Friday, January 09, 2009

Are you serious?

A fun email dumped into my box today, drawing my attention to a business plan that at first made me giggle happily. Then I checked the date. Nope, not April first. That's when my evil mind started looking for exploits.

The people in Seriosity, Inc. think the inbox should be a game - or at least, sorted through a virtual economy. And so, as the market economy ideal burns and crashes, Edward Castronova is an advisor to the company as it attempts to build a virtual economy by which to organise your mailbox. Prioritize depending on how much currency people are willing to pay for your attention, get Serios today!

Serios is the virtual currency you need to pay for the attention of others. It's expected that people will be careful with their serios, and not spend a lot of them, mostly splurging, according to the demo, on things like mails to the manager (50 serios).

From their white paper on email economy:
Attent users are given certain number of Serios every week. Serios are allocated equally to each user. Serios can be spent, saved or traded like a physical currency, and like an actual currency Serios are a scarce good that is valued among Attent users. Serios are traded using a secure, reliable financial system that keeps track of trades. And there are sophisticated monetary policies that insure the financial system stays healthy and the currency remains stable.

So, let's say I want to write one of my colleagues, and I want to let them know there's cake for the lunch break (no, there isn't, this is just an example!). That is the kind of information they really want to get (it's just an example! There's no cake in the lunch break today!!!), so I don't need to attach any serios to it. It's also not vital (one should think), so if they ignore it nothing really happens.

Now, let's say I want my colleagues to show up at a meeting to discuss next semester, and I want that meeting at the most peaceful time at the college: 08.00 sharp. If I want them to get that message, I would have to attach a huge load of serios, something like a million. Because it's January, next semester is almost a year away, and nobody have meetings at 08.00, as that's when the most eager of us stumble, still half-asleep, into the offices and start the procedure of waking up. I don't think they would get that message if I used a billion serios, no matter how serious the matter I needed to discuss was. Changing the time to 10 am, and adding cake, now that would get the message through at a much lower price.

Anyway. Now, as the middle manager sending off 5 emails with a million serios attached, I am broke. All out of serios. I got as many as the rest, but the others HATE the things I have to say to them (most of the time it means more work and less freedom to do their own stuff.) So the next email I need to send, which is a request for assistance in details for a letter to the students about their upcoming exams, gets no serios. I'll just have to trust that the recipients realise that this is more important than the cake during lunch (no, there is still no cake for lunch today). As a manager, trying to get the attention of colleagues who have a very different priority from mine, I'd quickly run out of serios. The system is then broken, as I don't have anything else to trade for serios - I am just a go-between and have no real power, just a big load of responsibility.

Now, I have to grind serios, by writing nice and serious emails my colleagues really want to read. I don't have time for that though, as I am working on all that stuff my colleagues don't want to know about. However, I have this contact in China, a nice young academic who is delighted to do such things as read books on public information and media theory, write short abstracts and reviews, make suggestions about how this can be used for teaching, and mail it to me - against a very modest fee. So I start my own little serios-farm, and pump out emails to my colleagues by flooding them with cheaply generated content. Soon the young academic in China is a well-established budget post, and I have all the serios I like and can spam my colleagues all the time with higly priced mails.

The problem is that my colleagues prefer the mails from the guy in China. You see - he delivers information they can use immediately, while I just make demands. So they start looking for mails with perhaps 2 or 3 serios attached, and ignore the ones with 50. The ones with big sums attached to them are now clearly mails I think they need to act on immediately, while the ones with small sums attached are fun and useful. And so even my little exploit is broken.

One of the exciting uses of the Attent system is that users have a new and extremely efficient way to give feedback to their correspondents. For example, if an e-mail recipient thinks that a new product idea sent with 50 Serios is valuable, they can reply with 60 Serios – a net reward of 10 Serios. On the other hand, if the e-mail recipient believes that a product idea sent with 50 Serios is not valuable, they can rely something less than 50, including zero Serios.

While this is a lovely thought, it assumes a lot about the rationality of human beings. It's the assembly-line taken to organisations all over again, assuming a system where all think alike, prioritize alike, and respond alike. If there's one thing organisation theory has taught us since the 50ies, it's that individually perceived importance and personal interest does not equal the best interest of the organisation.

The real problem with the broken exclamation mark on emails isn't that there is an exclamation mark instead of 500 serios connected to it. The real problem is that there is no common unit for measuring individual interest. What the serios may be good for are however to measure how co-workers feel about messages. As Seriosity goes on to say in their white paper:

In this group, outspoken members frequently clash with each other, while the ideas of other members get lost in the mix. As a result, the group is often unable to reach a consensus due to squabbling among members. When an idea is picked by the group, it is often due to the strength of an individual’s voice, rather than the appeal of the idea itself. In this environment, the talent of the group is wasted because all ideas are not heard equally. This creates hostility among team members, and slows innovation. In the competitive high-tech industry, this lack of innovation leads to product stagnation, ultimately resulting in falling sales.

Has currency ever given the world a solution to this problem? When money gets into this mix, it flows to those strongest voices, the person with more connections than talent, and it most certainly causes hostility. It creates a new, inventive way to silence the unwanted, disruptive voice: Don't respond with any serios! Soon the one with the really new and different idea will be as broke as the frustrated middle manager, and have no budget to draw on for Chinese serios-farmers.

Yes, Serios looks like a fun game I'd love to play with my friends and colleagues. I'd be more than happy to attach it to emails among folks I know will not abuse or exploit the system. The problem is: inside a flat, happy and friendly structure, you don't need that kind of a managing system, as people will respect each other's time and only write IMPORTANT in the headline when it is important. In a system with cut-throat competition, it will be broken 30 seconds after implementation.

So, I actually prefer to assume that whoever made this website and got Edward Castronova to play along, was not serious. As a joke, this is hilarious!

Castronova has responded to people's reactions to the proposition of serios, in two posts on Terra Nova. There is also a link to a post which describes the same email that set me giggling. Apparently it wasn't a joke.

1 comment:

Sabine Fischer said...

I think it is a very well-crafted joke. And I love it, this world needs moar cacophony anyway :o)