seem to be working very well.

"Reputation systems are like the recommendation systems used by Netflix and Amazon, but instead of rating movies and books, participants rate each other, often using a familiar five-star system. But are these systems effective?

A basic requirement for effectiveness is that these systems discriminate among the users of the system, so we can identify more- and less-trustworthy individuals. Individual ratings of Netflix movies are spread relatively evenly from one star to five stars, and so provide some grounds for discrimination. But I collected a sample of over 400,000 ratings from the BlaBlacar web site and 49 out of every 50 ratings are the full five stars. In a sample of 35,000 listings on Airbnb, from cities in North America and Europe: over 91 percent of listings are rated at 4.5 stars or a perfect 5.

At the most basic level, these systems are failing to distinguish among the users of the system. The reasons are complex — a partial explanation for the uniformly high ratings is the danger of reputation-damaging retaliation and the human wish to avoid disagreeable disputes — but the failure to discriminate is clear. The failure is particularly important because a few bad experiences can have severe consequences: many of those old-style regulations were instituted in response to a few bad apples who threatened to ruin a whole industry.

Sharing economy companies talk a lot about reputation, but their actions show that their trust in decentralized, community-driven reputation is waning. Leading sharing economy companies are moving rapidly away from peer-to-peer reputation to centralized systems such as validation and background checks."


2. Why zany, cute, and interesting are the aesthetic categories of our time

"I was alert, as I read Our Aesthetic Categories, to any casual use of 'zany,' 'cute,' or 'interesting.' I became attuned to them, in the way one does after learning the meaning of a new word. Suddenly, they seemed to be everywhere, these judgments of trivial and conflicted feeling. This speaks, perhaps, to Ngai’s prescience, but also (it is not an entirely comfortable thought) to what may be a contemporary cultural penchant for dealing with complex emotions by funneling them through the seemingly mild vocabulary of our communal aesthetic language. Everything was cute: cat macros, anthropomorphic comets, baby carrots. Everything was interesting: bioluminescent fungi, Sheila Heti, The Clock. Ngai’s final category was somewhat more elusive until a friend described one of Yayoi Kusama’s corybantically polka-dotted surfaces as zany. If it’s true that we launder our emotions (as money is laundered) through aesthetic judgments like these, disguising our messy, unpredictable feelings in words that enter the shared discourse cleanly and unobtrusively, it’s also true that these apparently clean, unobtrusive words may be able to help us analyze the tangled sentiments they mask."


3. The function of data is to create the possibility of control, Disney Edition.

"The pitch that Disney is making is personalization. For each band, for example, Disney asks for the name and birthday of the person who’ll be wearing it. So if your kid is having a birthday in the park and there’s a character wandering nearby, that character can be notified to sneak up on your kid and creepily wish them a happy birthday individually.

Now, let’s dig a little deeper.

What does Disney get out of the deal? In short, it tracks everything you do, everything you buy, everything you eat, everything you ride, everywhere you go in the park. If the goal is to keep you in the park longer so you’ll spend more money, it can build AI models on itineraries, show schedules, line length, weather, etc., to figure out what influences stay length and cash expenditure. Perhaps there are a few levers they can pull to get money out of you."

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