A new era of decentralization
In the 2000s, Web 2.0 techniques have allowed users to interact and collaborate with each other. Thus was born the social web, materializing the vision of Tim Berners-Lee [the World Wide Web inventor]: “a place where we all meet and read”. Through the numerous platforms that emerged at that time, users were suddenly able to share online their opinions, thoughts and experiences within virtual communities. The internet would however soon be dominated by a closed set of platforms and actors, thus calling into question the neutrality of this space.
Nowadays, new capabilities such as blockchain technologies are powering a movement away from the centralization of services[i]. Social media, blogs and basically any peer-to-peer services can technically be now built and run without depending on any single and central organization. It is thus interesting to discuss how this movement can eminently transform collaborative platforms such as review sites.
So what are the CHALLENGES OF review sites?
A review site is a website on which reviews can be posted about businesses, products, or services. While consumers’ reviews have been shown to be highly useful and influential to users, they are as well commonly subject to concerns and criticisms.
- Conflict of interest: (Pure-players) Review sites are generally financed by advertising. This business model consequently stirs up a, sometimes legitimate, mistrust from consumers who might suspect the owners of moderating the reviews or favoring their clients’ items in listings, reviews and/or ratings.
- Dependence on Tech giants: Building a trustworthy reputation on the internet takes time and effort. Unfortunately, this reputation is often captive of a single provider. Over the last 10 years, internet tech giants have captured data and taken over the relationship with customers. They now have got the upper hand on brands, even the major ones[ii] . In this configuration, what happens if you are not anymore the best, i.e. most profitable choice of one these giants’ (secret) algorithms? What is your ability as an individual or company to transfer, to recover your hard-earned reputation to start selling your product on a new platform? The truth is – “not much”: your reputation has been privatized. What seemed a distant political topic all of a sudden turns out to be a very tangible and pressing one.
- Fake and inconsistent reviews: It is a tricky challenge to guard against fake reviews, whether they are extra-positive, auto-promotion reviews generated by business themselves or attempts from competitors, ranting ex-employees and grumpy clients to ruins a business’ image. Most sites do not actively manage nor restrict postings. First, they usually do not have the human resources to assess and verify the information in the reviews. Even more, we DO NOT want them to restrict postings in order not to compromise the previously discussed trust in the platform. By definition, to moderate is to balance. Such a problem cannot only be cured by a simple and straightforward answer. It then takes thorough thinking to produce a system that encourage good behavior, promote genuine and legitimate reviews but prevent, spot and punish bad actors.
- Over polarization of reviews: Statistics have shown that most reviews are either extremely positive or negative, rarely shaded. Why? Most likely, because users that are satisfied overall stay silent. The effort of writing a review is usually triggered and “paid for” by delight or excessive disappointment and anger.
Transforming the way we manage reviews
Guys at REVAIN [www.revain.org] are reinventing the review model and aims at tackling the previously mentioned challenges. They do it by leveraging blockchain, best known as the technology underpinning bitcoin and more generally the engine of services decentralization (as discussed in the introduction). Blockchain may lay the foundations to design a new form of smart, collaborative and robust review platform.
The first pillar is TRANSPARENCY
The blockchain-powered review platform provides users, merchant and third parties with a clear view on the mechanisms and rules that govern the reviews. It also offers to all actors an equal visibility of activities.
The second pillar is the IMMUTABILITY of reviews
The platform offers a trusted single-source of information that can’t be altered by any party (at least not without anyone noticing). It is an obvious quality to establish trust between all stakeholders but may as well come with risks (after all, do we really want a non-editable history?).
To offset these risks, we need to provide more contexts, to help users to put reviews into perspectives, to balance them. The answer to this tricky question here comes in complementary forms:
- The enforcement of “good behaviors” through governance mechanisms as discussed in the next paragraph. It underpins the enforcement of a greater sense of responsibilities to writers incentivized for their reviews and businesses hold accountable to provide appropriate and useful answers to the potential criticisms
- An emphasis on the degree to which each review is constructive and useful (independently from the fact that it is positive or negative). Studies have shown this value to be directly indexed on the tone / level of emotion of its writer, which can be evaluated by Artificial Intelligence (and most important, can be done at scale). This obviously does not substitute for human judgement but help filtering, coloring the content and ultimately help all users to make a sound judgment.
Last (but not least) pillar : GOVERNANCE and ECONOMICS of the platform
Blockchain enables new form of economic organization and governance[iii]. Through the issuance and exchange of digital tokens, it enables a direct value flow from those who produce value to those who consume this value, without the need of a ruling central authority. Through this token, writers can be rewarded for genuine and constructive reviews; businesses pay to expose these reviews and bad actors are punished when they break pre-agreed policies. Ultimately, it is about designing and enforcing a relationship in which the forces of stakeholders reach a point of equilibrium, for the common good and the sustainability of the platform.
Decentralization of reputation management could bring a lot of value to public and companies. REVAIN carries on a project that target to move the review services forward, bringing in many innovative propositions at the technical but most of all at a business level. With a solid funding thanks to their recent ICO, I am very interested to see how this will play out!
[i] Matthew Hodgson (9 October 2016). “A decentralized web would give power back to the people online“. TechCrunch. AOL Inc.
[ii] Caitlin Hudson (11 Juky 2017). “Amazon is taking away the power of brand names, throwing another industry into turmoil”. Marketwatch.
[iii] Sinclair Davidson, Primavera De Filippi, Jason Potts. (March 8, 2016). Economics of Blockchain Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2744751 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2744751